I can think of numerous reasons why you'd want a crewman aboard who never speaks, requires no food or drink and always does exactly what you tell him. No such animal, you say? Sure there is: It's called an autopilot!
Recent years have seen several autopilots introduced specifically for the small-boat market - with many features aimed directly at fishing boats - for single and multiple outboards, as well as inboard and I/O applications.
What is an Autopilot?
What is an autopilot? It's a device that connects to your hydraulic or electrical steering system and gathers input from sensors that give directions. Sensors provide speed and rudder position - GPS position, compass heading, turn-rate, etc. The pilot then makes constant, automatic corrections to the steering to keep your vessel heading in the set direction.
A control panel; information sources relating direction, speed, pitch and roll; a control unit to calculate and transmit commands from the latter instruments; and a hydraulic drive system that does the physical work all comprise an autopilot.
Even as they compensate for current set and drift, autopilots will get you from A to B in a line straighter than you could navigate. In other words, an autopilot will save you money in that increasingly precious commodity: fuel.
However efficient, an autopilot isn't a real crewman. It can't replace a good watchman's eyes and ears; it doesn't know better than to hit land, buoys or other boats; and it knows only to steer a straight course - the one you programmed into it - period.
Installation: A Job for a Pro
Although you can install an autopilot yourself, I wouldn't suggest it. Sure, some have the requisite skills and tools, but for average Joe recreational boater, it will pay to have it done correctly, meaning by a professional installer.
Installing an autopilot system requires knowledge of electrical systems as well as hydraulics. For example, after initial installation, you must bleed the hydraulics to remove any air in the line - potentially the most difficult part of the process. "Bleeding after [installation] is a big problem for [untrained] people," says Burke. But if air remains in the system, it can cause problems with autopilot performance.
Bottom line: If you're spending money on an autopilot, spend a little more to have it installed correctly as well.
Pick a Pilot
Six major autopilot manufacturers offer products for boats under 35 feet: Furuno, Garmin, Northstar, Raymarine, Simrad and TR-1. Garmin, by the way, purchased TR-1 in 2007 and on Aug. 1 plans to start marketing its GHP10: an autopilot designed from the ground up for outboards.
Your vessel's size and what powers it may dictate what brand of autopilot you'll want. Some of the autopilots mentioned can be adapted to certain types of power and some can't.
The size of your boat's hydraulic system will also dictate the size of your autopilot. Multiple engines and higher horsepower require more powerful hydraulics to drive the autopilot. The bigger and heavier the engines, the more hydraulic and autopilot power you'll need.
If your boat falls on the borderline between system sizes, always go up in grade. A borderline or too-small autopilot will work harder - wearing out faster because of it.
Autopilots need a means of detecting speed and heading. All manufacturers offer their own instruments, but you should consider an aftermarket alternative coming down the pike: Airmar's latest weather- station upgrade, the PB200. It features a three-axis, solid-state compass, a three-axis accelerometer for pitch and roll info and a yaw-rate gyro for rate-of-turn data. In a test I observed, the PB200 mounted down low in the hull along with Furuno and Maretron heading sensors, and the PB200 gave the same accurate directional information as the dedicated heading sensors. It's scheduled out midsummer.
Also, remember that getting the most out of your autopilot also requires an interface to your chart plotter.
Furuno's NAVpilot 500 series uses "adaptive" technology, meaning, "The NAVpilot adjusts its own parameters," says Eric Kunz, Furuno's senior product manager. "It learns about your boat's steering characteristics and adjusts accordingly." The NAVpilot uses a rudder-feedback sensor for directional info. Highlights of the NAVpilot include the handheld full-function NAVpilot 520 remote that can operate the full system. "Press standby or auto, and it follows your current heading," says Kunz. "With its no-drift steering, it will make its own waypoint and compensate for drift along the way." The FishHunter mode steers your boat around a target, uses a waypoint as the center of a figure eight or reaches a waypoint via a succession of spirals. The base price runs between $3,195 and $3,595. The hydraulic pump costs about $550.
The GHP10/TR-1 also limits your turn radius based on your speed. Expect it to retail for about $2,999 with the pump system. The waterproof unit has a bigger optional pump (the TR-1 2.1 liter) for twin- and triple-outboard craft exceeding 400 horsepower.
Northstar's 3300 uses a fluxgate compass and a solid-state rate gyro for directional information as well as a rudder reference unit. It offers a variety of steering modes as well, though it seems geared more toward cruisers than anglers. Thanks to its previous owner (Brunswick), the 3300 pairs nicely with Mercury's Verado outboards. Price hovers around $2,289, which includes display, rudder reference unit, rate-gyro and compass, and control unit; the pump starts at $148 and goes up depending on size and type required.
Raymarine refers to its SmartPilot X-Series as a "learning" autopilot since it "learns" your boat's performance traits and adjusts accordingly. It comes in a simple sport model, a Verado/SmartCraft model and several mechanical steering models (replacing the old SportPilot). Anglers prefer the X-Series with its nine different programmed patterns. The X-Series (when joined with the ST70 controller) gives you circle, spiral, cloverleaf, figure-eight, lazy S, zigzag, grid-search, box, and 180- and 360- degree turn pattern abilities, pretty much covering the gamut. It also has a wireless remote controller. There's a wide range in the price structure, so it's best to check with Raymarine for the system most appropriate for your boat.
Finally, Simrad's AP24 (the AP28 is for larger craft) uses its Virtual Rudder Feedback - specifically designed for I/Os and outboards to replace the rudder sensor. The AP24 also "learns" your boat's characteristics. It interfaces via SimNet, Simrad's NMEA 2000-based system. The AP24 offers several fishermen-friendly maneuver patterns, including program-mable S-turns, zigzags, square and continuous turn, as well as a very nifty depth-contour tracking feature (set the depth and the autopilot will steer to your sounder's information). Look for it to cost around $2,350 sans the pump.