Yacht Autopilot Explained: 13 Helpful Tips (For Beginners)

Some yachts are equipped with autopilot devices, and others are not.

Autopilot (or autohelm) is a self-steering device used on ships or boats to maintain a specific course without constant action from a human.

Here’s an Idea of How Autopilot on Yachts Work:

Not every yacht has autopilot. Bigger yacht types are more likely to have autopilot, and there are different levels of automation. Some autopilot systems will only keep the course you set, while others will control both the course of the ship and the speed of the motor as well.

What is Autopilot Mode On A Yacht?

Autopilot can be either electronic or mechanical devices that allow a ship to maintain course on its own.

An electronic autopilot uses magnetic compasses, wind directions, or GPS systems to determine where to go. 

A mechanical autopilot device is often used to keep a sailboat on a given course towards the wind that frees the helmsman from constantly steering.

What Types of Yachts Are Equipped With Autopilot?

Typically, “day-boats” or yachts that are meant for daily use, will not have autopilot.

These vessels are generally used in the short term, and the autopilot equipment is unnecessary.

However, autopilot is becoming more and more common on boats that are 20 feet or longer.

If your boat is not equipped with autopilot, you can install this feature after the fact.

The 3 Types of Autopilot:

1. Tiller Pilot:

The most simple type of autopilot is called a tiller pilot.

This attaches to a sailboat’s tiller and plugs into 12 volts supplied by the boat’s battery. It steers the boat to a magnetic compass heading.

These are inexpensive, simple to install, and work reliably.

2. Sailboat Wheel Autopilot:

Sailboats with a wheel require a different steering device.

The most common one for smaller sailboats is a belt that drives a pulley attached to the wheel.

This drive is controlled by an electronic amplifier that can use compass heading, GPS waypoint, or wind to steer the boat.

3. Electromechanic or Hydraulic Autopilot:

Larger sailboats use an electromechanical or hydraulic ram that connects directly to the rudder post.

The electronic amplifier can also control these with compass heading, GPS waypoint, or wind direction to steer the boat.

A separate actuator of this type is a good back-up steering device if the wheel steering mechanism fails.

Why Should I Use Autopilot?

When sailing, the autopilot can save you from constantly monitoring the vessel, but you can also save time and fuel while on your voyage.

Most autopilot systems can hold a straighter course than a man could, allowing you to stay on course easier.

There are also benefits from autopilot regarding fuel efficiency and convenience. When you travel over long distances, you might need to take your hands off the wheel.

It’s very convenient for a big rig to have autopilot to help you stay the course.

Can an Autopilot Put my Boat in Danger?

Boats are regularly lost when they sail under autopilot, getting caught on a reef, or fall into other dangers.

If you are not watching out, you can endanger your own boat, passengers, and other boats on the water. Only engage an autopilot when someone is on watch and looking out for dangers.

While autopilot is a diligent helmsman, it does not make decisions for the safety of your boat.

That will always be the captain’s job!

How To Sail A Yacht:

If you have decided to take up sailing, there are some things that you will need to know:

1. Know the Terms

Any sailor on a boat will need to know the terms that are used while sailing.

This will help to communicate with other sailors and will help you when it comes time to sail.

One of the most important sets of terms to know are the parts of a boat:

  • Starboard: the right side of the boat while you are looking towards its front.
  • Port: the left side of the boat while you are looking towards its front.
  • Bow: the front of the boat.
  • Stern: the back of the boat.
  • Hull: the body of the boat.
  • Mast: the vertical pole that supports the sails.
  • Boom: the shorter horizontal pole that is attached to the sail.
  • Lines: the ropes that control the sails.

If you choose to learn more about the terminology, the sails and their parts are broken down into even more specific terms.

2. Find The Wind Before Turning On The Autopilot

When operating a yacht with sails, you will be dependent on the wind. You need to learn to “find the wind.”

One of the most major things that sailors need to know is how to find the wind. The wind determines what type of sailing day you are likely to have and can make a big difference.

Most basic sailing classes will go over the basics of reading the wind and working with the wind.

When referencing the wind, sailors look at it in two different ways: what direction the wind is actually going and how this direction pertains to them. Both of these distinctions are important.

Oftentimes, we use clues to indicate wind direction. These clues can include flags or tails tied to their rigging.

When you have decided from what direction the wind is coming from, you can then decide the “windward” side of the boat.

The “windward” side is the side that is closest to the wind. The other side is known as the “leeward” side.

3. Learn to Hoist Your Sails

Practicing hoisting your sail is important and should be attempted for the first time while moored or with a light wind.

One of the most important things when it comes to hoisting your sails is to make sure that your sail and it’s lines are all the way to the top with no twists, turns, or wraps.

If the sail is not properly straight, it can cause expensive damage.

Make sure everything is set up the right way before turning on the autopilot system.

4. Learn Your Points of Sail

Every time you change course, your point of sail changes.

A point of sail is an all-encompassing term for the direction your boat faces concerning the wind.

Knowing your sail points can help you be successful in steering your vessel and knowing how the wind will affect your vessel in different wind conditions.

Sail trim must be correct for the point of sail you choose:

See the source image

5. Learn to Control Your Speed

When sailing, you will need to know how to control your speed.

Without a traditional motor, your speed will rely on how you handle your sails concerning the wind.

With a motor installed on the yacht, it’s much easier to control this, especially with an autopilot system.

To slow your speed, you will want to ease the sheets out and let the sails luff. Keep in mind that while you are slowing down, a heavier boat will take longer to stop due to the momentum they gain from their weight.

The quickest way to lose speed is to turn to direct into the wind.

6. Learn the Navigation Rules

Like any water vessel, you will need to learn the navigation rules before you set sail.

These rules can differ for sailboats than for power vessels.

Usually, sailboats are given the right of way when faced with powerboats or other vessels. However, you will still want to ensure you make the safest decision for each encounter you come across while dealing with any other type of vessel.

Here’s a guide we’ve made on how to use the horn on a boat and here’s another guide we did on how you pass by other boats (the right way!)

7. Learn to Use Your Autopilot Device

Whether you are using a mechanical or electronic autopilot system, the process should be pretty easy.

Basic electronic autopilot systems detect the current heading of the boat and compare it with the heading that has been sent by the operator of the vessel.

If the device finds that the boat has strayed off course, it will instruct the mechanical system to correct the course. Autopilots may also interface with the GPS and steer toward a waypoint.

Wind direction can be used as an input to the autopilot to keep the boat sailing at a constant angle to the wind. This reduces the need to adjust sails and keeps the boat sailing efficiently.

Electronic autopilot systems can range in sophistication. Some are simply a device that attaches to and operates a tiller, or some can be hydraulic pumps that operate rams that control the rudder.

These devices are easy to use for the operator, and you often put the boat on the heading you want and hit a button.

This will keep the boat on that particular heading.

Some are more complicated and can be set to steer to the wind or even have the option to connect to chart plotters to make the boat steer a certain course.

You can also have a mechanical autopilot system. These are on the boat’s stern that attaches to a wind operated vane that works with the rudder and informs it when to turn.

A mechanical autopilot system is ideal for long passages that don’t have a lot of wind change.

8. Make Sure to Always Keep An Eye Out

While sailing, even with an autopilot system, you should always keep an eye out.

Autopilot systems cannot anticipate other vessels and properly avoid them or give them the proper space they need.

Sailing, or boating in general, requires supervision and attention.

You need to make sure that you give other vessels the proper space and make sure you can sail safely.

9. Ensure Your Boat Is In Proper Working Order

One good rule that should be followed by all boat owners is to make sure your boat is in proper working order.

If you do not properly take care of or manage your equipment, you can be caught in a compromising position.

Ensure you check your lines, mast, sails, hull, backup engine, or any other necessary sailing equipment.

Even the smallest issue can worsen with time and use, and you will want to make sure you do not allow that to happen.

If everything is working, there is less of a chance that you will be stuck out on the open water.

10. Take a Class

One of the best things you can do to become an efficient and confident sailor is to take a sailing class.

Even if you aspire to sail a large cruising boat, the basics are best learned in small boats. Small boats give the student the feel of sailing in a boat that quickly responds to steering and sail trim.

A basic sailing class will teach you the proper terms, the theory and practice behind sailing, the navigation rules, the necessary safety equipment and procedures, overboard drills, the necessary knots, and will allow you to practice sailing.

Other advanced classes are also offered if you want to learn even more about the hobby.

Sailing can be an addictive hobby that will leave you wanting to know as much as you can.

Just make sure that you know the necessary and confidence to handle sailing before you set out on the open water.

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