Whether you call it the lower helm or the pilothouse or the wheelhouse matters not. It is, in essence, the “office” of the skipper when a yacht is under way and, as such, should be designed carefully and outfitted to match that important role.
The type of boat — motoryacht, express cruiser or long-range trawler — will dictate the specific details needed, and how each owner plans to use the yacht will further hone the layout. An express cruiser used for afternoon family outings doesn’t have the rigorous requirements of a long-range cruising yacht, but there are some common needs that should be addressed as you consider your next ride. Keep in mind that every yacht will require some compromises between the underway use of the lower helm and the onboard lifestyle when not under way. Here’s a look at some important features to consider and 10 helms that stand out.
Line of Sight: The ideal is a 360-degree line of sight, but that’s rarely possible on a yacht. A good line of sight forward, not just of the horizon but also of the water right in front of the vessel, is important so you can avoid debris seen at the last moment. A line of sight to the side is equally important, to keep a watch for other vessels that may be on a collision course.
Instruments: The engine and navigation electronics should be arranged to make them easily scanned in the skipper’s line of sight, and all controls should be readily accessible. Something as small as the position of the shifters can be an irritant if not properly placed, and even dangerous in the worst case. Aircraft cockpits are a good example of a safe layout, with no controls placed where they take the pilot’s eyes away from the windscreen for more than an instant, and all of the necessary information easily comprehended.
Ergonomics: Trust me — an uncomfortable helm seat quickly becomes a major pain in the butt (pardon the pun). For a coastal cruiser operating mostly in fair weather, a bench seat is fine and offers the chance for the skipper to have companionship. On an offshore passage, however, a better choice is a dedicated helm chair with armrests and a foot platform to keep the skipper firmly in place without effort. Companion seating that requires the skipper to move whenever someone wants to sit down or get up is one example of bad layout.
Deck Access: Doors leading to the side decks should be close to the helm if you plan to cruise shorthanded and need to handle lines, but the location of the helm seating shouldn’t prevent the crew from easy access.
Ventilation: Sport cruisers are often fitted with vents in the dash to either cool or heat the helm area, while opening windows and overhead hatches can make the helm pleasant by providing fresh air.
Charts: You may have the very latest chart plotter, but every boat should carry a set of paper charts of the local area in case the electronics go zap. Coastal cruisers can get by with a drawer for a chart book, while cruising skippers heading offshore will want a full chart table and flat stowage for larger charts.
Helm Design Tips
A properly designed helm is essential on any type of yacht.