The first standard boat equipped with twin helms was the First 51 by German Frers, clearly inspired by Admiral’s Cup racing boats. These boats were equipped with twin helms non certainly to create a more spacious cockpit but to facilitate the helmsman in his sail trimming manoeuvres, especially in strong wind conditions.
Later, a performance-oriented solution became a winning option to revolutionize both the stern and cockpit of cruisers. Twin helms, in fact, hade made it possible to have larger transoms with instant access to the sea. Today, almost all standard boats (even the smallest ones) are equipped with twin helms. In these pages, we’ll tell you how cruisers have evolved from traditional helm to twin helms, passing through single wheel.
Increasingly requested and popular, twin helms are a trendy but not yet fashionable solution.
Twin helms were not intended to launch a new design solution with great appeal on the market. Originally designed to solve some specific technical problems, they are the culmination of a technological evolution that has seen different solutions: single tiller, central wheel rudder, double tiller, pendulum rudders, twin helms, to be integrated with external, hung, double and autopilot-equipped rudders.
Today, twin helms seem to be the best compromise between easy handling, helmsman’s visibility, spaces on board and performance. Not surprisingly, they are available on every kind of boat.
Let’s take a look at the past. The rudder wheel was invented to reduce the force needed to steer the tiller. It was in fact an element added to the tiller, to allow easy movement. With the increase in the size of the hulls, the steering tiller of the rudder reached a limit size and therefore the wheel winches began to completely replace the tiller, which was reduced in its size and positioned below deck.
The first evidence of wheel-equipped sailing ships dates back to the early eighteenth century. It is surprising that the wheel rudder was invented so late, since rope and drum gear reduction technologies were known since the days of the medieval catapults and a winch was already used on ships. On some sailing ships, the gear reduction winch function is still evident, and in some cases we see double or triple rudder wheels, to allow an assistant helmsman to apply the force necessary to perform fast tacks.
The first reason why twin helms have becoming so interesting for small boats manufacturers can be found in the ergonomics of the spaces. The tiller itself takes up little space, but during navigation, the tilt light of the tiller must always be left free. In the drawing of the Hanse 315 deck (on the previous page at the top), both the tiller and double rudder configurations are superimposed. We have colored the total swing area of the bar and tiller in red, which occupy the crew’s seats. In the case of the double wheel, the mechanics develop vertically, the helmsman has a dedicated space, colored in green, for exclusive use. Especially on small boats, being able to recover a few square decimetres of space is a reason to prefer, where possible, the double wheel solution.
On large-sized cruisers, space issues are not the primary reason behign twin helms. Rather, the design and ergonomics factor comes into play. In fact, in recent years, a process of simplification of the cockpit has been underway, which aims to meet the needs of the cruise passenger by separating what is sailing from what is space intended for the passenger crew. The open stern with folding platform, for example, is possible thanks to the two lateral steering pedestals, accessible without any problems. The aft-cockpit passage is now free from everything. No central rudder, no mainsail in the cockpit, no backstay in the longitudinal line, but split over the beam of the transom.
Twin helms are so increasingly requested on the market that many manufacturers have quickly adapted to this new trend. Among the most significant examples, the Elan E3, one of the precursors of twin helms on small-sized hulls, whose history starts from the single-bar E310 model, passes to the original central pendulum bar, and in today’s version it is standard with double wheel. Even boats more oriented towards long-range navigation and comfort, such as the new HR 340 where many of the needs for space or comfortable access to the stern platform could also be lacking, have adopted the twin helms solution.
It should be noted that on the market, even among the bluewaters, the cockpit and center wheel configurations are becoming niche. The builders confirm that, when a model is available in both a tiller and double wheel formula, 80% of owners choose the second one.
One of the criticisms that is always leveled at wheel systems is that they are less direct and less reactive than driving with the tiller. This is no longer the case. The mechanics of wheel systems have made great strides. One of the leading companies in the construction of wheelhouses is Jefa Steering, whose products are chosen by most of the shipyards and production catamarans. Jefa, but also other manufacturers such as the Italian Solimar, have proposed various technologies that eliminate the response, clearance and vibration defects that were contested by classic wheel systems.
The spaces required for the rudder mechanics have been greatly reduced. Using cams, ball joint rods, or innovative center bogie solutions, the precision and sensitivity and response of today’s wheel rudders has nothing to envy to that of tiller rudders.
Modern projects already envisage and size the housing of the autopilot servomechanism, and include some redundant elements, to such an extent that the presence of the central hole in the cockpit is no longer required for the installation of the spare tiller.
Tiller has not disappeared from the market, quite the contrary. Many new production models offer a tiller only or double tiller steering system. Some examples: the Jeanneau Sun Fast 3300, the various Pogo, even catamarans as large as the Outremer. In Italy, the example is represented by the Grand Soleil 34.
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