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Autopilots: Key Calibration and Settings

How your autopilot could get you back on the water and give you the edge when the racing resumes – Part 1

If you have been pining for the race course as you watch the events calendar evaporate, the answer to getting back out on the water and possibly even racing, may be closer than you think. And it’s your B&G autopilot that could not only hold the key, but provide a legal advantage that few are exploiting.

Covid-19 may have forced us to look at our sport in a different way, at least for the time being, but the shutdown has provided an opportunity to capitalise on a big change in offshore racing while providing an incentive to get back on the race course and try shorthanded sailing.

Just a few months ago, a full crew hiking off the weather rail looked completely normal, now it is unacceptable under the current social distancing rules, unless of course you are all from the same household. For most crews, adhering to the current rules with crew spaced 2m apart is clearly not practical. Neither is the prospect of reducing the crew of say a 40 footer from eight to say just three.

Or is it?

Shorthanded sailing has become increasingly popular in recent years.  When the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race was won overall by a double-handed entry the sailing world took note. Since then, shorthanded fleets have grown in size and their teams have become increasingly competitive as they square up to their fully crewed rivals. All of which has led some to wonder whether an answer to the current crisis facing yacht racing lies with shorthanded rather than fully crewed racing.

And from here it’s clear that your autopilot, be it a Triton² or an H5000 system might hold the key.

With so many racer/cruisers being fitted with autopilots that are frequently only used for the delivery home and the odd family outing, there are plenty of boats that are already equipped to take advantage of the changes.

The benefit of taking the current down time to understand your pilot goes beyond shorthanded sailing.

 WHY NOW?

Interestingly, even before the Covid crisis took a hold, the issue of autopilots had already become a hot topic in the racing scene. This year was to see a big change in RORC races where autopilots would be allowed to be used aboard fully crewed boats as well as their shorthanded competitors.

Furthermore, there are plenty in the shorthanded scene who believe that their autopilots sail faster at night than tired humans that are struggling to see the waves or the tell tales.

So, if kit that is already fitted to your boat could get you around the race course more quickly than your competitors, there is plenty of incentive to spend the Covid downtime understanding how the pilot can get you back out on the water and up to speed for the season.

With our lead in this field and the considerable knowledge, technology and links that lie within B&G, we asked some of the experts in the shorthanded scene for their tips, tricks and advice for getting the best out of an autopilot.

In the grand prix world, aboard some of the most advanced high performance machines such as the IMOCA60s and the Ultim trimarans, advanced autopilots are allowing teams to achieve speeds that manual steering simply cannot match. At this point, when their beasts are on the boil, the sailors need to have complete faith in the autopilot. Getting to this point takes a great deal of planning and experience.

But the technology trickle down is also having a big effect throughout the rest of the sport too as modern autopilots demonstrate how the game is developing quickly in mainstream racing.

To find out how to get the best out of your B&G autopilot we talked to some of those who regularly rely on their silent systems. So in this mini series Henry Bomby, Will Harris (Team Malizia) and Nigel Colley (Solo Ocean Racing Club) talk about how they set up and use their pilots. In addition, B&G product director Matt Eeles explains how to set up your autopilot accurately and understand the key performance functions to ensure that you can exploit the benefits.

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CALIBRATION, SETUP & SETTINGS

Although the objective is to understand how to get the best out of your autopilot, it is important to remember that before you even get to this part, calibrating the basic instruments is a crucial first step.

“When we get aboard to investigate an autopilot system it is not unusual to find that the only item that has been calibrated is the echo sounder depth offset,” says Matt Eeles. “Calibration of the key sensors is essential, not just as part of the normal commissioning, but before any of the data on the displays can be relied on. Here, the compass and the boat speed are fundamental to any instrument system and must be calibrated first. Without doing this, any adjustments to the autopilot will be meaningless.”

 Calibrating compass and log - Matt’s Tips

  • Calibrating the compass is a simple matter of going to the calibration area on the instruments and then turning the boat steadily through a circle (at around 3 degrees/second), until the display shows that the compass has been fully calibrated. This usually takes 390 degrees.
  • Calibrating speed is best done along a known distance between two fixed points.
  • Trying to adjust your log based on your GPS output is not that reliable. While it is very tempting, especially if there is little tide and wind, it is surprisingly hard to get right.
  •  “To calibrate your log, using your chart plotter it is easy to pick a couple of marks that are say 0.5 of a mile apart to set up your calibration run between them,” explains Matt. “Start the calibration function on the instruments and then make three runs at a steady speed.”
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PREPARING ASHORE

We all know how to turn an autopilot on and off when we’re motoring out to the race course or back home, but using and trusting a pilot in a racing environment requires much more detailed knowledge and understanding.

With this in mind, Will Harris from IMOCA60 Team Malizia believes that there is a great deal you can and should do before you even go afloat making now the perfect time.

“You can save a great deal of time on the water by studying the various autopilot functions. Knowing what the functions do and how they work is really important when it comes to knowing how to adjust the settings under way. I make a point of studying the manuals and making a list of key functions that I laminate and stick next to the controller as a handy guide.

“Then, when you do get down to the boat there are a few key things you can do before you even head out to sea.

 

Getting the basics set up - Will’s Tips

  • Before you do anything, make sure you know how to switch the autopilot off in a hurry in case you need to.
  • Pick a day/time with flat water, minimal tide and wind.
  • Check that the rudder and the pilot agree on what dead ahead is.
  • Do this by motoring slowly in the river or harbour as you’ll be able to make heading assessments easier with a backdrop.
  • Switch the autopilot on and set to dead ahead.
  • Watch to see if the boat’s heading departs from straight ahead.
  • Adjust as required until its steady.
  • If you learn just one function, understand what the ‘Gain’ function does. You will use this 80% of the time to adjust the behaviour of the pilot across a variety of conditions to make it steer like you would.
  •  ‘Auto Trim’ and ‘Counter Rudder’ are functions that you will use 20% of the time to refine your performance later on where you are looking to make the pilot better than you at steering.
  • Allow for a week’s worth of calibrating and practicing to get a good feel for the autopilot – you cannot short cut this, it takes time, but get it right and it will pay big dividends.

 

BIOGS

Will Harris

Will has competed in the La Solitaire du Figaro circuit 2016 with the Artemis Offshore Academy, winning the La Solitaire du Figaro Rookie title that same year. Sailing Hive Energy, he completed the 2019 Figaro circuit on board a Beneteau Figaro 3 after which he joined Boris Herrmann aboard his IMOCA60 Team Malizia for the 2019 Fastnet Race and the double handed Transat Jaques Vabres. He remains with this team as Herrmann prepares for the Vendée Globe.

 Matt Eeles

Matt joined Brookes & Gatehouse in 2003 after previously working as a software engineer and completing a full-time Olympic campaign in the Tornado multihull class. After some time world cruising his role at B&G started in R&D before then moving on to become product Director in 2020.

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