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November 2010

Autopilots awry

Keep your autopilot on course

When installing my sailboat’s autopilot a number of years ago, I mounted the fluxgate compass in several locations before it worked properly.

Trying to position the compass close to the boat’s center, I temporarily mounted it under the galley sink using double-faced tape. When I checked it against my accurate cockpit compass, the readings differed significantly.

I tried another location under the galley sink, and this time, the readings differed by only 1 degree. Apparently the first location was too close to my 4,000-pound steel keel. Ever since, the compass has performed extremely well when checked against my GPS.

Recently while under power on a long straight run between buoys, I turned on the autopilot so I could enjoy a quick sandwich. I could see the distant target buoy, but the boat abruptly turned 45 degrees. The autopilot heading and cockpit compass reflected the difference. I rebooted the autopilot with the same results.

While eating, I kept the boat on course by frequently pressing the autopilot’s plus and minus buttons. Afterward, I turned off the erratic autopilot and resumed steering with the wheel.

Later that day, I went below to inspect the area beneath the galley sink where I also keep a few pots and a large can of hand cleaner.

The previous day, a large wake thrown by a passing powerboat must have tossed the pots and hand cleaner near the fluxgate compass. When I removed the metal objects and turned on the autopilot, its reading agreed with the cockpit compass.

Lesson learned: Always keep metal objects away from the autopilot compass.

Find waterproof jackets and gear at the USPS Ship's Store

Becket bend (Becket hitch)

The becket bend is the most efficient way of making two short dock lines into one long one.

An eye splice in the end of one dock line is the bight for the becket bend.

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