Saltwater Sportsman - - Front Page -

Now it was dark and foggy, and we could not see be­yond the bowsprit. Forty miles of ocean lay be­tween us the clos­est port.

Thank­fully, we had two vi­tal pieces of elec­tron­ics work­ing in our fa­vor: radar and au­topi­lot. Most an­glers rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of marine radar at night or in fog, but au­topi­lot be­comes in­dis­pens­able when vis­i­bil­ity is oblit­er­ated.

It would have been im­pos­si­ble for any helmsman to main­tain a course un­der such con­di­tions, par­tic­u­larly at the slower speed deemed pru­dent dur­ing lim­ited vis­i­bil­ity. So, I put the boat on a slow cruise and let the au­topi­lot stay the head­ing while I kept an eye on the radar and chart plotter and lis­tened for the sound of other ves­sels, aids to nav­i­ga­tion and break­ing wa­ter. It took longer than usual, but we made it home safely.

Au­topi­lot is a cru­cial com­po­nent for off­shore fishing, and not just be­cause it can steer a pre­set course. Au­topi­lots al­le­vi­ate hu­man fa­tigue on long off­shore runs and in­crease fuel ef­fi­ciency by steer­ing the straight­est course pos­si­ble.

For fishing, ad­vanced mod­els ex­e­cute a va­ri­ety of complex trolling pat­terns.

An au­topi­lot also takes over the steer­ing du­ties while, for ex­am­ple, the cap­tain as­sists the crew with de­ploy­ing trolling lines, though keep­ing a sharp look­out at all times while un­der­way re­mains crit­i­cal.

“Boaters who have not used au­topi­lot don’t think they will use it much,” says Scott Hef­fer­nan of The GPS Store, a North Carolin­abased on­line re­tailer that of­fers a wide range of au­topi­lot sys­tems. “But once a cap­tain gets used to hav­ing an au­topi­lot, he will never want to skip­per a boat with­out it.”

But how do you se­lect the best au­topi­lot for your boat? It starts with ask­ing some key ques­tions, says Hef­fer­nan. The GPS Store web­site in­cludes an on­line help cen­ter, through which store ad­vi­sors guide boaters through the se­lec­tion process. It starts with ask­ing the right ques­tions.


Will this be a do-it-your­self project or will a pro­fes­sional rig­ger be han­dling the in­stal­la­tion? While an au­topi­lot in­stal­la­tion falls within the realm of com­pe­tent Diy­ers, Hef­fer­nan rec­om­mends a qual­i­fied lo­cal in­staller to un­der­take the job.

Au­topi­lot sys­tems have a num­ber of com­po­nents, in­clud­ing a cen­tral pro­cess­ing unit, dis­play, con­troller, drive unit, hy­draulic fit­tings, wiring, head­ing sen­sor and more. The au­topi­lot must also be care­fully tied into the boat’s steer­ing sys­tem, Hef­fer­nan points out. “It’s a com­pli­cated in­stal­la­tion, and a pro­fes­sional in­staller en­sures it gets done right.”


Boat size and type of propul­sion rep­re­sent two key con­sid­er­a­tions, Hef­fer­nan says. Nearly all out­board-pow­ered cen­ter­con­sole fishing boats fea­ture hy­draulic steer­ing. The big­ger the boat and the more out­boards, the more hy­draulic fluid con­tin­ued

re­quired for the steer­ing sys­tem. This in turn de­ter­mines the proper au­topi­lot pump ca­pac­ity.

Sin­gle-out­board boats get away with a sys­tem such as the Lowrance Out­board Pi­lot (about $1,000), which has a pump that han­dles steer­ing-cylin­der dis­place­ments up to 14 cu­bic inches and boats up to 30 feet in length.

Larger cen­ter-con­soles with mul­ti­ple out­boards re­quire higher-ca­pac­ity sys­tems such as the Sim­rad AP-44 VRF (about $3,300), which han­dles boats over 50 feet in length with pump dis­place­ments up to 24 cu­bic inches.


An­other ques­tion to ask: What will you ex­pect of an au­topi­lot? All au­topi­lots will steer a pre­set course, and most will also take you to a way­point when in­ter­faced with a Gps/chart plotter. Most au­topi­lots also have vir­tual rud­der feed­back sys­tems, dis­pens­ing with the quirky old-school me­chan­i­cal rud­der feed­back sys­tems.

More-ad­vanced au­topi­lots of­fer ex­panded fea­tures. Ray­ma­rine’s Evo­lu­tion EV200 au­topi­lot (about $2,900) of­fers the abil­ity to steer the boat in pre­de­ter­mined pat­terns such as wide cir­cles and fig­ure eights. These prove help­ful when you find a pro­duc­tive off­shore zone and want to thor­oughly cover the area while trolling. “Less ex­pen­sive sys­tems might not of­fer these ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” Hef­fer­nan says.

Many an­glers like to slow-troll us­ing live bait or down­rig­gers. If you’re one of them — and you want to use an au­topi­lot at the same time — make sure the sys­tem re­mains en­gaged at dead-slow speeds. Some eco­nom­i­cally priced sys­tems tend to dis­en­gage at low speeds, ren­der­ing them in­ef­fec­tive for slow-trolling, says Hef­fer­nan.

Ad­vanced au­topi­lots such as the Garmin GHP Re­ac­tor 40 au­topi­lot (about $4,100) re­main en­gaged and ac­tive at slow speeds. Thanks to Garmin’s so­phis­ti­cated head­ing sen­sor and In­tel­li­gent Rud­der Rate Tech­nol­ogy, this au­topi­lot keeps the boat on course bet­ter than the best helmsman when slow-trolling.


Next ques­tion: What brand of au­topi­lot is right for you? “We like to steer cus­tomers in the di­rec­tion of the brand of elec­tron­ics that are al­ready on the boat,” Hef­fer­nan says. In other words, if you al­ready have a Fu­runo Navnet Tz­touch dis­play, then go with a Fu­runo au­topi­lot such as the Navpi­lot 711C, he ex­plains. “Net­work­ing the com­po­nents be­comes sim­pler when you match brands,” he says.

With the Lowrance Out­board Pi­lot, you al­most have to match the brand. This au­topi­lot sys­tem does not in­clude a stand-alone dis­play/con­troller. In­stead, it uses a panel on a Lowrance mul­ti­func­tion dis­play such as an HDS Car­bon se­ries to con­trol the au­topi­lot func­tions.


The fi­nal ques­tion: Do I have ev­ery­thing I need to com­plete this in­stal­la­tion?

“The an­swer is usu­ally no,” Hef­fer­nan says. You will al­most al­ways need a fit­ting, ca­ble or elec­tri­cal con­nec­tion to fin­ish up, and that might re­quire a trip to the chan­dlery dur­ing the in­stal­la­tion to pick up a part or two that you did not an­tic­i­pate.

“So don’t plan to fish on Satur­day if you are in­stalling the sys­tem on Fri­day,” he adds. “Give your­self time to get the job done right.”

One of the most crit­i­cal steps is prop­erly bleed­ing the hy­draulic sys­tem af­ter you in­stall the au­topi­lot. In or­der for the pi­lot to op­er­ate ef­fec­tively, it must be com­pletely free of air, Hef­fer­nan points out. “That means you will need to add one or two quarts of hy­draulic fluid to the parts list, if you choose to in­stall the sys­tem your­self.”

BUY­ING DE­CI­SION: To choose the right au­topi­lot sys­tem for your boat, you need to ask your­self the right ques­tions.

By Jim Hen­dricks Once you have an au­topi­lot sys­tem, you will never want to own a boat with­out it.

PAT­TERN MAKER: Ray­ma­rine’s EV200 au­topi­lot in­cor­po­rates a va­ri­ety of pre­set trolling pat­terns.

STAY ON COURSE: Garmin’s GHP Re­ac­tor 40 au­topi­lot re­mains en­gaged at slow-trolling speeds.

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