Know-How: Helm Stations - Sail Magazine

Know-How: Helm Stations

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The Excess 11 features a pair of outboard helms well aft: note how they are sheltered from the sun

The Excess 11 features a pair of outboard helms well aft: note how they are sheltered from the sun

Walk around any boat show, and you’ll see a number of differences in the way designers and builders have decided to locate the steering stations aboard their cruising cats. Each position has its good points and bad, among them visibility, protection from the elements, sociability, cost and ease of vessel handling. Before you buy, it’s therefore worth thinking about which configuration will work best for you and the kind of sailing you do. Leisurely daysailing, for example, is a very different proposition from buoy racing. Same thing with, say, high-latitude passagemaking versus harbor-hopping in the tropics.

As Boris Compagnon of France’s Catana says, “A boat is always a compromise. It’s important to determine the program of the boat before choosing one or the other solution.” So, let’s check out some of the tradeoffs to these “solutions.”

There’s great visibility in every direction from the flybridge aboard this Bali 4.1

There’s great visibility in every direction from the flybridge aboard this Bali 4.1

DUAL AFT HELMS

PROS: Catana, Excess and Nautitech are all builders that like to place a pair of helms aft, one in each hull. Another company producing an aft-helm model is Seawind with its new 1600 model. From aft, you can see both transoms clearly, which is perfect when docking stern-to. With the wheels set down low, the center of gravity is also lower, stability is greater and windage is reduced. Andrew Thompson of Horizon Yacht Charters, whose company includes a number of Nautitechs in its fleet, adds that in terms of performance, “A lower boom enables more sail area on the main with lower sheeting for the headsail as well. Having twin helms outboard means you’re also always driving from the favored side with a clear view of the sailplan.”

Beyond that, aft wheels tend to offer better feedback and a faster response, especially when sailing hard on the wind, with some sailors claiming they feel more “at one” with the boat from a position that’s closer to the water. On a more objective level, it’s easier to communicate with crew stepping off the boat when docking and having both the mainsheet and daggerboard controls (when applicable) running to winches nearby, making it possible to singlehand even a larger cat effortlessly.

The outboard helms aboard this HH66 provide clear views forward and aloft

The outboard helms aboard this HH66 provide clear views forward and aloft

CONS: Among the drawbacks to aft helms are the fact that they take up room in the living space of the cockpit and can be somewhat in the way at the transoms, where cats have their premier water access. Aft helm stations are also typically more exposed to the elements, for the simple reason that it’s a challenge designing a sturdy, functional and aesthetically appealing cover from the sun and rain. “I know I’ve had enough sun damage and don’t need more, but it’s tough to design a decent bimini on an aft steering station and not have it look like an afterthought,” says Morrelli & Melvin principal Gino Morrelli of America’s Cup and HH fame.

Vessel control under power is another issue. “Maneuvers in close quarters will require engine controls on both helm stations or changing helms,” says Franck Bauguil of Leopard Catamarans, whose company doesn’t subscribe to the “helms on the hull” concept. “In order to avoid constant movement between the two helms, electronic screens and repeaters will need to be replicated at both stations.”

Not that these kinds of problems are insurmountable. Aboard the Excess12, for example, Groupe Beneteau has designed a fairly handsome and workable canvas bimini that curves in from outboard without having the look of a space pod. The Excess also addresses the control issue by offering the option of engine throttles at both wheels. Finally, to ensure easy water access, the Excess 12’s twin helms are equipped with a pair of double seats that fold up and out of the way when not under sail to provide clear access to the nearby swim platforms.

Beyond that, by far the greatest challenge with an aft-helm configuration is visibility to the opposite bow. Some designers will tell you that you can just look through the saloon, but the reality can be problematic at best. That said, this is another area in which Excess has done an excellent job of allowing the person at the helm to see all four corners of the boat. “You can actually see down to the tip of both bows, and we’ve made the glass in the doors and windows clear, so you can also see through the saloon at night,” say Excess director Frederic Signat.

WHEEL ON A FLYBRIDGE

PROS: At pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from twin wheels aft is a single “flybridge” helm perched atop the cabintrunk, a configuration that is especially popular in charter. Some Leopards and Lagoons and all the cats in the Bali product line feature flybridge steering. “The majority of our customers spend 90 percent of their time on the hook and 10 percent moving to the next anchorage,” says Bruno Belmont of Group Beneteau, which owns Lagoon. “For them, the location of the steering station should minimize intrusion on cockpit comfort, and the flybridge does that perfectly.”

As an added benefit, the flybridge effectively adds a fourth social area (in addition to the aft cockpit, the forward lounge/trampoline area and the interior saloon) at the same time it also opens up room on the main deck below. For builders, a single helm also the reduces the redundancies that come with installing a pair of steering stations, so costs are lowered—except, of course, for the time and material expended in the construction of the flybridge itself. From a boat-handling perspective, it’s nice to be able to stand on the bimini or flybridge roof to manage the mainsail, and visibility forward is excellent, providing the person at the helm a clear view of the crew chasing mooring balls or dropping anchor.

CONS: The main drawback to any flybridge model is that it requires a higher boom, which not only reduces overall sail area, but moves the boat’s center of gravity and the rig’s center of effort up as well—never a good thing on any sailboat. The added height of the flybridge also adds a fair bit of windage, which can make a boat more difficult to maneuver in tight quarters whenever the breeze is up.

Ergonomics can be a challenge too. Moving back and forth between the cockpit and a flybridge can be tricky in lumpy seas. In addition, cruising couples, in particular, may not like the separation that results from putting the wheel up high and lack of clear communications when docking. Finally, that luxurious flybridge lounge aft of the helm inevitably extends the hardtop aft as well, blocking your view of the transoms, which can make it tough docking in reverse. A backup camera can help, but takes some getting used to.

One situation in which you can have your cake and eat it too is aboard a big boat like the Lagoon 77, which comes equipped with dual flybridge steering stations, both mounted well outboard allowing you to sight fore and aft the entire length of each hull. This kind of dual-flybridge configuration can also be found aboard the cats making up the McConaghy and French-built Privilege lines.

BULKHEAD-MOUNTED

PROS: Representing a kind of middle ground between performance-oriented helms aft and a single helm position up high is a bulkhead, or cabin-back, steering station. In this configuration, the wheel (or wheels) is attached to the aft face of the cabintrunk, with the winches sitting on top. The helm seat is also typically elevated, allowing you to see forward fairly well, while at the same time providing you a view of the transoms (though it may be necessary to duck under the bimini to see the other side. )

Some performance builders, like HH and Seawind, have also taken the approach of installing twin cabin-back wheels set well outboard thereby providing the best of all worlds. Note, in the case of the HH, the twin helms are slightly elevated, allowing you to look out over the cabintrunk. Aboard Seawind’s 1190 and 1260 models, the helms are set at the same level as the cockpit, with visibility around the angled-in cabintrunk or through a set of large windows. In either case are able to enjoy excellent visibility in pretty much every direction while still enjoying much better protection from the elements than you would from a station set farther aft.

In addition to protection from the wind and spray the other big advantage to cabin-back helms are their lower profiles, which in turn means a lower center of gravity, less windage and room for a lower boom position and a bigger mainsail with a lower center of effort.

CONS: On the downside, cabin-back models can be more costly (especially for dual stations) and being located on the aft bulkhead take up room in the cockpit. In a raised configuration, they can also leave the person at the helm feeling a bit isolated from the party in the cockpit below, though separation is typically not so great as aboard a flybridge boat. Aboard some models, the separation has been successfully minimized as to be almost nonexistent.

A SINGLE CENTRAL HELM

PROS: In recent years there has been an increasing number of steering stations popping up inside the accommodation space and on centerline. This configuration is typically reserved for carbon speedsters like those built by HH, Gunboat and Kinetic. However, they are also an option aboard the Maine Cat 38. Steering from inside provides the ultimate in comfort, especially at night or in inclement weather. Typically, it’s just a step or two outside to a set of control lines and winches at the base of the mast. The controls can also be run inboard, as is the case with the Maine Cat—very civilized sailing, indeed!

CONS: Of course, being so well sheltered also means it can be a bit hard to feel the forces at work around you, as the effect of wind and seas is inevitably dampened. Aboard a larger, turbo-charged, carbon-fiber thoroughbred, in particular, a 10-knot gust could easily send you up onto one hull, a dangerous proposition, especially when sailing shorthanded. “The central and forward position of the helms does not naturally give a good sense of the sailing angle,” says Bauguil of these kinds of designs. “This requires alarms at the inside station, but also an automatic and manual ‘dumping’ system to avoid capsizing, which isn’t for the average sailor.”

HYBRIDS

In addition to these four basic configurations, there are any number of other less-common hybrid ideas as well—innovative approaches that straddle the lines between the helms described thus far. Take, for example, the new Fountaine Pajot Elba 45 designed by Olivier Racoupeau. The French company is not calling its design a “flybridge” boat, because while the helm is elevated, it’s not technically located on a flybridge. Instead, it hovers somewhere in the middle at a transition height, creating a self-contained pod to starboard where the captain and working crew have a dedicated space. According to Fountaine Pajot’s Helen de Fontainieu, it’s proved to be a very popular compromise in terms of both private ownership and charter use.

Another original approach can be seen aboard the Balance 526, where the single helm station has a wheel that pivots up and down to create a station that can be set either low in the cockpit or high up with a clear view over the cabintrunk. “With the wheel down, you’re completely protected and just a few steps from the interior saloon where your relief crew may be asleep on the convertible dinette,” says Chris Rundlett of the Multihull Company, describing the Versa Helm as it’s called. “With the wheel up, you’re elevated and can feel the breeze, but are still protected by a small pop-up bimini.”

Yet another helming option can be seen aboard the cutting-edge, wing-sailed Eagle Class 53. Here, the cockpit is all on one level, with twin steering stations placed well forward to either side of the rig. Visibility in all directions is excellent, and the working crew is well out of the way of any guests reclining or mixing drinks at the wet bar aft. That said, this convenience, not surprisingly, comes at the cost of possibly getting a bit wet sailing to windward in a seaway.

Finally, there’s the resurgence of the tiller—twin tillers, actually—with companies like Kinetic, HH and Outremer all offering tillers just forward of the transom (in addition to their more conventional bulkhead-mounted wheels forward), as is found aboard such grand prix multihulls as those making up the MOD 70 class. For adrenaline junkies, there’s nothing like the thrill of helming a large cat when it’s in the groove, and nothing like a tiller for getting the most out of this kind of experience. 

RESOURCES

Balance balancecatamarans.com

Bali bali-catamarans.com

Catana catana.com

Excess excess-catamarans.com

Fountaine Pajot fountaine-pajot.com

Gunboat gunboat.com

HH Catamarans hhcatamarans.com

Kinetic kineticcatamarans.com

Lagoon cata-lagoon.com

Maine Cat mecat.com

Nautitech nautitechcatamarans.com

Privilege privilegecatamaransamerica.com

June 2020

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