When the best driver is a computer

Published on November 2nd, 2020

For Yachting World, Matt Sheahan reports on how modern autopilot systems can be your best helmsman.


There is a school of thought in the IMOCA 60 world that a good autopilot system is worth sacrificing a few sails for in the overall campaign budget – that’s how big the perceived advantage is for some.

It’s hardly surprising. At speeds that are regularly in the high 20s with sustained bursts in excess of 30 knots, there is much to gain from getting it right and a great deal to lose if you don’t.

At these speeds, the rudder not only alters heading but will behave like an airplane’s elevator: every twitch risks changing the fore and aft pitch of the boat. This is already balanced precariously on the giant foil to leeward and the canting keel fin to windward.

So given this, it’s little surprise the human pilot is considered to be the weakest link in maintaining a high speed balancing act. As a result, there continues to be a great deal of effort focused on designing autopilot systems that would do an F18 jet fighter proud.

You might ask yourself what this has to do with grassroots sailing, but the answer is quite bit – thanks in part to this year’s global shutdown.

Unless your crew was drawn from a large family living under the same roof, it’s unlikely you were able to sail fully crewed this spring. And even if you were somehow able to pack the weather rail with crew sitting shoulder to shoulder, who else was out there to race?

So this unprecedented period has at least provided an opportunity to look at the latest autopilot technology and how it could help with both short-handed and fully crewed sailing, either racing or cruising.

Understanding how you can get the best out of your autopilot is more than just simply reading the manual, as I discovered when talking to some of those who depend heavily on their pilots. They all made the point that getting the pilot to work properly so that it can be relied on in challenging conditions takes time. Full report.

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