When we bought Red Rover two years ago, most of her navigation equipment was from the original 2005 install.  There was also some added items that previous owners had added over the years.  The equipment did a good job bringing us up the West Coast from San Diego to Seattle after closing on the boat in 2016.  But we both new that we’d like to upgrade before we took off to cruise “permanently”.  And we wanted to do it enough time before we leave so that we became comfortable with its operation as well as to work thru any bugs that could arise.  January of 2017 we decided to take the plunge and upgrade the navigation equipment minus the autopilots.  We love the new equipment and have really enjoyed learning/using it this past year.

Why did we decide to upgrade the autopilots?  They operated fine – nothing was “wrong” with them.  But there was an occasional hiccup with how the pilots dealt with the nav data coming from the navigation equipment after last years install.  We are part of the group who likes to have the routes that we’ve created on our chartplotters sent to the pilots.  The pilots take this nav data to “steer to” and make course changes when the boat reaches each plotted waypoint.  What was happening is the modern equipment was sending the data too fast and too much of it.  We then installed a different NEMA 2000 to NEMA 0183 converter that was programmable to dumb down the data and help make the pilots happier.  It worked much of the time.  But roughly every two hours, the pilot would error out and we would need to hit a button a few times to get it back on line.  So another upgrade was added to the “to do” list…

So this January at the Seattle Boat Show, we started looking at autopilots (uh oh – that’s how the electronics started last January).  Our ideal system included two pilot heads, two computers and four follow up levers, essentially how it was sent up originally.  The AccuSteer pumps were just fine and would stay put.  Simrad ended up being the only manufacturer whose system would really support four follow up levers.  Furuno had a work around way to do it, but I didn’t like how it would be done.  So, a new Spring project!

Unlike the navigation upgrade in the spring of 2017 where I did much of the demo myself and then assisted in the install (which means I pulled a lot of cables and watched how things were hooked up), I did the complete Autopilot install myself.  Between my navigation “apprenticeship” plus some electrical classes that I took this last year to fill the wholes in my knowledge, I felt very comfortable completing the install.  Plus, I had Scott with Emerald Harbor on my “phone a friend” speed dial as needed.

So back to demo’ing/pulling wires and equipment.  Most of the work surrounded cable to the wing and cockpit nav stations – removing and installing the follow up levers in those locations.  The flybridge and pilothouse access is fairly easy to work around.  The cabling/wiring was greatly reduced last year but I am still amazed at how much is in Red Rover.

Upper dash down.  This is pre-install of the two additional FI70s.
Almost empty dash…
Photos are great to assist in remembering how wiring should go back together!
Ceiling panel down running new cabling to the wing station.
Master stateroom closet and ceiling panel.
This is just below the wing station.
Starboard wing station before the original follow up lever was removed.
New follow up lever.  One hole that needs to be filled.
Original pilot computers before removal.
Updated AC70 autopilot computers
The NMEA 2000 backbone will replace much of this wad of wiring…


Once the old equipment was out of the dash, I had holes that needed to be filled and new holes to cut.  I epoxied plywood plugs in to the old holes and filled/sanded flat before adding new black laminate.  I also took this opportunity to permanently install the Xantrex battery monitor as well as to add two additional FI70 4.3″ displays in to the upper dash.

NMEA 2000 cables starting to be pulled.
A new hole was drilled for the water gauge and the battery monitor was placed by the genset panel.
The backside of the six FI70 4.3″ panels.  The two on the right are the new displays.
The two new FI70s were installed above the VHF.

The NMEA backbone initially ended in the engine room, far enough to get to the newly installed sounders last year.  So I needed to extend the backbone aft to the laz so that we could connect the cockpit station follow up unit.  As I am typing this, I now realize that I should have pulled the second (currently unused) backbone to the laz at the same time.  This second backbone will be utilized for monitoring equipment in the near future.  Another project!

Original end of our backbone.  Now extended to the laz.
New aft end of the backbone in laz.
After patching the dash, I cut in the holes for the new (or moved) pieces of equipment.
Test fit!
New laminate set after the holes were cut.  A laminate trimmer was used to finish the cutouts.
And how it looks now!
Another view of the helm.

On the flybridge, a new AP70 pilot head, follow up lever and second FI70 display panel was added.  I had a new aluminum dash panel routed and sent out to be powdercoated.

Flybridge dash.  The right side dash panel had to be remade with the updated pilot head.  I also took the opportunity to add another FI70 on the flying bridge.



After the physical install of the equipment, I started the “at dock” setup of the two computers.  When I got to the point where I had questions, I waited until Scott with Emerald Harbor Marine arrived to review/finalize the settings and then head out for a seatrial and on water setup/adjustments.

We had a beautiful day for the setup so it wasn’t to difficult to fine tune the pilots.  The one challenge boats with active fin stabilizers can have is the tuning of the pilot with the interaction of the fins.  When the fins are working to counteract the rolling of the boat, they themselves then turn the boat, which the rudder (pilots) are working to keep the boat tracking straight.  The other part of autopilot tuning is adjusting to a middle ground of the vessel stays pretty much on course with minimal wandering vs it making a lot of rudder adjustments all the time to stay on track.

I will admit that I never messed with the old autopilot settings.  I figured that if it was working, don’t mess with it.  And, we didn’t have a lot of experience with autopilots in other boats to know if what we had was “steering” well or not.  But the new AP70/AC70s work well.  Well, really well.  Since the first seatrial, we have worked to tune the pilots in different sea conditions and Red Rover’s tracking has definitely benefited from it.  And we have come to really love the upgrade, learning to use them and how much more we are enjoying being underway.

2 thoughts on “Autopilot Upgrade

  1. You’re a brave guy to take that on all by yourself, but all’s well that ends well and it sounds as if this ended very well for you. Congratulations!

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