Autopilot is a great thing, whether you’re on an ocean passage or an afternoon outing.  If you’ve spent any time at all underway, you’ve probably realized the value of an autopilot.  You simply steer the desired course and push a button, and it’ll keep that course or tell you if it no longer can until you say otherwise.

It’s almost like you’ve gained an extra crewman.  OK, this crewman can’t stand its own watch, and if a dock or a big ole’ ship gets in your way it’ll run smack into it unless you tell it to turn, but it steers the desired course better than I can.  I get distracted by just about anything while I’m on the helm and before I know it I’m off course.  Just the thought of having to steer the boat by hand full time on a long passage is incentive enough to justify the cost and effort to install an Autopilot.

But La Creole is 50 feet long, and bigger boats call for bigger equipment.  She’s rather heavy as well, rated at 38,000 pounds but with all of our worldly goods onboard we figure she weighs in at somewhere between 45 and 50,000.  Since we intend to venture far afield we figure we’d better have too much power than not enough so we moved up to a RayMarine Type 3 that has a hydraulic control arm.


On La Creole the steering quadrant and cables are under the berth in the aft cabin (our cabin) and when you look at the space, or lack of space, under there you wonder if her designer had autopilot in mind when she was built.  Except for the stringers running laterally under the bunk there is nothing but the inside of the hull, and barely enough room for the rudder post and steering quadrant.

Consequently we called in the local RayMarine rep to oversee the installation, and sure enough Herman had done an installation on a similar vessel and immediately knew who to call in to make the necessary brackets to mount the control arm and hydraulic pump.  Fortunately he also consented to act solely as a consultant and allow me to complete the installation after the mounting brackets were installed.

He called in a gent named Kevin from Red Hook, another colorful character in St. Thomas, and together they scoped out the necessary parts and took measurements.  The control arm and hydraulic pump come completely assembled and charged with fluid, and when they started taking things apart and moving the control arm around contrary to specific instructions in the manual I got a bit nervous, but they assured me it was OK.  Actually it was essential since this installation required putting components on different sides of the stringers, with the expansion tank in the lazerette to position it above the pump as required. 

Kevin finished up his measurements and returned to his shop to begin fabricating the parts.  He strongly recommended we move La Creole to a slip in Red Hook for 2-3 days to allow him to work closer to his shop as well as access his welder.  Fine tuning the parts after templates are made is an iterative process it seems and he suggested it would save us money for his travel time.

We travelled to Red Hook on the eastern end of the island on our next days off, but as they often do things took longer than he’d planned and we were there right up to the last moment making adjustments to the brackets, however we made it back to Crown Bay and I was able to get to work on time.  Even Kevin remarked that the clearances between the components and the confines of the space were very tight, but they moved freely.

Then came my part in the process, actually mounting the components, running the wiring to power and to the computer brain and then up through the engine room overhead to the steering column where we mounted the control head.   I hooked up all of the hydraulic lines, refilled the fluid and successfully bled air from the system after conferring with the rep on the process, one not covered in the manuals and recommended for a qualified technician only.

After receiving a particular data cable we had to order from the manufacturer, the system installation was complete and it was time to conduct the all-important calibration process.  The instructions call for conditions one might find only in a bathtub that’s a half mile on each side, but somehow we were able to pull it off in Crown Bay on a sunny St. Thomas morning. 

First you have to steer in a tight, controlled circle 3-4 times while the system gets its bearings and checks out the compass, and we were feeling pretty anxious waiting for the OK signal that told us phase 1 of the calibration process was a success because of the conditions, but we passed on the first try.  Yea!

Next the system went through what’s called the Learning Phase where it makes several pre-programmed turns to “learn” how this particular boat will respond to the rudder.  Without knowing just what the turn sequence looks like you can’t allow for enough room, and if the process had taken another minute to complete its “lesson” we would have had to take control back to avoid a very close encounter with an anchored boat in the Bay.

Phase 3 of the calibration process called for some specific maneuvers that didn’t go so well.  When I called for a turn the controls took the rudder all the way to the stop.  Not the right response.  Things weren’t acting as they should be, so we got on the phone with the tech support office at RayMarine.   Their remedy to the first issue was to actually switch the leads on the hydraulic pump at the computer.  Odd, but it worked.

Other commands were not receiving the correct response however, and we eventually were routed to Mr. Lee, a system programmer.  Nice fellow, but with his strong oriental accent I’m guessing he normally didn’t talk to customers much.  He knows this system, however, because when I described what was happening he immediately knew what to do.   We were instructed to loosen the set screws on the rudder angle indicator and realign it as it was giving a false reading to the computer.  My bad since the unit was underneath the bunk such that I had to align it by touch, but with his instructions and Carrie’s help on deck we lined things up and BINGO, our autopilot was piloting automatically!

Our previous experience with RayMarine autopilot was very good, as in no problems, and so far this system has served us well too through travels through the BVI and offshore back to the States.  This is one crew member you want to keep happy.

To be continued…