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.
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.
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)
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.
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