Autopilots for Steel Boats /Solar Panels

Dear Sirs, Please advise which autopilot system will be better for a 12m. steel ketch: Autohelm or Robertson? We have a hydraulic steering system by Vetus. I would like also to know which self-steering you would recommend? We have a central cockpit. Our intention is to sail from the Arabian Sea to Australia so we need really good gear. So far, we have sailed from Slovenia to Oman (wintertime on Med) – hand-steering all the time and only two of us. To be honest, I (would rather) have something to help in the future. Last question – how many solar panels should we have to be able to run fridge and have a hot water system as well? I have ordered your Encyclopedia and am waiting for it to arrive. Thank you for your help. – Nina

Hi Nina: These are complex questions, and I trust you will be able to find a bunch of answers in our Offshore Cruising Encyclopedia, when it arrives. Hand-steering all that way – the two of you must be really tough! As to autopilot, with a steel boat you will need iether a gryo compass or an externally mounted flux gate (so that it is not influenced by your hull).

Beyond this, we have had very good experience with WH Autopilots for many years now. They are very strong, easy to install, and perform better than anything else on the market in heavy weather – the most critical trime for the pilot to work well. You can reach WH at

The subject of solar panels is more complex. First comes the efficiency of your fridge system. On our last boat, Sundeer, we had about 20 cubic feet of fridge/freezer and it took six M55 panels to run the system if we were aboard – four would do if the boat were closed. This boat had four inches (100mm) of foam insulation on the fridge – six inches/150mm foam for the freezer.

With a smaller box, and the new vacuum panel insulation, you could probably get by with four panels for 100% of the time, maybe less. A lot also depends on the efficiency of your compressor – the Danfoss style sealed DC units are about half the efficiency of the old-style externally driven units. Good Luck with your projects – Steve.

Posted by Steve Dashew  (November 30, 1999)

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