Installing an Auto Pilot in our Sailing RowCruiser

During my solo voyage participating in the Race to Alaska a tool that helped significantly was a Raymarine ST1000 auto pilot.  With the sailing RowCruiser weighing only a little more than a Laser dinghy, incorporating a self-steering system posed several challenges.  Many have asked about details on installation, power consumption and performance, so I have decided to write an article on the subject.


Installing a self steering system in our 200 lb sailing/rowing vessel wasn’t a straightforward process.

When preparing for the race I felt that some type of self-steering system would be hugely beneficial.  While sailing, a self steering unit would allow me to rest, eat, change clothing, etc. without needing to have a hand continually on the tiller.  The most accurate self steering systems are mechanical wind vane units and electronic tiller pilots.  Wind guided systems such as an Aries or Monitor, however, are much too heavy for a 200 lb boat, so the only realistic option for me was a small electronic tiller pilot.

There are only two brands of tiller pilot; Raymarine and Simrad.  From my research, it seems they are both quite similar in performance and reliability.   I have used a Raymarine ST 1000 on a sailing voyage in the Mediterranean and found it to function well, however, longevity was not so good.  On our Mediterranean voyage we needed to purchase a second unit after the first packed it in after several weeks of use.  From talking to other people and conducting online research it seems this is pretty typical – they do seem to suffer from a high failure rate after moderate use.  The small motor is heavily worked, and the units typically let in a bit of water if they are exposed to wet conditions.

Because of my concern of the unit failing, I decided to carry a backup for the race.  This turned out to be a smart choice, as the first unit failed after five days of racing. The initial unit seemed flawed from the start, randomly turning on and off, and running very loud.  The second TS1000 unit was quieter, and seemed overall a better machine.

Power System

On standby, the ST1000 draws 0.2 amps, and while the motor is running it draws 2 amps.  The motor only runs in short spurts to correct the boat’s course.  Average draw varies on how balanced the boat is, and how tightly you set the steering parameters (I just left mine on the default settings).  Overall, you can expect average draw to be between 0.5 and 1.5 amps while in use.

To power my unit, I used a 100 watt solar panel and an 18 amp-hour battery so energy could be stored through the night.  A regulator kept the battery from being over charged or overly discharged, and it also provided an LCD display providing information on battery voltage, draw, solar panel input, etc.  Two USB ports in the regulator allowed convenient charging for additional electronics such as my Iphone and stereo.  I calculated/hoped that my power system would be sufficient to self-steer the boat at least 20 hours per day.

Overall weight was one of my primary concerns.  My entire boat only weighed 200 lbs, so I didn’t want the steering unit, including the power system, to add substantial mass. To keep weight down I used a lithium ion battery, and the lightest solar panel I could find. Total weight for the battery, solar panel, regulator and TS1000 was about 14 lbs.  The tiller pilot is 4 lbs, the solar panel is 4 lbs, the battery is 3.5 lbs and then the wiring and solar panel frame weight 2.5 lbs.  Overall, the electrical system worked flawlessly, and provided more than enough electricity for my needs.  Even on cloudy rainy days the voltage remained in the high level.  It should be noted, however, that there were a lot of calm periods when I was rowing instead of sailing, so the tiller pilot was not in constant use.

The regulator that I used was a Patec LCD 20A PWM Solar Panel Regulator, which cost about $25.

The lithium ion battery was a UPGI Phantom APP18A1-BS12 ($164)

The solar panel was a Windy Nation 100 Watt Flexible Solar Panel ($158)


View of the TS1000 tiller pilot mounted in horizontal alignment to the tiller push rod.

View of the TS1000 tiller pilot mounted in horizontal alignment to the tiller push rod.

Since my rudder is situated a fair distance from the cockpit, a push-pull tiller is utilized instead of a standard tiller.  Raymarine tiller pilots are designed to be used with a conventional tiller system, so installation in my boat posed some challenges and unanswered questions.

Normally, the tiller pilot is oriented at a 90-degree angle to the tiller, but with a push pull system tiller it needs to be aligned horizontally with the tiller.  This means that from the tiller pilot’s perspective (as it steers to a magnetic heading) it would seem to be moving at a 90 degree angle off of what it really is.  I wondered if this would cause unforeseen problems.  An online search revealed few answers – one fellow tried it and his boat went in circles, another seemed to have succeeded but gave no information on the installation.

After spending time pondering the process, it seemed to me that the unit would need to be installed on the port side of the boat connected to a push-pull rod affixed to the port side of the rudder.  Installation on the other side would result in the steering unit pushing the rudder the opposite way required to correct course.

I created a secure bracket to support the steering unit, wired it in to the electrical system, and connected it with an easy-release system to the push-pull rod.

Trialing and Use

Winds were blowing a stiff 20 knots when I launched for the initial test.  I was very relieved when the boat steered perfectly on all points of sail.  Later, I found the tiller pilot also worked well as a tiller clutch when I was rowing and sailing in light winds.  When rowing, I wouldn’t use have the tiller pilot for self steering as it seemed to wrestle with my own subconscious steering efforts.  The tiller pilot, however, when in standby mode, allows you to adjust the position of the rudder with the push of a button.  If the boat was pulling to one side or the other as I rowed, the rudder could be adjusted very easily to create perfect balance.

Apart from the sketchy reliability of the TS1000 unit itself, the overall system has worked flawlessly, and made a huge difference to the ease and overall enjoyment during my Race to Alaska.  There was nothing more pleasant than relaxing on the padded hiking board and sipping a hot coffee while enjoying the passing scenery.



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R2AK – The Finish Line

Colin ringing the bell in Ketchikan (photo credit: Janice from Team Sistership)

Colin ringing the bell in Ketchikan (photo credit: Janice from Team Sistership)

13 days 1 hour and 59 minutes.  That’s how long it took Colin to row and sail from Victoria to Ketchikan in the RowCruiser.  Today at 12:59 AKDT he rowed up to the finish line in Ketchikan.  It was a fantastic moment that Race to Alaska streamed live on their FB page.  He was greeted by a number of the racers from boats that had already arrived, as well as customs folks and a case of beer. Colin was exhausted and elated and rang the bell with well-deserved gusto.

The last 32 hours have been challenging.  Yesterday he rowed for 15.5 hours straight, the longest he’s ever rowed for continuously.  Then the anchorage he was about to pull into turned out to be inappropriate so he had to continue through the night.  Once morning arrived, the sea returned to dead calm following by headwinds, and he was so exhausted that he was falling asleep between oar strokes.  Then, as if mother nature was watching, she devised a way to wake Colin up.  A killer whale charged his boat.  It raced towards Colin and leapt out of the water.  It was huge he said, like a submarine.  A couple inches before reaching his boat, it gracefully plunged back into the ocean. Wow.

Colin is staying in Ketchikan until Wednesday when he’ll catch the ferry to Bellingham and roll his boat onto the ferry with him.  That’s the beauty of having such a small boat; it gets treated like a kayak and the boat can travel with him for a nominal fee.  So far Ketchikan is treating him amazingly. It’s beautiful, the people are exceedingly friendly and he can almost walk without stumbling.  After being on his boat for over 13 days, he’s got sea legs and even though the only beer he had was upon arrival, he’s stumbling around like he’s had a few too many.  Nothing a good night sleep and some rest can’t cure.

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R2AK Day 13 – Alaska in Sight,  Going Through the Night

Behind the lighthouse is Alaska!! Colin's getting very close to completing the R2AK.

Behind the lighthouse is Alaska!! Colin’s getting very close to completing the R2AK.

Colin is 60 km from Ketchikan.  He can see Alaska!

It’s been another long day for Colin.  The morning started off windless, then came modest headwinds, which persisted for most of the day, except for a brief respite of gentle tailwinds.  He’s been rowing pretty much all day and is thrilled to finally be approaching Ketchikan.  He’s back in cell phone reach and it’s nice to hear his voice and get the occasional update.

Today he’s had several big crossings, from his anchorage on Porcher Island across to the Dundas Island group and then to the mainland.  He’s tired but I think the sight of Alaska is keeping him at the oars. I say this because it’s dark already and he’s still going.  I don’t know how long he’s planning on going for but the thought of a hot coffee, cold beer and no more rowing must be keeping him motivated.

Just as I finished typing this, Colin called.  He tried to go into an anchorage that looked promising on his map, but it turned out just to be a river gushing out.  Now it’s too late to find another anchorage as it’s dangerous to go close to shore in the dark.  So Colin has no choice but to continue throughout the night.  He said not to worry, that he’s warm in his drysuit and will just sail or drift.  After rowing for 15.5 hours today, he’s done rowing.  Let’s hope the night goes well and that tomorrow he can relax in Ketchikan.

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R2AK Day 12 – Soggy Slog

Colin approaching his anchorage on Porcher Island (Photo credit: Colin Angus)

Colin approaching his anchorage on Porcher Island (Photo credit: Colin Angus)

Colin finally got out of the Grenville Channel.  Yesterday he had 20 knot winds against him so he had to pull into an anchorage early and this morning the current and winds were still against him.  Finally, when the current slackened in the late morning he left his shelter and continued rowing north through the channel.

It’s been another soggy slog of a day and he rowed for the entire day except for half an hour when the wind puffed. All day, he’s had light head winds and weather that alternates between drizzle and downpour.  He described as monsoon rains but without the warmth.

Colin passed the mouth of the Skeena River without any issue, voyaged along the west side of Kennedy Island and crossed over to Porcher Island, where he is now anchored.  He’s about 180 km from Ketchikan and he’d like to reach the end within 2 days. If not, he’ll run out of food and have to start fishing.

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R2AK Day 11 – Inside Passage’s Spectacular Greville Channel

Colin Angus near Ivory Island, Seaforth Channel on July 4 (Photo Credit: Bob & Lois Stevenson on SV Passages, 42' Jeanneau)

Colin Angus near Ivory Island, Seaforth Channel on July 4
(Photo Credit: Bob & Lois Stevenson on SV Passages, 42′ Jeanneau)

Colin is currently anchored in Klewnuggit, just outside the marine provincial park.  He’s about 40 kilometers south of where the Skeena River flows into the Pacific. Dale McKinnon, who is very familiar with these waters, describes the confluence of the Skeena and tidal waters as notorious in a flood tide and even challenging in an ebb tide.  Tomorrow he’ll be travelling these waters, so fingers crossed that all goes well.

Today he left his anchorage at about 5 am, crossed over to Gribbell Island and hugged the southern coast of it before making a 10 km crossing of Wright Sound.  Wright Sound is where in 2006, BC Ferry’s Queen of the North disastrously ran aground and sunk, killing 2 people. Colin then entered the Grenville Channel, a 70 km long channel that is described as the most spectacular channel along the Inside Passage. It is sandwiched by towering mountains and narrows to a mere 1400 ft in some areas.

According to the weather report it’s been a grey rainy day with light winds in that area.  However, the high mountains and narrow inlet can create a funnelling effect for both winds and currents.  Colin pulled into his current anchorage around 4:30 pm, which is early for him, so I suspect conditions were not ideal.

Update:  Colin called Small Craft Advisor and left an update .  Here it is, courtesy of their FB page.

Colin (Team Angus Rowboats) checked in from a nice anchorage near Klewnuggit Inlet. He says he made good progress today courtesy of strong tailwinds and a tremendous favorable current that had him doing a long stretch at 8 knots.

He’d planned to push on further tonight but came around a turn in the narrow channel route he’s chosen to find a 20-knot headwind stacking up against the current, so he decided to aim for the nearby inlet and anchorage.

Colin say the steep mountains come right down to rocky shores and there are far fewer anchorages and almost no beaches to be found. In fact he says it was a bit disconcerting at his anchorage last night when the wind clocked around onshore blowing over lots of fetch at the craggy shoreline. And I’m guessing it probably didn’t help that he’d seen his first bear on that same strip of land earlier in the evening . Fortunately the winds never really came up.

He and the boat are doing great, although his auto-pilot, which had been making funny noises and which he’s come to rely on, finally quit entirely. He installed his backup unit and says it’s performing great. Who says you can’t carry everything you need on an 18-foot rowboat?

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R2AK Day 10 – Tailwinds and currents

IMG_6867Colin’s spent the day weaving his way through a maze of islands and inlets.  He was up with the sun once again and is just anchoring now.  He’s had moderate tailwinds and a reasonable current, allowing him to make steady progress.

Although Colin’s out of cell phone reception right now, thanks to Small Craft Advisor Magazine, he has a satellite phone to provide them with updates.  Colin told the magazine that last night was not as restful as he had anticipated.  The gate on a carabineer he uses in his anchoring system opened and his boat became freed from the anchor line.  Instead of lying comfortably at anchor, he had to row to shore and secure his boat in a less optimal way.  Fortunately, in the morning light he was able to find his floating anchor rode and retrieve his anchor.  Let’s hope that’s the last time his boat tries to run away.

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R2AK Day 9 – Voyaging BC’s Fjords

Photo credit: Team Sistership

Colin in Bella Bella (Photo credit: Team Sistership)

Much of the open water crossings are behind Colin.  He is now travelling northern BC’s majestic fjords.  These narrow inlets bordered by steep mountains provide a labyrinth of more protected waterways.  It’s a remote wilderness and he hasn’t seen a single other boat in the fjords.

This morning Colin passed through the check point at Bella Bella.  There he stopped for a coffee break with fellow racers Sistership and watched to his horror as his boat came untied and sailed across the harbour.  He sprinted to the boat and managed to slow it, but his ama still sustained damage.  Fortunately, he was able to repair it with the epoxy he brought along and was on his way in 15 minutes.  He faced stiff 20 knot headwinds and 4-foot waves leaving Bella Bella, but calmer conditions and slight tail winds followed later in the day.

This is only his second time off the boat since the race started.  Colin sleeps on the boat every night and only comes to shore to refill his water containers and empty his trash. Now he’s anchored off Susan Island in the provincial park of Jackson Narrows and settling in for a solid night’s sleep.

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R2AK Day 8 – At the halfway mark

Screen shot of Colin.  He's in the top left corner (Angus Rowboats)

Screen shot of Colin. He’s in the top left corner (Angus Rowboats)

Colin has reached the halfway point to Ketchikan. He’s now anchored in a cove on Denny Island just a few miles south of the check in point at Bella Bella.

He’s had a good couple of days and has really been able to separate himself from the nearest small boat with a 100-mile lead. Plus, he’s gone through some of the most dangerous sections, including crossing from Vancouver Island to the mainland.  He still has 350 miles to travel but he’s getting there.

There are still 19 boats racing to Alaska and all but one of these is behind Colin.  So far he’s the first boat small boat and well as the first boat with 2 or fewer people.  Let’s hope that Colin and the boat stay safe and he can maintain this pace.

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R2AK Day 7 – Goodbye Vancouver Island

Photo Credit: Small Craft Advisor

Photo Credit: Small Craft Advisor

Well sadly Colin is out of cell phone reception and I didn’t hear from him today. Thank goodness for the tracker.  Between that and monitoring weather conditions, I feel like I could have almost been there on the boat with him. Minus the hard work, big waves, and sleep deprivation that is.

Colin’s had another stellar day.  Based on his speed, it looks like he sailed most of the day.  He had an early start again, around 5 am, and there were strong winds from the south.  Many of the other boats in the Johnstone Strait didn’t leave until the early afternoon so I imagine conditions must not have been favourable. Nonetheless, Colin made it through the Johnstone Strait and has left Vancouver Island behind.  He’s anchored about 60 km north of Vancouver Island near Duncaby Landing.

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R2AK Day 6 – Sailing through Johnstone Strait

Photo Credit: Small Craft Advisor

Photo Credit: Small Craft Advisor

Colin had some great winds through the Johnstone Strait this morning. The low pressure system brought winds from the south instead of headwinds, which allowed him to travel at speeds of 7 knots at times.

When he started this morning at 5 am it was raining and crawling out of his warm cabin was a little less enticing but the favourable conditions made up for that. Colin sailed exclusively throughout the morning and early afternoon, then the winds died and he had to row.  Colin’s now anchored off a near island near Port Hardy and is still holding his lead.

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