Monday, February 10, 2014

Autopilots - From the wheel to below deck

While motoring Ronin from our house to the marina for annual maintenance in the Spring of 2007, around 3 nm into a trip of 30 nm I noticed that the original Raymarine ST4000+ wheel autopilot that had provided yeoman service for 9 nine years had quit. It wasn’t the first time and it had been repaired once before. I’ve had a lot of experience hand-steering boats off-shore and coastal cruising so it wasn’t anything more than an irritant in this instance. No wind so it was just a matter of getting comfortable and keeping one foot on the wheel. I was fine without it that day.

I really, really like autopilots. I always tell folks new to sailing that one of the first things they should get for their boat is an autopilot. Makes single-handing easy, keeps the wife happy and it doesn’t yell back or drink your beer. Although the wheel mounted autopilot was fine for the Chesapeake Bay, I knew that an under-deck unit was called for given the loading parameters for our boat and there was a fairly high probability that Ronin would be going off-shore in the future. In this case, bigger was better.

We sprung for a new Raymarine ST5000+ system with a S1G Corepack and Type 1 Linear drive. At the same time we purchased an Edson machined tiller arm.

On Ronin, the only access to the steering quadrant and anything under the cockpit is down through the starboard locker and squeezing aft. And I mean squeezing in the full sense of the word. It’s fortunate that I am still relatively thin for someone my age. And reasonably limber (thanks yoga…) because if not, I would have to hire youngsters to crawl aft to work on things.

Because the mounting position that made the most sense for access and effort the new linear motor and drive arm would block what little crawl space I had to find a work-around. After thinking about it for some time I decided that rather than do a standard installation using a base mount glassed to the hull I would create the same thing except that I would make the unit’s base a bolt-on affair. This would leave the most vertical access possible.

After doing extensive measuring and re-measuring to ensure that the motor was mounted according to the specifications I purchased flat sheet and angle FRP stock from McMaster-Carr and got started fabricating the whole structure.

Measuring tool to ensure that the correct angle was not exceeded when mounting the unit.

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Start of the drive motor mounting platform.

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Starting to fit the pieces together. Despite extensive measuring I still got it off. Frustrating.

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More checking to make sure that the mount was in (mostly) the right place.

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The final installation with paint, bolts and wired up.

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Although it works, it bothers me that it isn’t quite right. I have plans to cut the low, hull mounted frames out and do them over again. But that has to wait until other projects are completed. I have tested removing the drive and mount and I can still fit and get aft.

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