What the Helm is Going On?

2021 07 16 18 07 33


Why is it that North American boat manufacturers chose to place the helm controls to starboard rather than to port, where we find them in our daily commuters?

Once upon a time, the earliest sailing vessels had a “board” or rudder, which was used to steer from a “steer-board” (starboard) position. There was a better line of sight, and this logically became the norm throughout the time to come. But why?

A logical modern-day explanation has to do with propeller rotation. Most all modern-day props are right-handed and because they are rotating clockwise in forward gear, will tend to push the bow to port (known as Propeller Walk,) turning the boat counterclockwise and thereby listing the vessel a couple of degrees to port. So, by having the captain positioned to starboard, this occurrence would be countered by their weight.

Another point that’s often brought up are the “rules of the road”, which “require us to keep watch on our starboard-forward corner at all times.” In a head-on situation, keeping one another to port, we thus pass the same way we would if we were driving on the highway in our vehicles. And from a starboard-side helm position, there is an overall clearer line of sight.

Lastly, and the point that makes the most sense is that all the crucial controls, which are geared for right-handers, are kept safely out of the way. Despite the possibility to counterbalance the weight with the myriad systems on board, take notice that starboard seems to be the way to go. That said, with the onset of gyro stabilizers and offsetting weight distribution throughout the vessels, from things such as ballasts and fuel tank placement, we are seeing more of a change in terms of helm placement.

Whether as a delivery captain, giving boating lessons or client-owned charters, we must jump on hundreds of vessels throughout the year and immediately become masters of safe and confident command. This dynamic exercise has instilled a subconscious fluidity of acceptance – I personally barely notice which side of the boat I’m on anymore.

But it still begs the question: Which is more comfortable for you?


Written by: Capt. Greg Thornton | Professional Captain Services

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