Do Sailboats Have AutoPilot

General Info

In this article, we’ll answer the question of do sailboats have autopilot? Yes. Sailboats can have autopilot as standard on newer vessels or you can install it on an existing sailboat if you choose.  There are different types of autopilot systems for different boats. 


An autopilot system can be a really useful feature on long sailing trips and can really save you a lot of energy.


With that being said, you should always remain cautious when using the autopilot feature on any vessel. 


So how does the autopilot system work exactly? We’ll discuss the different systems on different vessels and provide some useful video guides to help illustrate these systems in operation. 


We’ll also talk about the cost of an autopilot system (if your boat doesn’t already have it installed) and the pros and cons of each. 


Unfortunately, buying one of these systems can cost a lot (especially if you aren’t self installing it ) which we wouldn’t recommend especially if you’re new. 


And on very long journeys, it can be an absolute blessing especially a simple self steer which we’ll discuss below. 


There are two options in the sailing community when people hear about autopilots. There is the self steer, which is technically not an autopilot system but rather provides a self steering boat (as the name suggests)  whereas the autopilot system provides a fully automated experience. 


You may also like: The best autopilot for small boats

How does autopilot work on a sailboat?

To answer this question, we’ll divide it up into the different types of autopilots available. Here are the two main: 



  1. Self Steer
  2. Full  Electronic Automated Autopilot


Each have their own unique features and generally it’s down to an individual's preference. Some will swear by the self steer and others like the fully automated. 


There are benefits to both and an argument can be made to have both options if you have the budget. 


Self Steer 


Essentially, a self steering system helps steer the boat. The diagram and video below helps illustrate this. 


With a self steer, a boat will sail to a particular wind angle (that you set) With this option, the effectiveness varies at different points of sail but generally speaking, it’s a great option to have.


:

autopilot on boats

 


However, with a self steering system, it is not as conventional as a fully electronic autopilot system. 


But….. the self steering option uses no power and that is one heck of a bonus especially on a long distance trip across the Pacific or wherever the journey takes you. 


Another benefit of the self steering option is it’s completely silent, (something anyone who has ever been on a boat for a long period of time can appreciate) 


Also, the windier it gets, the better it works, unlike a fully automated electronic system. Finally, one last benefit is it can act as an emergency rudder.


With the self steer, you’ll find it most useful for sailboats up to 50 feet, anything more and they aren’t as useful and efficient.  


Fully Electronic Autopilot 


do sailboats have autopilot

Image courtesy of YachtingWorld


This is a great option to have on your sailboat but make no mistake, it takes a lot of work to have it installed correctly. 


With this fully automated option, it is as simple as telling the boat where you want to go and it will do all the rest to get you there. 


You effectively become the passenger and let it do all the work. Now, obviously this can be great to have, particularly on coastal sailing trips. 


Simply sit back, relax, enjoy the scenery and let the sailboat and autopilot do all the work. Because it’s run automatically, you have to do very little. 


They are also simple to use which is an added bonus. But there are also some disadvantages to this too, 


  • They have been known to fail quite easily 
  • They can be power hungry which makes it annoying on longer trips
  • As mentioned above, installation can be a nightmare 
  • They can be quite noisy 



The main problem, (they can break quite easily) will only improve with technology advancing but can you imagine how annoying that could be after spending the money to buy and install it? 


Don’t be disheartened or put off by it though as when treated right, it can run relatively smoothly. 


Both options have their pros and cons but to help illustrate this in a better way and to see the automated system in action, simply check this video out below: 



So to answer the question of  What does autopilot do on a boat? Autopilot helps steer and guide the boat in the direction you choose. Simply set the destination you want to go to and it’ll do the rest of the work.  



There is an overlap between these two systems but let’s look into the preferred scenarios in which you would use each system. 


When would you use the self steering option? 


If you have a boat under 50 feet and want to sail offshore or for long distances, this can be absolutely brilliant option, not to mention it can be much cheaper than a fully electronic system. 


They are also great if you are shorthanded and don’t have enough people onboard to help out. So if that’s you, and you think you’d be a long distance sailor, then this is most definitely a good option for you. 





When would you use a fully automated electronic autopilot system?



With the fully electronic autopilot, generally speaking, it’s best uses are usually when you are just doing coastal sailing, or if you have a big crew who don’t mind hand steering on offshore journeys, then you could use this option. 


Keep in mind, there is no right or wrong way and with experience , you’ll know what is the best way for you. 


As with everything in sailing, there are exceptions to the rule and one person might find the electronic system better for long distances or rough seas then others. 


So with all this talk about the two types of autopilot systems available, lets see what’s on the market and how much it will cost. 



(Keep in mind there are more options but these are the most popular systems installed on sailboats today) 




Also and as an important disclaimer, before buying an autopilot system, please make sure your vessel falls well within the designed working range. 


You wouldn’t want to fork out a lot of money on of these only to realize your boat isn’t; compatible with the system.


When buying these systems, make sure you read the description and compatibility to ensure everything is okay. 


Also, make sure the store you get it from has a good refund policy should anything go wrong. 


Cost Of Sailboat AutoPilot


As we’ll see below, the costs vary. It’s always good to shop around but if you prefer to buy directly from the brands, it will obviously cost more. 


And generally speaking, trying to skim on electronics, (especially in the marine electronics) might be a nightmare down the line. 



That being said, you most definitely can find deals on these if you look. 


Raymarine Autopilot

autopilot in a sailboat



Depending on the system from Raymarine you use, the cost can vary quite drastically.  


Typically, it costs between  $2,000 and $5000 for one of these. If you don’t want to install it yourself, the installation can cost more. 


In some stores, they will come and do this for you but that’s not always the case. You can go to their website and buy a system there. 


They also have a refurbished section where you can get these much cheaper if you are on a budget. It’s all available at raymarine.com so check it out if you’re interested. 




Garmin Sailboat Autopilot



sailboat autopilot




These are one of the most popular autopilot systems installed in sailboats today and the prices for one of them can vary between $1,500 to $5000


You can pick one up at garmin.com or might find a used/refurbished one on ebay for much cheaper if you’re on a budget. 


As with everything on ebay, please be cautious with who you buy from as you don’t want to be scammed. 


Some marine stores also offer refurbished versions of these systems and it’s a safer bet then buying from ebay when you can’t inspect the condition of it. 


A simple call to your local marine store might save you $1,000’s so there is no harm in shopping around. 



Self Steering WindVanes



self steering sailboat


The self steering wind vanes also come in different specifications and different prices. You’ll have to choose the right one for your own unique circumstances.


Typically, prices vary from $900 to $4000 depending on where you buy. You can find them used on ebay but as mentioned above, be cautious buying from there. 


If you’d like a brand new one, you can get it form hydrovane.com  from $2500 and up.


 Again, prices will vary drastically as every boat is different but these figures are ballpark to give you an idea of what all of this will cost. 


As with the electronic autopilots, you can also call into your local marina store as they might have them in stock or may be able to source them at cheaper prices. 


If you’re really on a budget, you could visit your local boat yard and scan to see if there is any of use. With the boat yards, you can really hit the jackpot and find things at massive discounts (in some instances 90%) off retail. 


But with electronics, always be cautious. 


 



Conclusion


The autopilot systems on a sailboat can be a great option for reasons outlined above. However, always remain cautious and don’t put your full trust in a system.


 A good dose of common sense is required too. You’d be surprised how many people lack common sense when using these systems. 


The main options you have are the self steer or the fully automated system. Hopefully, the video provided you with the pro’s and con’s of both so keep that in mind too. 


The future is with automation and computers and tech are only going to get better as we improve over time so it’s definitely something to think about buying. 


Another benefit as mentioned is these systems can be more fuel efficient so you’d have an added bonus of saving fuel. (a small comfort considering the price you’d pay for an autopilot system to be installed) 


Because you’re reading this, we can assume you don’t already have one installed so if you’re going on long distance sailing trips, it might be something worthwhile. 


Either way, I hope you found this article helpful and feel free to email us if you have any questions on it or if you’d like to share some photos from your sailing trip. We’d love to feature them on this site.


Paul L

As the founder of Deepsailing, I enjoy writing , business & sailing. From Ireland, I've loved sailing from a young age and love to hit the waters whenever I have time. 

I qualified with a law degree in 2012 & have had a career in financial market trading since then. (Yes, I know, nothing related to law) You can check out more info in the about us section. Hopefully you're enjoying the site and if you have any questions, you can reach out (just subject the email with my name) so it'll get sent to me and I'll happily get back to you. Feel free to share photos and stories of your sailing experiences with us too