While writing our recent article on fore-reaching as a heavy weather strategy, I got thinking about how smart autopilots are, or, in the majority of cases are not.
And that reminded me that a couple of years ago, when replacing our vintage, and pretty stupid, Simrad autopilot brain on our then boat with a new B&G NAC-3, I found that setup and tuning settings were little changed from the old.
Yup, I think we can be pretty sure that the new pilot is using 25-year-old software, albeit upgraded some. So it's probably not much smarter than our old Simrad, which was pretty darn stupid.
Which kinda makes sense, at least from the manufacturer's point of view, particularly for a company like B&G that makes a much more expensive and truly smart racing autopilot, and so has no incentive to improve the software in their less expensive offering marketed to cruising boats.
Don't get me wrong, the old pilot served us well, with near 100% reliability—it was a bad and no longer available control panel that finally did for it—but it could not even steer halfway as well as an even moderately skilled helmsperson.
And the much ballyhooed claims of auto-learning turned out to be auto-stupidity.
Why Good Steering Matters
So why am I writing this, other than to beat up on B&G? Because good autopilot steering matters, particularly on a shorthanded cruising boat where we don't have enough crew to take over when the autopilot struggles.
But surely most autopilots steer well? Sadly, no, although the common perception is that they do.
I can't tell you the number of times cruisers have said to me:
I love my autopilot because it steers way better than I can.
Sorry, the next part of this is going to sound harsh, but it needs to be said so we don't make the mistake of thinking our autopilot is better than it is.
Unless we have a full-on smart racing autopilot—more on how to recognize one in a moment—that has been manually calibrated and tuned for the specific boat, all the above statement means is that we don't steer very well, not that our autopilot does.
No shaming here. In most cases this is because we shorthanded cruisers don't get enough practice, particularly offshore in waves, to be good at steering.
This was brought home to me last summer when we started sailing our new-to-us J/109 and I was shocked to find, despite having been a pretty good helmsman back in the day, how much my steering skills had deteriorated over nearly 30 years of relying on autopilots and vane gears.
The point being that most of us cruisers should not use our own steering skills as a benchmark to evaluate those of an autopilot (or vane gear).
By the way, the other day I was at a virtual meeting with Stan Honey, one of the world's leading ocean-race navigators, in which he confirmed that even the best autopilots in the world (think tens of thousands of dollars) can't steer as well as a skilled helmsperson in daylight, although said autopilots get competitive in the black-dark when the human can no longer see the waves.
Stan also opined that the next big advance will be when cameras, like those being used for collision avoidance by racing boats (OSCAR), are interfaced to autopilots, and that will result in automation being able to beat a human helmsperson in all conditions, because the pilot will be able to see the waves, even at night.
Probably not applicable to any of us, but interesting.
Anyway, back to why good steering matters.
The poor steering abilities of most autopilots on cruising boats contribute to:
- Higher fuel burn when motoring.
- Substantially higher electrical use—my guess is as much as double what a really smart race autopilot would use, once offshore in big waves.
- Seasickness. Yup, good steering can make all the difference to how quickly and how badly the dreaded malady hits us.
- I would always take the wheel while Phyllis was below doing anything sick-inducing, and she always said she could immediately feel the decrease in motion, even with my somewhat rusty steering skills.
- And she could do the same for me, despite only coming to sailing as an adult and never having been a race-boat driver.
- Falls on deck or below due to increased and unexpected motion.
- Broaches when running off.
- A lot more green water breaking aboard when sailing upwind.
- Sailing much more slowly than the boat's potential.
Bottom line, it's worth investing some time to make our autopilot steer better, as well as shopping for one that will steer as well as our budget will allow.
And this in turn got me thinking about three important things to know when shopping for autopilots or thinking about how to make the one we have do a better job:
- The claims of smarts and auto-learning for autopilots are often more marketing BS than fact, something that I think the manufacturers get away with because most potential buyers really don't think much about good steering capability.
- That said, it's actually pretty easy to check if an autopilot is stupid or smart by understanding a bit about how they work and checking the manual. More on that in a minute.
- Even if we end up with a relatively stupid autopilot for economic reasons—the super-smart ones are silly-expensive—we can improve its steering a great deal, by first being realistic about how badly it steers using the default settings, and then learning how to improve that by hand-tuning it for the conditions.
- More on that in the next chapter coming soon.
By the way, autopilot steering smarts is top of my mind because, much to my surprise (not listed on the inventory), our new-to-us J/109 came with all the expensive stuff—computer (unlocked), sensors, etc. to support a really smart autopilot: B&G H5000, same as many pro shorthanded sailors use—so I'm just in the throes of adding the comparatively inexpensive drive computer.
The result is that by late summer I should be in a position to provide a first-hand report on this racing autopilot and how much better it is than the less expensive alternatives.
The Difference Between Smart and Stupid
So what's the difference between smart and stupid autopilots?
Well, the first thing we need to understand is that the autopilot itself only stores, and varies its steering on, four fundamental parameters, plus a few secondary ones.
We will get into what those parameters are and how they work in the next article on autopilot tuning, but, for the purposes of this chapter the key differentiators are:
The parameters are all varied in concert, continuously and automatically, depending on wind direction and speed, boat speed, and wave state, generally (always?) by a separate computer commanding the autopilot drive controller.
These variables, with one or two exceptions, are only set once, when the pilot goes through automatic sea trials under power, and then are not automatically changed ever again, and that sucks for good steering.
An Autopilot IQ Test
But how can we check which type we have or which type a model we are thinking of buying is?
Let's dig into that: