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Autopilots do a great job of holding a steady course in light to moderate conditions with minimal helm movements. They don’t get tired like their human counterparts and have an infinite attention span. They will open up opportunities to use your boat that you would otherwise miss due to lack of crew and because they steer so accurately, they will save fuel and get you to your destination faster, especially when interfaced with a GPS.

Autopilots all include three main components: a heading sensor that is usually a fluxgate compass, a central processing unit (a Course Computer) that is the “brain” of the autopilot, and a drive unit, a motor or hydraulic pump that applies force to your boat’s rudder. More complicated pilots connect to additional sensors: data sources that may include a masthead wind vane; a rudder reference that tells the pilot’s processor where your rudder is pointed; a rate gyro that keeps track of momentary yaw and pitch movements and a GPS receiver or a speedometer. The drive mechanisms, matched with your boat’s type of steering, are how autopilots vary the most from one another. We’ll discuss how to choose the right one later.

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