Designing and building a helm that keeps the skipper comfy, safe, informed, relaxed and entertained isn’t easy. But it can dramatically affect the simple enjoyment of driving a boat.
By Graham Lloyd
All aspects of a boat need to work well if you are to safely enjoy your adventures on the water, but the helm position is an especially critical area. It doesn’t have to cost much to have a good driving arrangement, but it does require some planning at the design stage.
When choosing a boat, the potential buyer needs to take into account many factors, but one of the most important things to assess is the driving slot. Designers and builders who get the driving arrangement right have probably accumulated the experience and taken the time to get everything else right, too.
Of course, allowance must also be made for the price bracket of the boat, and for its intended application. The faster the boat, or the rougher the conditions in which it is designed to operate, the better the helm seat needs to be, especially in the way it prevents the skipper from being thrown around. The more energy and concentration that is expended on holding on, the less of both will be available for actually controlling the boat.
You spend a lot of the time in the driving seat, so it should be a good friend. Even in calm waters, any helm seat has to survive surprisingly big shocks from time to time, as the driver is moved around by the boat running through a chop or a big wave – both the seat structure and its installation have to be strong and resilient.
The shape and padding of the seat must combine comfort and support, and that’s achieved with quality foam – usually of multiple densities – and with good design. The padding needs to be soft enough to cosset the skipper on long voyages, yet firm enough to hold you secure and prevent ‘bottoming out’ when the boat encounters a big wave or wake.
The back of the seat should be high to support the shoulders and the sides should be high enough and just far enough apart to provide lateral support for the hips.
The seat is best bolted through the floor with a solid backing plate or very large washers and with (accessible) nyloc nuts below. Bolts are best, but coach bolts or big screws fastened into solid timber or reinforced glass can also work. Avoid seats that are fitted with marginally-sized self-tapping screws, as these will inevitably work loose.
Any posts, pedestals, bases or brackets for the seat must also give a firm fit to restrain the seat from wobbling or swaying around. Swivelling seats are great, as long as they can be securely locked tightly into position.
Many boats allow the skipper to stand as well as sit, but very few properly cover both options. If you frequently run in rough waters offshore, you’ll be much happier standing to drive so your knees can flex and absorb the impacts as the boat works its way through the swells and chop. Softer-riding catamarans may make seated operation in rough water okay, but even the best monohulls with good seats can be tough on the sternum and spine when sitting. More upmarket vessels can have seats with some form of hydraulic shock absorber and, if well designed, these are wonderful – but can be very costly.
To operate a boat when standing, the seat needs to be far enough away from the wheel so that the back of the skipper’s legs aren’t constantly rubbing on the front of the seat. To allow the room to stand, many seats slide back, which offers clearance, but provides absolutely no support for the driver.
It’s surprising that more boats designed for offshore operation don’t use bolster seats, which provide excellent support, whether seated or standing. The seat squab drops down when the skipper stands up, and the bolster’s back and sides provide support in both positions. Bolster seats are a bit more expensive to build, but they provide the best possible level of comfort, support and safety for driving in rougher waters.
STAYING IN CONTROL
The relationship between the wheel, seat and controls is very important. I find it far more enjoyable to drive when I can sit back in the seat with my arms slightly bent to reach the wheel. I also find it much more comfortable if my legs fit under the wheel, unblocked by the wheel mount – or by the wheel itself. At every helm there should be somewhere for the skipper to brace his feet during rough water or tight turns. Footrests or a suitable panel should be strong enough to provide support, and be comfortably located.
The effort required to turn the wheel should be slight to moderate. There is no need at all for any boat to have steering that’s tough to turn, yet there are still too many boats where this is the case. The type of steering selected by the builder or dealer should be correct for the engine/boat combination, and fitted without close-radius bends in cables or any other impediment to turning the wheel.
For most boats, the best form of steering system is hydraulic; a well-designed, installed and maintained hydraulic system will have no free-play, an appropriate number of turns from lock-to-lock, and still require not much more than finger-tip pressure to operate.
The throttle and shift controls must be easy to reach and operate, and that usually means being positioned alongside, or a bit forward of the seat. Throttles and shifts located forward of the wheel require inefficient and often uncomfortable leaning out of the seat to operate – that soon becomes tiresome.
The controls should be smooth in operation and require little effort, but should hold firm at any given setting. Some throttles have a ‘notched’ feel which, if precise enough, is quite okay. However, all throttles should give consistently progressive movement from idle to full throttle, with no section of the lever arc giving any more or less response than any other.
The control levers should not be located where fingers can be jammed against the side of the boat, the wheel, the seat or anything else, including when the levers are at full movement forward or aft.
High-performance craft often use foot throttles, and although spring-loaded to return to idle when released, their action should also be smooth. To be comfortable and to afford decent control, foot throttles require careful placement.
GAUGES AND NAV AIDS
The closer that gauges are positioned to your normal line of sight, the better. This means the best spot is above the wheel right in front of you. The wheel rim should not obscure any of the gauges, nor should they suffer from excessive reflections. Nav aids should be similarly positioned, especially the compass, which should be centrally located on the dash – every centimetre it’s positioned to one side means the skipper will have to move his head for an accurate reading, make a mental adjustment to allow for reading it off-centre, or steer the wrong course.
Many boats don’t have enough dash space to position all gauges and nav aids in front of the skipper, which means placing the most important instruments directly in front, and locating the others as close as practicable in the space available. Devices like depth-sounders and radios, which require adjustments as you drive, should be positioned where they can be readily used.
Accessibility to the back of the dash and helm console area is important, too. At some stage, every skipper needs to get to the wiring and other bits behind all those clever gauges and displays, and it’s no fun if you have to pull half the boat apart to so do.
The helm seat should give you clear lines of sight forward and to either side, and as good a view as possible astern, too. Watch out for bulky quarter posts or centre support struts in the screen. Other factors to be wary of include biminis that drop too low, screens that create distortions, and tinted screens that can dangerously restrict visibility in some conditions.
Screen height is critical. It’s important for the skipper to see clearly over the top or through the screen, and not have his vision impaired by looking straight at the screen’s top framework. Any skipper will quickly tire of bobbing his head up and down to look over and through the screen. If the screen top gets in the way, it’s generally impractical to change the screen height, but the seat height can be adjusted to improve vision.
‘JUST RIGHT’ FACTOR
Encapsulating all of the above is the ‘just right’ factor. This is when a skipper settles into a helm seat and it simply feels ‘just right’. The relationship between every boat and skipper is unique, and the most advanced and carefully-designed helm may still not be right for you personally. But it’s just as important for every skipper to feel confident, safe and comfortable when holding the wheel.
Some aspects of a poor helm can be subsequently corrected, but many cannot be changed without major work. So check and choose carefully, then enjoy every moment you spend in control of your aquatic adventure machine.