Catamaran Helm Position – Woods Interview # 8

We talk again with Richard Woods, catamaran designer and very expert sailor. We’ve been having a series of discussions about aspects of catamarans that you might not be familiar with. Right now, we’re talking about helm position and some of the unique attributes of where the helm positions can be on a catamaran, and also some of his thoughts about where the helm position ends up.

For more information from Richard Woods including purchasing build plans for one of his many affordable designs, please see his website.

Why are we talking about helm position? Why is helm position important?

People start by saying, “Do you want two helms? Is it hydraulic steering or wire steering or cable push/pull or whatever?” But I think most boats and most designers seem to put their steering and the helm as a very much last resort afterthought.

Snowgoose 37 Helm

“Oh! Well, we’ll do the saloon, we’ll do the cockpit, we’ll make a sun lounger here, whatever. Oh! Well, we better put some wheels in somewhere, I suppose.”

What I always say is, when was the last time you drove a car with wooden seats? If you drive a car for three hours, that’s considered quite a long drive, but it’s only one watch. I’ve had many people who will be four to six hours on deck steering.

Staying comfortable at the helm

On an amazing number of boats, you actually have to stand to steer, which you do on a monohull a lot, but that’s partly to brace yourself. There’s absolutely no excuse on the multihull not to have a really comfortable steering position, whether it’s a tiller or wheel. So that’s the first thing to consider, I’m going to be here for three hours, maybe from two o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the morning, in the pouring rain, sailing to windward. Is this going to be protected, for one thing. Is it going to be comfortable?

Endeavour 30 Standing Helm

The next thing to consider with the steering is, can I see all four corners from the helm? That is really important when you’re coming alongside and going into marinas and things. It’s the same with a car. You sit in the car and the steering wheel, supposing you could. The difference between driving a car where you can see out the back and an 18-wheeler is if you can rely on your rear view mirrors.

Lagoon 400 Helm

So it’s much much easier to steer a car, drive a car in small quarters, than even an RV or a camper or a big commercial vehicle. That’s the same with a monohull versus a multihull.

I think we’ve talked about this before, you’ve only got one point at the front on the monohull, and you only tend to be standing right behind it, so you can see where you’re going. On a multihull, it might be 20 feet wide and you’re on one corner.

There’s a lot of multihulls built that the builders are saving money by putting just one wheel in one corner. So you’re completely blind and you really have no idea where the other side gunnel is.

Leopard 47 Helm Starboard Side

If you do only have one wheel, you should really have it on the starboard side, because of the prop kick from the engines. Most people prefer coming in starboard side too, because it’s easier and getting it in and out, because reversing off your port side is often quite difficult with a right hand propeller.

A lot of people might argue that helm position and comfort isn’t as important these days, because we’re all using autopilots. Using that method, you sit inside the cabin with your autopilot and just steer from inside.

Inside Autopilot on Xquisite X5

What are your thoughts about that? Because I know I’ve been aboard boats where the helm position as such if you’re not tall enough, you’re not going to be able to see over the cabin. Or they’re trying to set you up so you’re looking physically through the cabin through all the windows and it just seems fairly compromised, but the argument is you’ve got the autopilot.

Not many people use their autopilots into their dock, even though the autopilot can see reducer and steer you in. I agree if you’re sailing offshore, and you’re on autopilot, you’re going to probably sit below, because you’ve got the all-round vision. It’s comfortable, but that’s still a compromise.

Richard Woods using an autopilot on Eclipse

The boat’s still supposed to be a sailing boat, and it’s got a wheel and you’re all tillers. You want to be able to enjoy the sailing when you want to, you don’t want to be stuck inside.

Tiller Steering

Then the other thing is that you really want to be near the middle of the boat, because as we’ve discussed earlier, the motion. Although the boat’s flat, it’s still bouncing around, and being near the middle is where the boat bounces least. The nearer the ends, but also the higher you go, the worse the movement. By having a wheel behind the companionway door, or the main cabin bulkhead, it’s a good compromise, because it’s low down, it’s near the sun, near the least movement area. It’s also near the people who are sitting below, or off watch, and you can call other people easily.

Crowther 32 Helm near companionway

Because a lot of boats now have this upper helm, flybridge position, and that’s always quite scary thinking, “Am I going to be getting up here when it’s dark and rough? If I am up there and I want a hand, can someone come hear me shouting at them?”

Lagoon 440 Flybridge View

In fact, years ago, on one particular boat, we had a door chime alarm by the helm, so we could press a button and the buzzer would go in the bunk and wake the crew up.

That’s a good idea because I was going to ask you how you feel about the flybridge position. Because while I can understand the visibility up there, and the comfort up there might be really good, how do you let the crew know that you need them, that you’ve seen something? But the door chime is great idea.

The other thing about having the flybridge helm up there, everything else has moved up. So the boom’s been moved up, and the center of gravity has gone up, and it’s all going in the wrong direction. Although that’s off topic, I always worry about putting in reef lines and having them tangle up, and can I reach the end of the boom safely? One of the other things on that is putting a sail cover on. I know everyone uses the stack packs these days, but an awful lot of people never set them up because they can’t really reach the boom to do so.

Lagoon 440 Flybridge with Bimini and Boom Above

Yes, I’ve been hearing that a lot. We either need to redesign how sail covers do up, or rethink having booms that can’t be reached because it’s definitely definitely an issue.

We could discuss that another time, but very quickly, what we’ve used is velcro on the top instead of a zip, because with velcro you can touch it wherever it touches. With the zip, you’ve always got to stuff.

Now that makes your point. Thank you for discussing helm position with me and we will move on to the next one.

Catana 42 Twin Helms Outside

By Diane Selkirk

I love to travel and have spent the past seven years sailing with my family aboard our 40 Woods Meander catamaran - traveling from B.C.'s north coast, to the west coast of the US, Mexico, the South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, across the Indian Ocean to South Africa and on to St Helena, South America, the Caribbean and Central America.

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