How Does Autopilot Work On A Sailboat?

An autopilot can be a very convenient tool that will dramatically reduce the effort it takes for you to sail well. Once you are accustomed to the luxurious handling freedom of having an autopilot, you may find yourself reluctant to steer free hand any time that it can be avoided.

As a significant added benefit, many people find that they can actually make better time and maintain course more effectively when an autopilot is used.

How does an autopilot on a sailboat work? The autopilot on a sailboat connects to data-gathering systems like the GPS or is set on a course by a compass. It then keeps the boat on the set course.

Here’s what you need to know about how an autopilot can benefit your sailing, as well as some of the important limitations of this convenient little tool.

How do Autopilots Work?

Autopilots work by connecting an information-gathering system and motor to your boat’s rudder. They may gather information from an internal compass or by being connected to a GPS.

The autopilot keeps the boat on course using the information it is receiving from the compass or the GPS. Naturally, the autopilot will only be as effective as the information that it is receiving.

It is only as strong as the motor that controls at. Some autopilots are well-suited to controlling even very large sailboats, while others are better for sailboats that do not require as much strength.

Be sure that you know what your boat requires and what you hope to do with it when you make a decision about what autopilot you want.

Autopilot Data Sources

Autopilots steer your boat based on the information that they receive from other sources. The more complicated your autopilot, the more sources it may intelligently utilize to guide your boat as accurately as possible. Here are some of the ways that your autopilot can find out how to steer your boat well:

  • Wind vane. The wind vane typically sits on the top of your mast and can constantly tell your autopilot where the wind is coming from, which can be very helpful when using an autopilot in variable wind conditions.
  • Rudder sensor. Knowing where your rudder is in the water can tell your autopilot whether it needs to apply more pressure or not.
  • Rate gyro. This sensor let’s your autopilot know how the boat is moving and pitching.  This can be very helpful information to let your autopilot know when it may need to make lots of minute adjustments
  • Speedometer. This meter connects to your boat’s speedometer, letting your autopilot know exactly what your speed is at any given time.
  • GPS receiver. This is one of the most common and straightforward connections. Connecting to your boats GPS lets your autopilot constantly adjust the direction according to whatever technology your GPS is equipped with.

How to Operate an Autopilot

Operating an autopilot is quite simple and straightforward. After all, the reason you’ve chosen something to help you steer in the first place is to make it easier on you. It would be quite frustrating if it was difficult to operate.

Operating an autopilot is as simple as putting your boat in the direction you want it to go, holding the course, pressing the button to hold the course, and letting go of the helm. The autopilot will remember the course and direct the helm to keep it.

Sometimes it can take some experimentation to work out exactly how to set your course properly and make sure the GPS is following it, but with some practice, you are likely to find that it is very simple to set your GPS.

More advanced autopilots are better at maintaining their course using the more complex sensors discussed above. If you are using a simple autopilot, keep in mind that you will want to check your course frequently to make sure that the autopilot is really maintaining it correctly.

This is true even if you are connected to an autopilot and feel confident that the course is being maintained. The last thing you want is to realize when you’ve already made significant progress that you are slightly off course and that it may take longer than expected to reach your destination.

Particularly when you are just learning how to use your GPS, be sure that you are constantly checking and reinforcing your course with a variety of different navigation tools.

What can an Autopilot Do?

An autopilot can do a number of tasks to assist you in handling your sailboat. A good way to think about an autopilot is as an extra pair of hands for steering that never get tired or complain.

A good autopilot makes it almost as if you had more crew than you do. The simplest autopilots can keep your sailboat on a course you set by compass. More complex autopilots can gather information from other instruments on your boat and use that information to help inform the boats ideal track.

An autopilot of some sort is an investment that most sailors are glad they made, but it’s not a good idea to spend a lot of money on a very sophisticated autopilot until you understand some of the limitations that go along with this convenient device.

What Autopilots are Good At

When conditions are light or a bit breezy but not too rough or windy, autopilots are most effective. They require minimal programming and can guide your boat for an indefinite period without getting tired.

When you are enjoying a light sail in good conditions, you will very likely find yourself often setting the autopilot and going on about your business of enjoying the boat.

What Autopilots are Not as Good At

Autopilots are very effective at doing what they do, but they aren’t effective for everything. In very rough or heavy conditions, autopilots can fail to control your boat effectively. When changes in wind or waves occur rapidly, autopilots are not as quick to respond as a human pilot would have been.

They may seriously mishandle the boat or fail to maintain the desired track. Any time that it would take you a significant amount of skill and strength to pilot your sailboat, it is probably best not to entrust it to an autopilot.

What to Use When an Autopilot is Not Your Ideal Choice

If it is difficult for you to hold a course, your autopilot will struggle. Autopilots need to work harder in rougher seas and stronger winds. When the strength of the wind and sea outmeasure the strength of your autopilot, you can be knocked off course.

Thankfully, there are alternatives to the autopilot that can also work well to hold your course. A wind vane uses the direction of the wind and the pressure of the water to navigate and to power your sailboat.

That means that when the wind and waves get stronger, the wind vane has more power to work. This makes the wind vane a nearly ideal tool for rough weather sailing. If you are using a wind vane, it is a good idea to trim your sails so that your boat will stay under control even in very rough weather.

No matter what you used to steer, remember that if conditions are bad enough that you are struggling to maintain a course, your navigation tools will likely struggle as well.

Is an Autopilot a Good Choice for Long-Distance Sailing?

If you are planning on long-distance sailing over blue water, you may be trying to decide what sorts of navigation equipment is essential and what you can do without. Many sailors find an autopilot to be a great choice for long-distance sailing, but it is essential to be prepared and not depend completely on this device.

If you are trying to choose only a few tools to use for navigation on the open sea, an autopilot might not be the best first choice. Autopilots don’t do well in very inclement conditions, which, unfortunately, are often exactly the time when you need the autopilot to do its job.

How Does Autopilot Work On A Sailboat?

If you are only choosing one, you may want to select the wind vane. Wind vanes are a bit more challenging to use at the beginning, but with practice you will find it very easy to set up and use a wind vane.

Many people even find that using a wind vane seems to make them a better sailor, as it requires complex understanding of boat handling to do it properly. Wind vanes are worth the extra learning curve for most sailors, since they are highly effective even when used in very inclement weather.

Having a wind vane that you are highly familiar with onboard can free up your hands at the time when you most need the extra help, when weather conditions are very poor. For this reason, if you are restricting your budget and can only afford one type of navigation assistant, a wind vane may be the better option.

Get Started Sailing With an Autopilot

An autopilot can make your life much easier as a sailor. They are not absolutely essential, and may not be the one navigation tool that you want on an extended open water journey, but they are very convenient tools which most sailors are happy to have in their arsenal.

If you want to navigate as easily as possible and reduce the stress that you experience trying to do everything at once on your sailboat, this is an investment you will likely be very glad you made.