I went aboard a new trawler not long ago. It was so new the cushions and mattresses were still covered in thick plastic. The boat had recently arrived in the port of Baltimore and had not yet been commissioned. It was just as it left the builder’s yard in China. There were many details to be addressed before the dealer delivered the boat to the new owners.

It was exciting to look around the new trawler yacht, imagining the world its owners would explore. The Great Loop was likely in the cards, Nova Scotia, and perhaps a couple of trips south to Florida, the Bahamas, maybe even the Caribbean. I love that about new boats, so full of potential and opportunity only limited by their owners’ imagination.

I noticed the equipment on this boat represented the best in each category, whether galley appliances, pilothouse systems, lighting, windows and doors, even the head fixtures. This boat was intended to be the best it could be and that alone was most impressive. There were handrails everywhere, and the boat felt solid. The builder even had large stainless-steel staples on the swim platform. A lot of thought went into this boat.

Another observation was how the new boat stayed new. What I mean by that is that the builder had not installed a lot of the equipment that no doubt would go on the boat, so most of what was there was not yet permanently installed. One of those was the Cummins engine module of instrumentation, something I don’t recall seeing before. The integrated cluster of gauges and switches was placed loose inside the console in the pilothouse. It was plugged in and fully operational, and still wrapped in its plastic bag as it had been delivered from Cummins.

When we turned the engine on, the module came to life, providing all the necessary engine information, even though it was not installed. That impressed me.

I compare that to so many new boats I’ve been on, especially in years past, where the builder, without a “big picture” view of the completed boat’s helm, installed these engine gauges right in the center of the new console. New electronics were left for the dealer to install in the remaining space. A guy at the yard just installed it to check it off his work list. (To be fair, when there are lots of controls, such as windshield wipers, thrusters, and stabilizers, the many switches and gauges can’t just be left dangling, so some installation is necessary.)

(Below: Before & After electronics installation. Image by Power & Motor Yacht.)

before and after helm electronics installation

How things have evolved at some of the larger, more experienced and sophisticated yards! Particularly when a model has been out for some time, and owners have used their boats for several years, the modern helm has been refined. While there are some differences in the look and features between brands of navigation electronics, for example, they are now all very similar. When a helm is put together right, subsequent buyers of the model don’t need to reinvent what works, and things are good to go.

I am very glad that at some point over the years, it became obvious to some yacht builders and dealers that delivering a new yacht to a dealer, then essentially taking it apart to “finish” it, just didn’t make sense. As overseas yacht builders gained experience and knowledge beyond the basics of boat building, it was determined that a more efficient approach was to run all the wires, cables, and hoses during construction, and install most of the equipment, control units, and electronics while the boat was at the yard. Relying on a local dealer to complete the often-significant list of items on a large yacht had little to recommend it.

But we did it that way for a long time, certainly before the age of integration and network connectivity. And the Asian boat building industry has also matured.

It was a very different story years ago, in terms of helm layout and equipment placement. I remember going on some large new motoryachts and trawlers that were stellar examples of what NOT to do. I recall one big Ocean Alexander yacht at the Ft. Lauderdale show. The huge pilothouse was the full beam of the boat, minus the width of the side decks that connected the Portuguese bridge.

The expanse of helm seemed to go on forever, at the console level as well as the overhead. They spaced everything the same distance from each other, so the wide helm looked good. The helm looked balanced across the span, as all the controls, switches, gauges, and displays were spread out from the port side to the starboard side of the pilothouse.

Unfortunately, it was clear that anyone running the boat would not be spending much time in that fancy helm chair, as to monitor the boat’s systems meant constantly walking from one side of the pilothouse to the other.

More recently, I was in the pilothouse of a Krogen 44, a much more manageable trawler yacht with a cozy pilothouse ideal for a couple. Yet, the VHF radio was installed well off to the right side of the helm, out of reach. Anyone sitting in the helm chair had to get up to reach the mic and radio dials and small display. While the overall installation of displays and controls on the helm console looked shipshape, the practical placement of this equipment was clearly secondary to the helm’s aesthetic balance.

(Below: The electronics are spread out on this large yacht forcing the captain to stay out of his helm seat.)

helm electronics on large yacht

A well-designed helm will be much friendlier than one with lots of screens and controls spread across whatever real estate the helm offers. Even on a big boat, such as a larger Krogen, Fleming, Nordhavn, or Selene, one should consider the person at the helm. He or she is likely sitting in a comfortable helm chair, and it should not be necessary to walk from side to side as on older Hatteras and other motor yachts. Placement is important.

I spoke with experienced yacht broker Martin Snyder of Seattle Yachts in the Pacific Northwest, with offices in Seattle and Anacortes, Washington. I’ve known Martin since the mid 1990s when he was a broker for Grand Yachts Northwest, the Seattle Grand Banks dealer. He is successful serving his buyers again and again as they live through the boating lifecycle, moving up in size every so many years and then downsize as they get older.

Martin said these days, he and his clients are likely to choose navigation electronics of the same suite, mostly Garmin. A decade or two ago, there was great debate over choosing one manufacturer’s line of electronics over selecting the best units for each function, regardless of brand. Icon made the best radio, Furuno made the best radar, Simrad/Robertson the best autopilot, and so on.

But now things are much more equal, in terms of performance, so the choice often comes down to which units are easiest to use. According to Martin, Garmin’s core navigation electronics are all super user friendly, truly plug-n-play, and they provide all the functionality while retaining the reliability of one manufacturer’s design protocols. No more SeaTalk problems talking to a NMEA interface, or any of the proprietary issues we lived through when manufacturers introduced their own suite family.

When it comes to designing a new boat’s helm, Martin and his buyer work together to put together a layout that works for them. It is common on large trawlers and motoryachts to have dual helm chairs, as a couple often run their boat together. So, the helm design follows this functionality to work just as the couple will use the boat.

(Below: The inside helm station on the Endurance 658 with two captain's chairs.)

helm station with two captain chairs 

That often means three large screens at the helm, with each set to function for the job normally performed by one person, such as route planning and following a course, with another screen dedicated to the person running the boat. A VHF radio is reachable by either person, the mic located between the helm chairs.

One advantage of Garmin electronics, Martin explained, at least when the boat has Stidd helm chairs, is the Garmin GRID integrated remote control which brings all functionality of the electronics to one’s fingertips. (It is not available from other helm chair manufacturers at this time.) This level of system integration and user friendliness makes a big difference.

For most boats, two helm displays are enough, although Martin says three MFDs are ideal. Maretron equipment is used extensively to monitor all other systems that are not part of the Garmin network, and they are integrated into the ship’s electronics network.

Martin told me he spends time with Hampton’s Jeff Chen to refine these solutions regularly, so the equipment and installation during construction improves as new features and systems become available.

Laura Unsell is also a Seattle Yachts broker, based in St. Augustine, Florida. She has been particularly successful in bringing new buyers into the Hampton Endurance family. Many of these buyers have aviation experience, and Laura says they are comfortable and familiar with the helm design and equipment on the boats they inspect as they consider a new boat. They are happy with what they see and find no reason to make changes.

Garmin is also a favorite brand. It helps that a Garmin specialist is close to the yard in Shanghai, essentially onsite, and this local presence means the yard has full support right at the factory from a trained Garmin technician. Often, buyers outfit their new motoryacht with Garmin products, for all the same reasons mentioned by Martin Snyder. They just work well, are exceedingly easy to use and understand, and the headache of running wires, cables and mounting equipment is mostly eliminated by having the work done during construction.

That is not to say that a buyer can’t choose some other brand. In fact, Laura told me about a recent build order where the client specified Furuno as the electronics manufacturer, based on his own familiarity and comfort with Furuno. Not a problem, says Laura.

She and her buyer met with Furuno reps at one of the Florida boat shows, and the project was discussed at great length. With a 12 to 14-month build time at Hampton, the Furuno experts calculated the timeframe would work well for a new system coming out in six months, so they tailored the ship’s electronics package to include this new system.

The result is the best of both worlds. A full suite of Furuno electronics will be installed at the Hampton yard in Shanghai, ensuring the components work and talk to each other. Then the yacht will be delivered to Bradford Marine in Ft. Lauderdale. High Seas is the Furuno dealer at Bradford, and they will go aboard and complete and calibrate the new system. These techs will install the correct charts (U.S. East Coast versus the Pacific Northwest or some other cruising area), make all updates, and program the system to work as it is designed. When the new owners take delivery, everything will be fully tested, calibrated, and operational.

(Below: The owner of this Hargrave Yacht chose Furuno electronics to be installed.)

furuno electronics on hargrave yacht 

This tour de force takes the pressure off the buyer to know what they want and why, and how they want the helm to look. But success relies on the experience of the boat builder, the knowledge of the broker, and the input of other owners of what works and what does not. Over time it makes all the difference.

I remember doing a boat tour of the Coast Guard’s new 47-foot motor lifeboat, at the Coast Guard station in Little Creek, Virginia. These search and rescue craft are designed to perform flawlessly no matter what the weather or seas state. They represent impressive simplicity because the mission statement could not be clearer. This boat is the real deal, nothing fancy, but everything onboard needs to work no matter what.

The helm on this unpainted aluminum boat is all business, and every control can be seen and operated by a helmsman, literally strapped in his helm seat. From radio to chartplotter, only the basics, but all right where they needed to be, within view and reach.

Speaking of reach, that reminds me of another consideration. On our Zimmerman 36 Downeast cruiser, I frequently had trouble when running along in a chop using the Simrad AP20 autopilot, mounted right in front of me. To use the pilot, I had to reach out with my finger to press one of several buttons to perform some tasks, such as putting the pilot on standby.

In anything but flat calm, as I bounced around in the helm chair, I would reach out with my hand to hit one of the Simrad buttons as the boat hit one wave after another. Very often, the result was that I inadvertently hit a button twice in quick succession, causing the autopilot to lock on its settings, go into a submenu, or something else I didn’t want to do. It was very frustrating. A rather poor user interface in my opinion.

I eventually developed the habit of leaning way forward in the chair, placing my hand firmly against the autopilot display face and then gingerly pressing the button with my finger...with my attention no longer out the window.

Another quirky memory was when one owner of a semi-custom trawler yacht had the builder mount all switches in the overhead space above the helm. The successful business owner flew B-25 medium bombers in WWII, and he was partial to overhead switches, even though the rest of us on the sea trial needed to turn bifocals upside down to read the labels.

The main helms on today’s cruising yachts have come a long way in a relatively short time. From inexperienced builders forcing all outfitting duties onto the local dealers, to complete yachts that have everything up and running by the time they leave the yard. It helps that the marine electronics industry has their act together. These companies now provide exceptional navigation devices that fully integrate with every other function aboard, from tank levels to engine status.

It is not hard to imagine this trend will continue, and future information management will allow even more functionality with perhaps less dependence on the number and location of controlling devices.

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

Not long ago, I would have imagined a world where I just needed a bracket mount for my iPad or tablet. But today, I suspect future helm design and controls are now just in the heads of creative and exceedingly bright engineers, getting ready to wow us yet again.

Enjoy these other boating and cruising articles: