It’s been a little while since we last heard from The Resourceful Sailor, but he’s back from his most recent sailing adventures, and we’re curious to find out what his latest boat jobs have entailed.
When I bought Sampaguita, a 1985 Pacific Seacraft Flicka 20 sailboat, in 2013, she came with a Navico Tillerpilot 1600 electronic autopilot. The previous owner claimed it did not work. It was wired directly to the battery without a fuse, and would strain the SeaVolt starting battery, which was also the house battery. Initially, I unhooked the wires from the battery for safety, coiled them up, and stowed them in the cockpit locker. The Navico, I put in dry storage.
It took me 10 years to see for myself if it worked. As my sailing programs and electrical system evolved, energy was less of an issue. As my storage space also changed, the Tillerpilot needed to be useful or be gone. Other boats I’d recently sailed on, Breskell and Inook in particular, had autopilots, and I was enlightened regarding their convenience. Buying a new unit for Sampaguita was unlikely, but if the one I owned already could be rejuvenated; that seemed sensible.
A previous owner had installed a cantilever bracket and power socket specific to the Tillerpilot 1600 on the side of the cockpit. I had left it in place all these years, and it was a sound and still relevant installation. I needed to safely rewire the connection to the battery, figure out if the claim of inoperability was correct, and install a new tiller pin.
First things first: I needed juice to test the unit. I reconnected the plug to the battery. With the updated electrical system, there was a fused power post. I kept it simple for testing purposes and would create a more permanent connection if the unit was operational. I plugged in the Navico and turned it on. At first, the actuator arm moved out and then retracted. Then it seemed to freeze and stay in the retracted-all-the-way-in position. However, I could hear a ticking sound from the unit as if it were trying to operate.
Since I had nothing to lose, I decided to look inside. Obsolete electronics from the 1980s hold no warranty. It was easy to open with nine straight-blade screws, and I was amazed at how simple and immaculate the innards were: still well-greased and clean. I attempted to understand how the unit worked and what might be causing it to bind in the retracted position.
I carefully inspected the arm, the gears, and the guide bars. They looked fine, with no bends or broken or distorted teeth. There appeared to be no visible reason for it to stick. So I muscled it. The moment it unstuck from the all-in position, the motor took over, and the arm began to operate again. Eventually, in its search to align its compass, the arm retracted, and it stuck again. Repeat muscling. Again it became operational.
Uncertain why it was doing this, I called it good. The answer might be not letting the arm retract to the stop. While it wasn’t a foolproof resolution, if I was the only fool using it, I knew the inside scoop. The fix, while a bit tedious, was known and could be repeated if the arm retracted and stuck. (Unless readers teach me better!)
Now that there was, at least for the moment, a functional autopilot, the wires were tidied and secured. The instrument plug was in the cockpit locker, where one of two separate house batteries was, so I decided to simplify things and maintain the connection at the fused power post rather than run it to the cabin circuit panel, which was at capacity. I could reassess this if the value-to-production ratio for an electronic autopilot changed in the future. A safe installation was the primary concern.
A search for compatible tiller pins on the internet turned up exactly what I needed. However, I did not accept what they were offering. You could buy a package of five for $20 plus shipping and tax. Why would I need five? Previously I had found a copy of the Tillerpilot 1600 and 2500 manual on the internet. (It is refreshingly retro, made on an old-school typewriter, typos and all, with simple but comprehensive drawings. I digress.) In its explanation of the installation of the tiller pin and its orientation to the unit, it mentions drilling a ¼-inch hole and epoxying it in. So I found an old ¼-inch stainless steel bolt in my stores. I cut, filed, sanded, and buffed it, using the old tiller pin, still in the now spare tiller, as a model.
On a 31-day Vancouver Island circumnavigation, I used the electronic autopilot twice. I would have used it at least another time previously, but locating the cantilever post thwarted me. It turned out to be in the bin where I thought it was, but finding it underway proved too troublesome. Of the two times, the first was on Queen Charlotte Strait, from Rough Bay, Malcolm Island, to Port Hardy, Vancouver Island. What started as an incredible day of sailing turned into a flat calm. An introductory experience with the Tillerpilot — it performed very well, and I enjoyed the experience. The second time came when approaching Hot Springs Cove on the west coast of Vancouver Island, fresh from three days and two nights offshore. The wind had died, but the swells rolling in from the ocean and the leftover chop remained. The 1600 did the work, but with much effort, noise, and meandering. The boat, left to itself under power, will always align with the direction of the swells, so the unit was in a constant battle. With a race against light, I took over and sent the Navico to bed.
The Resourceful Sailor still has to learn a bit about how to adjust the settings of the Navico Tillerpilot 1600 and when to use it, and remember that it is now an option after all these years. But this is really about reviving a pre-internet but functional artifact. It’s about keeping value, production, and investment in perspective. The best electronic autopilot might be the one you own already. Remember, keep your solutions safe and prudent, and have a blast.