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Optimising electronic automatic pilots on tiller steered boats

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What is the issue?
The most common tiller pilot on a smaller sailing boat is an electrically operated ram connected between the tiller and the side of the cockpit area. By changing the length of the ram, the autopilot changes the position of the tiller.

Tiller pilot installation typically involves a simple two-step modification. First drill a hole in the cockpit combing and hammer in a brass pedestal socket for the tiller pilot base unit. Alternatively, a cantilever socket can be used to mount against the cockpit side with wide vessels. Finally, you then either drill a hole and hammer in a pin, into the top of the tiller itself or mount a bracket underneath for the pilot arm to gain purchase.

The problem with this set up is that over an extended period of use the pin in the tiller or bracket typically works itself loose. The constant back and forth motion is simply too much for the timber grain to sustain, holes widen causing the pin or screws to rock back and forth and then the rate of wear increases exponentially. This causes the pilot arm to increasingly fall off and finally to become inoperable. Although the cockpit fibreglass is less subject to this wear the pedestal socket will also fail just the same as the tiller pin in time. In use, the setup is less than convenient as the tiller is down and sweeping the cockpit under the instruction of the pilot.

Another problem emerged in conditions when we used the tiller pilot most, when running downwind when the wind steering gear mechanical devices are less reliable, and in this sailing condition we often had a roll. Too many times we were surprised by a roll, overbalanced and where normally we would just drop across to land on the opposite seat of the cockpit we instead fell upon the tiller with all our weight. This weight in turn transferred in a highly leveraged fashion into the controlling tiller pilot ram mechanism. Something that I am sure can only dramatically shorten the working life of our piece of equipment.

Why address this?
There is nothing worse than an unreliable automated steering mechanism in long distance sailing. A device that becomes unreliable is only surpassed in frustration by the one that has completely failed and forces you to 24x7 tiller slavery. On the other-hand tiller pilots are particularly expensive equipment that you do not want to be putting them at risk of replacement very often.

Finally freeing up the cockpit is a very welcome expansion of space in an already overly confined living environment.

How to address this?
Build a separate, dedicated autopilot tiller beneath the main tiller by independently attaching it to the rudder stock. Also, reinforce the stainless steel pedestal socket so that it has a good area to distribute the load and ample solid fastenings.

Optimising an autopilot via a dedicated pilot tiller
Photo: Tony Gibson
As each boat is different you will have to look at your vessels tiller stock to see how best to attach a dedicated tiller to the rudder stock. Most rudder stocks have a tightening bolt and you can arrange a bracketing system to connect the independent autopilot tiller.

Alternatively, you can weld some small fitting brackets or lugs in place, so that it can be bolted to these or indeed permanently welded onto the dedicated autopilot tiller itself. Whichever works best for your specific set-up.

Do remember to reinforce the pedestal socket with a well anchored surrounding plate or it will be this side that works loose.

Once this system is in place the tiller pilot will be completely reliable and give excellent support for long service. Better still the tiller itself may be hoisted back freeing the cockpit from its constant encroaching sweep when operating under the automatic tiller pilot. This entirely removes the risk of you falling upon it and breaking the tiller pilot.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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