How many times – addressing someone who performs an action repetitively and without thinking – have we asked: “Are you on autopilot?”. The big misunderstanding in thinking that using the autopilot during a regattas is a sort of “shortcut” probably derives from this idiom, as well as from countless hours spent cruising, without paying too much attention to performance.
We couldn’t be further from reality; however, having never had the opportunity to sail solo in 30 knots of wind and in pitch darkness, perhaps we’re forgiven.
“The idea that the autopilot can replace a human in navigation”, indeed explained Alberto Bona, “is a bit reductive, and above all it’s far from the current sailing trend. The misunderstanding arises from the fact that steering is always thought of as the main element of navigation, as the basic and foremost technique, without taking into account all the elements of the complex system”.
This complex system might seem like a difficult concept to grasp, but the answer is clear when wind and waves lash against the boat, when the pitch dark doesn’t even let you see as far as the bow, and when you would need at least six arms to do it all. There, in those conditions, entrusting the points of sailing to the autopilot essentially means programming an electronic system so that it can make the route choices necessary to maintain a speed or direction trend. It’s like saying that the autopilot must be programmed every time: “It must be literally taught how to steer in that specific situation”, explained Bona, “by programming a control unit even for several consecutive hours”.
And since the autopilot has “hands” but no eyes – and therefore does not “see” any wave, obstacle and wind strengthening – it’s up to the skipper to instruct it. “There are conditions in which the autopilot perfectly replaces the sailor, conditions in which it performs even better than the latter, and other conditions in which it is not (yet) so good. The trend – and this can be observed in larger boats, such as IMOCAs or trimarans – is to increasingly entrust the helm to the autopilot, in order to devote oneself to all the other activities. The more the automatic rudders become performing, the more this trend will take root in all the different classes. It goes without saying that in an inshore regatta the rudder is in human hands, but as soon as the distances multiply and the times for choosing manoeuvers expand, the rudders should be entrusted to the instruments, while the sailors focus on tactics, manoeuvres, the weather and also on rest, to better face situations and subsequent choices”.
“The automatic rudder is not a shortcut: like all automations, it’s a support, and – it being highly technological – a support that the sailor needs to know well, in order to program, use and get the best out of it, especially in a regatta”, concluded Bona.