Deluxe, there is a difference between a 'neutral helm' and the responsiveness of the helm. Neutral helm typically describes a boat that tends to stay on course if one lets go of the tiller or releases the wheel
; if perfectly neutral, the boat may actually steer itself, heading up in the puffs and off in the lulls (my first keel boat, a Continental 25 folkboat
, steered itself better to windward than I could ever do manually).
Weather helm describes a boat that will tend to round-up if left to its own devices. So long as it is not extreme (and some boats have so much weather helm that they are almost impossible to keep on course, putting extreme strain on the helmsperson and any autopilot) it is generally considered a good thing; if the boat is overpowered it heads up into the wind
- precisely where you want to be in order to reef. It also ensures that if the helmsman falls overboard
, the boat will eventually round-up, rather than sailing off into the sunset.
Lee helm describes a boat that will bear-off in those circumstances and this is typically considered, due to the reasons set out above, to be dangerous.
One can reduce weatherhelm by moving the center of effort of the sailplan forward and reduce it by moving it back. This, of course, can be achieved by reefing either the mainsail
or headsail first (or by reefing one more aggressively than the other). It can also be achieved by adjusting your standing rigging
to move the top of the mast
either forward or aft.
What you describe is responsiveness to the helm, not a neutral (or the lack of a neutral) helm. As has already been pointed out, various factors can affect this including the design and placement of the keel and rudder. If properly set up (with no air in the system), hydraulic steering may lack some 'feel', but it is virtually as responsive as any mechanical system.
You indicate that you intend to take your next boat cruising - a question you may wish to conisder is whether responsiveness or tracking ability will be more important to you as a 'cruiser'. Typically, a boat with a deep, high aspect-ratio keel and a spade rudder mounted well aft will be more 'responsive' to the helm than a boat with a full keel, or with a low-aspect ratio keel and a skeg mounted rudder. Certainly a full keel boat is often very unresponisve to the helm and very difficult to control in reverse while exiting a dock
. That being said, boats with longer, shallower keels often 'track' much better - putting less pressure on the helmsperson/autopilot.
Boats with full skegs typically require more steering effort than boats with partial skegs or spade rudders: a spade rudder is 'balanced', meaning that a portion of the rudder will be in front of the rudder stock, in effect creating a power steering effect that assists in turning the rudder (rather than the full force of the water
hitting the proverbial 'barn door' of a rudder on a skeg, or aft of a full keel). It has already been ponted out, however, that rudders mounted aft of the keel or a skeg are MUCH less susceptible to damage from groundings, submerged and floating items etc.: it is difficult, if not impossible to bend the rudder stock below the hull
if it has a lower attachment point. This too is something which can be much more important for the full-time cruiser, than a weekend warrior.