Helm design: a blend of form and function
Posted on 09 January 2009
Written by Eric Sorensen
A helm station that gives the operator an unobstructed view will enhance situational awareness
Walking the docks at a boat show, the first thing that grabs most people’s attention is looks — the color, curves and proportions that define any boat. The degree to which styling drives decision making for buyers depends on the class of boat we’re talking about, as well as the experience and priority of the shopper.
People who buy runabouts or wakeboard boats are much more influenced by styling than, say, outboard fishing boat buyers, according to the annual J.D. Power boat study, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest the same thing. Anglers are more concerned with functionality, as their boats have a clearly defined purpose — catching fish — but even fishing-boat builders often favor form over function in a number of design elements, as a look at helm designs on these boats quickly proves.
Aesthetics have an immediate, compelling appeal, but a dysfunctional design often takes more time to fully reveal itself (maybe not until the first moonlight cruise). While some owners can’t appreciate the consequences of a style-driven design until they’ve put to sea, a combination of Euro-styling influence and a weak understanding of practical design factors on the part of builders means helm stations on many boats are lacking from an operator’s perspective.
Many owners and professional captains take it for granted that they can’t see the horizon ahead for 10 or 20 seconds when coming up on plane, or that the radar arch takes a 36-inch swath out of the horizon aft to port, or that the windshield frame cuts right through the horizon from your seated or standing eye level. The same goes for bright white gelcoat — a foolish color to finish a boat with anywhere near the helm, because it causes eye strain in bright sunlight and reflects off the windshield, obscuring the clarity of the view ahead. At night, the white lights common to recreational boats reflect off the white gelcoat, making it practically impossible to see what’s in front of you — little details like red and green side lights and twinkling aids to navigation.
My feeling is that while many boats have a cluster of hardtop piping, poorly considered windshield designs, and foot-wide sections of deckhouse between the side windows, anything that obstructs your view of the horizon should be justified structurally. Anything that takes away a degree of horizon that isn’t needed to support the superstructure shouldn’t be there, and, of course, that includes canvas side curtains, which are rarely removed when the boat gets under way. Along these lines, it’s interesting that some builders are now addressing this problem by producing canvas-filler-free boats, such as recent offerings from Tiara, Cruisers and Formula.
Before we take a look at good and bad examples from the production-boat world, let’s consider a few design criteria to look for on your next boat. You should be able to stand at the helm and look straight ahead through glass, not at the top of a windshield frame. The minimum height I’d recommend is 68 inches, and 70 or 71 inches is much better.
When you sit at the wheel, you should have a clear view of the horizon ahead. Windshield corner posts and mullions (frames between the windows) should be no more than 2 to 3 inches wide — any wider and the builder is not being smart about the structure, as many are successfully building to this standard. Wide radar arches should have a window in the middle so the horizon sector obscured is minimized. The best design is a pipe-frame arch that cuts the obstruction to a minimum.
Preferably, you won’t be able to see any bright white surfaces from the wheel, but at the very least, the dash area under the windshield should be covered with a flat, dark material or finish, like in your car. There should be no white lights visible from the helm at night — gauges, controls, anything — as these interfere with night vision. Red lights are much better for this purpose. Also, make sure there are no obstructions inside the boat, such as companionway hatches or oversized electronics boxes that get in the way.
Situational awareness on the water should be a high priority for owner and builder alike, but it’s not always getting the attention it deserves. A pilothouse, bridge or center console helm station should always be laid out, prioritized and equipped so the operator knows exactly what’s going on outside the boat, whether running in bright sunlight or in the dark of night. Every other consideration, including styling and habitability, should take a back seat to the safety of the owner, guests and crew.
Armed with this list of helm visibility priorities, go forth, look carefully, and be sure to let your dealer or boatbuilder know what you like and don’t like about their product. Change will come if we all insist on it.
Eric Sorensen was founding director of the J.D. Power and Associates marine practice and is the author of “Sorensen’s Guide to Powerboats: How to Evaluate Design, Construction and Performance.” A longtime licensed captain, he can be reached at
This story originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.