Navman GP3100 Autopilot
Some boaters chuckled in amazement when we suggested the marriage of autopilot to pontoon boat, and then asked, "Why?"
Our best answer at the time was, "Why not?"
Our goal was to see if we could program a cruise course on our GPS, taking us by a handful of sights and landmarks without our help. Thanks to NMEA (National Marine Electronics Association) standards of communication, this is possible with any NMEA-compliant system (and most GPS and autopilots are up to the standard).
The captain of our boat sat sidesaddle at the helm, filling out the conversation area and eyeballing the course at the same time. It was a strange sensation the first time the boat corrected itself to maintain our course, which was programmed to run the circumference of the lake. Then it became like a limo ride, fun and effortless.
The test worked. At no point did the driver have to grab the wheel or throttle to avoid a dangerous situation, though he was ready in case another boat or some debris ran into our course. Yet he was able to use both hands to work over a plate of food and still make progress.
This was done for kicks on our part. But autopilots are practical, as long as precautions are not ignored. For boaters on big rivers, the Intracoastal Waterway or lakes more than 2 or 3 miles wide, we think an autopilot is a natural to enhance boating fun.
The Navman GP 3100 autopilot can be useful without the GPS attached since it comes with its own compass and gyro. Taking cues from these, the autopilot can steer a compass course and hold it until you give it further instruction with a quick push of the steer-to buttons or the "escape" button you'll push when you want to take over.
With or without the GPS, you can nudge the heading to port or starboard by pushing a button. Release it and it returns to course. But it really shined for us when hitched up to a GPS. NMEA standards ensure that your autopilot will "talk to" any GPS unit, so if you've already got one -- even a handheld -- it has never been more economical to get an extra hand onboard.
Bottom line is the autopilot is great for freeing up a hand for a cold drink, sandwich or dinner plate as long as you continue to scan the water for traffic and obstacles. We found it to be the "extra hand" we frequently want at the helm.
Aloha Paradise 250
We chose a triple-tube Aloha for its combination of comfort and performance, especially rigged with a 225-hp engine. Like most two-strokes, the Evinrude was inherently a bit louder than a four-stroke motor, but the aft lounge and storage compartment insulated the deck from much of the running sound, making conversation at cruising speeds comfortable without shouting. Our top speed in this luxury model was over 40 miles per hour, loaded to the gills.
Waco connects the tubes on this Paradise Series model with inverted aluminum tunnels that channel spray and wakes downward. That stops the annoyance of surging water from slapping the deck's support beams. The result is a faster, quieter, smoother ride. For more information, go to alohapontoons.com or call 501-753-2866.