Part 2: Back to the Early 90s...
By Capt. Bill Pike — March 2002
To understand exactly how radical all this is, let’s go back to the early ‘90s and what was then a state-of-the-art wheelhouse. Right off the top, the layout of equipage in the place was terrible, at least by comparison with the top-shelf arrangements of today. The tools the skipper needed to navigate were scattered around with all the forethought and precision of a sawed-off shotgun blast. Moreover, distances between critical items like the GPS, compass, chart table, autopilot control head, steering wheel, VHF, SSB, weatherfax, annunciator panels, engine readouts, tank gauges, depthsounder, ship’s library (with Coast Pilots, tide tables, cruising guides, etc.), and stereo were often considerable. In fact, while navigating through highly trafficked areas at night in some of these wheelhouses, I was often constrained to wonder if sprinting back and forth between a bunch of bleeping readouts, a distant chart table bathed in an ominous red glow, and a VHF overhanging a dashboard covered with towels and bathing suits to cut glare wasn’t about as irritating and anxiety-inducing as a load of bad fuel. Heck! Some readouts and sources of pertinent information were not even in the wheelhouse. Say you were running short-handed in bad weather some evening, wondering whether the day tanks were sucking down their last fumes or the lazarette hatch was secured. The only way to check was to wake and dispatch a hapless crew member to the scene.
And then there was the orientation problem. Any skipper who’s done much navigating in fog, overcast nights, snow, or any other condition of sorely restricted visibility knows how important radar is. That’s why most skippers want the receiver intelligently sited on the steering console, ideally near centerline, with an orientation that matches the axis of the vessel so that bearings approximated by eye look roughly the same as what the radar’s EBLs show. Such niceties were often given short shrift during the early ‘90s, at least on yachts and large production boats. I remember testing or operating oodles of vessels with radars set up more or less crosswise to the direction of travel.
The contrast with the glass bridge is stunning. Gone is having to sprint amongst a pile of poorly aligned navigational tools and data sources. Instead the skipper pretty much remains seated in a comfortable helm chair, much like the pilot of an airplane, while he works at arm’s length on a console covered with a lateral assemblage of touch screens, each capable of displaying electronic cartography (upon which his vessel is accurately positioned), radar images, aerial photography of coastlines, plus harbors and harbor entrances, and in-depth spread sheets and data readouts concerning virtually all shipboard systems including main engines, gensets, tankage, doors, hatches, bilge pumps, hydraulics, stabilizers, watermakers, entertainment systems, and security. Most installations even offer zoom-in/zoom-out camera pans of the engine room and other areas.
This article originally appeared in the February 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.