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Old 02-14-2001
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Installing an Autopilot

We want to install a below-deck autopilot, e.g., Raytheon ST6000 or ST7000, on our 1994 Catalina/Morgan 38. Can a reasonably skilled owner, mechanically and electrically, complete this installation himself, or would it be best left to a professional?

Mark Matthews responds:

Most electronics can be successfully installed by the owner, provided you have a reasonable set of skills and an ample supply of patience. As you'll probably know, autopilots are pretty pricey and there's no quicker way to fry their brains than to hook the wires up wrong. So if you have any doubts about what you're doing, you may want some outside consulting.

If you feel up to the task, there are a couple of things you can do to make the installation go smoothly. First, draw out a schematic mapping the wiring and have a clear idea of how the unit will be mounted. Needless to say robust mounting for the drive part of the unit will be mandatory. But if you follow the manufacturer's directions—what even the most experienced autopilot installer would be doing in the first place—you should be all right.

Most electronic manufacturers expect the owner to install such equipment themselves, evident by the fact that these units usually don't require technical adjustments. Make sure the wire size is adequate, that you have a fuse on the power supply side, and that no runs of wire can chafe against anything that you may be tempted to store in the recesses of your vessel. Ensure that your electrical connections use the right fittings and are double crimped as well as encased in shrink wrap to guard against water intrusion.

Know too that no matter what kind of claim the manufacturer makes about the unit being waterproof, it's always better to treat it as if it wasn't! If you'd like to take a look at some of the articles about autopilots that we've published here at SailNet, simply conduct a site search for the topic "autopilots." Tom Wood wrote a particularly comprehensive piece entitled Autopilot Overview. And, if you expect to be tinkering with boats in the future, consider Nigel Calder's classic Boatowners Mechanical and Technical Manual.

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