I hadn’t long been sailing before I realized that being a slave to wheel or tiller wasn’t for me. Much as I enjoy steering a boat, doing so for hours on end becomes tedious and tiring. I’ve done many hard coastal and bluewater miles hand-steering when an autopilot or windvane gear broke down, and I know too well the meaning of the term “the tyranny of the helm.”
Our long-term project boat, a Norlin 34, balances beautifully under sail and will steer herself with the wind forward of the beam, so it wasn’t until I decided to take her south from Boston’s North Shore for the winter of 2015-16 that an autopilot became a compelling necessity.
The skinny hindquarters of this early 70s IOR design meant that installing a below-deck drive would be a major undertaking involving too much boat yoga and expense. We had tested a Raymarine wheelpilot some years ago, and found it a good match to the 13,000lb boat, but with a couple of quirks. The latest model, the EV-100, retains its predecessor’s drive unit and motor, but comes with a new display and a heavily evolved brain that’s improved its performance. It’s now a full NMEA2000 (N2K) system, which means you’ll have to buy a NMEA0183 to N2K translator to connect it to older instruments.
At the heart of the system is the EV1 sensor core, which contains the computer as well as the compass. The ACU-100, the gray box that looks like the old-style Raymarine computer, is a drive controller. The P70 display head runs Raymarine’s Lighthouse interface.
Installation of these various components was a simple DIY job. All necessary cables and connectors came in the box, though I had to buy a longer Seatalk cable because of the distance between the ACU-100 and the p70 control head. It took perhaps 20 minutes to fit the drive unit to the wheel; all up, the installation was a pleasant afternoon project.
Raymarine makes much of the “aerospace technology” contained within the EV1’s glossy white shell—a 3-axis digital accelerometer, a 3-axis digital compass, and a 3-axis digital gyro angular rate sensor. These esoteric technobits add up to an instrument that can not only respond to changes in pitch, roll, yaw and acceleration, but learn to anticipate the effects of such changes. Think aircraft autopilot.
As promised, the instrument worked right out of the box. I powered it up, went through the intuitive setup menu on the p70, and went sailing. It was as simple as that—no repeated 360s to calibrate, no fine-tuning. A few days later we gave the pilot some hard work to do, 30 hours of 20-40 knot winds and big quartering seas. It coped like a champion, reaching its limits only when the odd green monster picked up the stern and threw the boat sideways, when it would emit a plaintive off-course alarm.
Received wisdom has it that wheelpilots are not capable of handling heavy conditions offshore, and on a less responsive boat this may well be true, but on that voyage, and in the ensuing (and easier) 1,400 miles, I could not find fault with the EV-100. Its power draw is modest (at least on this boat, where it does not have to work hard) and the drive motor took some heavy punishment without complaint.
For more info on the latest sailing equipment go to sailbuyersguide.com