Safe and comfortable boating begins at the helm

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A well thought-out helm places the wheel, controls, switches and displays easily within the skipper's reach, particularly when the captain's seated.

Nothing is more central to safe and enjoyable boating than the helm. A helm station’s primary functions are to provide a high level of vessel control and situational awareness, which are distinct topics. First let’s consider the role of helm ergonomics — the layout of the controls, gauges and navigational electronics.

I favor boats than can be run standing up or sitting down. Standing lets you stretch and stay alert, and if the boat is riding hard and fast, your legs can absorb some of the shock.

You can usually see better when you’re standing, and it’s nice to have the option to do so, say, when coming up on plane. But for long stretches at the wheel it’s also nice to be able to sit and relax. The problem is that many boats fitted with helm seats are poorly laid out for seated driving. The seat may be too high and too far back to let you reach the wheel and engine controls comfortably, let alone the electronics, or the seat may be too low to let you see over the helm console and bow.

The steering wheel itself can be awkwardly positioned, such as when the builder puts it at waist level and oriented vertically, as on a sailboat, mounted to a vertical bulkhead. This leaves no room for your knees even if the seat slides forward enough to get you up close. Such a boat might require an autopilot for seated operation; your back eventually will give out because you have to lean forward to steer. The default position is to put the boat on autopilot and take your perch, but this is not good when you have to jump off the seat and take manual control. Better to have the wheel in your hands or in your lap all the time, as you do in your car.

When you get down to it, many boats are not comfortable to drive while standing or sitting, or they may be passable in one position but not the other. The better helm stations are comfortable when you’re standing or seated, and achieving that capability is not as difficult as you — or many builders — might think. Part of the solution is to get the operator’s eye height about the same in the seated and standing positions, mostly by getting the seat height right to begin with. If you slip off the seat and your eye height changes little, that’s a big help. Of course, a seat that is adjustable 4 to 6 inches vertically and 10 to 12 inches horizontally adds a lot of flexibility to suit the operator’s height and preferred position.

Another thing to look for is plenty of standing room between the wheel and the seat. On many boats, the problem with standing room is not the fault of the seat. It’s the lack of standing room at the deck level, with the seat console restricting how far aft you can stand. Seats with flip-up bolsters let you stand farther aft, but if your heels hit the seat base with your thighs inches from the wheel, the bolsters don’t help. This is especially a problem when accelerating onto plane and you naturally try to counter by shuffling aft a foot or so to compensate.

Ideally a boat should be comfortable to operate in both standing and seated positions at the helm.

The bow is also coming up — on some boats coming up a lot — and this makes you want to stand even farther aft momentarily until the speed steadies and the bow drops back down. My highly technical test for standing/feet interference is to position myself at the wheel (or to the side of the seat if it’s in the way), hit the throttles and mark with a piece of painter’s tape how far aft my feet move to maintain my balance without having to hang on to the wheel. No seat bases or other structures are allowed forward of this line.

Back to the vertical sailboat wheel: When you think about it, this is not an ideal design for a powerboat. Besides preventing you from sitting and driving comfortably, you have to bend down with every full rotation of the wheel when steering from lock to lock. A wheel that basically sits in your lap makes a lot more sense because it’s comfortable to use when you’re standing, and if the seat has enough fore-and-aft adjustment you can slide forward with the bottom of the steering wheel in your lap, just as in a car.

The seat should be high enough so that you end up at about the same elevation above the deck when you hop off. This keeps the wheel and engine controls at the right relative height as you move from a seated to a standing position and keeps the angle of the electronics and their position, relative to the wheel, fairly constant. This allows the electronics to be placed where they are unobscured by the wheel from both positions.

I’d like to see builders start making adjustable helm consoles that move in order to better suit your position and height, but that’s a subject for another day. Some builders allow the consoles to tilt aft for access to the back side of the gauges and electronics or to reach big access panels from the cabin or console below. These can cut down on the time and aggravation (and cost) to change or repair components, which is a good thing.

Once you have a comfortable seated and standing driving position worked out, take a close look at the orientation and relative position of the controls, gauges, switches and displays. The electronics displays should occupy the prime real estate because radar, depth and GPS position information are crucial to safe navigation and piloting. Putting the displays where they’re partially blocked from view or putting them so far forward or off to the side that you can’t read them clearly or adjust them easily is putting you at a disadvantage. That’s another good reason to have the wheel in your lap, as it lets you get the displays closer and easily within reach.

Electronic displays should be intuitively placed and angled toward the skipper's head.

The engine displays are not as important to safe vessel operation, so they are next on the list for prime real estate — within view and readable but not as high a priority as the navigational information. Nowadays you can display engine info on the GPS/plotter, which may be appropriate if you have enough combined display area. Then the engine gauges, which are often a lot bigger than they need to be, can be thought of as backups and located accordingly.

The ideal helm station has panels for the electronics, gauges and switches that are oriented toward the skipper’s head, vertically and horizontally. Look at a bus or truck driver’s console to see how well this works, with the various surfaces forming a semicircle oriented toward the driver. At the opposite end of the ergonomics spectrum we have a helm console, as you see on many convertibles and express sportfishermen, that stretches 4 or 5 feet from side to side, oriented directly aft at some vertical angle the builder has chosen. This puts the electronics and other gear a lot farther from the operator than they ought to be, and it puts the displays at an awkward angle that makes them difficult to see clearly. Sea Ray has done an excellent job of getting the angles right on some of its sedans and other boats.

The helm stations on smaller center consoles have to accomplish a lot in a relatively tight space.

The wheel and engine controls should be next to each other at the same general height, with the throttles even with or slightly abaft the wheel. The boat that’s designed primarily for seated driving should have the throttles a little farther aft in relation to the wheel. Putting them even with each other is more comfortable when you’re standing. The engine control binnacle should be angled about 15 to 30 degrees so the biceps and triceps are doing the shifting, not the forearms. Some builders also put them on a sideways or lateral slant, tilted toward the centerline, in an attempt at a more comfortable motion when shifting from ahead to astern.

For most people, having the wheel directly in front of the seated position is best, with the engine controls to the right. Where you put the joystick or bow/stern thruster controls is the subject of much debate. For a starboard helm, partly because I’m right-handed, I like the joystick to the right of the wheel as long as there’s room to turn around and face the stern, along with clear sightlines aft to the transom.

For boats with poor sightlines aft, you might be better off with the joystick on the other side of the wheel, closer to the centerline if the view astern is better from that position. On a single-engine Back Cove 37 that I spent a few days aboard, the bow/stern thruster controls were to the left of the wheel and the engine control was to the right, which is perfect because those are the only controls you need when docking the boat, leaving the rudder amidships once you approach the dock. By the way, that was the most controllable boat I have ever run, much more than any joystick boat, especially when currents and strong winds are at play. That’s because the bow thruster is providing thrust all the way in the bow, where it’s needed, rather than making the drives close together in the stern work against all that distance to create the needed thrust vectors.

Switches also should be prioritized. Think operational versus administrative functionality. The horn, wipers and washers, trim tabs or interceptors, autopilot, nav lights and searchlight, for example, are all operational and are either critical in an emergency, used often or both and should get first dibs, placed close at hand. I personally like a pod, or flat, that holds the engine controls, tabs, horn and wiper/washers in one place. Switches for the engine room and deck lights, bilge pump, blower, live well pump and so on are not critical to safe operation, so they can be placed a little farther away, still in view but not as prominently positioned.

Outside the boat

A clear view from the helm to the stern is a big help when backing into a slip.

Once you’ve had a close look at the helm station ergonomics, it’s time to examine how well you can see outside the boat, keeping in mind that you can’t avoid hitting what you can’t see. First, most builders put the helm to starboard for the good reason that from dead ahead to two points (22.5 degrees) abaft the starboard beam is your give-way sector under the Rules of the Road. Legally you have to stay away from vessels closing on you in this sector.

The burden to act is yours, so it makes sense to give yourself as much of an advantage visually as possible — a form of risk mitigation, as opposed to attenuation, if you will. A centerline helm also can work well as long as you have a clear sightline to starboard. Be sure you can see the horizon all the way around from the helm.

I’ve seen a trend among some European boats to put the helm to port — the worst possible location for it from a piloting perspective. This is one of those things that boat designers who don’t put to sea dreamed up. Why would you want to make it harder to see within the sector for which you have the chief responsibility under law when it comes to avoiding collisions?

Next is the matter of all-around sightlines. Anything that interferes with your ability to see 360 degrees around the boat ought to be structurally justified. Unfortunately, many boat designs are styling-driven, and this wreaks havoc nowhere more than in visibility from the wheel. Jeanneau has some great pilothouse designs from a window-design perspective. The mullions (the frames between the windows) are maybe an inch wide, and you can basically see right through them with your binocular vision, thanks to your eyes being spaced a few inches apart in your head.

If the windshield mullions or any other obstructions are more than about 3 inches wide (including the black frit border in bonded glass), depending on how close they are to you at the helm, you’ve got a built-in blind zone to contend with. Express cruisers are some of the worst offenders, with their 2-foot-wide radar arches that block off 10 or 15 degrees of the horizon.

By definition, a vessel that is on a collision course with your own is on a constant bearing with decreasing range. If that bearing happens to be in the middle of that radar arch or the cockpit cover that’s more canvas than plastic or the curtains in the aft pilothouse windows, your goose is cooked. That boat will get bigger and bigger behind the arch or curtain, especially at night, when the relatively closely spaced running lights are all that can be seen, until it’s time to say hello to the other boat driver. So at least get the aft canvas reworked to maximize the plastic windows and minimize the canvas, pull those curtains back and otherwise remove horizon blockers as much as possible.

The seat should be high enough that you're at about the same elevation when standing.

Make sure to look for the glare that bright white windshield dashes cause. Builders who produce boats with bright white surfaces anywhere near the helm are doing their customers a big disservice. Commercial and military vessels often have flat black overheads and flat pea-green bulkheads in the pilothouse. And no white lights — red and blue only — are allowed at night.

On a destroyer, as I found out, this virtually eliminates window glare; you can see a side light at 5 miles while standing back by the coffee maker. The outboard-pitched widows also help because there’s nothing directly below to cause glare in the first place. Glare is a real problem at night because it obscures unlighted objects (boats on a mooring, floating docks, purple kayaks, as my wife used to have, etc.) close aboard, and close aboard is where collisions tend to occur. If you have a boat with a shiny dash, you can cover it with a non-glare paint, a dull canvas cut to shape or even upholstery, as Cobalt and Sea Ray use.

Make sure you can see over the bow when the boat is coming up on plane. Every yard the boat travels with the bow blocking the horizon is a moment of high risk. Boatbuilding standards are too lax in this area, in my opinion. If you lose the horizon under the bow for more than a second or two, you’ve got an inadequately thought out design on your hands. When docking, you need to be able to see all around, too, but your focus is close to the boat. If your eye height is too low in relation to the bottom of the windows, you won’t be able to tell how close you are to the dock or other boats.

Lacking a clear view of the stern will make the pucker factor go up when you’re backing into a slip. You ought to have a clear view of the transom, or at least most of it, so you can judge bearing and distances. Adding a control station aft for better situational awareness when backing into a slip is fine, but you are still responsible for your bow, so make sure to station a lookout at the helm or up on the bow to keep an eye on things.

Boats these days have elaborate electronics, and these take up most of the room at the helm. They can make piloting and navigation much safer and more relaxing than it used to be. It’s fantastic to be able to use an iPad to navigate from port to port, setting up 60 or 70 waypoints in half an hour and knowing where you are within a few meters along the way. But don’t lose sight of what’s going on outside the window. Knowing what the wind, current and tide are doing at any given moment and how they are affecting your boat is important, including correcting for set and drift and avoiding shoal water close aboard.

This boat's multifunction displays and VHF are mounted on an electric-powered panel that lowers to become flush with the helm surfaces.

Also, look for the windshield wiper’s sweep area. How much of the glass is wiped, and is the area of the windshield glass you naturally look through at your eye height included in that sweep? Builders may try to save money by installing a wiper that’s too short and a smaller, less expensive motor, but the result is you have to bend down or stand on your toes to see through the cleared glass. And look for a pantograph wiper, which stays parallel as it sweeps the glass from side to side. If you operate in salt water, be sure your boat has a washer for the wiper because the salt smears will blind you if you don’t remove them. The better you can see, the safer you’ll be as you enjoy your time at the helm. 

March 2015 issue