The Bottom Line

By Tom Neale, 2/19/2010


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Advanced designs for the placement of butts at the helm were seldom considered in the not too distant past. But in recent years marine design professionals have been steadily rising to new heights in the art of the lowering of buttocks into practical yet comfortable foundations at the helm.

Sail Boat Better Butt Comfort

In the good old days helms persons always stood up. I’ve never been sure why, although I think it had something to do with the tight fitting pants worn by naval officers. This wasn’t as bad as it seemed, because steering wheels had spokes sticking out the rim, so you could hang on when you really got tired. However I have heard that there were a lot of helms persons on sailing vessels who developed one leg shorter than the other, while standing so much, especially on ships regularly undertaking long voyages on one tack.

The seating issues diminished with the development of steam ships because they were usually on more of an even keel as compared to sailing vessels. But on modern sailing vessels things are much improved over days of old. Helms persons no longer must endure the disability of having one leg shorter than the other; they only need to endure the problem of having one cheek flatter than the other.

A comfortable place to sit is quite important today because on the “properly” equipped yacht fancy little gizmos turn the wheel, feel the wind, and even crank the winches. If the buttons are close enough you hardly need to get up. You sit a lot. Even though Chez Nous isn’t quite a “properly equipped yacht,” I do manage to perform a lot of seafaring duties sitting down, thus this subject is important to me. The first Chez Nous, a Tartan 27 which I bought in 1969, avoided the issue by having a tiller instead of a wheel thus forcing me to sit to the side. On mornings after really good parties I could hang over the tiller, just like the ancient seafarers hung over the spokes. Whenever I got too comfortable, she obliged me with what the aficionados call a “jibe” or “tack,” but which I called a “clean sweep.” Every boat I’ve had since then has had a wheel, thus making the issue of how and where to sit even more critical.

Tom’s Tips About Seating

1. A helmsman’s seat should be designed and positioned in a manner to minimize back and joint stress and wrist and shoulder stress. This can become a problem for many people on long passages.

Click Here for More Tips

Wheels, seen almost universally on modern sailboats, are huge stainless steel things with no protruding spokes. They call them “destroyer” wheels. Some say this has something to do with the naval vessels, but I think it has something to do with what happens if you fall asleep hanging inside the rim. With protruding spokes you were just flipped overboard. With destroyer wheels, you get dragged around what they call the “great circle route.” Recent helms seating technology has addressed this issue as well as others.

Some boats have U shaped seats behind the wheel, with the lowest part in the center line and the sides rising outboard. You can slide your derriere up the side so that your body can be level, though the boat isn’t. When you are sailing level, you sit down in the bottom of the U, confident in the thought that if it starts raining you can wash your underwear as long as you remain seated and wiggle around a bit. However, when you’re sitting in the bottom, there’s the problem of seeing over the deck junk.

This problem, no doubt, leads to the opposite arrangement of having a hump in the middle of the seat. Notwithstanding what this does for the prostate gland, it seems much more practical. It lets rain water flow downhill away from you instead of into your intimate place of repose. More importantly, it allows the helms person to see over the deck junk when the boat is on the level. And when you doze off, you’re generally going to fall off and wake up, rather than blissfully slump down to the side or worse, lean forward into the destroyer spokes.

Center Console Butt Buster

Proper utilization of either of these seating arrangements requires a bit of thought and effort. The angle of heel on any boat is seldom stable, thus once you have slid along the inclined plane to your desired location, you have to avoid sliding back down and you must choose a gripping cheek--one cheek or the other--to provide the friction to prevent this. (Most seem to prefer the downhill cheek for this job.) Seats on fancier yachts are thoughtfully covered with teak for its non skid effect. This effect is most efficiently achieved by having the gripping cheek become impaled on the teak splinters. I prefer to use a wedge shaped cushion or block of wood for this purpose. I think they call them “cheek blocks.

Each of my last three Chez Nous’s have had an uninspired old fashioned flat bench seat behind a destroyer wheel. This has worked well for me. I don’t have to do much thinking about sitting, and when I want to lie down I don’t have to worry about hills and valleys. But this lack luster seating has led me to enviously look around a bit. In so doing so I couldn’t miss what’s on some of the power vessels out here. Power boat manufacturers seem to have gotten the leg up in the bottoms down department. I’ve seen helm seats on some power vessels that probably cost more than my whole boat. They are padded, they have wide arm rests, they go around and up and down, they have shock absorbers (whether for hitting the waves or the docks I’m not sure) and best of all, they recline. The rotating and reclining features seem particularly suited to a sail boat. When you heel, you could just turn to face downwind and recline upwind. No more unevenly flattened cheeks.

Power Boat Seating

When my sails are flapping in the breeze and I’ve got nothing better to do, I like to dream of a power boat seat I’d like. It would have an automatic elevation feature, great for seeing over deck junk. It would have a padded extending foot rest to prop my feet and to catch me when I fell out. It would have a tall head rest to protect me when I jibe. And it would have a vibrator which I would turn into an alarm. I’d interface it with the wind vane to awaken me when the wind shifted, and I’d interface it with the radar proximity alarm to let me know whether I should care if the wind shifted.

There are lots of other great power boat seats, but then there are the super fishing center console boats that seem to have taken a step or two backwards. Their helm seats are really cushioned benches. These seem to be much in vogue. I’m told it’s so you can support yourself while standing up as you crash through the waves, enabling you to be in better control and to see fish and birds working better. I tried that once on a friend’s boat and learned a whole new definition for the phrase, “busting your butt.”

But after all is said and done, I can’t escape the conclusion. I don’t care whether I’m busting my butt on a bench, whether I’m leaning back reclined in cushioned luxury, whether I’m growing one leg shorter than the other or even whether I’m developing a flat cheek. The bottom line is that as long as my butt is on a boat, I’m a happy dude.

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Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale