An autopilot is not exactly a necessity for a cruising boat, but it certainly makes life a lot easier. If you’re just doing local or occasional coastal cruising, you may not feel that you need one. If you’re starting the Great Loop, though, an autopilot would help on a lot of it – crossing Lake Michigan, for example, or heading outside in the ocean for major stretches of Florida, where staying inside, traveling along the Waterway, can mean major delays for bridge openings or slowdowns in manatee zones.
Autopilots can vary greatly, as they need to match the boat’s individual steering mechanism. And they’re not perfect, often leading to over- (or under-) steering or guiding the boat into sudden turns. On the human front, they also can lead to a false sense of security and complacency; you can’t turn the autopilot on and then go to sleep or back to the galley to make lunch.
I vividly remember such a situation two years ago when we were on a brand-new Sabre 66 three or four miles off the coast of north Florida on a beautiful, clear evening when the only other boat in sight was approaching on a steady course a mile or so away off our port bow. We obviously had the right of way, but it just kept coming and coming, not altering its course an inch, until it was about 30 yards away and we had to almost stop, giving it five blasts of our horn. Obviously on autopilot, it just crossed on front of us, the captain totally oblivious, even if he was awake.
The major components of a new autopilot are the controller, compass, computer and rudder sensor, which all interact to steer the boat reliably. Prices and sizes and sophistication vary widely, but the basic Raymarine EV-150 system pictured above for smaller cruising boats costs $1,999.99 at West Marine.
Here’s a very good introduction to autopilots from the Marine Electronics Journal. It will help you understand how they work and choose the one that’s appropriate for your boat and cruising goals. https://www.marineelectronicsjournal.com