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Recreating A Boat's Helm

Revamped helm, before and afterA Rousing Revamp

Tired of those old electronics? Why not give your boat a whole new helm?

With mounting frustration, Pasquale Didonato eased his 48-foot Sea Ray Sedan Bridge out of the C&D canal toward the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. It was well after dark, and a raster-scan radar screen gave his countenance a spooky glow as he leaned to the right in a half-crouch to check his lineup on an upcoming set of buoys. “Maybe I oughta sell this boat,” he grumbled as he fiddled with the push buttons. An argument he’d been having with himself for months emerged yet again at the back of his mind.

Oh yeah, his 2002 Sea Ray was a great boat. She was easy to handle dockside, particularly for a midranger; her open-water performance was sweet; and she was roomy and comfortable inside, qualities his wife, kids, and grandkids especially enjoyed. But then there was the boat’s helm design—Didonato hated it. And he especially hated the placement of the radar monitor on a small molded-fiberglass electronics flat, way off to starboard of the wheel. Every time he needed to check a target or fine-tune a control he had to rise from the helm chair, lean over uncomfortably, and stare into the screen’s glow, all moves that invariably took his eyes off the water ahead, broke the continuity of his navigational attention, and momentarily nixed his night vision.

“But does it make sense? Getting rid of a boat just because you don’t like the helm?” he wondered for what seemed like the thousandth time.

As luck would have it, the issue resolved itself a few days later. Didonato was driving his Mercedes along a busy highway near his Maryland home and simultaneously trying to program his car’s GPS unit, mounted well to the right of the steering wheel. The exercise, although decidedly land-based, seemed to be producing the same level of frustration he was experiencing afloat. In fact, at one point he was alarmed when he found himself tailgating another vehicle due to the programming distraction. An aha moment ensued. Didonato resolved to check out an increasingly popular service a friend had recently told him about: helm redesign.   

The history of the concept’s a short one. Approximately a decade ago the ongoing evolution of marine electronics took one heck of a leap forward. Thanks to super-fast microprocessors and advancements in CANbus technology, multifunction plotters with large LCD screens and networked-display capabilities began invading the marketplace, complete with sharper imagery and vibrant colors. Enthralled, boat owners concomitantly began pressuring electronics shops and boatyards to find ways to upgrade their older helms with these products.

Good ol’ American know-how characterized the response. By synching up with talented designers, computer programmers, and custom fiberglass fabricators, the electronics guys found they could modify older helms both stylistically and structurally and then install brand-new electronics packages in them, often with umbilically connected remote keyboards and other convenient niceties.  

Didonato got busy. He stopped by a marine electronics shop he knew was solid—Mid-Shore Electronics of Ocean City, Maryland—and explained to a salesperson exactly what he was looking for in a new helm. In a day or so, Mid-Shore came back with what proved to be an acceptable cost estimate as well as a schedule of events for the next few weeks.

The first step was going to be comparitively simple—the Sea Ray would be moved to a slip at Mid-Shore’s waterfront facility. Next, with the company’s help, Didonato would choose a new electronics suite that would fit both his preferences and his budget. Then after checking out a variety of layouts by superimposing paper templates of new electronics products over the old helm (see above) and leavening the result with input from a custom fiberglass guy, a CAD (Computer-Aided Design) expert, and Didonato himself, Mid-Shore would produce structural and electrical drawings that would be used to take the project to fruition. 

Things went smoothly. Because Mid-Shore sells used equipment and parts as well as brand-new electronics, the shop was able to cut Didonato’s costs slightly by adding his old-but-still-working electronics to its second-hand inventory after removal. The fiberglass work that came next took two weeks to complete and entailed filling in existing cutouts (for the old plotter, radar, autopilot, multifunction gauge, VHF, and air-conditioning vents, as well as engine and other instrumentation); transforming an old, two-tiered dashboard into a large, aesthetically pleasing electronics flat; and finishing off the new structure with a perfectly matched finish.

Installing the new electronics package itself, which included a Furuno NavNet system with radar and interfaced autopilot, an Icom VHF, and a CD player/tuner/multimedia Clarion marine stereo, took two Mid-Shore techs roughly 45 hours. Electronics hookups these days are complicated—dealing with new equipment and special components that adapt older wiring to new is not typically a DIY enterprise. And the final cost of $32,000 for the redesign (approximately $7,000 for fiberglass work and materials with the rest going to new electronics, electronics installation, sea trial, and customer tutorial) was well within the original estimate.         

“I love what they did with my boat—it’s delightful,” enthuses Didonato today. “Now I can sit in my helm chair, simply glance down at the big LCD right in front of my eyes, make radar, course, and other adjustments as needed with the keyboard in my lap, and never have to really take my eyes off the road.”

“And what’s more,” he adds with the warmth of a guy who loves everything about his boat now, “the job looks like a million bucks … like my helm came out of the plant just the way it is right now.”

Mid-Shore Electronics
(410) 213-1212. 

In Mid-South Electronics’ showroom a salesperson tells a customer about the capabilities and possibilities of a redesigned helm.

Photo by Greg Pease/ReduxPlus

The underside of the new dash

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

Placement of templates (note the radar well to starboard)

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

The customer helps with CAD drawings.

Photo by Greg Pease/ReduxPlus

Old helm minus old electronics and other components

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

New electronics flat roughed in

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

Fiberglassing complete with two openings cut for air-conditioning vents, but more holes to come

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

The finished product.

Photo courtesy of Mid-Shore Electronics

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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