When a leg of a bluewater journey takes hours, an electronic autopilot gives the helmsman a well-needed break from turning the wheel. The unit will steer a course that you tell it to, and even sequence with your GPS to navigate to a waypoint, correcting the vessel’s heading to allow for wind drift or currents. In the past, these systems have been on the pricey side for coastal fishing boats, but that’s changing. The question is, could you find a need for such a tool on your day-fishing trips out of your home waters? The answer is certainly.
A common use for autopilot on a day boat is to free up the helmsman when either fishing alone or short-handed. How many times have you found yourself wishing you had one more person on board to help when it came time to leader or gaff a fish? Imagine yourself (and I know many of you have been here) alone at the final stage of a battle with a big fish that just won’t behave. He may be digging in, trying to go under your motors or circling repeatedly, taking you for a stroll around the deck. If you had someone to keep the boat moving ahead slowly, you could ease the fish alongside and get it under control. That scenario is fairly common when fishing single-handed. If it’s you and one friend, one would be the angler while the other would be driving and gaffing; at the point of no return the driver would leave the wheel and rush to the angler’s aid. This scenario is more manageable, but still would be much simpler with the autopilot doing the driving. This is especially true if you are fishing with multiple lines that need to be managed while you fight the fish, or in the case of multiple hookups.
Another time when autopilot lends a hand is when you need to leave the wheel to tend or re-rig baits, adjust lines or even clear a piece of weed from the baits. These tasks may take only a minute, but require you to leave the wheel long enough to allow the boat to go off on a search and destroy mission. With the push of a button, you could let the autopilot take over.
Is an autopilot worth the cost? You’ll have to decide for yourself, but surprisingly, the systems really aren’t a ton of dough compared to other equipment we commonly use. The good news is, if you only want an autopilot for the jobs listed above, you don’t need a top dollar unit with all of the bells and whistles. Sure, you can spend upwards of $3,000 for a really tricked-out unit, but if all you want is for someone to “take the wheel for a minute” you don’t need to spend much over $1,000. Think of the investment—like hiring an extra hand to help out that doesn’t talk back. This price point brings autopilots within reach of the small-boat budget. Here’s a look at a few of your options available. I’m sure there are others, and while they may not help clean fish or wash the boat, they are extremely useful once you’ve tried one.
The most affordable unit I could locate was available from ComNav (www.comnav.com). The ComNav 1420 is a very simple, compact device with a clip-mounted control head that can be used off the console as a handheld unit. The 1420 includes many of the features of a more pricey unit, including easy course changes from one degree to major changes with the push of a button on the remote. The most impressive thing is the $989 price tag.
Simrad Robertson (www.simrad .com) more commonly known for high end autopilot units, offers an affordable bracket-mounted, hand-held model. The Simrad AP12 is aimed at the small-boat market and features an NMEA interface to your GPS, facilitating navigation to waypoints. This unit starts at only $1,019.
Si-Tex (www.si-tex.com) reaches out to the 20- to 35-foot boat market with the SP-70 autopilot. The SP-70 is a waterproof unit that also features an LCD display to show you course, rudder angle and operating mode. A handheld remote is available as an option. It, too, features more of the functions found on pricier models and is available at $1,079 for the basic unit.
New to the autopilot market, Navman (www.navman.com) steps into the ring with the G-Pilot 3100 series. This unit more closely resembles traditional upper end equipment. The G-Pilot 3100 features a “rate” gyro-compass as standard equipment (usually an add-on) for superior course-holding in a wide variety of sea conditions. Additionally, all sensors are factory wired with waterproof connectors. Considering all of the features included, this unit still seems inexpensive at a base price of $1,449.
All of the above units are listed at base price and also require additional hardware and installation costs. The difficulty of installing an autopilot stems from the process of adding the compass/rudder reference component to your steering mechanism, as well as calibrating. This is usually best left to the professionals unless you are extremely mechanical and willing to tackle a highly challenging and sometimes frustrating project. It’s been my experience that it is work better left to the folks who do it every day, and worth the extra investment. Expect to pay around $90 per hour for installation; the job will vary depending on what type of boat you have.
Raymarine (www.raymarine.com) introduced at this year’s Fort Lauderdale boat show the new Smart Pilot S1000 autopilot. Designed exclusively for the small boater (up to 25 feet) the Smart Pilot is unique in the sense that it comes complete in a single box, ready to install. Minimal wiring and the absence of a compass or rudder reference unit make it far easier for the do-it-yourself type to install. This unit has some sexy features, such as a wireless remote controller unit with a belt clip attachment that works up to 10 meters from the base unit. Another feature I found interesting is pre-programmed “dedicated fishing patterns” such as a clover-leaf, zig-zag and orbit point or circle pattern which could all be useful for trolling. It is also NMEA compatible for use in conjunction with your GPS.
Although the S1000 is designed to work with all SeaStar hydraulic steering units out of the box, it can be retrofit to work with other hydraulic steering systems. At $1,300 MSRP completely ready to go, the SmartPilot is definitely worth a closer look.
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