Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of all sea-going sailing yachts now have an autopilot. Raytheon, which manufactures the AUTOHELM range, has the biggest share of the combined world market. The company is responsible for a considerable proportion of the development work done on yacht autopilots and is the market leader in cockpit autopilots. It shares the inboard autopilots sector with the Norwegian producer ROBERTSON, which concentrates on fitting out merchant ships and is the market leader for very large yachts, and the British company BROOKES & GATEHOUSE.
It took 20 years for simple push rod autopilots to evolve into the computer controlled, network-integrated navigation modules produced today, a striking measure of how much things have changed on board in less than a generation. A powerful reminder, as well, of how even our most advanced technology still bows down before principles of physics. Somehow, as many sailors have come to understand, these principles seem to have sharper claws out at sea.
Engineering defects in an autopilot almost always mean manual steering, an exhausting prospect far from land. A quick look at the list in the Las Palmas ARC office of competitors requesting autopilot servicing before the start of the race every November confirms how often systems break down. The manufacturers' engineers who always fly out from England for the event labour tirelessly and never find themselves short of work. Many of the boats carry a back up system as well, just in case.
Compared to the rapid pace of development in autopilots the progress of windvane steering has been snail-like. Most of the systems on the market today have remained virtually unchanged from the day they were introduced. Once possible explanation for this is the fact that most of the manufacturers are too small to be able to finance new projects, particularly since research and development now involves such high costs. On the other hand though there is almost certainly an element of inertia, there is also a reluctance to change a product which still sells. Finally, some manufacturers simply do not engage in design innovation, preferring instead to find their inspiration in the products of those who do push back the boundaries in this sector of the market. Given that the customer is generally quite critical and demanding, such copycat manufacturers tend, as history has shown, to find the market rather tough.
If the belief persists amongst some in the sailing world that an ARIES is simply the ideal servo-pendulum gear, this may well be because most sailors simply have no knowledge of the different systems available and therefore have no way of making proper product comparisons. All the major servo-pendulum gear manufacturers who use a bevel gear linkage now in fact employ identical kinematic transmission ratios. Their products do though differ considerably in terms of execution, method of manufacture and styling.
The rapid spread of the electric competition put some mechanical windvane gear manufacturers into reflective mood, even if the glossy brochures promising autopilot steering for large and heavy boats for less than 1 amp at least irritated a good number of sailors. The sometimes heated debate over the advantages and disadvantages of the two systems continued for many years. Now sailors have a very much clearer picture of the pros and cons of all the options and are well aware of the heightened importance of good self-steering on longer voyages.
The definition of what constitutes a good windvane steering system has changed dramatically over the last 25 years. Any system that managed to keep a boat on something approximating the desired course was considered a success at first, and rustic appearance, excessive weight, awkward handling and frequent servicing were not a handicap. Today windvane steering system manufacturers compete in a market where the customer is quite able to distinguish between products and weighs everything against the simplicity of an autopilot: at the touch of a button!
One interesting observation that deserves mentioning is that almost everybody who considers purchasing or does purchase a windvane gear already has an autopilot. Once installed, however, the windvane shoulders up to 80% of the burden and the autopilot hardly comes on at all when the sails are up. Jimmy Cornell has confirmed these findings based on the debriefings we mentioned earlier. The tendency of yachts to carry both types of system has become ever more pronounced over the 10 ARC races which have now been held. Windvane steering systems are still as important as ever for reliable steering on long-distance short-handed trips.
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