Below Decks Autopilot
The big project for 2011 is installing a below-decks autopilot. Aeolus came with a Simrad tiller pilot which has delivered mixed results. When it works it works well, but it had a major repair and still is unreliable, usually weaving back and forth across the straight line course, and occasionally going nuts and taking a 90 degree turn. I think the root cause is the compass inside the tiller pilot. I kind of wish they would make one that didn't have a compass and just took its marching orders from the GPS chartplotter. In the grand scheme of things, a tiller pilot is at the "toy" range of autopilots, and who wants a mere toy when we can do better?
Also, since Aeolus has tiller steering, a below-decks autopilot has an additional appeal. When under way with a below-decks autopilot engaged I can tilt the tiller up and loosely bungee it to the backstay, creating a wide open cockpit while still having the tiller easily grab-able in an emergency.
I selected a Raymarine X-30 Corepack with the ST70 control head, paired with an Octopus linear hydraulic drive. I considered a Simrad system, but was talked out of that by Mike Locatell who recommended Raymarine. He said all of the current autopilots perform well, but Raymarine has better service. This comment resonated with my personal experience: when trying to get the Simrad tiller pilot repaired, it literally took about a month to get through to a human who could help me. Their web site is abysmal, and I would typically wait on hold for 15 - 30 minutes on the phone with them only to be disconnected. So far, Raymarine's support is excellent. I asked a few questions through their web site and have always received an expert and informed response that completely resolved my question within 24 hours.
A below decks autopilot is not a cheap upgrade either. Just the basic parts for the above setup tips the scale at about $4k. The toughest item to bite off was the $110 expense for proprietary Raymarine SeaTalkNG cable, uggh. I would guess a professional install is about another thousand on top...work I will gladly do myself!
This will be my biggest DIY project yet on the boat. The tasks are:
- Design and fabricate a mounting platform for the hydraulic drive and rudder reference sensor
- Grind existing surfaces. Bolt and epoxy/fiberglass the mounting platform.
- Remove the rudder quadrant and get someone to custom weld a pin onto it for the hydraulic drive
- Install a new dedicated 30 amp circuit breaker in the DC panel
- Run a new circuit of 8 gauge wire. Fuse protect it near the battery.
- Install the autopilot's compass, probably in the galley cabinet under the sink.
- Remove the B&G depth display from the instrument hood
- Fabricate a new instrument hood panel from StarBoard to accommodate the ST70 control head.
- Run SeaTalk NG cable from the ST70 to the X-30
- Mount the X-30 corepack "brain" in the space under the propane locker
- Install the S100 wireless autopilot controller
- Connect the X-30 to the NMEA0183 multiplexor so it can receive NMEA sentences from the TackTick wind instruments and the Garmin chartplotter
- Install the hydraulic drive and rudder reference sensor
The most challenging bits are creating a solid mounting platform for the hydraulic drive, and installing the ST70 control head. Access to the instrument hood is very challenging, especially so with the hard dodger. I am dreading the process of pulling the cable for the ST70.
Also all of the grinding, fiberglass, wire termination and X-30 mounting will be done in a space within the stern where I can barely fit my body, let alone get a convenient angle on all of the spaces involved in the installation.