This column originally appeared in the Keys Citizen on Jan. 1, 2013.
Who needs an autopilot? This is a funny question bandied around almost constantly among small-boat owners. I remember when I first met my oldest fishing buddies, Bill and Elroy, up in Orlando. They fished out of Port Canaveral in 23-foot and a 25-foot boats, respectively. They were looking for a third guy to share expenses, work-details and all the other things that go along with offshore fishing.
They asked about my 23-foot boat and what type of equipment I had onboard. One of their rather pointed questions was whether I had an autopilot. I answered, “No,” and they went on to tell me all about the autopilot system they both had on their boats, where I could get one, how to install it, how it worked and asked if I would like to see the owner’s manual to one of their units. I replied, “I don’t think I want to spend the money for something I don’t really need,” and that was the end of the conversation — at least for that day.
Throughout my recreational fishing “career” I have had this same conversation with other anglers hundreds of times. The answer to my question about whether he or she has an autopilot is always the same as mine so many years ago, “I don’t think I want to spend the money for something I don’t really need.” And that is just how it goes.
Granted, autopilots can be fairly expensive, relatively speaking, of course. But, when you think about it, most “bigger” boats, which really means, most “expensive” boats all come from the factory with autopilots installed. I used to wonder if that was because smaller boats don’t need autopilots. Now, I believe it’s just because of the cost. A quick survey of autopilot prices for smaller boats start at around $500 for a reasonable used system and $1,000 for a new “in the box” system. From there, prices go up depending on the system, accessories and installation concerns.
I fished with Bill and Elroy at least two times per month for a number of years. True to their original thoughts and statements, I found their autopilots to be wonderful additions to the array of equipment available to boat owners. I also realized that they had a serious dependence on their autopilots, more so than to any other peripheral onboard device. This sounds a bit strange at first, but when Bill’s or Elroy’s autopilots stopped working, there was an immediate panic.
Bill would say, “Elroy, we will have to use your boat until we get my autopilot fixed.” Then, they would meet at 6 a.m. the next morning, remove the autopilot and drive it 100 miles to the factory. This is not to say that autopilots are unreliable. Bill and Elroy had the same autopilots for 14 years.
This was very surprising to me because the first time I fished with Bill and Elroy, I watched as they mounted and connected a Loran system to the console of Elroy’s boat, then mounted and connected a second Loran system and then mounted and connected a GPS system. This was right around the time when boaters were switching from Loran to GPS. My big mistake was to question what they were doing and why.
“Well,” Elroy explained, “This Loran doesn’t work, so I use the second Loran as backup. And, we are not confident in these new GPS things yet so we like to have something to compare it to, just in case it doesn’t really work.” You would have to know Bill and Elroy for this to make sense. Even then, I suppose it’s a stretch. When we launched the boat, the GPS was turned on, and we started heading for open water.
I noticed that neither Loran unit was turned on. “Don’t you want to turn on the Loran to compare with the GPS?” I asked.
“No, that old backup Loran doesn’t work either,” was the answer.
“So why do you go through all the trouble of connecting everything?” I just had to ask.
“Because we don’t really know how to use the stupid GPS and if something happens maybe we can get one of the Loran units to come on,” they explained in unison.
I thought, “If my mother (God rest her soul) knew her baby boy was fishing in the middle of the ocean with these guys, she would be mad.”
So, what’s the point of all this? It just goes to show how important autopilots are, but only to those who already own one or have the opportunity to use one on somebody else’s boat. And that is exactly what happened last month to my fishing buddy Dan, and me when Dan fished on my boat for the first time and got to use the autopilot.
It was an incredible fishing day. My regular readers know the story already. We caught three wahoo, five blackfin tuna, lost a big wahoo at the side of the boat and released several skipjacks and a barracuda. Every time a line got hit, we put the boat on autopilot, one of us fought the fish and the other cleared the remaining lines and then prepared to be the gaff man. All the time, the autopilot (or as I like to call it Otto Pilot) kept the boat idling perfectly straight, keeping the fish right where we wanted him and allowing both of us to be in the back of the cockpit at the same time. See, I love my autopilot.
It wasn’t long after that and Dan was already well into an autopilot purchase. He picked one out, measured and checked for space to install it, and began the process of justifying the purchase. “I’ll catch more fish, and the money I save on buying fish will pay for the autopilot,” he said. I agreed. “And since I fish alone many times, it will be safer for me; and my wife will be more comfortable with me in the ocean alone.” I agreed again. He and I are both OK with buying things that make our wives happy. And just like when I bought my first Penn International, he’s breaking the news to his lovely wife in the newspaper.
So there you have it; mission accomplished. If you already have an autopilot, you understand this whole story. If you don’t have an autopilot, one of these days you’ll know what I mean. Start saving your loose change every night. And before you know it, just like magic, you’ll have your autopilot. And whether you fish with Otto Pilot or not, life is good in the Florida Keys; life is very good in the Florida Keys.
C.J. Geotis is a lifelong fisherman who followed his dream more than 20 years ago to live in the Florida Keys. His books, “Florida Keys Fish Stories,” and “Double-Edged Sword” are available at Amazon.com. He lives in Marathon with his wife, Loretta, and her Coca-Cola collection. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.