The Grieve Of An Autopilot


When I’m writing this, during a night watch at sea at 2 in the morning, it is almost two weeks since the day we should have left for Greenland, but fate decided otherwise. We left Halifax on Sunday May 18th, as planned, with the destination Nuuk, Greenland. We were only 20 miles out at sea, and Halifax was just disappearing in the haze, when the autopilot started to beep and showed some errors on the screen. This was strange, but a reset of the autopilot computer was performed, and on we went. In less than 10 minutes, an error appeared again. The intervals became shorter, and after a short while, the autopilot did not want to steer anymore.

The nature of the error made me think that there was a bad connection in the wires between the computer and the drive, so the decision was made to return to Halifax, and replace the cable and the connections between the two units all together. We managed to do that before darkness fell, and we all agreed to depart the next morning.

A lot happened that following morning, but the short version of the story goes as follows: the “drive error” of the autopilot was caused by a damaged drive. The drive got damaged, because the autopilot was not suitable for our steering gear, and was effectively designed to steer a hydraulic drive, rather than an electrical one. The steering was on or off, and nothing in between, causing more than normal shock loads on the system, that would normally be dampened by the hydraulic pressure built-up in an hydraulic system. The damaged drive was not the only damage to the system, some of the link arms in the steering gear got fractured in the six years of shock loads as well, and in fact, one of the links broke on the way back into Halifax. The hairline fractures were so thin, and covered in grease, that I had totally missed them during my inspections in the preparation period.

The only acceptable and feasible “repair” would be to replace suspicious parts in the steering gear, replace the drive, and exchange the autopilot for one that actually can gradually steer an electric drive as it was designed for.

Within a couple of days, the new autopilot was installed and dockside tested, but the long wait for the parts of the steering gear was the bottleneck in a timely departure as we were hoping for. The parts had to be flown in from Denmark, and mistake after mistake was made in the sending of what had to be a simple parcel handling. The manufacturer shipped two days late, the wrong shipment type was selected for the wrong reasons, customs took their time releasing the parcel, document handling at the courier’s side was not handled well etc. Eight days of waiting, 20 phone calls and 6 emails further, the package finally arrived, and…. the parts did not fit the boat. The motor had a bigger housing than the original one, and a strip-out of the wooden protective case as well as wire re-routing had to be done to make everything fit properly, the link arm keyways had to be filed out to fit the existing gear and so a few things more, that made a job that would normally take two hours, into a job of a full day.

After the hardware installation came a new challenge that should have been an easy ride if it wasn’t for my own stupidity. The drive has to be setup, calibrated and sea-trial tested before it can steer the boat. But I could not get it past the last dock side trial before going out for practical testing. Whatever we did for fixing the problem, I could not get past the error “rudder moves too slow” during the dockside steering test. One of our guests for the delivery trip to Nuuk, who stayed around for the full experience, came with the brilliant, but in my eyes not applicable comment that port and starboard rudder angle limits might have been set the wrong way around. But hey, we tried everything else, so let’s try this as well. You can guess it: In as little as minutes, the test was completed successfully, and Dag Wedelin was the hero of the day!

Now, two days later, we just passed Sable Island, a sandbar in the middle of the ocean, about 150 miles to the south east of Nova Scotia. Driven by an autopilot that is smoother, has less power thirst, and is much less noisy than the old one ever was! (Who is now named Jane). We are out at sea, on our way to Greenland, with almost a week and a half delay. The Grand Banks are waiting ahead of us, with their eternal fog and majestic icebergs. 280 miles to go to Cape Race, the most south western point of Newfoundland, from there, it is another 1000 miles to the north to our destination. Currently the weather is fantastic, with very smooth sailing over a nearly swell-free ocean under clear blue skies. We will keep you posted on our progress.

All best, Bagheera and crew.