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On Powerboats - Helm station comfort and visibility

A good helm design allows the operator to see all around the boat, even when coming up on plane

A good helm design allows the operator to see all around the boat, even when coming up on plane

Over the past two months we have considered a number of sea trial-related issues, including ride, course-keeping and what makes a boat dry or wet. This month we’ll take a look at the heart and nerve center of the boat: the helm station.

Helm station ergonomics

Certainly one of the most important elements of the boating experience is the success of the helm station design. In a perfect world — from this former workboat, ship and patrol boat driver’s perspective, at least — functionality and safety would be the moving forces behind how the boat is designed, including helm station ergonomics. With pleasure boats, however, styling sells, and aesthetic considerations often trump practicality and ergonomics. Stylists who apparently have never actually run a boat at night might decide how engine instruments, electronics displays and a variety of rocker switches are presented to the operator. If the designer thinks a graceful arch of rocker switches stretching across the helm above the steering wheel would look great, then that’s where they’re going to go.

The problem with this form-over-function approach is that it’s only by the odd coincidence that the stylist’s idea of what looks good in windshield design or radar arch placement and proportions coincides with the best design operationally and ergonomically. And the result for the boat driver is an abysmal view of the proceedings outside the boat. Fortunately, I’ve been seeing a trend of late, especially on a few larger yachts, toward an emphasis on practicality over flair. Let’s consider what makes for good helm visibility.

Horizon visibility

The ideal boat gives the driver an unobstructed view all around the vessel. Such is the case when you’re standing to drive a small runabout, or on the open bridge of a sportfishing convertible. Assuming you’re paying attention to driving the boat, you have the potential for complete situational awareness when you have 360-degree visibility, which makes for much safer piloting and a more relaxing boating experience.

Better boatbuilders justify each degree of horizon denied the skipper as unavoidable structurally. But pernicious, landlubber stylists obscure your horizon with their arbitrarily curved and tapered deckhouse windows and megayacht-sized radar arches that combine to reveal only a snippet of horizon here and there. These boats are arguably flawed fundamentally, since safety of operation is so degraded. Some of the Euro-influenced designs are the worst offenders in this area.

But it’s not just mindless Euro-styling that’s the problem; there are plenty of traditionally styled trawlers and sedans that make it difficult for the driver to see around the boat. If the windshield frames are 7 or 8 inches wide (or more) instead of 2 or 3 inches, then you have unnecessary structure, and a potentially hazardous operating environment is created. In a close-quarters crossing, meeting or overtaking situation, the inability to see clearly all around the boat puts both vessels at risk. At night if a CBDR (constant bearing, decreasing range) vessel’s running light stays right behind that 2-foot-wide radar arch from your point of view at the helm, you won’t see it until you can read the Perko stamp on the side light.

Even the best-laid-out helm station is defective if the horizon isn’t largely unobstructed for 360 degrees, and there’d better be a valid structural reason to block any of it. No large chunks of horizon should be obstructed — only small ones a few degrees wide, and these should be well spread out.

Think in terms of running your boat and having to move from side to side to see what’s behind the 2-foot-wide radar arch or 8-inch deckhouse corner post, and how much of this weaving around you need to do to maintain complete situational awareness. The less aware you are of your operational situation — where other vessels are around you, whether they’re closing or opening, their distance and bearing drift in relation to your boat — the greater the chances of a collision.

The question for the boatbuilder is, given the need to support the hardtop or superstructure overhead, how little can the structure interfere with the driver’s sightlines? Many larger boats have a lot more structure between the bridge windows than they need, and each of those 5- to 10-inch-wide window frames, or mullions, might take anywhere from 3 to 10 degrees of horizon from the operator’s perspective. And, of course, a 5-inch-wide frame will take up a lot more of the horizon when it’s right in front of and a couple feet away from the helm than if it’s on the other side of the boat.

While the builder’s priority should be minimizing the number and width of these obstructions, some have told me that they just can’t make them any smaller. All it takes, though, is a look around at any boat show to see that their competitors are already doing it. Informed consumers and subsequent consumer demand will drive this issue by voting with their checkbooks next time they buy a boat.

While it is impossible with larger yachts to provide a 360-degree view of the horizon from the bridge helm station, it is often the case that, even on a pilothouse motoryacht or trawler, helm visibility could be greatly improved by thinking things through in advance and reworking some of the boat’s design and structural elements. When the designer and builder take the position that horizon visibility is a top priority, then boat design will improve.

Visibility over the bow

The other horizon visibility issue is the operator’s height of eye in relation to the bow. A typical planing hull will come up on plane with the bow rising as much as 10 or 12 degrees and then settle out at a running angle, or trim, of 3 to 6 degrees. Whatever the natural running angle at cruising speed, the driver always should have an uninterrupted forward view of the horizon, even when the boat is coming up on plane. A boat that’s not well designed — that doesn’t have a good balance between the hull’s buoyancy and dynamic lift and the vessel’s center of gravity — will be a problem. But well-designed boats that don’t have excessive bow rise when coming up on plane makes a helm station that much easier to design well.

Since so many boats are able to come up on plane without the pulpit rising above the horizon, even momentarily, then that’s my standard for acceptability. If it couldn’t be done, then it would be silly to insist on it. With a sterndrive or outboard boat, it’s easy to tuck the drives in to add lift at the stern while accelerating. Boats with trim tabs, of course, have the same advantage. But there are a lot of 30- to 70-foot inboard boats that will come up on top with the pulpit never obscuring the horizon — without the use of trim tabs. It can be done, and often it is. So if you have an express cruiser that aims for the sky on acceleration and you have to stand to see what’s under the bow, you have a flawed design.

Sometimes it’s not so much a matter of excessive bow rise on acceleration as it is the helm station deck (and seat) is too low. On most boats, raising the helm station deck also adds headroom below, so you can kill two birds with one stone in terms of design. I’ve been on displacement or semidisplacement trawler yachts that were flawed in design because you couldn’t see directly ahead of the boat due to the height of the stem. In that case, either the bow needs to be lower or the pilothouse higher.

Two boats I tested recently stand out for their superb helm station visibility: the Tiara 3900 Sovran and Formula 45 Yacht. Both offer virtually unrestricted visibility all around the boat from their helm stations, and these are boats that don’t have flybridges. You’re up high off the water, the windshield frames have very narrow mullions, the boats look good, and there’s no loss of forward horizon — even momentarily — when coming up on plane. Make sure you can say the same about the next boat you buy.

Eric Sorensen was the 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 has spent 40 years operating charter and commercial fishing boats, Coast Guard vessels, and Navy ships and patrol boats.