The New Offshore Helm

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Offshore Helm

What’s Next?

Experienced cruiser Tony Fleming gets the most from his boat with an evolving array of systems.

If there’s one thing that’s certain and consistent in this world, it’s that change is inevitable. And nowhere on a boat is that more true than in helm electronics, where the competition is stiff and fast-growing processor speed is the (less) limiting (than ever) factor to having the helm you would be proud to call your own, wowing your inner computer geek with a smooth flow of information and lots of pretty colors.

But there’s more to this than just the latest and greatest, of course. Smart boaters don’t buy the next setup just because it’s available. A helm that’s properly set up in the first place will evolve easily rather than allow the power, user interface, and, yes, expense outstrip the realistic needs of a boater. A helm is only as good as the user’s comfort level, and perhaps no one understands that better than Tony Fleming, founder of Fleming Yachts and an accomplished bluewater passagemaker. 

Tony Fleming uses the Furuno NavNet VX2 system prior to a series of upgrades.

Tony Fleming uses the Furuno NavNet VX2 system prior to a series of upgrades.

Fleming and his captain, Chris Conklin, have put more than 50,000 nautical miles under the keel of Venture, the Fleming 65 that Fleming set up to use as a stem-to-stern equipment test platform. The results speak for themselves, with some astounding passages over the last dozen years, ranging from Alaska to the Galápagos and beyond.

Even more inspiring may be Fleming’s care and feeding of Venture. Every year she takes a break at Delta Marine Service ( in Sidney, British Columbia, on the southeastern end of Vancouver Island, under the care of owner Brian Coverley. Here, whatever needs fixing gets fixed. The importance of a good service provider cannot be discounted. Indeed, the working relationship between owner, captain, and service manager can change the game for the whole cruising experience.

“When you’re building a new model as a builder, the problem is you’re very much indebted to your first buyers because they go out and buy something that doesn’t exist,” says Fleming. “But in the case of the Fleming 65, it was the first time we were really in a position not to have to sell the first boat. And we were able to build it the way we wanted to.” So right off the bat, Fleming was building a boat to try out some new things.

“There was a Russian guy here, one of these talented electronics people, and he could produce electronic instruments—they looked like the regular thing but they were actually very experimental,” Fleming says. “We were sort of going with off-the-wall ideas. When you have a production boat you can’t really try new stuff because you’re experimenting with other peoples’ boats.”

For a main helm system, Fleming originally opted for the Furuno NavNet VX2, with a pair of multifunction displays, accompanied by an onboard PC running a Nobeltec chartplotter. “The only thing with the Furuno system was that you really had to handle these complicated menu systems and stuff just seemed to be arbitrarily scattered around different menus,” Fleming says. “But it was really very difficult to use if you stopped using it for six months. When you came back you hadto learn it all over again.” But experience with a system counts for something when the discussion turns to upgrading.

“In the winter of 2014/15, the boat was at Delta, where she usually spends her winters anyway,” Fleming says. “Eleven years in terms of electronics—that’s like having stuff from the Stone Age.So, we spent a ridiculous amount of money looking at various systems.” Fleming wasn’t wedded to a particular brand even with his long experience with the Furuno gear, but he did trust the advice of his installer and his skipper.

““When I first started with Tony in 2007 we had NavNet 2, and used that for many years,” Conklin says. “I have always preferred the PC-driven nav suites like Nobletec, which we had on board, and used the Furuno as the backup chartplotter. I think the PC chartplotter is much easier to use since most commands can be done with a mouse click, unlike the joysticks or buttons on the Furuno. We use a trackball that we can keep at the helm chair, and that also keeps us from constantly having to reach for the new touchscreens.”

Offshore Helm

Capt. Chris Conklin adjusts course on the Nobeltec flanked by Furuno depthsounder and radar-overlaid charting to port and full-screen radar to starboard.

Fleming prefers a trackball mouse and favors that type of interface; he even had Coverley create a trackball-mouse for his new equipment—a Furuno TZTouch-centered system. “I was not really a fan of the touchscreen stuff,” Fleming says. “I thought, That’s ridiculous, bouncing up and down, how are you ever going to get your finger on the right spot at the right time? And on my boat, when you’re sitting in the helm seat you have to have arms 6-feet long to be able to reach the screens. Touchscreen doesn’t work in that respect, but there are remote systems.” Keypads on the helm and even trackball-mouse-enabled helm seats allow full access to features. 

Coverley and Fleming confer on modifications. “It’s interesting: If Tony comes up with an idea that’s not right, we’ll try it and he’s the first one to say, ‘Hey this doesn’t work let’s change it,’” Coverley says. “And then he gives you a second, third or fourth direction. He’s persistent until he gets it right.”

Just as Fleming focuses on details such as the trackball, he also has ideas about the helm configuration. “I’ve seen other boats with two helm screens, but they’re in the same space [as we have three displays],” Fleming says. “That doesn’t really work because half of the plotter is on one screen and half is on the other, with the dividing line in the middle. I don’t really get that.” Just as important as screen position is determining which applications take prominent position. “Some people put the engine instruments on the center screen. I really think the plotter should be the one right in front of me, with the radar and the depthsounder on either side, or something like that,” he says. “I will say a lot of boats have two helm seats, which means because of the space available, they’re on either side of the centerline, so the helmsman is not directly behind the wheel.” Fleming notes there’s plenty of companion seating on his boat, on a settee positioned up high for good viewing.

“I think the helmsman should be behind the wheel and not sort of slightly off-center, because it alters your perspective and makes a difference,” Fleming says. “The perspective of where another vessel is compared to where you are or where the headland is compared to where you are is surprisingly different when you’re just a couple of feet off-center.” 

For Fleming the whole boat functions around that helm, and if you’re not driving, you should stay out of the way. He says that rule even applies to himself, and that’s where wireless technology comes in. “I watch everything on an iPad because I can put it where I want  it without interfering with the helmsman,” he says. “I always feel that the guy at the helm is in charge of all the stuff and if someone else should come along and start messing about because they want to look at something—the helmsman is the guy in charge at the time.” Fleming uses a Navionics app to follow the boat’s progress when he’s not on watch.

Conklin, who often fills that helmsman role, weighed in on an upgrade to the autopilot, replacing his venerable Simrad system with an integrated Furuno pilot. Replacing the pilot when they replaced the hydraulic steering with a fly-by-wire system made good sense, since the pilot uses the steering system itself to maintain course. What’s next on his wish list? “I’m going to be lobbying for a satellite compass,” Conklin says with a laugh. “We’ll see what happens.”

When the boat was repowered with MAN diesels, they added MAN engine monitoring, which has since evolved into the Böning system, and shares an amazing amount of information. Fleming also had Delta add two Maretron systems to capitalize on NMEA 2000 integration and share ship’s system data across platforms.


“You’ve got all this power going out in the AC and DC, and the state of the batteries are 1,500 ampere-hours,” Fleming says. “We’ve got all the refrigeration, and it all goes through the inverters so we don’t have to run the generator at night, but it’s really very difficult to tell what’s going in versus what’s going out. On the Maretron, you can see at a glance that you’ve got more [electricity] coming in than going out, and you’ve really got much better control of what’s happening.” And consistent with keeping the helmsman’s screens dedicated to this purpose, the Maretron displays are positioned off to the side, accessible but not in the way.

For Fleming and Conklin, cruising experience has a bearing on the development of the onboard systems they use. Drawing on the experiences of a seasoned installer adds in technical expertise that tweaks the setup for reliability. An open mind and a healthy understanding of how the boat is used helps keep the system on track and moving forward. It’s an evolution.

This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.