Tuesday, June 10, 2014

An autopilot with a mind of its own

Fixing the Raymarine


BOAT: Break Out Another Thousand is Alex's theory of boat ownership. My theory is that Alex is conservative. The truth is that the BOAT theory is directly proportional to the size of the vessel multiplied by the number of gadgets it can fit.  Naturally, a bigger boat can hold more gadgets. In addition, everything is bigger and heavier and, therefore, costlier.  Aleria is 57 feet LOA.


There was a time when I thought that age (of the boat that is) was also a factor, as Aleria is almost 40 years old. That’s about the time I started to break down a lot. But then we upgraded a whole lot of "old" things and went sailing across oceans, just to test the theory naturally. I kept a tab of everything that broke, and sadly for us and for the state of modern affairs, more things ended up in the New/Broken column than the Old/Broken column.  That convinced us not to replace things until something is truly dead and beyond any attempt to resuscitate. We dutiful modified our equation and continue to test our theorem.  

When you are crossing oceans, you have three choices when something dies: repair, replace, or do without. Most things you could do without, including an engine. There are a few essentials, especially when sailing short-handed, that you must have spares for. We cannot access the fresh water without a water pump so we carry spares. Two cannot steer for weeks without having an autopilot or a self-steering wind vane - we have one of each. When our autopilot died – really seriously dead after many times having been fixed and even resurrected by drying in the over after getting moisture inside – we applied our BOAT theory and went for a replacement.

But, get this, the dealer had a special offer for us.  He had a return from a guy who had just bought this unit that was perfect for us and in as new condition. The guy had decided to upgrade to a newer model. He could let us have it for half price. Now, anything that impacts the BOAT theory drastically must be carefully considered.  We took the bait and bought the unit.  We even bought a new remote for it on eBay. Kewl!

But then one thing and another got in the way and it took a year before Alex was able to install our brand new/somewhat used autopilot.  He got it in just before we sailed off to Scotland, but we couldn't get it to steer a straight course.  Aha, calibration is required. The unit has to learn how our rudder reacts and steers as every boat is different.  So we downloaded a calibration program and on a calm day in a wide open harbour, we ran the program which employs an ever widening series of turns to port and starboard. On one of those turns, a speed boat came past to say hello just as the autopilot turned directly at them. That did not go down well with the locals, but we persevered and they sped away from the maniacs in the big sailboat trying to run them down. After what seemed like an hour, the test and calibration was finally completed without a hitch. Success, or so the program told us!

We were in business, or so we thought.  We set the autopilot for the first leg. It did great for about 15 minutes when it suddenly made a sharp right hand turn directly toward the cliffs. We plunged to disengage the clutch just in the nick of time. Several more trials resulted in similar manoeuvres. Now what?  

Alex called Raymarine and was told to try a series of diagnostics, with no luck.  Finally, we called a friend who works for Raymarine.  After weeks of back and forth, we started having these niggling feelings that there had been a reason why this unit was returned. The BOAT theory in action: chi-ching, chi-ching.

Finally, the head tech sent a series of hand drawn diagrams telling us that this was a known problem with an internal gyro.  Now why the unit needs an internal gyro when it uses an external fluxgate compass is beyond us. The instructions looked very complicated and involved taking the whole unit apart and disabling the internal gyro.  Alex was worried about screwing up such a technical job and perhaps invalidating whatever warranty might still be in effect.

Our friend told us to send the unit back, for warranty work we thought. But Raymarine does not do that. They charge about £50 for diagnostics and £500 for fixing any problem (flat rate payable in advance) plus shipping.  You find that out when you fill out and try to submit their return form. (Very sneaky.)

Now comes into play the next theory.  SQUEAKY BOATER: The amount of courage a boater displays is directly proportional to the charges quoted multipled by the degree of squeakiness of the boater.  Being very squeaky boaters (you can hear our wallets squeaking miles away when we are forced to open them), we often display great courage in attempting to fix things, the most challenging of which is the intermittent problem. So on this occasion, Alex carefully laid out his surgical tools and proceeded to dismantle the autopilot with a mind of its own. Snip, snip, snip and the brain surgery was complete. The internal gyro was (hopefully) disabled.  We were now in control.

The one remaining test was to put everything back together with no leftover parts and no tools missing, reinstall the unit, and engage while underway.  The clock ticked loudly, the engine was working away in the still open waters, we were crossing our fingers and clenching our teeth, when Alex engaged the clutch. I watched the chartplotter and scanned the horizon for boats and hazards, Alex watched the compass and the autopilot displays. Seconds passed and the tension mounted. Minutes passed and incredulously she steered a straight course.  It was working.  After all that effort, we finally had a half price autopilot that cost us a fortune in time.  After working away for an hour, we breathed a collective sigh of relief and thanked the gods that must be crazy for our good fortune. 

All we need now is a good name. Otto was the name of the one we buried.  Hmm, Ray has a ring to it.  Done!  Our new crew member Ray joins Jolly Mon, our beloved Monitor wind vane, to steer us toward our next adventure.


Now, on to the next project on the list.  

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