The Autopilot

When sailing solo, it's a huge help to have some sort of autopilot that allows you to momentarily take your hands off the tiller.  I say "momentarily" because on a boat as small as the Mariner, it's not all that practical to have a beefy, electronic autopilot designed for extended cruising.  I wanted something that could keep the boat more or less on course for at least 30 seconds or so while I raised or dropped the sails, tended to the motor, went down below to get something from the cabin... that sort of thing.  For this project, I wanted to find something that didn't require a battery and was simple to use and effective.

My first test was to go the cheap route - I simply stretched a line across the aft end of the cockpit, held by a couple cam cleats on the top of each coaming.  It was wrapped a couple times around the tiller, providing some friction, and tension could be adjusted by pulling or slacking the line.  It proved to be only slightly effective and a darn nuisance.  I tried modifying it with bungee cord, but that never seemed to make anything better and looked terrible.  Scratch that idea.

My second trial subject was - you guessed it - the famous "Tiller Tamer" designed by Davis Instruments.  For several years, I used this piece of equipment and had somewhat of a love/hate affair with it.  On the plus side, it was certainly easy to install and, for the most part, effective.  Besides the tasks listed above, in light winds, there were times I was able to set it and leave it to go sit on the bow, sometimes for a couple miles at a time - I received many quizzical looks from passing boaters when they failed to see anyone at the helm!  It also let me keep a course motoring down a channel, allowing me to put on the mainsail cover and saving some clean-up time on the mooring. 

However, it did have its drawbacks.  Since I had a tiller extension mounted on the top of the tiller (as most Mariners have), the only option for me was to mount it underneath the tiller.  It made it slightly awkward to work the rotating knob, and it kept scraping the tops of my knees and banging against the coamings when the tiller was pushed hard over.  Additionally, the time it took to actually set the knob took precious seconds - sometimes as long as seven or eight - which can actually be quite dangerous when trying to release it in an emergency situation like an uncontrolled gybe or a broach.  The construction of the unit was rather weak - one of the plastic guides on the side of the Tiller Tamer actually broke off once, rendering it useless, and I had to buy another one.  Also, the threads on the plastic knob have been known to strip on occasion.  And finally, in order for it to work properly, the instructions detailed having to set the "taming line" at a 90-degree angle from point to point.  Because of its placement, the line always hampered access to the large cockpit lockers as well as access to the motor.  In order to raise or lower the outboard or fill it with gas, I'd have to awkwardly maneuver one leg around the line - something that could be a big problem in rough weather.

Some time last year, I read in a magazine about a new gadget - WaveFront Marine's "TillerClutch".  It wasn't cheap at nearly $70, but after reading about its features and, more importantly, advantages over the Tiller Tamer and other similar autopilots, I decided to bite the bullet and give it a try.  Immediately, I noticed improvements across the board, and almost all my problems listed in the above paragraph were solved.

The first thing I noticed about it was its small profile.  It's unobtrusive and is designed from the get-go to fit underneath the tiller.  The curved top allowed it to fit the underside of my tiller very well, unlike the Tiller Tamer which was flat and bulky.  While it still bumped into the very top of the coamings when pushed hard over, it no longer scraped up my knees, a definite improvement!  (These pictures show me using a curved tiller which finally resolved the problem, supplied to me when I got my new IdaSailor rudder after my other one broke.)  The construction of stainless steel and aluminum is also a huge improvement over plastic.  Also, after visiting the website and looking at photos, I found that while the TillerClutch needed to be placed close to the end of the tiller, the taming line didn't have to be set at a 90-degree angle from point to point.  I was able to mount clamcleats on the transom instead of the coaming tops, allowing me to access the cockpit lockers and the motor with a lot less trouble.  With everything set in place, I went for a sail.

In short, it worked like a charm.  The instantaneous engaging and releasing action of flipping the lever was absolutely fantastic.  And it stayed put - no more second-guessing whether or not it was actually engaged all the way.  Moreover, the ability to control it with the same hand that's already on the tiller (instead of holding the tiller with one hand and adjusting the Tiller Tamer's knob in the other) allowed me to work the sheets with the other hand at the same time.  If I needed to adjust it a little, I simply lifted the lever up just enough until it released hold on the line, move it a fraction of an inch, and then let it engage the line again.  No fuss.

Having used this TillerClutch for more than a year now, I can say with confidence that it is truly the best non-electronic "autopilot" out there for small boats like the Mariner.  I am extremely pleased with it, and it has only added versatility and a measure of security to sailing Orion.  I would recommend this for any small-boater.