Why not a Holiday / Raised Helm

As a prospective live-aboard catamaran buyer, you have to make sure that the design you select is consistent with your particular cruising requirements. The tempered opinion that is frequently espoused in magazine articles intended to offend no advertiser may suggest that there is no particular right design for your usage, this isn’t true, and there is a variety of definitely wrong ones. A design derived from a holiday charter vessel may not prevent you from surviving a passage, but do you wish to try for an endurance record or actually enjoy voyaging in confidence that the safety of you and your family has been placed foremost in the design equation?

One of the more common design peculiarities currently in vogue is the fully exposed helm position and its remedial accompaniment, the saloon steering position. Why does an obviously unsuitable design feature become identified as “the norm” and why is it offered without excuse to the ocean voyaging couple?

At the design stage, almost all vessels are primarily conceived for the vacation charter market that dominates the sales numbers and demands that four cost-sharing couples have a fun time in ideal weather and sea conditions. A surplus of extra adventurous things to do while on holiday, like steering, sail tending or clambering about are actually a positive, there is never a shortage of people looking for something to do and always someone willing to escape the party to the sanctuary of the separated helm position.

The relatively few sales for these vessels that may be made to genuine cruising couples are tagged on to that market and the hardships associated with an inappropriate design may not be apparent to the prospective customer viewing the vessel dockside or trialing it for an hour in ideal conditions. The price is paid later with fatigue, exposure and even danger when the going is more arduous, and it will be paid sooner or later on any sea voyage.

Here are some things to consider:

A. Elevated cabin top helms

Vessel designs that place you and your crew “up on the roof” of your boat, are all the rage in the charter market. The Lagoon 440, the Leopard 46 and the Fontaine Pajot 44 are all designed with these raised helm positions that also incorporate sail line handling. In the context of a liveaboard offshore catamaran, attractive though the concept may be, (who doesn’t enjoy the view from a high vantage point?), it could place the crew in some downright dangerous situations.

Anything installed at the hardtop level must be considered as vulnerable to inadvertent jibes. There is a lot of hardware waiting to snag and cause damage or knock someone overboard if the boom should be unexpectedly thrown across the vessel. Can you be assured that all of the equipment and people associated with such an event are as safe as you may make them?

To get any kind of clearance over a raised helm position, the boom must be kept extraordinarily high, severely compromising main sail efficiency and raising its centre of effort.

On a bright moderate day this looks like a good place to lounge but what is it like to be exposed up there at night with a turbulent cold sea running with your anxious crew below in the vessel. Even if you can rely on a autopilot, this is where you must climb to for any sail adjustments that don’t require your attendance at the mast base or foredeck.

B. Exposed stern quarter helms

Another compromise arrangement is the twin stern steering positions as seen on boats such as the Catana and Nautitech. If you were racing an ulta lightweight cat this would be ideal as it gives a great view of the sails, places the weight of the helmsman on the windward side and provides a thrilling ride. The obstruction to visibility in the opposite forward quarter presented by cabin structures can be compensated for by assigning a crewman to keep a lookout in the blind sector. Hopefully one sponsor pays for full crew sets of foul weather gear and harness for daily wear and another provides generous tubs of industrial strength sun-block. This is another charter holiday helm position compromise that leaves the cockpit party space unobstructed with inconvenient boat handling stuff, like steering wheels, winches and lines. For the rental boat market, the design choice is acceptable, even positive. Check the magazine articles featuring ocean cruises with these vessels and count the photographs of helmsmen fully suited up and peering ahead through wind and spray, even while the sun shines brightly overhead. Is this a practical design for your ocean voyage?

C. Steering from the saloon

A design that requires the option of steering the boat from inside the saloon is an admission of the inadequacy of the primary helm station. Any vessel can be steered from anywhere, inside or out by an autopilot remote and this function may serve as a convenience in very particular circumstances, but it won’t substitute for a proper main control station. Installing second or third sets of engine controls inside the vessel is sometimes offered as a remedial provision, you still can’t sail from inside the vessel and how much time will be spent motoring on a sea voyage? How much time will you spend handing and trimming sails? Where do you need to get to in order to perform these tasks and is the operation as safe as it may be made?

D. What to look for

  • The helm position may be fully protected from wind, sun and sea but still open up for the enjoyment of good weather.
  • There is visibility in all directions.
  • There is full communication with others aboard the vessel whether in the cockpit, saloon or galley.
  • All sail handling lines are brought within the sheltered space with no necessity for deck work under normal circumstances. The deck is clear of lines.
  • The boom need only clear the hardtop, keeping the mainsail as efficient as possible.
  • The exposed aft quarters of the vessel are clear of constructions and equipment.
  • The steering gear is simple single wheel with robust geared shaft construction.
  • The engine controls are simple single station single lever assemblies.
  • The control station area accommodates a wide variety of electronics protected from the weather without pedestal pods.

Why does it matter?

The greatest contributor to safety at sea is the ability to stay dry, warm and as comfortable as possible to be able to keep your wits about you. A high percentage of at-sea rescues involve the evacuation of exhausted owners who are suffering from exposure in vessels that subsequently continue merrily on their way to be salvaged later. The ability to handle the vessel and its sails in the most advantageous and safest way should be the first parameter of your ocean cruising design and no compromise is excusable. However, it you only expect to party in ideal weather, any fun design will do.

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2 thoughts on “Why not a Holiday / Raised Helm

  1. Love your engineering-based, factual discussion of catamaran design. Could you provide examples of production designs that fulfill these requirements?

  2. I’m not really a sailor. Financially speaking probably never will be. 😦 But I always wondered why they put the helm at the most exposed point of the boats. When I lived in England the weather was shit generally. Why would you want to be standing exposed at sea in the shite English weather? I have lived in sunny Turkey for many years now, and now I wonder why anyone would want to stand in the evil sun? It always struck me as terrible design considering the violence and fickleness of the sea on our rather harsh planet. You present a fine and logical argument. Thanks for your time and thoughts.

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