Crews may have griped about the lumpy quartering seas of the ARC 2012, but those conditions on an ocean passage put autopilots to the test, providing a bumper crop of reports and opinions for our annual Gear Survey. Mike Owen reports


Yachting World’s annual gear survey of competitors in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) provides a unique insight into users’ experiences of onboard equipment during an ocean passage. The 2012 ARC was sailed by a record fleet of 227 boats, spanning a wide range of design types and sizes from 32ft to 92ft. There’s no better testbed for popular equipment.

In this feature, we turn our attention to what skippers said about the performance of autopilots and self-steering.

Gruelling test

Virtually all the boats, except those that took the longer but quicker northerly route (see Chris Tibbs’s opinion of the northern route here as well as our description of a very fast passage by one yacht), suffered a bumpy quartering sea which subjected self-steering systems to a gruelling test. As onboard electrical supply and management become more sophisticated, the use of windvane self-steering reduces. This is now seen more as a back-up rather than a primary system.

Only two of the 20 boats that reported windvanes relied solely on the vane gear. The remainder doubled up to join the 171 dedicated autopilot users, bringing the fleet total to 189 autopilots. That’s an impressive 83.2 per cent. Even more striking was that 35 of the 227 boats – 15.9 per cent – carried no self-steering at all and relied on hand, compass and concentration the whole way.

Of the 189 autopilots carried, Raymarine once again dominated with 124 units, or 65.6 per cent. The next in line, Simrad, was almost 100 units behind, with 26 (13.8 per cent). B&G were third with 20 units (10.6 per cent) and Furuno fourth with just five units (2.6 per cent).

AGS Autopilots Pie

In 2012 we asked not just about the control head (the box with the interface or ‘eyes’), but also the type of course computer (the black box with the ‘brains’) and type of drive (the ‘brawn’ turning the rudder), and asked respondees to apportion problems to appropriate system components if they were diagnosable.

By virtue of its widespread use, Raymarine drew a range of comments. “Couldn’t have managed without it,” the crew of Island Packet 465 Ailsa reported of their ST6002 control unit with SPX30 course computer and linear drive. “Reliable and accurate,” those aboard Oyster 575 Dreamer said of an unspecified system, also praising the “excellent service from Raymarine”.

On Oyster 42 Oystermist they noted their 1998 ST6000+/300/linear set-up was “reliable, but old with no gyro, so slow to react to waves, but coped OK”. Malo 46 Coco-de-Mer stated simply: “Very impressed, 4,500 miles.”

Awkward seas

In the sort of quartering sea that is normally awkward for cruising cats, the crew of Lagoon 400 Naos 400 reported their ST70/hydraulic pilot offered “good steering downwind”. Northwind 47 Open Blue’s said of their ST6001/SPX/hydraulic combination: “It steered the whole way without fault even in testing conditions.”

It wasn’t all good though. Twenty four of Raymarine’s 124 adopters reported issues; four with control units, seven with course computers and 13 with drive units (six of 48 hydraulic, two of 18 wheel, two of 11 rotary and three of 42 linear). Pogo 12.50 Lupi had problems with a linear drive unit, but progress wasn’t hampered: “We have two installed with flexible changeover,” the skipper explained.

ST70 from Raymarine

ST70 from Raymarine

Less fortunate X55 Jus’ do it 5 suffered a motor failure in its drive unit, but the crew reported excellent support from Raymarine. On Maxi 1300 Alize they, like many, pointed to the control head as the source of problems: “Excellent, but gremlins cause it to go onto standby with no warning.” Dufour 40 Frilæns III added: “…and without any reason or alarm”. These were two different units sharing aspects of technology, the now-discontinued 6,000 and 7,000 series.

Others suffered what appeared to be installation problems. On Wauquiez 47PS Mis Amores a break in the joint between the rudder quadrant and hydraulic piston was fixed by improvisation. Grand Soleil 52 Fabiola’s unit suffered from age: “Raymarine support was good, but linear drive unit was old (1991) and the autopilot could not cope with quartering seas.” A long service medal for trying might seem appropriate here. Or an upgrade.

Two Oyster 47 owners apparently sailed different races. That on Spray of Rochester, with a 2003-fitted ST6001/Hydraulic set-up, reported: “Held beautifully, even in 48 knots”, while on Stiarna the 2003-vintage ST700/Linear/400G was “good, but needed to hand-steer with heavy downwind seas”.

And although the skipper of Oyster 56 Dreams Come True expressed succinctly the view of Raymarine units as “very valuable”, there were mixed scores for Ease of Use, Reliability and Value. Despite holding pole position in fleet numbers, Raymarine appears to sit fourth in the table for ‘Good’ but second when combining ‘Good’ and ‘OK’.

Looking again at the user satisfaction tables (see left), Furuno appears to come first on both accounts, but the very low number of scored units (five) can more easily influence one way or the other: reader, beware. The key difference is that there was not one single ‘Poor’ reported among Furuno’s scores. All fell in the ‘Good’ and ‘OK’ category.

Awkward seas gave the pilots a good test

Awkward seas gave the pilots a good test

Three Furuno users were Amel 54s – Ladore, Sam III and Poespas – but only the latter’s skipper commented. “Great, even in following seas, used 99.9 per cent of crossing,” the owner said of his Navpilot 511/PG500/Hydraulic system. Koopman 48 Stormvogel, with a Naviplot 700/Hydraulic set-up, was the only Furuno boat to award just ‘OK’ across the board.

Older items still shine

Simrad and B&G share the same parent, Navico, and a chunk of technology too. So, it’s not a surprise to see almost equal scoring in the tables for recent gear. The older items still shine, though; an early original B&G Hydra/Hercules system scored ‘Good’ across the board on X-612 Nix.

Just 11 of the 20 B&G owners commented, but all bar two were positive. The negatives came from Winner 12 Trantes, which had issues with a drive unit for her H3000 system: “Could not handle big waves.” On Bestevaer 65 Classic Lady Ann, with an unspecified B&G set-up, they felt: “Problem solving is up to us. Loses its course sometimes and takes us by surprise. Resetting solves the problem usually.”

Autopilots Graph

Elsewhere, on Dufour 45 Patience the H3000/Linear system was “extremely good in heavy downwind conditions” and on X-65 Katherine the 2012-fitted ACP2/Hydraulic gear was “perfection on almost all points of sail. Wandered a little when wind was light downwind.” Even when Swan 46 Xenia had a problem with the control head of the H3000/Hydraulic set-up her crew said: “We respect it as a crewmember.”

Overall, there were just two reported issues across the 20 B&G users (10 per cent) spanning 11 hydraulic drives: two linear, three wheel, one rotary and three unreported. And two B&G boats in the racing divisions chose not to use their pilots, opting instead for hand-steering.

Seven of 26 users of Simrad (26.9 per cent) reported issues: four with control heads, two with drive units and one with a course computer. On Savage 42 Sundancer II, with a AP42 course computer feeding to an AP24 control head, they said: “Software upgrade needed if I should tell it where to go.” But they scored the system mostly as ‘Good’ despite that “service was poor”.

“Excellent, even in 50 knots”

Others agreed about service, but there seemed to be general, if qualified, admiration of the equipment. “Excellent, even in 50 knots of wind,” they declared of an AP25/AP40/Hydraulic arrangement on Strawinski one-off Malaika. The AP16/Linear system of Hanse 461 Coral IV was “perfect” and on Oyster 655 Proteus of London it was “good, SSB use sometimes makes it turn off, wiring run believed to be the cause”.

Only two of the 18 boats with windvanes relied on it. Photo Ian Roman

Only two of the 18 boats with windvanes relied on it. Photo Ian Roman

On Bénéteau Oceanis 45 Ravi a NSS12/Hydraulic system “requires a lot of amps” but on Privilege 65 Sagittarius the AP28/NSS12/Hydraulic equipment “is better than man”. Not so on Hanse 531 Savarna: “Couldn’t handle the boat in heavy raining conditions. Under spec’d for our boat,” the skipper said of the AP45/Hydraulic arrangement. The moral? Double-check spec and over-estimate weight, particularly for an ocean crossing.

So, what have we learned? While experiences vary, there are trends within brands. And, as a whole, 67.9 per cent of respondents were impressed with their autopilots for Ease of use, Reliability and Value; 27.8 per cent thought them ‘OK’, and just 4.3 per cent were unhappy, which makes choice pretty even across the brands used.

If numbers had been sufficient for a proper statistical analysis, we would have liked to report on Nexus and NKE, both worth considering.

See also our survey on data communications and email from the same ARC