Brains in the Bilge Page 2

Electronics — February 2004
By Ben Ellison

Brains in the Bilge
Part 2: Perhaps more than any other category, autopilots are, as Raymarine product manager Steve Crane says, “bought on trust.”

 More of this Feature
• Part 1: Autopilots
• Part 2: Autopilots
• Electronics Q&A
• Furuno
• Simrad
• Marelux
• Wesmar

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• Electronics Column Index
• Electronics Feature Index

Normal autopilot operations are also a little different with the TR-1. A feature called Shadow Drive means that once you’ve engaged the pilot with the control, it will go into standby any time you move the wheel and then take over again when you hold the wheel steady. It’s easy as pie, and the fact that you don’t need to regularly reach for a “standby” or “dodge” button is one of the reasons that Nautamatic doesn’t feel obliged to provide a fixed control head. Another is that heading can easily be displayed and controlled on a plotter, though I suspect many salts will be reluctant to part with a normal pilot’s course dial.

Discussing the TR-1’s tracking and turning ability brings me into difficult territory. I can easily mount a chartplotter on my test boat and try it out in ways applicable to most everyone’s boating, but autopilots are complicated to install, and their performance is quite dependent on specific boat and operating conditions. That said, my experience on a TR-1 Gladiator demo boat—a Whitewater 32 with hard-to-turn twin (noncounter-rotating) Yamaha 225s—was impressive. The autopilot seemed able to hold course even during rapid acceleration or deceleration, heedless of every big wake we could find. Power steering using the controller or the new wireless unit (see product writeup) was responsive yet well mannered. On most autopilots you simply set a maximum turn rate—sometimes a couple of settings based on boat speed—but you set the Gladiator based on the G-force felt by its included rate gyro. The results: At slow speeds it will turn very sharply, but not frighteningly so at high speed.

I also made some calls to professionals who’ve been working with Nautamatic. Chris Cass of Tech Service Marine Electronics in Longwood, Florida, described how he stress-tested a Gladiator he’d installed on a 28-foot, triple-outboard Fountain—trimming the bow way down, flipping the tabs from side to side, working the throttles in weird ways—and couldn’t get it to wiggle more than one degree. “I’ve been working with autopilots for 25 years, and Nautamatic has hit a home run,” he says. Eddie Winder of Wintron Electronics, a New Jersey distributor, told me how his dealer clients have successfully installed Nautamatics on everything from a 25- to a 120-footer (working with that vessel’s own steering pumps) and how one sale usually generates several more. “You should call your column `Nautamatic Raises the Bar,’” he says. Both gentlemen emphasize that they continue to sell and very much like other autopilots.

Therein lies Nautamatic’s greatest challenge. For the same reasons that I can’t test autopilots well, boaters are hard-pressed to choose a brand and model. Perhaps more than any other category, autopilots are, as Raymarine product manager Steve Crane says, “bought on trust.” And it seems like there are improved, even new, trusted-brand autopilots appearing every day. Raymarine just replaced its midsize pilot with a scaled-down version of the successful SmartPilot—“like going from an old PC to a Pentium 4,” says Crane—at a lower price and with newly available display and joystick options. According to Furuno product manager Eric Kunz, his company’s new NavPilot is “the most exciting product we’ve introduced since NavNet.” NavMan, too, has just entered the autopilot category, with what looks like a smartly designed 3100 system. And Simrad, heir to the famously trusted Robertson brand, also has a new pilot series.

All these manufacturers are using more powerful, better-programmed processors along with included (or highly recommended) rate gyros to make their autopilots work substantially better while requiring much less user-tweaking. And, by the way, an autopilot—particularly one that works well and keeps on working—is one of the handiest tools a skipper can have. I’ve been on a fast-planing demo boat under the control of a Raymarine SmartPilot when the operator shoved one engine in neutral, and it didn’t twitch. I’ve also visited the Simrad factory in the Norwegian fishing town of Egersund, where a half-century’s dedication to quality was so evident that my dear, but deeply nontechnical, wife noticed it. And so I conclude with what’s perhaps becoming a cliché in this column, but it’s a happy one: If you’re shopping for an autopilot, you have many good and interesting choices before you.

Nautamatic Marine Systems Phone: (800) 588-7655.

Next page > Electronics Q&A > Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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