Sailing Mango

Boat Work Mazatlan - Part 2, or How To Start Your Engine With Your Autopilot

When you last left our heros, we were plugging broken water hoses with our fingers, installing autopilots, and possibly shopping. Since then we did indeed get the water sorted out, the autopilot ram was installed, and we have been shopping not one but three times! Yea! And go us!

On the shopping front, we keep thinking that we will be leaving "tomorrow", so we buy a few things at the store, and then we don't leave for a day or two, and have to go back to the store for "just a thing or two more". Well now, seriously, we are leaving tomorrow. Honestly. As long as nothing breaks and our autopilot sea trials go well. No problem!

It is hard to know where to start with the autopilot story. Mechanically, the ram went in just fine.The guys came in, did their thing well, and left me with the electricals to do. No sweat, I had done this before with the last pilot, and knew exactly what to do. Exactly.

The day after the guys got the ram installed, I ran an extra wire pair that is required for this ram through very small spaces, enlisting Adam for part of it. This took maybe two to three hours to run seven feet of wire. No joke, and that was the easy part.

Before using an autopilot you have to commission it, in two stages. The first is the dockside part, which is done at the dock (surprise!), and the second part is done at sea. Basically the pilot does a bunch of stuff to figure out how far your rudder swings, how much power is required to drive the ram, how quickly your boat turns, etc.

Unfortunately I kept getting an error during the dockside setup. The part throwing the error is called Rudder Test, and basically it figures out the minimum voltage required to move the rudder, which way the rudder turns, what type of drive (ram) is connected, and how much power to apply for a given rate of rudder movement. It was the drive type that was failing. Since I could see the wheel moving just fine with the first two parts, min voltage and direction, I knew it would work, but was getting hung up on a software bug.

Naturally this was on Saturday and tech support is only available on weekdays, so after killing two days, I called Monday morning. After doing this and that, it was suggested that I simply connect 12v power to the ram to see if it moves as expected. Now it is sometimes a challenge to figure out how to run twenty feet of spare wire carrying 12v, so I simply took the two 12v wires that run to the autopilot computer, and stick them on top of the two ram wires, literally half an inch away, while the ram wires were still plugged into the pilot computer. "Sure mate, that will work a treat", says the Technical Support Guy.

What happened was the strangest thing I have experienced on the boat, including when Biscuit simply stepped out of the dinghy like he was expecting land, into the water, and passed me by like a mermaid, poodle hair all flowing majestically under the surface. I touched the live 12v wires to the ram wires, and the engine tried to start.

Me: "Did the engine just try to start?"
Kristen: "Sounds like it!"


I know a lot of you are not really boat people, but honestly, starting the engine with your autopilot is not how things are supposed to go down.

(I love our boat. I love our boat. I love our boat.)

The Yard Guy is thinking I have something messed up with my electrical ground. When I look at our 12v electrical panel, the only thing that is clear when looking at the speghetti of wires is that he very well could be right.

When I remove the ram wires from the pilot and connect them to 12v directly, the ram moves as expected, no engine antics. Ram wires attached back to the pilot with a 12v overlay and the engine tries to start. I just don't know what to say about that.

Head in the sand regarding the engine, after speaking with tech support, trying different wiring configurations, adding in a relay to help keep the solenoid open, and other acrobatic cool dude autopilot ram tricks, I accidentally discovered that if I start the rudder test that had been failing and then immediately cancel, the rudder test then has a little check mark next to it, as if it had passed. Low and behold, the auto pilot fires up and I can move the rudder with the pilot. I was just about to package up the pilot and send it back state-side for further testing, which would likely have yielded a big fat nothing.

So wish us luck tomorrow when we take Mango out and do the sea setup without fully completing the dockside setup. If all goes well, we will head out to Isla Isabel, 85 miles south. Even if it doesn't go well, I just want to get out of Mazatlan, get anchored off some pretty beach, and pretend all is right with the world, which is not true, and all is right with the boat, also not really true.

Inside of a locker that Adam had to crawl into to run new wire.

Mango's below deck autopilot. Lower left, hard to make out, is the square rudder post. The wide hunk of metal attached to that is the autopilot tiller. The ram is top middle, looking like a piston. Lower right is the hydrolic pump. Middle bottom is a black rudder feedback unit. So basically the pump gets some voltage, it drives the ram in or out, which in turn moves the rudder post and rudder. The rudder feedback unit is connected to the rudder post, so that the pilot computer knows which direction and angle the rudder is pointing. It is nice for all of this to be below the deck where it all stays nice and dry, or so the theory goes!