May 12, 2010

I Never Really Wanted An Autopilot


I never really wanted an autopilot.

But my boat's previous owner had installed one and all the smart people told me this was something I shouldn't be without.

With an autopilot, I could leave the helm, power straight into the wind, and be free to get the sail up without worrying about the boat wandering all over the marina.

On a long sail, I would love the freedom an autopilot affords, allowing me to go below to make a sandwich or to consult the chart, or, well,  to do whatever else I might need to do below.

An autopilot makes single-handing a piece of cake.

Or so all the smart people told me.

And, as it happens, those smart people were right.

Up to a point.

That point happened one day when the screen on the autopilot suddenly went blank and started making a loud beeping noise. At that point, I no longer had an autopilot, but an expensive device that made a loud beeping noise.

Had this been some electronic gizmo on my car or in my house, I would have called the autopilot repair guy and paid him to fix it. It would have been done in a week or so and that would have been that.

But what is it about boats that makes us attempt repairs that we know nothing about? Why are we so drawn to challenge the unknown? Is it the sailor in us? I really don't know.

It could be the Rule of Twelves:

Having someone else fix anything on a boat will always cost twelve times more than seems reasonable.

A corollary to the Rule of Twelves is that if you fix it yourself it will take twelve times longer than if the job is done by someone who knows what they are doing.

Yesterday, I successfully completed the installation of my newly repaired autopilot and had it running as good as new - only a year and a half after it broke.

Newly reinstalled autopilot, running as good as new.

Fixing anything on a boat takes forever because there is a lot of contemplation involved. You're constantly confronted by problems for which there are no apparent solutions. You stare at the inexplicable, contemplating how you will ever fix it.

Things are securely bolted into places where it is impossible to get a wrench. Or, if a wrench can be worked in, there is no place for the hand that would turn that wrench. You begin to believe that boats have been built by 'immaculate construction' - no wrenches or hands were ever involved at all. The boat miraculously just came into being.

And there's also the problem that many of the things on a 25-year-old boat were not installed by The Creator. Half of them were jury rigged in some ingenius manner by people who had no idea what they were doing - people like me. You know that if you manage to get one of those parts out, it will never ever go back in the way it was.

Such was the case with my autopilot. After ripping it out and sending it off to the manufacturer to be rebuilt, I've spent most of the past year and a half trying to envision how I would ever get it back into the space where it had been. I'm sure it was just such a problem of time, space, and dimension that led Einstein to happen upon his theory of general relativity.

But Einstein didn't have to cram himself into a locker the size of a kitchen sink to do his creative thinking.

If I went into all of the details of how I finally re-installed my autopilot, this post would be longer than, well, than my last post. And no one bothered to read that.

Suffice it to say, the process involved:

- completely dismantling the 'other' half of the autopilot to make sure it wasn't the broken part

- watching the other half of the autopilot explode into 86 tiny nylon gears rolling all over my dining room floor

- spending three hours figuring out how 86 tiny nylon gears would ever go back into the other half of the autopilot (Hint: like a Rubix Cube, there is only one correct solution)

Other half of autopilot, containing 86 tiny nylon gears that only go back in one way

- having a plastics shop fabricate a custom mounting plate that I had to design myself

- three fruitless trips to three different hardware stores in search of brass rod threaded with an unknowable English thread

- listening to three different hardware store guys laugh uncontrollably at the sight of my unknowable English thread

- two trips to Home Depot in search of some small bracket thingie or something that I could work into the shape of a small bracket thingie

- a trip to West Marine to get the stainless bolts, washers, and nuts to complete the small bracket thingie

- another trip to West Marine to get the stainless thing I forgot about on the first trip

- fabricating the wooden cross brace that attaches to the bracket thingie that pulls the autopilot against the plastic mounting plate I had to design myself that stabilizes everything while the 3M adhesive sets up (any boat project undertaken by someone who doesn't know what they are doing will eventually involve some sort of 3M adhesive)

- drinking lots of beer while contemplating how the next step of the installation would somehow come to pass.

Anyone who doesn't have a boat and who happens to read this will think I am completely nuts.

Anyone who does have a boat and who happens to read this will understand exactly what I am talking about, but will still think I am completely nuts.

But I don't care. My autopilot is back in the boat and working again.

And I have learned why I never really wanted an autopilot.



  1. You might like this instructional video on the proper way to set up an autopilot.

  2. I own a boat. It has an auto pilot. I don't trust it. Therefore, I rarely use it except to freeze the wheel. I'm afraid I'll discover it doesn't work. If that happens, I'll be cast, kicking and screaming, into your Rule of Twelves. (I was well-advised to read this piece thoroughly, from beginning to end.)

  3. If I ever decide to troubleshoot my auto pilot, I'm calling Aidan first!

  4. Aidan, thanks for the video.

    Do you see that the lawnmower autopilot is working flawlessly? That is because it relies on absolutely no electronic parts or devices.

    I have a lawnmower that cost exactly $135 15 years ago. I have invested about 20 minutes of maintenance time in it in those 15 years and it still runs perfectly. It is far more reliable than anything on my boat.

    If Lawnboy ever made a boat engine, I would get one in a minute.

    Doc, you're right. I've found my autopilot has been most reliable when it is turned off.

  5. I read every word, thinking that I've thought every one of those thoughts you eventually wrote, in that exact order. Amazing.

    What kills me is that you're crammed into the locker, seemingly with every tool and piece of instrument you need, until you realize you have to crawl back out of the locker, climb back down the ladder, get in the car and drive back to Ace hardware for that one item that you made a mental note to absolutely not forget to get a half hour ago when you were there last.

  6. I've got a weedwhacker just like your lawnmower, O'Docker!

  7. Baydog, you must be younger than I am.

    I can never remember where I left my mental notes.

  8. I once tried to do some maintenance on my lawnmower even though it was running perfectly. I damaged it so badly that I had to take it to a professional repair shop who took about 24 times as long to complete the repair than I expected and charged me about 72 times as much as I had hoped it would cost.

  9. And have you noticed that both 24 and 72 are multiples of 12?

  10. And have you ever noticed that all multiples of 12 are abundant numbers?

    As you know, I'm sure, an abundant number is a number n for which σ(n) > 2n, where σ(n) is the sum-of-divisors function: the sum of all positive divisors of n, including n itself.

  11. Aidan, when I was your age, the only abundant number I knew about was the number of times a day I had to go potty.

  12. I'm so confused. I need to go potty. uh oh.........

  13. uɐɯɹǝllıʇ, you have every right to be pǝsnɟuoɔ.

    Your grandson will probably tell you that an abundant number which is not a semiperfect number is called a weird number.

    You can't make up stuff like that.

  14. But are there any odd weird numbers? If not, would that be odd? Or weird?

  15. I'm thinking about getting an autopilot. Or a calculator. Or a drink, because now it's past 5.

  16. God is my autopilot. Since I'm agnostic, I don't trust it and would never attempt to fix it.