Posted by: Dan Sprague | June 11, 2012

Tiller Pilots or Autohelm

When I bought my sailboat it came with an Autohelm. It was a great little unit.  I was down in the Florida Keys and my navigation equipment consisted of a magnetic compass, a nice wind up ships clock, a depth finder, a speed loge sensor that give me a speed over the water and a folder of charts. I was too cheap to buy a GPS and I could see no real use for one. Me and my little boat seldom sailed much out of sight of land and I figured if I sailed North and or north west I would hit land and could get back to my marina without any real problem.

The little autohelm unit or TILLER PILOT was great. The unit was mounted on an upright post at about a right angle to the tiller handle. The unit had a small rod that clipped to the tiller handle. When you wanted to use it you just clipped the rod to the tiller handle and turned the unit on.  The unit would keep the tiller on the heading you were sailing. It would adjust automatically, moving the tiller a few degrees each way to keep you on the right heading. It was neat, on open water you could turn on the unit and then use the head, make a snack, or read a book and it would keep you basically on course without you having to hold the tiller. It had 5 degree and 15 degree adjustment buttons that could be used to do minor course adjustments. It was simple to use and reliable.

After about 8 years the unit died, I figure the unit was about 12 years old so it did not owe me anything. Still it was a great convenience and I wanted to get a replacement.  I figured that there was probably much better units that had come along in the time frame that had passed since that one had been purchased.

When I started researching what was now available I was somewhat overwhelmed. There are some nice auto pilot GPS systems that are more than impressive and that are reasonably priced. You can get complete systems in which GPS and plotters and computers are integrated or standalone systems. The boat I want it for is an under 6000 lbs. and has a tiller. The boat does not need an integrated system.

I found one that was an updated version of the Autohelm unit and similar to the one I had had. The Raymarine ST1000+ was good for a boat up to 6,600 lbs., has 3 modes of operation, and can stand-alone or be used with Sea Talk/NEMA GPS, and it has an integral fluxgate compass. The one feature that I really liked was the Auto Tack. This lets you handle the sheets while the pilot tacks the boat.

Raymarine also has a unit for a boat up to 10,000 lbs. Simrad has Tiller Pilots for boas of 36’ and 11,000 lbs., and up to 39’ and 13,860 lbs.

I made a simple auto helm set up from two lines and two scraps of wood that will hold the tiller in position. It is a copy of a Heirshoff set up and it works well. It is limited and we use it when we sail on the river where the tiller pilot is overkill.

I like sailing by myself and a tiller pilot unit becomes part of the crew you do not have. It can be the extra hand that will make some tasks much easier. The unit is small, weight is about 5 lbs. and is simple to install.



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