Pilothouse Sailboats: The Myth of Inside Steering
Updated: Feb 2, 2021
Prior to buying my Cooper 416 more than 20 years ago I was a "traditionalist" when it came to sailboats. I thought Pilothouse sailboats had way to much windage, the big doghouse was hard to see over, the inside steering station added additional maintenance, and they were hotter than a greenhouse in the Mohave Desert when cruising in tropical climates. And, I had not seen too many that were aesthetically appealing. I also felt that "real" sailors should be out in the elements with the wind and rain and the occasional dousing of salt spray peppering your face.
First, and most importantly let me clarify a distinction between modern pilothouse sailboats and motorsailers. For example, the Cooper 416, the Sceptre 41, the Dufour 12000CT, and others are what I consider "modern pilothouse" sailboats that have raised doghouses with sleek lines. Compare these to motorsailers such as the Nauticat 33 & 44, the Cabo Rico PH, and Fishers that look like someone took a sailboat and threw a giant window box on top of the coachroof. I am not a fan of motorsailers as theses types of sailboats embody all the negative connotations of pilothouse designs.
But, as my father was getting on in years, and after sailing (motoring) in the Pacific Northwest (PNW) for a few years where the winds are fickle, the currents strong, and the rain virtually constant...I decided that perhaps a pilothouse was the way to go for the PNW. The pilothouse layout would be more comfortable for my father than the full-keeled True North 34 sailboat that I had prior to my Cooper 416. And besides, if the weather was inclement with no wind and we were motoring (which is quite common in Puget Sound) it would be nice to be able to go below, throw some hot water on the stove for some hot chocolate, and keep watch in the warmth of the cabin while continuing my voyage.
But now, after owning my pilothouse sailboat for more than 20 years with thousands of sea and ocean miles below her...let me debunk the notion of the inside steering station and some of the common myths of a modern pilothouse sailboat.
As I said, after "sailing" in the PNW for 5 years, and with my father getting on in years I considered a pilothouse design as a reasonable compromise. For those of you not familiar with sailing in the PNW, the winds are usually light and variable due to the mountain ranges. There are days of pea soup fog that doesn't dissipate until after noon, and yes...more rain days than dry days. Hell, I even sailed in the snow. So sure, the idea of being able to go below and still keep a watch was more appealing to me. I was also getting older and wiser. Spending 6 hours in the cockpit sitting in the rain when it is 35F outside while motoring from Port Townsend back to Seattle was not fun. Sailing should be fun!
So, in 2000 I bought a Cooper 416 pilothouse sailboat designed by Stan Huntingford and built by Cooper Yachts in Coquitlam, BC, Canada. I also had my eye on a Sceptre 41. I liked the lower profile hull design of the Sceptre, but the interior layout of the Cooper won out. I sailed the boat around Vancouver Island twice, down to San Francisco, up and down the Salish Sea, and in 2019 sailed across the Pacific to Hawaii. And, after 20 years and more than 15,000 miles I realized that I probably actually steered using the inside steering station less than 1 hour.
OK...I acknowledge that I have an autopilot (and also windvane steering added in 2019). In my opinion every "cruising" sailboat should have an autopilot. There are times when I love the feel of the helm such as short day-sails with friends, teaching crew how to steer and maneuver, and beer can regattas such as the Downtown Sailing Series out of Elliott Bay Marina. And sometimes I like to give Tardis (the Garmin Reactor autopilot) and Hephzibah (the Hydrovane wind vane steering) a break, and take over the steering duties and rekindle the sense of sailing rather than just riding on a sailboat. But, it is pure folly to think that you are going to sit at the helm and steering a cruising sailboat for 6 or more hours day after day; it's just impractical.
But, even during these times when I took the helm, it was the helm in the cockpit. When I leave a berth or anchorage I am at the helm in the cockpit. When I am docking or dropping the hook I am at the helm in the cockpit. When I out with friends for a day sail I am at the helm in the cockpit. When I trim sails and setting Hephzibah I am in the cockpit. Even when I am motoring on windless days...I am usually in the cockpit standing watch and Tardis is steering the desired course.
Yes, during inclement weather and really cold days I would stand watch inside. The pilothouse is warm and dry and safe. Of course, I go below to cook nice meals and use the head feeling quite comfortable with Hephzibah or Tardis keeping S/V Discovery on course. The navigation station inside the pilothouse has radar, the primary chartplotter with AIS interfaced, and the autopilot master controller (an AP remote is located in the cockpit). So, with the electronic navigational systems and a 270 degree view ahead and abeam of the boat I feel pretty confident in adequate watch keeping. And more importantly, even during these times below deck either Hephzibah or Tardis were steering the course while the inside helm sat idle.
So, in October 2020 I decided the inside steering station added no benefit, and was just a meaningless "feature." So, I removed the inside helm and built a navigation console. Removing the inside helm pump also meant removing the old copper hydraulic lines and simplifying the hydraulic steering system (e.g. bleeding is easier and uses less fluid). It also removed the redundant gear and throttle control cables. And also, since the navigation station is the epicenter of the boat's electrical system, it also meant some electrical work. I also moved the electronic navigation systems into the console so they have easier access and visibility while sitting at the navigation station.
While the inside steering station on a sailboat seems like a pretty good idea, and certainly adds a "WOW" factor for guests, I must say that unless you sail in northern latitudes in blizzard-like conditions and all your sail controls are controlled via electric switches and motors, the inside steering station really doesn't make a lot of sense. This is not to say the pilothouse design isn't great...but steering from inside a pilothouse is done via an autopilot...not with a wheel.
Some other thoughts about pilothouse sailboats...
The windage myth...
Any surface area above the boat create windage. A J-boat has very little windage. A J-boat has very little if any creature comforts. A Nauticat 44 (motorsailer) has a huge doghouse and a lot of windage. Many of the sleeker pilothouse designs found on the Cooper, the Scepter, etc have less windage than a comparable sized Hanse or Beneteau or Janneau...especially the deck salons, or after adding a dodger and full enclosure around the cockpit.
The Greenhouse Effect myth...
There is a reason why many sailboats berthed or anchored for any length of time in the tropics is virtually covered from stem to stern with Sunbrella. The key to keeping any sailboat cool and comfortable in the tropics is ventilation and shade. This cannot be overstated enough. This means a tent over the foredeck, a boom tent over the doghouse, and a Bimini over the cockpit. Side curtains made from Phifertex around the cockpit also help keep things cool; they provide shade and allow airflow. New cruisers, or casual rally-rat cruisers are easy to spot...they are the folks who anchor their boats (sans canvas coverings) and hightail it to the nearest pub ashore to escape the heat.
Dual steering is difficult to maintain...
This puzzles me a bit. Most pilothouse boats with inside steering stations use hydraulic steering. This actually adds a bit of redundancy in the system should the pump at one of the helm stations break. But, the maintenance on a hydraulic steering systems involves checking the fluid level once a month once the system has been bled of all air (which can be challenging if done improperly). Also, it sure seems to me that if you're going to have 2 helms on a cruising sailboat to have one inside station and one cockpit station. Dual helms in the cockpit on a cruising sailboat makes about as much sense as 2 steering wheels in a car.
Yes, this is one of the real downsides of many pilothouse sailboats in the 30-50 foot range. The cabin interior is larger which mean the cockpits are smaller. Personally, I don't mind the small cockpit on passages because I sail alone or with 1 or 2 other crew and everything is within easy reach. But, for casual day sails with friends....the cockpit can get quite cramped and there is very little "social distancing" going on. But, the cockpit is still comfortable for 2 people to stretch out and relax on long passages.