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Using Wheel Pilots

Can I use a Simrad or Autohelm wheel pilot on a 46-foot boat with hydraulic steering for daysailing in lieu of the main hydraulic autopilot? The displacement is approximately 35,000 pounds.

Mark Matthews responds:
I think you'll find that you'll end up testing the limits of these units if you opt to use a wheel pilot on a boat set up for a hydraulic autopilot. For example, Simrad recommends the Wheelpilot WP10 for boats around 35 feet or with 16,490 pounds of displacement. The Simrad Wheel Autopilot 5000 allows for a maximum boat length of 40 feet and a 17,000-pound displacement. Wheel pilots are often asked to steer boats that are larger than those they were designed for, which isn't good for their longevity.

Price is one thing when it comes to autopilots, but my experience has shown that there's more to it than that. These units are good in moderate wind conditions, coastal passages of short duration, and for motoring. They are not designed for heavy offshore use. Autohelm does make a number of below-deck models that would be better suited for your vessel. And while the price is greater, if you've ever had an autopilot pack up on you, you know it's not a pleasant experience. In fact, it's one that you want to avoid if at all possible.

Little is worse than hand-steering for days on end in a flat calm or being tossed about by the wheel in rough conditions. Below-deck systems are used primarily for heavy displacement cruising vessels and offshore work, and they will allow you to be spared both of those fates. The drive can be either a linear, hydraulic, or rotary, which is connected directly to either the rudderstock or the steering quadrant. They generally have longer lifespans than models that live in the harsh conditions of the cockpit.

You should also check out our Autopilot Buying Guide, and the autopilot section of SailNet's on line Store for more information. Good luck to you.

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