Automatic pilots. The solo sailor's
Crucial for who is sailing single-handed, the automatic pilot takes the helm when it's time for a sail change, time to plot the route, to cook a meal and of course to sleep. Nevertheless, this precious help is not at ease in all sea conditions, and its reliability can sometimes be criticised. In charge of these matters for the Gitana Team, Richard Bastide tells us more about this helpful yet imperfect device.

"I'm a little tired', said Ellen MacArthur today during the daily Route du Rhum audio session. "I steered Kingfisher all night, it was the only solution", in order to maintain or even widen the gap between herself and rival Mike Golding. Why is that ? Because an automatic pilot is only a crutch, and does not replace the sailor's know-how when it comes to playing with the wind. Worse, on a multihull, it can even be dangerous in certain conditions, for example downwind under gennaker (large jib, between the genoa and the spinnaker). Effectively, a major steering mistake while sailing fast can result in a capsized boat. The pilot does not anticipate the waves, does not see nor feels the wind gusts : its only task is to keep the boat on the proper course (direction). And when the solo sailor is ready to leave the helm, he reduces the power of his racer. All the solo sailors say so, pilots cannot be trusted too much !

Towards more safety

"The main problem we encounter, explains Richard Bastide, concerns the fact that the pilot does not react to the differences of sea states... Furthermore, the trimarans sail quite fast in heavy seas, conditions in which they are tough to handle. In our domain, the problem is really critical, because when the boat gets up on a float, the skipper has to be able to straighten the situation in no time – put it back flat on the water – or else it capsizes. What would solve this would be a pilot capable of measuring the distance between the float and the water surface, a pilot which would bring the boat closer to the wind when a certain limit has been reached. Research will be oriented in that direction, because that's what the skippers ask the pilot manufacturers. For the time being, what's important is to have a proper pilot installation, so the jacks can work in the best conditions possible (the jacks are the pilot's arms) : we have seen to many jack breakages due to a bad installation, and in this case, the skipper has to give up the race... A pilot's installation can be decisive as far as race results are concerned. For reliability reasons, these devices have their own electrical circuit. Aboard Gitana X, Lionel Lemonchois had taken 2 automatic pilots for the Route du Rhum'.

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