Autopilot Chaos

Author: Mark
Date: Apr 19, 3:30am MST
Location: 06 58.45S --- 100 47.58W
Conditions: 13-15ts @ 140T, 255 COG, 6.5kts SOG, 2.5-3m swell with 9s period

Yesterday was a heck of a day. It started at 9am - a loud alarm on the Furuno chartplotter. The autopilot was not working! At first, we thought it was a simple fix - a fuse. Nope. Second we thought it was due to moisture on the wiring harness in the starboard aft locker due to leaking water from the squalls. Nope. Third, we thought it was because four of the bolts fastening the Jefa autopilot motor to the gearbox had come off. Partially.

To gain access to diagnose the problem required a lot of work. The water maker ETD has to be removed first, so I could crawl back and gain full access to the unit. Newer boats have an access door under the salon compartment. Our's was the first boat with the newer style electric autopilot, so we did not have that luxury. I was not looking forward to disassembling the water maker. Not in a 3m seaway, in the middle of the south pacific.

After removing the ETD, we put the boat on 'water restrictions'. This meant no unnecessary water usage until the water maker was fully reassembled, tested and working. We soon found out this was a wise move.

Now back to the autopilot. We knew from the beginning this was a potential weak link to our trip. If we would have been sailing this far with only Sarah and I, we would have a second backup autopilot installed - top to bottom. We've never had a problem in 15,000 miles using our autopilot - until we were in Panama. Our rudder reference unit senor started a slow death, causing sporadic readings and the autopilot not to work. So we ordered a new one while in Panama, and had Paul on s/v Dafne bring one down from Philly on his quick return trip home. It was installed and worked great.

Our backup plan is a crew of 4 adults. 3 hours hand steering per person, with a 9 hour break. This is very doable and not a big deal in case of an emergency.

With the ETD removed, I crawled back and did more diagnostics. Carlos looked up the error message - it was a non-functioning clutch. Our first concern was the clutch mechanism being fried since there was a lot of water dripping right on top of the wiring harness. The harness was not shrink wrapped so it was not waterproof and there is no inline fuse. ARG! I dried out the harness with a hairdryer, and checked all the wire connections before testing the autopilot. Same error.

On the third try I found the issue. When the four bolts come off the Jefra autopilot motor, it would rotate freely when engaged. This sharp motion severed the clutch motor wires. They were stubs on top of the motor. Yikes. We needed to find a way to reattach the wires. With a couple of phone calls to Jeff at Antares (thanks Jeff) and some patient, slow work, I was eventually able to tease out enough wire to solder a new wire on each side, insulate, shrink wrap and reattach. All this took hours and hours as I was wedged underneath our locker in a 3m swell. We had changed our sails to the genoa so we were sailing slower, which helped.

We held or breath, turned on the autopilot?and it worked!!!! Yeah!

I then reassembled the ETD, and tested the water maker. A leak! It was spraying water from a connection behind the panel. This was not a connection that I had removed. Ugh. So I took the panel off the wall, found the leak, and tried to fix. The high pressure stainless steel fitting still leaked. I pulled off the fitting and found the problem. The hose has been slightly pulled at an angle, causing a crack. OK, no problem. I removed the fitting, cut off the bad piece and tried to reattach. Problem. The stainless steel high-pressure fitting has a collar that is a 'one time use' collar. It spreads out when tightened to grab and lock on the black hose. You cannot reuse this fitting, and I had no spares onboard!

I fortunately had spares for the old style plastic fitting with collar. I pulled off the newer style, replaced, and it worked. Whew! Problem #2 fixed, and we were off.

I took a long hot shower, had a great dinner with the family - haystacks (think frito pie) and went to bed. It was one heck of a long day for the crew of Field Trip!

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