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Old 25-02-2014, 09:36   #1
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Neutral Helm

My wife and I are in the process of getting our last (hopefully) boat to take out cruising. At a minimum we are looking for some Hawaii trips and some coastal cruising so I would like a nice robust design. We have limited experience and went out on the ocean for the first time last year on a 1970 S&S 44. The steering on that boat was a pain in the butt, no feedback whatsoever. We had 6 people and a captain on the boat and everyone (even the autopilot) could not keep the boat on track. You had to turn the wheel 1/2 turn before the boat would react. Some people I talked to thought maybe the boat had hydraulic steering and there was some air in the system. I just read about a specific boat that behaved the same way because of the keel/rudder design. Seems that there is a low pressure area around the rudder caused by a lack of water flow. Are there specific designs that are affected by this?

We have a few older boats on our radar such as a 1984 Norseman 447 and a 1986 Swan 43. We liked the steering on our old 36.7 and realize a boat weighing twice as much is not going to be as responsive but we don't want a barge either.
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Old 26-02-2014, 10:53   #2
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Re: Neutral Helm

A fin keel, spade rudder boat with a balanced rudder is always going to have a more responsive, lighter touch at the helm. A full keel or modified full keel boat with a skeg hung or keel hung rudder won't.
Of course if your cruising any long distance you'll definitely consider a boat with a keel or skeg hung rudder for safety/reliability reasons. Not to say that a spade rudder boat isn't safe, it's just more exposed to possible damage and more likely to have a higher failure rate if damaged.
I went from a 38' racer/cruiser with a custom fin keel and spade rudder that had really good feel to it, I mean really good feel, to a center cockpit modified full keel (or modified fin keel?) with a skeg hung rudder that's, lets just say, less responsive, I had a full keel boat years ago and didn't want to go to that extreme again. I knew the compromises involved when making the change so I'm fully on board with it but the tradeoff is that the new boat tracks better in a straight line and works better with a windvane steering system than the fin keel boat did.
That 38 was a joy to sail but fatiguing to helm over the long haul, especially in a following sea, the new boat is much better at laying down long miles with less effort required to helm. Let's see, went from 17,000lbs fully loaded to 40,000 lbs with half a fuel load, yeah, there's a difference.
All depends on what you intend to do with the boat.
Of course any boat you look to purchase should be able to be controlled reasonably well, there are many designs out there that track well and respond well, just not as sharply as a fin keel/spade rudder lightweight.
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Old 26-02-2014, 11:11   #3
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Re: Neutral Helm

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Originally Posted by lifeofreilly57 View Post
A fin keel, spade rudder boat with a balanced rudder is always going to have a more responsive, lighter touch at the helm. A full keel or modified full keel boat with a skeg hung or keel hung rudder won't.
Of course if your cruising any long distance you'll definitely consider a boat with a keel or skeg hung rudder for safety/reliability reasons. Not to say that a spade rudder boat isn't safe, it's just more exposed to possible damage and more likely to have a higher failure rate if damaged.
I went from a 38' racer/cruiser with a custom fin keel and spade rudder that had really good feel to it, I mean really good feel, to a center cockpit modified full keel (or modified fin keel?) with a skeg hung rudder that's, lets just say, less responsive, I had a full keel boat years ago and didn't want to go to that extreme again. I knew the compromises involved when making the change so I'm fully on board with it but the tradeoff is that the new boat tracks better in a straight line and works better with a windvane steering system than the fin keel boat did.
That 38 was a joy to sail but fatiguing to helm over the long haul, especially in a following sea, the new boat is much better at laying down long miles with less effort required to helm. Let's see, went from 17,000lbs fully loaded to 40,000 lbs with half a fuel load, yeah, there's a difference.
All depends on what you intend to do with the boat.
Of course any boat you look to purchase should be able to be controlled reasonably well, there are many designs out there that track well and respond well, just not as sharply as a fin keel/spade rudder lightweight.
There's a couple of threads here "keel differences" (do a search) where CFr's like Mike (LoRiley), others, and I who have owned/sailed the extremes have a good handle on expressing factual qualities of both... He is spot on here once again!

Your ride on the 44 HAD TO HAVE a mechanism problem... 1/2 turn with no eventual response isn't right... (but could be if it takes 20 seconds!)

All are different... I gotta buddy with 36 Union... I hate... hate... hate... (did I say hate?) how hard the weather helm is... no mater what the balance... Other similar are a dream behind the helm...
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Old 26-02-2014, 23:25   #4
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Re: Neutral Helm

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Originally Posted by HappyMdRSailor View Post
There's a couple of threads here "keel differences" (do a search) where CFr's like Mike (LoRiley), others, and I who have owned/sailed the extremes have a good handle on expressing factual qualities of both... He is spot on here once again!

Your ride on the 44 HAD TO HAVE a mechanism problem... 1/2 turn with no eventual response isn't right... (but could be if it takes 20 seconds!)

All are different... I gotta buddy with 36 Union... I hate... hate... hate... (did I say hate?) how hard the weather helm is... no mater what the balance... Other similar are a dream behind the helm...
The boat would respond but take a while to do it, small corrections made no difference at all. I was thinking that the lack of feedback was due to a hydraulic steering system.
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Old 27-02-2014, 09:00   #5
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Re: Neutral Helm

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The boat would respond but take a while to do it, small corrections made no difference at all. I was thinking that the lack of feedback was due to a hydraulic steering system.
Just a crap setup then... intrinsic to the nature of the design, AND... everything that effects coursing... keel... strut... hull fairness... balance... weather... basically everything....

But...

DEAD "Boat feedback" isn't the result of hydraulics... I have them on one boat... with a short drafted full keel (or long keel) ... You turn... she turns... never at the same rate or degree... OR RESPONSE TIME... but she does turn...

Dead "Helm feedback"???? You bet.... deader than a passed out frat boy at Mardi Gras.... But.... There is that reduced helm fatigue and "need to balance now" bonus
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Old 28-02-2014, 08:54   #6
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Re: Neutral Helm

Most S&S designs sail very well. If 5 other people and the autopilot could not get it to sail correctly, then I think your friend that mentioned air in the hydraulics probably had it right. Twice as much weight will make the response slower, but not to the point of thinking you are sailing a barge. I delivered several boats with hydraulic steering, and didnt really care for it, but you get used to it soon enough. I suspect something wrong in the steering rather than the boat design. Good Luck in your search.______Grant.
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Old 28-02-2014, 09:03   #7
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Re: Neutral Helm

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Most S&S designs sail very well. If 5 other people and the autopilot could not get it to sail correctly, then I think your friend that mentioned air in the hydraulics probably had it right. Twice as much weight will make the response slower, but not to the point of thinking you are sailing a barge. I delivered several boats with hydraulic steering, and didnt really care for it, but you get used to it soon enough. I suspect something wrong in the steering rather than the boat design. Good Luck in your search.______Grant.
+1 Agreed.....

AND... everything that effects coursing... keel... strut... hull fairness... balance... weather... basically everything....

I once got behind the helm of a 50' twin screw to help a guy move it for him.... The bottom was so foul that making any way on from dead... even with the port engine alone... caused the boat to turn hard to port...
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Old 04-03-2014, 08:19   #8
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Re: Neutral Helm

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.

Brad
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Old 05-03-2014, 14:07   #9
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Re: Neutral Helm

If it was hydraulic steering, it's possible it was woefully undergeared (ie, too many turns "lock to lock"). This sometimes happens when a builder decides to put on a 'nice long' tiller arm, so the hydraulic cylinder does not have to push so hard.

Even with a 'feedback valve' - which not all hydraulic steering installations include, and in many cases future owners do not know about - an undergeared system will not 'drive back' -- in other words externally applied water forces on the rudder will not spin the wheel -- unless you are sailing really fast.

This is a separate issue (as others have suggested) from neutral helm, but is made worse if there is neutral helm.

Some long distance cruisers put up with this because they only steer at the start and end of a passage, but I have been in situations on such boats where we were put at risk because the boat was so difficult to keep on course, say in a very large sea on the quarter.

My feeling is that you cannot rely on a pilot or vane system: they may fail to cope, or fail to operate altogether.
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