Rowboat Auto Pilot Installation in Sailing RowCruiser


by Colin Angus 8 Comments

A rowboat auto pilot is something I had not previously considered, but during my solo voyage participating in the Race to Alaska the Raymarine ST1000 auto pilot helped significantly.  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.

 

Overview


When preparing for the race I felt that some type of rowboat auto pilot /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 to use as a rowboat auto pilot.

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 for the rowboat auto pilot 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)

Rowboat Auto Pilot Installation

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. So while a rowboat auto pilot isn't something most people would consider, in this case it was an amazing addition.


Colin Angus
Colin Angus

Author



8 Responses

Cristy Wilton
Cristy Wilton

June 22, 2017

I think it is not a bad idea and must be applied. My friend has a boat and he is going to install a side panel. For this, he reached to a trusted company http://canvasman.co.uk/side-panels can anyone tells me that is it right to choose them or anyone can help my giving some useful suggestion. After side panel, i will recommend him to apply automatic system in it.

Chris Clarke
Chris Clarke

October 28, 2016

It is a while since I wrestled with one of these but I thought they had the ability to switch the logic depending on whether they were mounted to port or starboard of (conventional) tiller? Would that enable it to be mounted to either side of the boat?

Wonderful post by the way. I find actually steering the boat to be the just about the least rewarding aspect of being on the water whether rowing or sailing.

Colin Angus
Colin Angus

October 28, 2016

Hi Michael,
I haven’t done much experimentation with self steering on sails alone. The boat is very balanced (doesn’t pull upwind or downwind), so perhaps with some experimentation (a sheet from mizzen to rudder and balanced by a bungee, perhaps) some sort of self steering could be achieved.

Michael DeJonge
Michael DeJonge

October 28, 2016

I really appreciate the level of detail in this article! It is very helpful. I am also wondering how well the boat can self-steer using only the sail position on the cat ketch design. Any comments on its ability to steer itself when the sails are balanced?

Simeon Baldwin
Simeon Baldwin

October 28, 2016

Thanks Colin, inquiring minds wanted to know!

Colin Angus
Colin Angus

October 28, 2016

Hey Scott,
It’s hard to quantify how much of a speed advantage the autopilot gave me. It definitely made life a lot easier, but without it perhaps I might have come up with other systems – mizzen sheet to rudder balanced with a bungee, etc. No other system would have been as accurate, though. More important than direct speed advantage was an ability to further enjoy the voyage. There was nothing I loved more than simply relaxing on the hiking board sipping coffee or eating snacks and watching the wildlife or scenery. It was a such a welcome break from the slog of rowing.

If there was more wind on this trip, the autopilot would have been an even greater advantage. Times when the boat boat was sailing at a brisk pace under autohelm were much more infrequent than I would have liked. There was only one day when I could sail most (but not all) of the time. The autopilot worked in all conditions I encountered. It certainly works a lot harder in big waves and swirling currents. Sometimes I would worry that it was being overworked.

Perhaps Simrad could be a better choice. From what I’ve heard, there’s not a big difference in quality/reliability. I’ve used a Raymarine ST1000 before, so I felt a bit more comfortable with it because of my familiarity with the way it operates.

In my regular column for Explore Magazine I’ve written about my overall R2AK experiences, and will post a link for it once it’s available online. I’ll also be writing a couple of other blog posts on race particulars including my navigation system (I used Navionics, and loved it).

Scot Domergue
Scot Domergue

October 28, 2016

Thanks Colin! I’ve been wondering about the details.

I’ve wondered how much longer it might have taken you to reach Ketchikan if you hadn’t had the auto-pilot. Do you have an estimate? Would the difference have been greater if there had been more wind (less rowing)?

Under the right conditions would you have considered sailing up Hecate on auto-pilot while sleeping some of the time?

Do you have any further thoughts about the suitability and use of the auto-pilot in different conditions? I have the impression that you found it worked well anytime there was enough wind that you weren’t rowing up through 20 knots . . . and beyond? Any limitations related to waves?

Given the reliability issues with the Raymarine did you consider using a Simrad? Are they more reliable? Why did you use the Raymarine rather than the Simrad?

Are you going to write/publish an article about your experience overall in the R2AK this year? I hope so and look forward to it!

Congratulations on a great race!

Colin Angus
Colin Angus

October 28, 2016

I think you may be right, Chris. I don’t have the instruction manual with me now, but now that you mention it, I think I do recall the unit had the ability to switch logic, which, as you say, would allow the unit to be mounted on the other side in the horizontal position.

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