Sunday, October 24, 2010

Things that - Work: Benmar Course Setter Autopilot

This is a biggie.  Viking Star is a SLOW boat, and when we go anywhere two things are true:  It takes time (as in Hours), and it can be really boring to Man the Wheel.  As a result, we use our Autopilot almost all the time - even when river cruising.

What came with the boat when I purchased her was a motor unit for a Benmar Course Setter 21 autopolot, but no head (despite it being in the sales agreement).  This caused me to look around to see 1) If this was a good unit, and 2) Where I could get another (or a different one).

What I found out was the unit has been produced for 40 or more years, and is considered simple and very reliable.  In fact, the motor drive unit (ours is attached via a chain to the steering wheel) has a reputation for being perhaps one of the most robust ones around.  Heck, the same model is still being produced: http://www.benmarmarine.com/Autopilots.htm

One unique feature of this unit is it does NOT need a rudder position sensor, and hence there is one less thing to break.  In fact, the only trouble I have ever had was at one time the contacts to the internal rotating compass had some contact issues. A simple opening of the control head and a shot of Radio Shack TV Tuner Cleaner fixed that right up.

Now, these units are simple of operate:  Turn that large dial to the compass course you want to go, and pull the Engage lever.  Then monitor it.   Yes, this is NOT an integrated unit that can take its commands from the GPS or Chart plotter, you have to turn a knob to tell it which direction to head.   And to be honest - I like that.  It goes with my overall concern about too much integration of critical navigation components, and it also causes you to keep an eye on the progress and make small adjustments along the way, as well as course adjustments when you reach a waypoint.   It, in effect, encourages good seamanship practices of paying attention to what is going on around you.

And seeing as they are not the 'In Vogue' systems, they can be found for very reasonable costs.  The control head pictured I picked up at a 2nd hand store for $35, and at a swap meet I picked up a control head PLUS a drive unit for $50.  A rock solid autopilot solution with 100% backup for under $100.   Yes, the Cheapness in me just loves that.

But vastly more important:  This thing just works.  It is a dog simple, proven technology, standalone, simple to operate.  That is key, and the Benmar Course Setter passes with flying colors.

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