I have been looking at RVs this past year, which is the other booming business besides boating right now. They are both having banner years, as families want to go out into the world, but stay safe in their own bubble. Boat or RV, either way, they are great ways to enjoy family adventures.

What strikes me when I look at the current generation of Class A diesel motor coaches is how well they fit the owners. The driver sits in a luxurious seat that is fully adjustable. And most important, the driver is surrounded by a well-designed console, with all the coach information, buttons, switches, navigation, and controls close at hand.

On the 2021 Tiffin Allegra Red motorhome, for example, all controls are within inches of the driver, who does not need to do more that slightly lean forward to reach the gauges and controls. From tire pressure monitoring, to miles left with the remaining fuel, switching between cameras, or engaging the automatic leveling system, it is ergonomically perfect. And these actions do not require the driver to shift his or her focus off the road but for the briefest moment.

I compare that to the helm on most trawlers and cruising boats, and they come up lacking every time.

Why is that?

The operator of a trawler, much like the driver in a motor coach of the same length, is fully engaged in running the boat safely with his or her full attention. Even on autopilot or cruise control, they need to maintain situational awareness to stay on course (and on the road), avoiding any dangers that may be present, such as other boats and vehicles, or that moose crossing the Sterling Highway outside of Homer, Alaska.

Yet, on most every trawler I have been on, there just is not that same relationship of these controls to the person at the helm.

For many years, a lot of boats did not even have a helm seat, or at best a bench seat on the aft pilothouse bulkhead from which to watch the world go by. But when Walt Gazari introduced his Stidd chairs to the pleasure boating world, it really changed the equation. These outstanding helm seats, high quality chairs now offered by several companies, provide a world class solution to the person on watch, who is responsible for the safety of the boat and crew. Having spent thousands of hours sitting in a Stidd chair on my watch, I am totally hooked. These seats keep you comfortable, secure in rough weather, and alert 24/7.

But while you may be seated in the perfect position to run a boat, most of the various controls, gauges, displays, and switches remain out of range, unreachable while seated in the chair.

This is a big deal. It means that while one may be alert on watch, the situational awareness is significantly reduced with information not readily viewable (or controllable) from the helm chair. One must get up and walk around the helm or pilothouse to keep tabs on all that is going on. I have been on many boats with a wide pilothouse console and the outfitters spread all electronics out for aesthetic balance. But what good is a radar display if it is five feet from you and not even facing the helm chair? Or the radio? Or the plotter, which may be front and center but out of reach, several feet in front of the helm? To change screen ranges, one must get up and lean into the console.

nordic tug boat 39 helm station

Note the distance from this Llebroc helm chair to the instrument console on this Nordic Tug. Even moving the chair forward so that one’s knees just clear the wheel, it is a stretch to operate the plotters, radio, or other controls.

To make matters worse, many builders, not really thinking about it, place the engine instrument gauge panel right in the center of the new console, in some cases in the very center of the console, and electronics are left for the buyer to install around the remaining space. There is nothing quite so lame as putting instruments at the helm without a broader view of the space and what needs to be on it. Or installing switches and panels on the console that have nothing to do with running the boat. A guy at the yard, who probably has no boating experience, just installs it to check it off his work list. That is a mistake.

I did see a particularly noteworthy exception when I toured a new pilothouse trawler last year. The builder had the engine gauge panel all hooked up and working, but it was in a plastic bag, placed in the chart table. This builder refrained from installing the engine gauges to check it off his punch list. The new owner could decide how and where to install the gauges in the overall scheme of the electronics on the helm console. Good job.

A few builders do have an overall plan when they install engine instruments, as well as all the other electronics, as part of building a new boat. They see it as their responsibility to produce a complete boat, which includes a full suite of electronics. The boat is delivered to the new owners in turnkey condition. The electronics are all calibrated and adjusted to the boat. Nimbus Boats comes to mind.

As a result, the new owners don’t have to wait an additional six to eight weeks to take delivery, waiting for the electronics to be installed.

And there are other considerations. On our Zimmerman 36, I always had trouble using the Simrad AP20 autopilot when running in choppy seas. It required me to lean way forward in the Stidd chair to reach out with my finger to press a button to change a setting, such as putting the pilot on standby. Invariably, bouncing around in the helm chair, my hand would reach out, but my finger would hit the standby button just as the boat hit the next wave, the result being the button got pushed twice in rapid succession, causing the autopilot to go into some submenu, lock its settings, or something else I didn’t want to do and had to get out of.

It was rather frustrating, so I had to develop the habit of leaning way forward, placing my hand firmly against the autopilot display face and then gingerly press the button with my finger...with my attention no longer out the window.

growler fuel system

Growler had a great helm, despite limited space. But notice the long reach to the instruments if one needs to press a button. This was an issue in rough weather.

Putting the generator start switch/instrument panel anywhere on the front helm console is also just silly, yet I’ve seen it on new boats. I can just imagine the yard guys completing the generator installation without giving it much thought. They need to put it somewhere. Same with the VHF radio. Come on, guys, put a little thought to it, or just leave it loose for the commissioning techs.

Redoing an older boat can be a challenge, as it requires dropping overhead panels, opening lockers, and cutting new holes. But with today’s multifunction displays, which make much better use of limited helm area, it is often well worth the effort.

And today, we also need to find space for a bracket mount for the iPad or tablet, for use from the helm chair.

Okay enough with the helm. Let’s move on to another opportunity to improve the owner experience.

I saw this comment on the Tartan sailboat owners page on Facebook, and it got me thinking.

"We have a Tartan 3700 with a Yanmar 3JH3E 40hp engine. When viewing the engine from the cabin, the raw water pump is behind the alternator and inaccessible. Even removing the alternator, the pump can only be seen with a mirror. Does anyone have advice on how best to access this pump to change out the raw water impeller?"

I can easily imagine how this happened. Tim Jackett, head designer at Tartan Yachts, no doubt included the specification for a 40hp diesel engine in his design plans. The builder ordered an engine from Yanmar, and the shiny new engine arrived on a pallet. The building team then installed the engine as they have hundreds of times before. Not one person asked the very question that so begs to be asked:

“So how will the owner access this engine? Did we choose the right engine for this installation? Did we make all of the important components accessible for the owner to perform routine maintenance?”

And that brings up an idea that is long overdue, in my opinion. There needs to be one person at a boat yard who functions as a customer service liaison, a person who looks out for the eventual owner of this boat by seeing the project from an owner’s perspective. From engine access to proper installation of handrails, a set of eyes looking from the user perspective would be a real asset, and it is sorely needed.

If recreational boating is to survive and flourish, we need to make things better, easier, safer, and provide us an enjoyable user experience. The coming generations will not tolerate the compromises we have accepted for so many years, trying to get around the many obstacles boat builders put before us, as they remain fixed in tradition and are reluctant to change because they have always done it that way. They say every boat is a compromise. That may be true, but some things are fixable simply by looking at it differently.

Which brings up another idea to improve the user experience for the owners of a cruising boat.

Unless you have been living in a mountain hut in the Himalayas, you already know the value of having dual, switchable fuel filters—with vacuum gauge—in your engine room. The vacuum gauge is a wonderful tool that keeps you informed about the status of your selected filter. As the filter element collects impurities and particulates the gauge will begin registering a vacuum, which means the fuel delivery system works a little harder to pull fuel through the system. The gauge provides an easy monitor of its status. Before it reaches a worrisome vacuum level, where the filter is becoming restricted, you can simply switch the filter assembly handle to the other filter and then change this element at your convenience. The red zone on most Racor gauges begins at 10"Hg.

As great as this setup is, one can make it much better by installing a second, duplicate vacuum gauge at your helm, where you can keep an eye on the filters while running the boat.

This is an outstanding addition to your helm, and it is easier than you might imagine.

racor gauge

On many cruising boats, power and sail, it is not difficult as long as the run between the fuel filter assembly and helm is not too long. In fact, Racor recommends you keep the hose that runs between your remote helm gauge and the filter assembly under 14 feet in length. If that fits your boat’s configuration, you should have no trouble installing a remote vacuum gauge. This is a perfect project for getting ready for the Great Loop, and can be done on many cruising boats, from Nordic Tugs, to Grand Banks, classic trawlers, Downeast cruisers, and most sailboats.

It has no downside and is a great aid for the boat owner.

Install a T fitting into the existing filter assembly for the additional hose (the T fitting is below the original gauge in the photo below). Using regular fuel hose, run it from this T up to your helm, where it is attached to your second vacuum gauge at your helm. There is no need to do anything special with this hose. If there are no air leaks, it will register any vacuum pressure between the selected fuel tank and the selected fuel filter, just like the original vacuum gauge.

growler fuel filter assembly

Note the T fitting inserted below the vacuum gauge to run a hose up to the helm. The little lever at the top of this gauge, found of high-quality instruments, allows you to equalize any residual pressure in the system back to zero after you've opened up the filter assembly and changed the filter element. (Before you question the use of two-micron filter elements, I had an ESI fuel polishing system on this boat and religiously polished the fuel and tanks down to two microns, which is critical for common rail diesel engines. I never once had fuel issues.)

Racor and other manufacturers make vacuum gauges with their connection on the back of the gauge, rather than at the bottom as you see on your filter assembly. This on-back connection simplifies the hose connection at the helm console.

You can now keep an eye on your fuel filter's status from the helm, and eliminate the guesswork associated with out-of-sight instrumentation.

This is such a worthwhile improvement I would not hesitate to install this on any sailboat or cruising boat that fit the length requirement.

And if there was a customer service liaison in the yard, one might expect this to be standard practice, and included as just common-sense boat building that helps keep it fun.

And fun is the name of the game.


Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles by Bill Parlatore: