The Right Helm for You

 The helm on an Eastbay 43. The instruments are from different manufacturers, something we don't see much these days. Each manufacturer is noted for being the best in something, whether it is radar, radio, autopilot, or charting. Experienced owners sometimes avoid a single brand's suite of instruments and simply go with the best in each category.

The helm on an Eastbay 43. The instruments are from different manufacturers, something we don't see much these days. Each manufacturer is noted for being the best in something, whether it is radar, radio, autopilot, or charting. Experienced owners sometimes avoid a single brand's suite of instruments and simply go with the best in each category.

I was aboard a brand new Helmsman 38E last week, on a follow up to the survey and sea trial we attended a few weeks ago. I was super impressed with the new boat, and how it evolved since the 2007 model I first saw. The equipment selected is first class, the layout and already good access even better, there are handrails everywhere, and it feels solid. They even put staples on the swim platform. I told the owner of the company how impressed I am. If you are in the market for a raised pilothouse trawler under 40 feet with a covered aft cockpit, check out the Helmsman 38 E Pilothouse.

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One thing I noticed right away was how the new boat stayed new. What I mean by that is that the builder did not make assumptions as to where things should go, and some equipment was there but not yet installed. One of those items was the Cummins engine instrumentation. That alone impressed me. Lift the pilothouse helm console, and it was there, plugged in and operational but still in its plastic bag. Loose inside the console.

I compare that to so many boats I’ve been on where the builder, not really thinking about it, places those engine instrument gauges right in the center of the new console, as electronics are often left for the buyer to install. There is nothing quite so lame as putting instruments at the helm without a broader view of the available real estate. A guy at the yard, most often with little boating experience, just installs it to check it off his work list. That is a mistake.

But the flip side is another reality to avoid. Having the builder install all the electronics on a new boat at the factory might sound like a good idea, except when the delivery time of the boat to the new owner is many months from when this gear is installed, and more months before it even ships (and even longer if it was built on spec). With the steady advances in marine electronics, some electronics are essentially obsolete before the boat even splashes for the first time with its new owners.

So it is wonderful to see a builder not only wait for the buyer to decide what he or she wants in terms of navigation, control, communications, and other instrumentation, but to refrain from just installing the engine gauges to check it off his punch list.

A well-designed helm station can be much friendlier than one with lots of screens and controls across whatever real estate the helm offers. Even on a big boat, such as a larger Krogen, Fleming, Nordhavn, or Selene, where there is a wide span of console, consider that the person at the helm is likely sitting in a Stidd or similar helm chair, not walking from side to side as on older Hatteras and other motor yachts. Placement is very important.

 Electronics spread across a wide console means you can't drive the boat from a helm chair and effectively use the Furuno radar or plotter at the same time. Note the genset panel located under the console.

Electronics spread across a wide console means you can't drive the boat from a helm chair and effectively use the Furuno radar or plotter at the same time. Note the genset panel located under the console.

And there are other considerations. On Growler, our Zimmerman 36, I always had trouble when running along in any chop using the Simrad AP20 autopilot. It required me to reach out with my finger to press a button to perform some task, such as putting the pilot on standby. Invariably, in these conditions, bouncing around in the helm chair, my hand would reach out but my finger would hit the SImrad button just as the boat hit the next wave, the result being the button got pushed twice in rapid succession, causing the autopilot to lock on its settings, go into a submenu, or something else I didn’t want to do. It was very frustrating and I had to develop the habit of leaning way forward, placing my hand firmly against the autopilot display face and then gingerly press the button with my finger...with my attention no longer out the window for a second of two.

  Growler  had a great helm, despite limited space. But notice the long reach to the instruments if one needs to press a button. This was an issue when in rough weather.

Growler had a great helm, despite limited space. But notice the long reach to the instruments if one needs to press a button. This was an issue when in rough weather.

In years past there were standalone displays for radar, chartplotter, computer display, depth sounder, and autopilot, not to mention banks of switches and a place for paper charts. A lot of competition for whatever limited console space was available. Unless everything was angled just right for the owner, one would have to take eyes off the view outside to move around to see some displays. That could be tricky when threading through a narrow or shallow channel in a current.

Some equipment, such as compass, depth sounder, and engine controls, must be easily seen but not necessarily front and center. Other gear that might be frequently used but doesn’t need to be easily seen would include radios, wind instruments, and engine stop/stop button or key. Switches for wipers, helm lighting, and searchlight just need to be clearly marked and within reach.

I recall one owner of a trawler yacht had the builder mount his switches in the overhead space above the helm. A former military pilot, he was very comfortable using switches overhead, even though at his age he needed to turn his bifocals upside down to read the labels until he memorized them. But it worked for him.

Having the generator start switch and instrument panel anywhere on the front helm console is just plain silly, yet I’ve seen it on new boats. I can just imagine the yard guys completing the generator installation without a thought. They had to put it somewhere. Same with the VHF radio. Come on, guys, put a little thought to it, or just leave it loose for the commissioning technicians.

Redoing an older boat can be a challenge, requiring dropping the overhead panels, opening up all lockers, and cutting new holes. But with today’s multifunction displays, which make much better use of limited helm area, it may be well worth the effort.

And in the future, who knows, maybe we'll just need a bracket mount for the iPad or tablet.