Here’s some tips about using your autopilot (adapted from a United States Coast Guard article written by Tom Bower at
Of course autopilots shouldn’t be used in crowded situations like entering or leaving a harbor. They become very useful for open water passages in day and night. Using the autopilot doesn’t relieve one of basic seamanship responsibilities but actually enhances the ability to pay more attention to other seamanship activities like keeping an even better lookout for whatever is out there on the water. It takes your focus from steering a course to keeping a good lookout. On the other hand you could be tempted to do other things, like reading, talking, or going down below for something, that actually take your attention off of doing a good lookout. If you must do something like this be sure that the sea is clear of obstacles or they are far enough away to avoid them in all directions before leaving the helm, or even better, ask one of the crew to stand watch. On long passages it’s imperative to check your surroundings on a regular basis and the best way to do that is by setting a loud timer for an appropriate interval (such as 5, 10, 20 minutes or more depending on the situation) to remind you to check the radar, speed, course, and surroundings so you are assured your course will be clear and safe until the next time check.
Autopilots have many useful features that make navigation easier but they can kill you if you don’t use them properly. They rank right near the top in causing collisions at sea according to insurance investigators. This should serve as a reminder that we need to use autopilots carefully and as they were intended, and it’s the skipper’s responsibility to ensure that the autopilot is used correctly.
If you have any questions or suggestions feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 805-682-4543. Sail safely!