Prior to sailing a larger yacht, I believed strongly in the use of the autopilot in my Hallberg-Rassy 54. So much so that I specified to have two of them, so I would never be without one. Sailing the HR for a year convinced me that it truly was needed. Looking back now I see this was due to how hard it was to helm the boat and not for safety as I first believed. In fact, I now think that developing a dependence on an autopilot might be a bad thing to do.
No fault of the HR as it was built for a different purpose than the yacht I am sailing now. The HR product line is targeted toward the retired couple and the emphasis is on allowing one person to manage the boat. As such, the cockpit is arranged with all the controls, winches, etc. close by. I can attest to the ease of being able to sail her single-handed. The problem is that the steering mechanism was built very heavy duty with multiple chains, gears, drive shafts, universal joints, gear boxes and reducing gear. The result was a heavy and insensitive helm that has lost most of the feel for the rudder and tires you out when you helmed. A good trade off perhaps for this type of yacht as they are sailed mostly single or double-handed but what a difference when you get to take the helm of a yacht built for more performance and feel.
No auto-pilot in the world can helm like this.
A performance-oriented yacht will have a more direct connection to the rudder, usually by stranded stainless-steel cable or something more exotic like Dyneema. The result is a wonderful, close feeling to the yacht that allows you to more quickly and accurately steer her than an auto-pilot. You can see the angle and amplitude of the approaching waves and anticipate the correction needed at the helm before the wave affects the yacht. No auto-pilot in the world can helm like this. The result is a much smoother ride though the waves with less pounding and skewing around. Both passengers and the yacht appreciate this equally. Likewise, being on the helm allows you to feel the weather-helm building so you can do something about it rather than waiting for a more visible sign (like the heel angle growing larger)
A result of spending more time hand-helming is that you will gain confidence in your ability to handle the yacht should your auto pilot stop working one day and you just might discover how much more fun sailing becomes when you are connected to what is going on rather than sitting there twisting the dial on the auto-pilot.
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