Saturday, December 27, 2008

Running on Auto

When we tell our fellow cruisers that we've covered nearly 3000 nautical miles since leaving San Francisco without a working autopilot, they usually picture themselves doing such a thing, which is then followed by a shudder. Comments such as "I wouldn't have made this trip without an autopilot" and "I've hand-steered 1% of the time, while my autopilot handled the other 99%" are common.

It's not that we didn't want to sail with an autopilot. But fate has conspired against us:

Autopilot #1: Came with the boat, and it was a Navico wp4000. But, when we plugged it in it would chirp for a split second then....nada. Nothing at all. I tried to remedy this by giving some extra sails we had to a guy on craigslist, who was an electrical engineer and promised to take a look at it. After a month and a half or so, we'd heard nothing, so I asked him to send it back, which he did. It now sits buried in our starboard lazarette, somewhat mocking us.

Autopilot #2: Using a voltmeter and my extremely primitive electrical skills, I was able to determine that some previous owner had inexplicitly crossed the positive/negative wires at the female plug. Thus, it's likely that we were frying #1 each time we plugged it in. So, I got on eBay and way overpaid in an auction for another wp4000. (Why eBay, you may ask? Because this is outdated technology that is no longer serviced or fact, the company was acquired and no longer really exists...BUT, our boat is set up for this particular unit).

When I received the unit from the eBay sell, I plugged it in and it chirped happily. Success! Or so we thought. We didn't actually rig it up until we were halfway down the California coast, at which time we learned that while the control unit worked (the "chirp"), the gears in the drive unit were shot.

After a few nasty email exchanges with the seller, I 'escalated' this to a 'claim' on eBay/PayPal. This is somewhat analogous to a legal trial, where we both presented our sides of the story for 'judgment' by eBay. (His argument, by the way, was that it was sold 'as-is' and it had been almost a month since the purchase was consummated). As we sailed out of San Diego at the start of the Ha Ha, I got an email on my blackberry that I had won the case-- but had to ship the unit back within 10 days. This necessitated starting leg 3 of the Ha Ha race early to get to Cabo in time to ship it...and also cost a small fortune in shipping fees. But we got our money back.

Which brings us to....

Autopilot #3: To make a long story longer, we took a gamble and purchased another autopilot on eBay, a wp5000, and had it shipped to my home in Colorado where I visited for Christmas. I sort of smuggled it into Mexico (technically I thing you're supposed to pay import duties on this stuff)

Yesterday, Roger of La Palapa came over to help install it. It took all of Roger's technical skills (engineering degrees from MIT and Stanford) to rig up a system. While he baked in the hot Mexican sun, my role was to keep the beer on ice and periodically supply a fresh one.

At around 3 pm, December 26th, we took it for a test drive. The first time we pushed the "Set" button, the boat did a complete and immediate 180 degree turn, heading right into a fleet of anchored boats. Fortunately, the fix was simple-- we had the unit installed backwards.

So, with fingers crossed, hoping that the third try's the charm, we now join the world of "autopilot sailors" and are greatly looking forward to it. Hopefully this will give us more free time to...practice Spanish? Ponder the mysteries of the universe? Come up with solutions for world peace? Who knows. I'll let you know how it goes on our passage to Barra de Navidad...

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