Autopilot woes devolve to ancient history

[This entry has been sitting in queue for quite a long time. I almost hate to post it because it’s (for one) such a lonnnnnnnng (and two), saaaaaad story that it makes it seem like I’m a complainer. Autopilots are critical and sensitive beings, though, so it may be a morality tale for those interested in how human foibles can foul the technical workings of important sailboat systems. Those of you who’d rather read about sandy beaches and tall, cold, tropical drinks can just pass this one by.]

Groping back to my February thirteenth edition of this blog (Yes, that was INDEED a Friday!), I related that I’d made an abortive first southward attempt from Mazatlan on January 7th, only to return to the slip that would become my longtime residence to work with the obstreperous autopilot. Back dock-bound, I poked and prodded at the system, spending seemingly countless hours bleeding hydraulics, following the manufacturer’s prescribed trouble-shooting procedures, and generally moping about how star-crossed my life had become in every aspect. I cajoled Will Hamm (the founder and owner of W-H Autopilots) into sending me a replacement for the suspect RAT (rudder angle transmitter) with it’s wonky sensor arm shaft that wobbled slightly in its socket. That replaced and with instructions for electronic tweaking, two volunteer deck hands, and hopes of an air bubble-less hydraulic system aboard, I took Mabrouka outside the harbor for a sea trial.

Miracle of miracles, half an hour and a quarter turn of a little, green-painted potentiometer later, the autopilot seemed to be working perfectly. Although I didn’t understand how an arbitrary twist of a little screw could be lucky enough to do the trick, I decided not to question this quirk of fate and gloried, instead, in the system’s prompt and precise execution of the commands we issued. We spent another ecstatic half-hour turning dials and bumping toggles on the control unit’s face, driving Mabrouka around the ocean in an expansive, geometric course.

With this and other previously described accomplishments under Mabrouka’s belt, I once again exited Marina Mazatlan, made my way out the channel past the upscale docks, expansive swimming pools (yes, with that trailing “s”), and faux adobe towers of El Cid Marina and Resort, ventured past the break waters and around Mazatlan’s outlying islands toward a restful, pre-passage day anchored in the quiet bay just south of the commercial harbor. Mona Laguna (recall the autopilot’s nickname) performed flawlessly, moaning in ecstasy as she coaxed the helm port and starboard toward Stone Island. HUZZAH!

She continued her faithful service throughout the ninety-some-odd nautical mile solo passage overnight to Isla Isabel, but couldn’t maintain her constancy all the way from Isabel to Chacala, attempting instead to execute a gracefully twirling course about ten miles from our destination. This prompted more dishearteningly pointless adjustment attempts on my part, including many not so graceful twirls of the previously cooperative green potentiometer, interspersed with much appropriately salty (i.e. INappropriate) language.

Temporarily giving up on resurrection efforts, I hand-steered the rest of the way to Chacala, then down the coast around Punta de Mita and into Banderas Bay. La Cruz saw a couple more telephone conferences with Will Ham followed by expeditions on the bay to calibrate the flux gate compass, all to no avail.

Luckily, I happened upon a previous on-line acquaintance in Heather Sloat, an experienced and attractive sailor, who kindly agreed to sail with me back up to Mazatlan. Heather’s help made for confident, non-autopilot sailing of overnight passages northward, and we got Mabrouka safely back to Mazatlan in time for my two week States-side holiday from cruising to attend a family reunion in Sedona, Arizona.

Before departing for the States, I’d invested in substantial email conversation with Will, the result of which was mostly consternation on his part. He’d NEVER had this sort of problem with ANY of the zillions of systems he’d sold, he insisted. It was a total mystery. It was a mystery to me, too. I’d bought the system on strong recommendations of its reliability, so the mystery was to remain wrapped in tattered rags of disappointment like a mummy for a little while longer.

Working on the assumption that my purchase had not been ill advised, my next suspect in this malperformance was my installation. As you might recall from the woe-fraught blog posts on this subject at the beginning of this cruise, I’d fabricated the hydraulic portion of the system myself, using Will’s system components, but making the hydraulic connections with copper tubing and brass fittings purchased at the local Ace hardware store and assembled by my own hands using my amateur tools. That turned out to be the cause of initial problems with the system, again invoking hours and hours of attempts to bleed air out of the system. My inadequate connections apparently made success impossible in that regard and the system was condemned by a professional in Anacortes just days before departure. He was paid to redo my shoddy workmanship, but even so we were never really sure we’d rid the system of air pockets.

This reversion to ancient history is a prelude to the fact that I, once again, had the hydraulics rebuilt. Although the Anacortes technician had applied all his professional skills and used professional tools to hook it all up, we’d never seemed to succeed in bleeding all the air out, so I hired Mazatlan Marine Services to rebuild it again while I was up in the States, this time with hydraulic hoses and an additional bleed port.

Testing the system upon my return to Mexico, the hydraulic action proved itself to be much more solid and responsive. Gone was the springiness I’d felt in the system and the wheel responded almost immediately to control signals. Sea trials, however, still showed it to prefer circles over straight lines when actually asked to steer. More emails later, I found myself with a new series of troubleshooting tests and adjustment procedures, a confused manufacturer, and a disgruntled skipper.

No matter, doggone it! I wanted to go cruise The Baja, so, still autopilot-less, my return to Mexico commenced almost immediately with a crossing of the Sea of Cortez/Bay of California to enjoy the scenic and aquatic pleasures of the bays and islands of Baja. The 190 mile crossing was made in a controlled manner with the help of newly recruited crew, Tina, and old friend, Kevin, but my adventures northward from La Paz were made in single-handed, self-steering fashion from caleta to ensenada to bahia by day trips that involved neither darkness nor exhaustingly lengthy passages.

That is, until I finally took the time to enact that last set of adjustment and trouble-shooting instructions I’d received from Will before departing Mazatlan. That occurred, if I recall correctly, in Honeymoon Cove on Danzante Island. It was an otherwise normal, though typically idyllic day, but I felt uncharacteristically productive and decided to pretend that I knew what I was doing. Lo and behold, Will’s test instructions led me to notice a clue that betrayed the true malady with the autopilot, …my stupidity. Well, if not stupidity, at least lack of observational skills.

Per instruction, I was to press the buttons that turned the wheel port and starboard and adjust a different potentiometer (this time, yellow) that limited the autopilot’s “throw” to within the mechanical stops of the quadrant. Somewhere in this process, I just happened to notice that pushing the starboard button was turning the wheel to port and hitting the port button behaved in vice-versa manner.

Recalling my initial installation of the system, I knew that the simple reversal of two wires would correct this ill effect and I easily accomplished said correction. I might have flattened my forehead with all the blows self-administered by the heel of my hand, but my astonishment turned to elation before that happened and I went out to, at long, long, last, finally conduct a successful sea trial on my autopilot.

It would be easy to blame Mabrouka’s long hiatus from self-steering on Will Ham for not asking the pointedly correct question from the outset, or on Mazatlan Marine Services for disconnecting and improperly reconnecting the autopilot motor. However, the fault is, at it’s core, mine for not initially hooking up the power wires with consistent color coding that would not have led the hydraulics mechanic astray. In the end, I’m glad that the error was a simple one that, once discovered, was simple to correct. I’m only abashed at how long it took for me to discover it. I have been enjoying confidence in Will’s system ever since and owe him many apologies for questioning his design and advice.

Append whatever phrases of thanks and praises you’d like at this point. I’m going cruising.

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