The Perils of Autopilots

Follow these rules to make boating easier with an autopilot.
Perils of Autopilots
Autopilot can be a great boating tool when used correctly. Tim Bower

Can cool technology really make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven? Yup, I’m here to tell you it can.

We had our boat for 10 years before I finally broke into the piggy bank and bought an autopilot (the very essence of cool technology). Oh my gosh, I thought, this is the best thing I ever did for the boat — and for us. Now we can let go of the wheel and pay attention to other stuff while Buzz (we named it Buzz because of the little sound it makes when steering) keeps us on track.

So, yeah, a piece of cool technology can really make you think you’ve died and gone to heaven. If you don’t want to actually die and go to wherever you’re likely to end up, though, it’s critical to understand that autopilots have a dark side that can get you killed. It is one of those things that can be a blessing or a curse, depending on how you use it. If you are considering an autopilot, you must read this.


The Good
When I say the autopilot lets me pay attention to other stuff, I’m not talking about playing video games. I mean keeping an even better lookout for whatever is out there on the water — other boats, personal watercraft, skiers, kayakers, scuba divers, floating logs or crab pots. With Buzz doing his job, and me doing mine, our boating is actually safer.

Buzz is especially valuable when the seas are belching up their guts, because I no longer get so fatigued by fighting the helm through every wave and chop. On long passages, helm fatigue can lead to slow reactions, poor judgment and even nodding off to sleep. Autopilot helps to avoid those problems.

One of the features I love about autopilot is the way I can, with the push of a button, correct course one degree at a time or in 10-degree increments. When steering, I tend to leave a snaky wake, but the autopilot steers true to the set course, saving time and fuel. Not only that, but the sensitivity of systems from brands such as Furuno, Garmin, Raymarine, Simrad and Si-Tex can be adjusted for compatibility with the sea conditions. You can dial them in so the system doesn’t get too twitchy when trying to maintain a heading in sloppy seas.

Perils of Autopilots
Autopilot allows you to steer a straight course in limited-visibilty conditions, such as at night or in a fog, when it’s more difficult to do so without it. Tim Bower

An autopilot is particularly helpful when navigating in limited visibility, such as in fog. Steering a straight course is nearly impossible when you can’t see past the bow rail, but Buzz can stay the course just fine.

All well and good. But Buzz also has his bad side, as dark as a lee shore at night.

The Bad and The Ugly
It was late October. A 37-foot boat took off from Newport, California, and headed toward Ensenada, south of the Mexican border. The four people aboard never made it. In the report filed after the fatal crash, it was determined that the crew left the autopilot in control in the predawn hours. Presumably, the skipper was asleep, resulting in what was termed an “inadequate lookout.”


That’s one of the greatest dangers with autopilot — because it’s doing the steering, it can lull you into standing an inadequate watch. Or not standing watch at all. Standing watch means that you are personally able to detect hazards on the water and take actions to avoid danger or collision. So you can’t just flip on the autopilot and go below for a nap, or to make lunch, or to take a pit stop in the head. Somebody must be on watch at all times, and his name better not be Buzz.

Seaworthy, a newsletter published by BoatU.S., the marine insurance company, refers to the problem as “electronically aided collision.” It’s what happens when you turn over control of your boat to a box of electronic bits. And autopilot ranks right near the top of the culprits.

Perils of Autopilots
Because it’s doing the ­steering, autopilot can lull you into ­standing an inadequate watch. Or not standing watch at all. Tim Bower

In Lake Michigan, a 37-foot powerboat ran over a 19-foot fishing boat, killing one of the passengers. The insurance investigation came back with a finding that the offending boat was operating on autopilot at the time of the accident.


In a similar incident reported by Seaworthy, a vessel that was being controlled by autopilot collided with a fishing boat off the coast of New Jersey, killing two of the three men aboard.

Unfortunately, the stories of disaster go on and on. So after reading all this doom and gloom stuff about autopilots, why would anybody want one?

No Replacement for Seamanship
The truth is that it’s not the autopilot that’s at fault. An autopilot is just a machine that will do what it’s told to do by a human. If the human uses the machine in the wrong way, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. So the solution lies in training the human on what to do and what not to do when using an autopilot. Here are the rules:

*Use the autopilot to allow you to stand an even more effective watch. The problem with being glued to the helm is that you tend to focus on the steering and not on what’s going on around you. If you allow Buzz to take the helm, you can step forward to look ahead, turn around and look behind you, and take a moment to scan the horizon with binoculars. All the while, the autopilot is keeping you on the desired course.

*Use autopilot to give you a break from the tension of the wheel. Being under constant tension causes fatigue and the gradual loss of reaction time and judgment. So give yourself a break, but use that time to stretch tired muscles and redirect your attention to what’s going on beyond the steering wheel.

*If you need a rest, do not let Buzz do the driving while you take a nap! Turn over the watch to a competent co-pilot, even if Buzz is still doing the steering. In fact, having a co-pilot to chat with in the cockpit might help keep you from nodding off when the day has been long and the passage perhaps has been boring.

*However, if you are alone in the cockpit, set a timed alarm that is loud enough that it can wake you up if you happen to fall asleep while on watch. Set the alarm to ring well before you can possibly reach any fixed obstructions at the speed and direction you’re traveling.

*In like manner, set a proximity alarm (guard zone) on your radar so that it will awaken you if you come within the established range of another vessel or land. Obviously, you never turn over control to the autopilot when boating in tight circumstances.

*One option, when you begin to feel like sleep is overtaking you, is to turn off the autopilot and take manual control of the helm. Being forced to handle the wheel yourself will help keep you on your toes, because a little “stress” might stir you back to alertness. But don’t be reluctant to ask someone else to take a turn at the helm while you get a little shut-eye. Just make sure the alternative skipper is not suffering from sleep fatigue and is competent to make good decisions and operate the boat safely.

*In some circumstances, it might be desirable to shut everything down and take a nap while the boat is at rest. This works only if the current will not carry you into danger while you sleep, so use your best judgment. If possible, get to a safe anchorage and put the hook down.

Perils of Autopilots
The autopilot’s fluxgate compass can be influenced by the steel in bridge supports and ships, leading to disaster. Tim Bower

Autopilot is an awesome tool, as long as you use it properly. And here’s one final caution: Switch off the autopilot (or at least take manual control of the helm) whenever you are passing beneath a bridge or when in close proximity to large steel ships. Recent accident investigations indicate that there have been incidents in which the fluxgate compass that directs the autopilot to follow a prescribed course can be suddenly influenced by the massive amount of steel in bridge support members and ships, leading to disaster.

While on the subject of fluxgate compasses, make sure you don’t inadvertently influence the unit to deviate from its intended course. That can happen when metal objects (especially ferrous ones) are placed in close proximity to the compass. Pay strict attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations about placement of the fluxgate compass, and then consider that area of the boat as off-limits to metallic objects.

Some autopilot systems can be set up to follow a complex route involving several waypoints. On advanced systems, you can also activate preprogrammed trolling patterns such as a circle, figure eight, cloverleaf or spiral at a set distance around a waypoint.

Perils of Autopilots
Complex routes are just one of many advanced features found on today’s autopilots. Furuno

That is cool technology, and some boaters may employ it. While I love Buzz and use our autopilot a lot, however, I have a personal aversion to turning over that ­much control to a box of diodes. So I don’t use those advanced functions. Maybe I’m old-school, but I like to navigate so that I always know where we are and what’s going on around us. So far, it’s kept our boat off the rocks.

Stories of tragedy involving the misuse of autopilots should not dissuade us from using this fantastic tool. Rather, they should serve as reminders that we need to use it the way it was intended. On our boat, Buzz is a valuable member of the crew, and it’s a great relief to have “him” aboard. As the skipper, though, I’m responsible for giving him his orders and then I must stand watch to make sure he’s not trying to take over my job.