There are some obvious advantages to having a pilothouse on a voyaging sailboat: Even while bundled up, sailors who sit in the cold and wet on deck are predisposed to hypothermia, a condition that reduces efficiency, strength, and performance. In survival conditions, a sailor on deck is put at risk of being swept overboard or severely injured if the vessel is overwhelmed by waves or rolled. Sailors need not stay home to be protected from the elements. They need only to design or refit their boat with a well-conceived control station that will allow them to operate their vessel in rough conditions.
Pilothouses, also called deck houses, have been around for a long time, of course. They were primarily developed for engine-driven large yachts and ships because the crew no longer needed to be outdoor to handle sails and feel the nuances of wind and weather. The large house serves as a central control station, protecting the crew as well as navigation, communication, and steering equipmentandmdash;everything required to run the ship.
As pilothouses were adapted to sailing craft, designers primarily fit them on heavy displacement motor sailors like the Alden-designed Lady Helene (see accompanying illustration). On motor craft, it is an advantage to keep the helm high off the deck and/or forward for best visibility. Sailing craft pilothouses also tend to be high off the deck and sometimes quite far forward, leaving room aft for an outside cockpit and creating space for large engines and tanks beneath a raised pilothouse sole. The heavier the machinery, the more beneficial it is to center it in the vessel. Typical pilothouse heights significantly increase a vessel’s windage, raise booms, and limit mainsail areas, so, in a self-fulfilling prophecy, large auxiliaries are required for these heavy displacement, limited sail-power designs.
Since the pilothouse evolved from and over machinery, it should be no surprise that, even today, few designers have tried to create sleek pilothouses on high-performance sailing machines. When a pilothouse sailboat is mentioned, what probably comes to mind is a heavy boat with a box on top of the cabin.
Philip Rhodes boosted the evolution of pilothouses, beginning with numerous large motor-sailers and full-powered auxiliaries like the 90-foot Criterion. He preferred to reserve the deck house as a sort of living room/saloon housing a navigation station and electronics. He kept the steering gear aft in a split, upper level cockpit that was also covered with a roof, under which he had room to put a lower level of cabins. This is now a familiar and traditional arrangement, but Rhodes’ inventive layouts extended to pure sailing craft when he developed stylish and efficient doghouses.
Like a pilothouse, a doghouse is that part of the cabin that is raised above the line of the longer trunk cabin or otherwise flush deck, but unlike a pilothouse, the doghouse may be open to the cockpit. Often the companionway is placed under this fixed dodger. In Philip L. Rhodes and His Yacht Designs, Richard Henderson credits Kirawan’s cockpit shelter for helping her win the blustery 1936 Bermuda race, beating many larger boats. The cockpit shelter, “. . . kept the crew dry and comfortable, thereby boosting its morale, and it also made the crew, thus protected, a bit less inclined to shorten down. Kirawan might well have been driven just a little harder than were her competitors without doghouses.” Hard dodgers
On Kirawan, the doghouse served only as a solid dodger, sheltering the forward end of the cockpit seats. Rhodes later fully developed his doghouse on boats like Thunderhead. On her, a chart table and instruments were also housed and protected under the roof. A plexiglass bulkhead separated the interior from the cockpit, letting in lots of light to the settee and table below. Those below could see everything going on in the cockpit and could also communicate or pass out sandwiches through a hatch in the bulkhead. Rhodes carried the trunk cabin eyebrow all the way aft on his earlier designs, creating an added-on appearance to the doghouse atop the trunk cabin, but on boats like Thunderhead he stopped the eyebrow forward of the doghouse and enlarged the doghouse deadlights, thereby better integrating it aesthetically into the cabin profile.
No matter what one thinks of short-handed racing like the singlehanded transatlantic race, originally called OSTAR, competitors realized almost immediately that inside steering and control stations would give them a better chance to get to the other side of the ocean intact, and would gain them a competitive advantage to boot. Without having to battle outside elements, the better-rested crew was ready to deal with routine labors or emergencies and could keep a more constant watch for passing ships without being on deck. With an inside steering and control station, navigation, communications, steering, and sail trim could all be monitored and coordinated from the same spot. It is no surprise then that most of the contemporary evolution of inside steering and control stations has come from the realm of what I call adventure races. Many of the features first found on adventure racers are now finding their way into voyaging designs.
Blondie Hasler, the prime mover of the first OSTAR in 1960, wanted the race to serve as a test bed for innovative design that would lead to faster, safer, more comfortable boats. It seemed impossible to build a small boat with enough room for a pilothouse, but Hasler simply treated his entire cabin on Jester as the pilothouse. He completely decked over the Folk Boat, fit it with a Chinese lugsail rig to reduce sail handling, and had access to the deck through side hatches or a central round hatch.
Jock McLeod decided to develop Hasler’s concept with the 47-foot Ron Glas, designed by Angus Primrose for voyaging and the 1972 OSTAR. Ron Glas featured a relatively normal cabin forward with a small central cockpit/control position surrounded by a raised doghouse and aft cabin. A sliding hatch covered the control position and was fit with a circular hatch with revolving hood so McLeod could reach out and handle the sails. A second cockpit was aft, reserved for good weather. McLeod crossed the Atlantic in 1972 without having to put on his foul weather gear.
Since 1960, electronics have been significantly miniaturized, and hydraulics allow us to use small wheels to steer even large craft. This has allowed designers to explore many options for compact inside steering and control stations to fit even small boats.Plexiglass bubbles
Hasler’s and McLeod’s circular hatches evolved into the bubble hatch, which is much more useful than a flat hatch because one can stick one’s head up into it and really get a good look around. In the 1976 OSTAR, Mike Birch sailed the 30-foot, diminutive trimaran, Third Turtle to third place behind the maxi-monohull Pen Duick VI and the 237-foot Club Med, proving efficiency determines average passage speed more than size alone. Mike raced through storms perched in his coffin-like cabin on the head of his berth, steering with a push-pull bar with his head in a bubble. Before long, the bubble hatch became a trade mark of short-handed offshore boats and so popular that Goiot began mass producing them for the voyaging public.
In the same race, Polish designer/skipper Kazimierz Jaworski returned to the Rhodes approach and finished just behind Birch. On Spaniel, Jaworski fit a doghouse on a flush deck, aft of the main cabin bulkhead and over the forward end of the cockpit. Under the roof, he sat in a sports car bucket seat and steered within easy reach of all sail controls. Although this arrangement is less protected than a fully-enclosed one, particularly when the wind is aft of abeam and breaking waves come from the aft quarter, the skipper has more immediate access to all sail controls. Anyone who is prone to seasickness is probably better off sitting in fresh air under a doghouse that is open to the cockpit and close to the leeward rail. Such a chair is also much more comfortable and secure than the typical cockpit seat.
Fabric dodgers are, of course, almost universally used on voyaging boats and serve nearly the same purpose as the doghouse as found on Thunderhead or Spaniel. However, they are also quite expensive, wear out, provide less clear visibility, and can be more easily swept away by a large boarding wave than a solid doghouse. The many sailors who leave their dodgers erected permanently would probably be better off retrofitting their boats with solid dodgers or doghouses. To help ventilate these solid dodgers in good weather, the forward deadlights can be made to open, or smaller opening ports can be installed in the large deadlights. If one places deadlights in the roof, the crew can keep an eye on sail trim and the rigging. The roof is a perfect spot to place solar panels. Boom crutches or mainsheet travelers are often built into them. If one leads halyards or sheets to the protected foxhole under a doghouse, one must make sure that winches are positioned so that there is good clearance between the winch handles and the structure so that the crew does not routinely trade the skin on their knuckles for a tight ship.
Boats can be even more easily retrofit with bubble hatches either on the companionway hatch or farther forward. On boats like John Martin’s 1986 BOC contender Tuna Marine, a seat and secondary steering wheel was placed on a pedestal under a bubble mounted on deck amidships.
One problem with bubbles is that they have a tendency to fog. Some sailors have fit small vents to the top of their bubbles or have simply learned to live with a towel close by. Another problem is that the crew often cannot see over the raised weather deck when the boat is heeled.Sliding hatch
I developed a sort of miniature sliding pilothouse for a 21-foot transatlantic pocket cruiser in 1978. Like Hasler, I consider the cockpit a fair-weather nest for an offshore boat, but a dangerous place in bad weather and usurper of valuable cabin area. The companionway in Napoleon Solo was fairly far forward, giving space for a large double berth under the cockpit. The hatch, built of lexan with curved profile and flat sides, was bigger than a bubble, never fogged, was less claustrophobic, and provided better visibility. Even with the boat well heeled, I could duck my head and see clearly to weather through the cabin deadlights. I could reach out through a removed washboard and make all sail adjustments without getting out. I could also glance down and just forward to my chart table, use the radio just to one side, and cook on the other. A tiller and autopilot closely paralleled the cabintop and were out of the way. The companionway step served as a seat and bulkheads on either side provided good back support on either tack. When knocked down past 90 degrees in mid-Atlantic, my mate remained securely in place on the seat while I too was safe below as green water covered the hatch.
Other sailors have opted to use fixed lexan canopies over their companionway hatches. Like my sliding hatch, they are not so prone to fogging and serve as the ultimately streamlined dodger. One 1984 OSTAR skipper employed a mirage fighter jet canopy.
In recent years, large canopies have been custom-fitted to racing craft, particularly to multihulls. The deck on the around-the-world racer, Ecruil d’Aquitaine, is opened up under the canopy so that the canopy serves as a small cabin top. In good weather, when the hatch on Napoleon Solo was slid forward over the deck, it served as a fine solar drier, making soggy crackers crisp again and drying the dishes. Heat is one advantage and disadvantage of lexan hatches and canopies. In cold weather the solar collection of the canopy or hatch is a blessing, but one might want to fit curtains inside a canopy to fend off the sun in the tropics, as did the skipper of Ecruil d’Aquitaine. Boats designed primarily for tropical latitudes may opt for opaque roofs.
Art Paine designed Air Force for the 1986 BOC with a rather conventional looking short trunk cabin, but strategically-placed deadlights served to give the skipper an all around view from his chair below decks. The cabin top extended aft over the forward part of the cockpit, thereby also serving as a doghouse as on Thunderhead. With a boat like Air Force, the pilothouse concept has come full circle, being fully integrated into a short trunk cabin and demonstrating how many boats need no addition of a doghouse or bubble hatch to create an inside control station as long as good all-around visibility is provided. Careful placement of an interior helm and new deadlights may transform many a trunk cabin into a pilothouse as attractive as Air Force’sStreamlined pilothouse
When I saw Credit Agricole for the first time, just before the start of the 1982-83 BOC Singlehanded Around the World Race, I was impressed by the boat as a possible high-performance cruiser. Designer Guy Ribadeau Dumas had virtually reinvented the pilothouse and left plenty of room for normal voyaging accommodations.
Since engines aren’t allowed in such a race, he fit the boat with a normal auxiliary placed aft of the pilothouse, which kept the house profile quite low. Through lexan wraparound deadlights, the skipper gained good visibility of the whole horizon. Sitting in his comfy chair, skipper Philippe Jeantot was surrounded by a wheel, full navigational equipment, sailing computer, radios, and a large chart table. A pilot berth and head were just to starboard. Jeantot could also step up to the cockpit and sit under the protection of a doghouse raised just a bit over the pilothouse roof. With Credit Agricole Jeantot set numerous records, in part because the position from which he ran his boat was the most comfortable on the boat. BOC racers since have commonly employed similar pilothouse/doghouse designs.
It would, of course, require substantial chainsaw plastic surgery to retrofit an existing yacht with the type of layout on Credit Agricole. For those seeking a new boat, however, similar arrangements are now being drawn and built. One need only look at the newest yachts from Kanter or the latest cruising designs by Chuck Paine to see the influence of long-distance, shorthanded racing and the evolution of the pilothouse.
When one decides one wants to employ a protected steering and control station, the many compromises involved must be faced. Should one choose a station that offers full or partial service, for instance? That is, does one need to stand watches, steer, navigate, communicate, trim sails, and control machinery from one spot? Does one need to enclose the station entirely or should one also provide outside protection, especially for those prone to seasickness or to enable the crew to quickly reach sail controls that are difficult or impossible to place below decks? Should one add a pilothouse or should one treat the cabin trunk itself and the main saloon as the deckhouse/control center?
In any case, sailors now have a wide choice between proven combinations of pilothouses, doghouses, bubble hatches, canopies, and trunk cabin alterations when creating a new boat or retrofitting an old, and the choices need not be ugly or inefficient.
To keep one’s body dry, warm, comfortable, and safe while being assaulted by rain, spray, and frigid winds, the modern voyager is given a choice between scores of foul weather clothing options — oilies, dry suits, survival suits, welded plastics, Gortex, coated nylon, neoprenes — but few sailors seem to ask, “Why put up with the assault at all”? Perhaps sailors just figure a certain amount of stoic machismo is required to venture upon the sea; perhaps they figure, if they want to be comfortable, they should stay home. Certainly there will always be times when one must venture to a tossing foredeck to wrestle with a sail or storm anchor, but just as the crew must look after their vessel, so the vessel should look after the crew, and most boats, quite frankly, could do a better job.
Steven Callahan is a yacht designer and author living in Ellsworth, ME. His most recent book is Capsized, with James Nalepka, published by Harper Collins.