Geek Stuff: The Helm

I know many of our followers are boat geeks like we are. If you are not one of those, you might want to skip this read, it’s all about the electronics we use for piloting and navigation.

What, you ask? No more pics of Fiji?? Well, now I feel bad. Okay, here:


Snorkeling at Octopus, the most healthy and vividly colored coral we’ve seen. And just as a bonus, here’s another stupendously beautiful sunset we enjoyed last week. I’ll really miss these when we get to Seattle, just in time for 2 PM sunsets and seasonal affective disorder coming on.


Now you normal folks can take off to do some kind of normal activity, while the rest of us take a look at all the cool stuff we have at our helm and how it’s installed.

Here’s an overview shot


We have three Dell 19” displays mounted, they don’t obstruct vision forward whether standing or seated in the Stidd chair. Displays being what they are, we carry a spare. Each screen can display a choice of two inputs; so we vary what we are looking at depending whether we are underway, in close quarters or hazardous water, night or day, etc.

Please forgive us for the crappy photo quality this time. Too lazy to wait for the right light conditions, I’m trying to compensate by uploading larger sized pics. So what we have here is blurry… but big!

Looking at the instruments on the left side of the helm, from forward to aft and left to right:


You can see the Yanmar wing engine panel with its key in place. The engine control lever for this get-home system takes the form of a removable handle which fits into a socket flush-mounted on the vertical surface below the main engine control, out of view of any of these photos.

To the right of that is the Naiad active stabilizer control panel, followed by a Furuno Class A AIS control panel. AIS targets and their info show up on the Furuno radar screen, and on our primary chart plotter which is Windows-based Coastal Explorer. I’m sure they also display on Furuno’s NavNet 3D chart plotter; we rarely pay attention to the NavNet plotter though it’s running in the background and maintaining a redundant track for us… Windows being what it is.

Moving aft, on the left is the ICOM VHF radio. Many FPB owners opt for a pair of these, and we did go for a backup one on our last boat. For what it’s worth, we never had need of it as a spare. We carry a couple of 5 watt hand held VHF’s, and, I dunno, I think we just got helm overload trying to figure out where to cram it in without offending both of our aesthetic sensibilities. So we’ve just got the one ICOM, with a remote mic on the fly bridge. (Other than the VHF, the rest of our communications are installed in the office of the boat, to be covered another day.)

To the right of the VHF is the FLIR infrared night vision camera. We had a previous iteration of this pan-and-scan camera on our Selene, and it saved our bacon on more than one occasion, getting in or out of crowded anchorages on black nights (some people eschew the whole anchor light thing,) and avoiding crab pots and the like.

To the right of the FLIR panel, you can see a square display divided into four windows. That’s the Maretron DSM 250, it’s Hal to our Dave. It accesses all the NMEA data generated by the other helm instrumentation, and has all kinds of its own sensors besides. We use it to see weather info, navigation info, electrical status, fuel system data, engine parameters, pitch and roll, you name it. It also alerts or alarms in case of bilge pump activity, water pump activity beyond a user defined norm, if you’ve violated an anchor watch radius you set, etc. I think if our radioactive core starts to overheat, it will start a loud countdown, “self-destruct in T minus TEN. MINUTES.” You know, that kind of thing. And, this part is no-kidding, you can access its data remotely on, say, an iPad, when you’re off the boat. Or it can e-mail you an alert.

The large Dell display on the left is showing the Maretron information we have chosen to see at anchor, weather related and that sort of thing. We can custom design an infinite number of screens laid out any way we want. I am in heaven with this kind of capability, and have barely begun to scratch the surface with the interface. We have the smaller DSM 250 displays in the master stateroom and on the fly bridge. Stan likes to be able to open his eyes in bed at anchor and see… well, my loving eyes looking back at him, of course. But once that’s over with, our wind, depth and position in our anchor circle.

The row aft is just the computer keyboard, and trackballs for use with the big Maretron display and the Furuno NavNet3D system. The trackballs were wicked hard to come by, they’ve gone way out of fashion. But oh so handy on boats.

Now let’s work through the right side of the helm:


Starting forward and in the middle, just under the center of the radar display, there is the Maxwell windlass control/chain counter. To the right of that is one of the two ComNav autopilot controls. The acive one is turned on a couple of rows aft of it, showing 136 degrees. Normally the redundant one has its factory cover in place to avoid confusion.  To the right of the inactive autopilot control is the panel for the single John Deere engine with its key in place. We normally look to Hal… er, I mean, the Maretron, for engine data, but in case Hal steps out for an espresso or something, the John Deere panel shows its data in both analog gauge and digital form.

Back toward the center, just aft of the Maxwell windlass control is the joystick control for the bow thruster. Our Selene came with both a bow and a stern thruster. We were a bit apprehensive at first with our FPB in close quarters. But the maneuverability of the FPB is such that the stern thruster is not a necessity. I’ll admit it would be kind of cool to have one, but Stan’s embraced the bullet-proof, bare aluminum hull concept and has gotten all into this warping thing. The other day we were at a gnarly fuel dock, with giant catamaran ferry boats tied close in front and behind us. He warped us away from the dock without using any thruster at all. Bravo!

The panel to the right of the thruster joystick, with the red button, contains a bunch of switches for bilge pumps, deck and search lights and the like. The red button is the horn.

Just under (aft of) the John Deere panel on the right is the Furuno Searchlight forward-looking sonar. There’s a learning curve on that sophisticated instrument. But we’ve spent this season navigating among very poorly charted coral reefs and bommies. Stan in particular has gotten lots of practice and it’s proven itself invaluable. We’ve adopted Pete Rossin’s practice (FPB Iron Lady) of doing a wide radius 360 scan after anchoring, to make sure there are no submerged surprises awaiting us when the wind shifts during the night.

To the right of the helm proper, looking awfully blurry, are the throttle/control for the main engine, and a third trackball for use with Windows based Coastal Explorer.

In the aft most row back near the center of the helm, the aforementioned active ComNav autopilot control can be seen and to its immediate left, the ComNav ‘tiller’ with its arm sticking aft. That tiller control is our primary non-automatic steering, we use it in all close quarters situations. When in ‘auto’ mode, the dial on the right side of the control panel is used to steer. We have redundancy in both the control heads and the pumps for the autopilot system. Stan and I have drilled it a couple of times, it takes us less than two minutes to change over completely, pumps, plumbing and electrical. The tiller is active with either of the two control heads. And should the electronic tiller fail along with the control head, there is a manual steering wheel that attaches under the black cap, the top of which is just visible mounted vertically on the wood in the photo above.

Number of seconds we have spent even thinking about, let alone missing, a traditional steering wheel: zero. I’ll admit to being an early adopter by nature, but that was five whole seconds less than it took me to get used to my Kindle!

Finally, in the right aft corner of the helm, the Furuno NavNet3D control panel. That can display on either or both of the two left hand Dell displays. It gives us radar, chart plotter, fish finder sonar and also our cameras: the FLIR night vision, and our engine room and aft-facing deck cameras.

But check this out, because this is where, if you’ve been mucking around with boat electronics for awhile, it gets really good:


That’s our two helm panels, lifted up by their handles to give unfettered, uncontorted and spacious access to the mounting and wiring of all the electronic control panels. The Apple logo you see is our Mac Mini computer, which serves as our primary navigation computer. It has Windows 8 installed via Boot Camp, so boots natively to Windows. It’s shaped perfectly to fit easily in the space, and is a reliable little machine. Most of the helm equipment is 24 or 12 volt, naturally. But for things like the Dell displays and the Mac Mini, there are two portals for AC power under there: a dedicated small  helm inverter, and another receptacle which gets its power from the regular ship’s 115 inverter. So if either fails, we can just plug all AC components into the other and not lose any helm functionality.

And finally, behold:


That’s the view through a hatch into the basement space, just underneath the floor aft of the helm and next to the Stidd chair. I couldn’t really capture the whole width of it with the walk-around lens I had on the camera. But the message is this: no more lying on your back, shoulder dislocating as you stretch your arm blindly trying to feel for some connection or other, wishing you had a fiberoptic scope handy. No more putting your head in that lion’s mouth of tangled wires and dust bunnies. All the black boxes are there, mounted on one wall, labeled and accessible.

Not shown in any of these pics: the iPad, which is rapidly making its way onto every cruiser’s must-have list for so many reasons. Also not shown: our paper charts. Yes, we do carry paper charts. Not only that, we have all the tools and the skills to use them. Though, when pressed, I must admit that we employ them rarely enough that there tend to be high-fives and booty-dancing when we actually plot a course or position.

We realize that, though we don’t have every cool new toy out there, we’re certainly positioned toward the ‘lots and lots’ end of the spectrum. Could we cruise without most of it? Of course we could. But we really enjoy the functionality these electronic gadgets offer us. And let’s be realistic: I opened a fully computerized, paperless veterinary practice back in 1995. All my recipes have been on software on my laptop for years, my shopping list syncs to my iPhone… straight from the recipe if I want. I’m the last person one would expect to opt for navigation with a sextant. The FPB actually comes standard with most of the aforementioned gizmos; the rest we spec’d before construction. And after our first season, we’re thrilled with all of it.

Pretty great design for installation and access, isn’t it?

Hmm… I hear crickets.

I suppose I should think about taking up a normal hobby. Tomorrow, maybe.

9 thoughts on “Geek Stuff: The Helm

  1. The Buffalo Nickel’s helm is impressive and the looks like a first rate installation.
    Thanks for the detailed description.
    Jim G.

  2. Geek is always good. I’m equally impressed with the paperless office in the mid 90’s. I did it with a finance company, taking 53 people kicking and screaming down a new path in the late 90’s.

    I just love the Mini booting to windows. Was that your call or FPB standard hardware?

    On geek things, do you capture the Maretron data on a drive for trend analysis? All of it or just partial?

    1. Hi Bruce, I hear you on the kicking and screaming. I had it a bit easier since I did it from day one, no appointment book etc. and staff knew the plan when I hired them.

      The Mac Mini is ours, computer based chart plotters are such a personal thing that they just leave that choice to the owners.

      On the Maretron historical data capture, that’s an excellent question and one I have not looked into yet! *pulls up to-do list*

  3. My partner and I stumbled over here by a different web page
    and thought I might check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you.
    Look forward to looking over your web page repeatedly.

  4. Hi Valerie,

    Thank you for a wonderful blog that covers the geeky aspects as and so well. To call it a cliffhanger *might* be stretching it, but if in the new season you happen to have a camera on you when in the office with the comm gear… 🙂 Just curious: for voice and (painfully expensive) data, you seem to have a FleetBroadband 150 system. Did you consider an Iridium Pilot system as well and if so, what made you choose the FB?

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