That sinking feeling you get when you know something is probably wrong but don’t want to admit it yet hit me as I peered into the stern compartment at the autopilot shelf. We were at anchor in Friday Harbor, and I was doing a routine inspection of our new autopilot system now that we had put it through some rigorous testing.
Sometimes with boats there’s a temptation to stick your head in the sand and ignore possible problems, or not proactively inspect things because you’re afraid of finding a problem. Ignorance is bliss as they say. But this is something I always try to avoid. Ignoring a problem doesn’t make it go away, and with boats it usually will come back to bite you.
On this inspection of our fiberglassed plywood autopilot shelf I saw a small chip or crack in the top layer of ply, which hadn’t been there before. There was no indication the shelf had moved, but it certainly warranted further inspection. For a few hours I agonized over what it would mean if the shelf were failing. I had put a ton of work into researching and installing the autopilot system the best way I knew how, and yet somehow all that due diligence still wasn’t good enough. If this were a real issue it’d mean I’d failed at one of the most important parts of the project.
I knew if I had to rip the shelf out and rebuild it, it’d be undoing the work already done and doing double that to grind it out and build a new, stronger one. But it’s the right thing to do. The autopilot drive puts up to 650 pounds of thrust on this attachment point, and we want to make sure it’s something we can have complete confidence in.
[This is part 3 in a three part series. You can read more about the autopilot install in part 1 and part 2.]
In part 1 I wrote about some of the planning and decision making process that went into researching an autopilot system for our boat. In this part we’ll get into the technical details of installing a tiller arm and autopilot drive shelf.
The most difficult part of the job, and one that is custom to every boat, was figuring out how to attach a below-decks autopilot drive to the rudder post. Our boat, a C&C Landfall 38, has a pinched stern and very limited space around the Edson radial drive. The autopilot drive is a surprisingly large piece of equipment – about 3 feet long at full extension, and the motor housing is about 8” tall by 9” long.
The attachment of the end of the ram to the steering system is very important because the drive can exert strong forces on the system (650 lbs of peak thrust with the Type 1 unit). The proper way to attach to the rudder shaft is a tiller arm – typically about a 10” long piece of cast bronze that is clamped around the rudder shaft, above or below the radial drive or quadrant. Edson and PYI’s Jefa manufacture them, as well as Buck-Algonquin.
The only problem was our Edson radial drive was already using up nearly all the vertical space available on our rudder stock – of about 4.5”, it uses up 3.75” (the concave disc model). Standard tiller arms are a minimum of 1.75” in height, too large to fit in 1.25” of space.
I looked at all the available tiller arms, measuring and re-measuring, but none of them would fit. Next I considered more drastic options like whether I could move the radial drive up or down to make more space (I couldn’t), and options like flipping the radial drive or buying a new one with a slimmer profile. I talked to people at both Edson and Jefa and both were very helpful, but ultimately this was a very difficult problem – the C&C Landfall 38 simply was designed with a very confined rudder shaft space.
A slimmer Edson radial drive or a Jefa drive with integrated tiller arm might have worked, but would add a substantial amount of work to the project. A radial drive swap isn’t trivial, and each option also would’ve changed the height of the steering cable track, which would require re-engineering the idler shivs to be at an appropriate angle / height (otherwise the steering cable will chafe).
The decision to add a below-decks autopilot to our boat wasn’t an easy one. For one, it’s expensive, and also a very difficult, time-consuming install. Furthermore, we already have a wheel-mounted autopilot. Why on earth do we need a different one? Then there’s the eternal debate between windvanes vs electric autopilots.
The answer to why we needed a below-decks autopilot is an easy one – our Raymarine ST4000+ wheel pilot simply can’t handle our boat in strong wave conditions, running with a following sea. And that’s the main job we need an autopilot for. The wheel pilot is rated for vessels up to 16,500 lbs, and ours is 17,000 lbs when empty. Loaded with cruising gear it’s likely 19,000-20,000 lbs.
The new autopilot system – Raymarine EV-200
Probably the biggest thing motivating a below-decks autopilot is the memory of our Hecate Strait crossing last June in a gale. I hand steered for almost 18 hours in big, breaking, following seas because the wheel autopilot couldn’t handle it. But there have been plenty of other times where it would’ve been nice to have an autopilot I could have confidence in.
Hecate wave state before it got hard. These were the “easy” waves.
It never ceases to amaze how a boat is a Pandora’s box of unending projects. As soon as you start working on your list, five new issues pop up to make the list longer and replace the ones you finished. A boat is like a perpetual work machine – you’ll never run out of things to do!
In many ways I like this, because it delivers a great feeling of satisfaction to be getting things done and improving our home. At times it’s frustrating though, like when everything seems to be breaking at once (our canvas is getting holes, our hot water heater sprung a leak, our hygrometer broke, and our electric space heater is getting rusted / flakey).
As mentioned in the last post, March is project month. We got back to our boat on the hard in Everett on February 27, and were elated to discover nothing terrible had happened in the 5 months we left her. No rodents or bugs had moved in and we didn’t have a boat full of mold!
Surprisingly few large boats are winterized on the hard in the Pacific Northwest, as is standard practice in other areas where the water freezes (New England, the Great Lakes). We have the luxury of not having to; the relatively steady ~50 F water temperature prevents engines from freezing or harbors icing over. And we have the option of year-round sailing – although much of the winter is pretty rainy and dark, we always have some stretches of sunny, 45-55F weather (positively balmy!).
Yet there are some advantages to storing your boat on land (“on the hard”) – less bottom paint wear, no dock line chafe, etc. So this year we went this route, given we’re traveling for the winter and won’t be able to use our boat. Debating the pros/cons of storing in the water vs on the hard, it was hard to find much information specific to the PNW.
Even though many boats never leave the dock in the winter, their owners still choose to leave them in the water, paying significantly higher moorage costs. This is perplexing, but I guess it boils down to convenience – it takes a bit of work to winterize a boat, and there isn’t a huge surplus of winter storage yards in the Seattle area.
Perhaps another deterrent is that most storage yards have a couple neglected, derelict boats that have been there for years. In some cases, yards are where boats go to die – and this can be very hard to see (not to mention the concerns over their boat catching on fire next to yours). Leaving our boat is a scary thing because not only have we put thousands of hours of work into it, it’s our home now too.
At the end of September we spent several days working to prepare our boat for storage on the hard. There are many articles on winterization (Sailrite, West Marine, Discover Boating), but I’ll cover some things we learned that weren’t mentioned elsewhere, and the checklists we used so we wouldn’t forget things.
A year ago we wrote about our experiences with KiwiGrip non-skid paint and how we were pretty unhappy with it because the sharp ridges trap dirt very tenaciously, making the paint appear permanently dirty, even after cleaning.
For our next non-skid experiment, we had a few ideas of other kinds to try. Finally a year later, we took advantage of some sunny days in March and tried out Interlux Brightside + Interlux non-skid additive (called Intergrip).
Happily, this non-skid looks much better than KiwiGrip and isn’t really even harder to apply. It seems we’ve found the right non-skid for our personal preferences. Of course, we still need to wait a few years to see if it’ll hold up to the test of time / use. But all the reviews indicate it will (we steered clear of Interlux Interdeck, a premixed kind of non-skid, due to reviews saying it doesn’t hold up as long).
This post is a bit more technical and more for other sailors interested in propellers. Hopefully it may come in handy someday for those with AutoProps, because there isn’t a whole lot of community info on them that I could find.
We have an AutoProp propeller on our boat. It’s like a MaxProp, which is also a feathering propeller, except that the AutoProp is also dynamically pitching – instead of a fixed, preset pitch, it changes its pitch to match operating conditions.
It’s really a very clever piece of engineering – dynamic pitch means that in theory it’s always at the optimal pitch for our speed and engine power. This mainly applies when motor-sailing (which is pretty common in the Northwest) – our sails can contribute some speed while the AutoProp contributes some as well, but allows our engine to work less hard – meaning lower engine RPMs, saving on fuel but getting the same power as a higher RPM.