Installing a Wheel Pilot

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For cruisers with boats much longer than 35 feet, or those planning to head off on an extended blue-water cruise, an autopilot with a hydraulic or electric ram connected directly to the steering quadrant or rudder stock is almost mandatory. Modern below-decks pilots are powerful and reliable. They are also expensive, and coastal cruisers must balance the cost and complexity of such an installation against the amount of time they’ll use it. That’s why many older wheel-steered boats either don’t have autopilots or have wheel pilots fitted instead.

Back in the 1980s the British company Autohelm, which was eventually absorbed into what is now Raymarine, produced the first widely popular wheel pilot. That product has evolved into the latest iteration, the SmartPilot X-5. Navico also made a popular unit for many years, but a couple of years ago it decided to concentrate on its below-deck pilots and discontinued the WP32 Wheelpilot. Now Raymarine has this niche all to itself.

The X-5, which supersedes the long-lived S1 wheel pilot, is more sophisticated than its predecessor. Its software can learn a boat’s steering idiosyncrasies and tailor the pilot’s response speed and steering characteristics accordingly, and it does this without the aid of a rudder position sensor, which is a fiddly piece of equipment to install. This makes a DIY wheel pilot installation an easy project for the average boatowner. All you need is a drill, pliers, screwdrivers and enough 12V cable and terminals to connect the course computer to the distribution panel. Most fasteners, drill bits and Allen keys are included in the kit.

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1. This was the existing autopilot arrangement—an ingenious affair consisting of a tillerpilot connected to a bracket on the rudderstock. It worked well enough, but you had to manually connect and disconnect the tiller arm. This was so tiresome that I tended never to use it

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2. The kit has four main components—the drive unit, the course computer, the control head and the fluxgate compass. Cables and almost everything else you need to install the pilot are included

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3. Step one was to remove the wheel; it was stuck fast, so I had to buy a puller. I got this one cheap from Harbor Freight

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4. The holes you need to drill so you can mount the wheel drive unit to the wheel are clearly marked inside the unit’s cover for different spoke configurations. Just drill through the blanks marked for the number of spokes on your wheel (inset); there’s no excuse for getting it wrong

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5. This is what the drive train looks like; you can see the components don’t look as robust as those of a below-deck unit. That’s why you need to heed the manufacturer’s warning about the limitations of wheel pilots. The X-5 is rated for boats displacing up to 16,500 pounds. Our test boat displaces 12,000 pounds, so there is a good safety margin

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6. Following the excellent instruction manual, I tightened the wheel drive unit clamps with the supplied Allen wrench. I was worried about centering the unit on the wheel, but this proved to be no problem; it was practically self-aligning

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7. Next, I measured the distance from the drive unit to the pedestal. This is so you can cut the pedestal bracket to length (7a). It needs to protrude about 5/16in into a slot in the drive unit to prevent the latter from spinning as the motor turns

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8. After remounting the wheel and making sure the pedestal bracket was located correctly so that it keeps the drive unit in place, yet does not bind when the wheel turns, I traced its outline in pencil and drilled the four mounting holes. It’s secured to the pedestal with four self-tapping screws. Note: I thought this was a weak point, and so it was. After about 20 hours of use, the loads on the pin enlarged the holes in the soft aluminum pedestal and the screws started to back out. We secured them with a pair of hose clamps so we could finish our voyage. I have now drilled the holes larger and tapped them to take #10 machine screws

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9. The course computer needs to be mounted athwartships, with the arrows pointing up. I placed it at the foot of the quarterberth, where it would be out of the way

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10. The connections for the compass, Seatalk, NMEA and power cables are clearly marked. I used 14 gauge tinned wire to connect the computer to the ship’s supply. The other cables are from the fluxgate compass, the control head and the wheel drive unit. I also ran a heavy (10 gauge) grounding wire to the common ground point at the battery box; Raymarine recommends flat copper braid, but heavy stranded wire will suffice

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11. The fluxgate compass should be mounted close to the middle of the boat, facing forward and well clear of magnetic influences. It seemed happy enough just a few inches away from the stainless steel water heater. The cable is over 20ft long, so finding a suitable place to mount the compass should not be a problem

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12. At the back of the control head there is a connection for the Seatalk cable to the course computer, another Seatalk connection for other instruments, and a connection for NMEA cable. The ST 6002 control head is intended to be used with Raymarine’s ST60 instruments. Since my sailing instruments are wireless Tackticks, I’ll have to use the NMEA interface to get them communicating with the X-5. There is provision for this at the course computer, which will convert NMEA into Seatalk


13. I had to decide where to mount the control head. I thought of flush-mounting it high on the inside of the cockpit well, but in the end I used the previous owner’s system: a plywood housing, epoxied and painted, secured loosely to the steering pedestal so I can rotate it to face aft or forward. This works well. Raymarine does not recommend locating the display close to the steering compass, but I have had no problems

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14. And that was about it. All told, I spent maybe 4 hours on this project. The hardest part of the installation was snaking the assorted cables through the bowels of the boat. We calibrated the system at the start of a 150-mile coastal cruise, and it has performed flawlessly ever since. Here it is, doing its job while the crew relaxes with a cold beverage

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Photos by Peter Nielson

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