PROTECT THE AUTOPILOT
Our autopilot steered Exit Only 99.9% of the way around the world.
The only time we didn't use it was for maneuvering in close
quarters, and when we wanted to protect the autopilot in rough seas.
In over 33,000 miles of sailing, we probably hand-steered the
yacht less than 100 hours. The autopilot would hold a course
better than any human helmsman, it never got tired, and never
complained. It essentially functioned as another member of
our crew. All we had to do was feed it amps.
The Autohelm 7000 was reliable and tough. In
eleven years of sailing around the world, we experienced only two
autopilot failures. The first happened in French Polynesia
where salt water intrusion destroyed a motor bearing. The
second problem happened sailing up the Great Barrier Reef. In this
instance, we stripped the epicyclic gears when the autopilot made
a maximum course correction, and the correction wasn't enough, so
it kept applying pressure to the gears until they stripped.
Those nylon gears had already sailed half way around the world,
and when they stripped, we replaced them with metal ones.
The gears never stripped again after we installed the brass ones.
When we sail offshore, we go to great lengths to protect our
autopilot. If the seas are extremely rough, we adjust our
course and speed so that the autopilot doesn't take a beating.
A well-balanced sail plan makes the autopilot's task easy, and
poorly balanced sails are an invitation to disaster. Smart
sailors don't stress out their autopilots unless there is a good
Take a look at Captain Dave at the helm in the Red Sea with 45
knots of wind and quartering seas. We had just passed through the Bab Al Mandeb
at the southern end of the Red Sea and needed to sail about twenty miles to tuck in
behind a headland to escape the short steep seas and high winds.
For three hours, I stood at the helm steering by hand, and in the
process, the salt spray turned my clothes into a pillar of salt.
At the end of the day, my clothes contained so much salt
that they looked as if they were starched; they could almost stand
up without me in them.
The reason I stood at the helm for those three hours was because I
wanted to protect the autopilot. We had 1500 miles of remote
Red Sea cruising ahead of us, and it made sense to not risk
the autopilot when we had all those miles ahead.
Hence, I steered by hand.
The autopilot probably would have handled the large quartering
seas without a problem. Nevertheless, three soaking wet
hours at the helm is a small price to pay to guarantee a
functioning autopilot during the rest of our Red Sea Adventure.
If instead of taking shelter, we had continued to sail directly
down wind and on through the night, I would have reduced sail,
slowed the boat down, and let the autopilot steer.
Real mariners know the sea, know their boat, and know their
autopilot. They treat their autopilot with respect; it
sticks by their side though thick and thin and perseveres when the
rest of the crew have nothing left to give.
Every sailor on board Exit Only knows that if they take care of
the autopilot, the autopilot will take care of them.