Designing superyacht bridges

21 January 2015 • Written by Mark Masciarotte
The bridge on board Blue Moon mixes traditional aesthetics with contemporary black box electronics

Step aboard almost any large yacht built 30 years ago and, in terms of design aesthetics and operational logistics, the wheelhouse and navigation bridges are likely to be disappointing.

Relative to those of today, boats were small and their wheelhouses – if there was one – offered precious little space. Worse, the consoles were a hodgepodge of equipment from various manufacturers, replete with competing designs, colours and operating controls. There were exceptions, of course, but in general the primitive electronics and limited size of the bridges constrained even the most talented designers.

In the early 1980s, interior design became more important, and designers began looking at ways to unify the mish-mash of radars, radios, autopilots and gauges into a coordinated installation that looked like it belonged on a yacht. Nevertheless, there were problems, namely that the best equipment – equipment built for commercial ships – was often too large, and too ugly, to be accommodated.

As yachts became larger, owners and their captains began spending more time working with naval architects and interior designers to integrate the equipment, which, thanks to solid-state technology and miniaturisation, was smaller and ran cooler than earlier generations.

Captains who came from commercial vessels brought with them a more defined sense of bridge layout and a knowledge of what equipment was available. Vendors, too, began to play a greater role, providing guidance in choosing equipment and delivering engineering to ensure compatibility and determine electrical load requirements.

Alfa uses black box electronics and flat panel displays for its bridge controls

Black box electronics

The two greatest advances in bridge design – the ones that gave designers and crew the most flexibility – resulted from the introduction of black box technology and daylight-readable flat-panel monitors. Thanks to these technologies, gone were the days of monolithic, standalone units, mismatched equipment and interface problems. When engineered properly, black box electronics allowed a bridge console to be arranged in a way that worked ergonomically, while being flexible from an operational standpoint.

It is common on larger motor yachts to have a stand-alone navigation station that is equipped with a full-size chart table, with monitors that supplement repeaters for such units as the gyrocompass, the speed log, GPS and depth sounder. With black box technology, the captain or watch officer can view any of the equipment that can be displayed at the helm station on their monitor.

But even the best equipment can’t provide a safe and comfortable operating environment if it is installed in a poorly designed space.

Designing bridges for safety

The wheelhouse is a workspace, and there are three basic operations that must be addressed in any design: boat handling, navigation and communication.

Design issues should be addressed in the following order of importance: safe pilotage and navigation, aesthetics and guest interaction.

From operational and practical angles the helm station often blends all three, even if there are separate, discrete stations for navigation and communications.

It is particularly important that the helm station be arranged so boat-handling, navigation and communications controls are grouped within the helmsman’s easy reach.

‘The information that is necessary to operate the vessel safely is what should be primary in viewing and control,’ says AJ Anderson, an experienced captain and managing director of Wright Maritime Group. ‘Anything else will cause distraction and will reduce situational awareness in the short term and cause fatigue in the long term.’

Arkley's wheelhouse has curved, rather than sloped, windows. Captains recommend that bridge windows show be as large as possible to maximise visibility

Equally critical to the efficient and safe running of a superyacht, says Captain Emile Bootsma of Blue Moon, is the visibility provided by the bridge’s windows.

‘It is the most important consideration in bridge design,’ he says. ‘Navigation by day or by night is still very much a visual exercise, and I have seen too many bridges where the visibility is so poor that you could barely see your own bow, let alone any other ship that may be navigating in your vicinity.

‘Windows need to be as big as possible; the view angle needs to be as large as possible; consoles need to be as low as possible; and bridge furniture needs to be as unobtrusive as possible.’

Anderson agrees. ‘The ideal console layout is straight [athwartships] to allow the watch team to transit from side to side while also providing reasonable monitor visibility from any angle,’ he explains. ‘In addition, it should provide the watch team with direct access to necessary equipment and work space with unobstructed views, particularly for the officer of the watch on the starboard side.’

This refers to the requirements under the International Regulations for Preventing of Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) that, if at all possible, a watch officer or helmsman should be able to see a vessel that is approaching in his vessel’s so-called ‘danger zone’: the sea area from dead ahead to 22.5 degrees abaft the starboard beam. This is because vessels crossing from this sector have the right of way.

High-tech flatscreens and flush backlit push buttons on the dash of the Icon

‘Safe pilotage does not have to be exclusive of aesthetics and guest enjoyment,’ Anderson notes. ‘Safe operation is impacted by layout, material selection, lighting and equipment selection, positioning and integration. The objective is to minimise distraction, confusion and fatigue while maximising awareness.’

Anderson says that when laying out a wheelhouse, he prefers placing the GMDSS station or radio room aft to starboard, and if space is available, he places a chart table directly behind the helm station with an equipment cabinet directly above.

‘Besides giving the pilot more readily accessible equipment controls,’ he explains, ‘it creates a useful barrier that also provides additional navigation workspace on the tabletop.’

In 1987 Time's flat panel controls were futuristic, but note the glare and reflections from the sloped windows

Seating is one of the most common subjects that results in conflict between designers and deck officers. Many owners enjoy sitting in the wheelhouse with their guests, and it is not in the least uncommon to find large settees in a modern yacht’s wheelhouse.

There have been a few abysmal designs in which the designer convinced the owner to provide seating for passengers ahead of the helmsman, thus blocking the helmsman’s view and increasing the potential for an accident.

‘Being in the bridge is a memorable experience for any guest,’ says Bootsma, ‘but too often designers are so focused on guest comfort or aesthetics that they unwittingly design fixtures that intrude on the safe navigation of the vessel.

‘One yacht has a chandelier installed in its bridge! Even if it were not being used during night passages, I can only imagine the distraction it would cause the watch officer in a rough seaway.’

Helmsmen can take advantage of pilot chairs with controls such as joysticks, trackballs and laptop computer tables built into the armrests, but while this might be attractive to some captains, others prefer a more Spartan approach.

‘Traditional navigational bridge chairs do cause quite a lot of clutter in a bridge,’ Bootsma notes, ‘but a seating bar is perfectly adequate for most of the navigation we do. When there are guests on board, a captain standing upright at his helm is a far more professional look than one slumped in a chair. On longer passages, the guest seating doubles as additional seating for the watch crew, and we specifically designed ours in such a way as to maximise the all-round view.’

L'Aquasition's bridge at night: it's recommended to light a bridge using only red lights at night

Lighting the bridge

Lighting design is also an important consideration. Equipment in consoles and elsewhere in the wheelhouse, including instruments and pilot lights, must have dimming circuits to lower the level of emitted light, which can be distracting.

Downlighting must be able to be adjusted for night operations so as not to impair the watch team’s night vision. This is normally done by having a separate circuit that allows only low-intensity red light. Switches that control white lights should be positioned away from the doorways, so that a guest cannot inadvertently turn them on, thereby blinding the watch team.

The same concept must be kept in mind when choosing materials. Whenever possible, shiny or reflective fabrics or finishes should be shunned in favour of light-absorbing alternatives. Additionally, since the surfaces will see quite a bit of use, textiles and leathers should be contract grade – durable and easy to maintain. If possible, the perimeter bolsters on consoles, chart tables and nav stations should be removable, so that they can be reupholstered when needed.

Bridge flooring

Arguments abound over soles. Traditional wood soles – teak and holly, for example – are lovely but require high maintenance and are acoustically ‘bright’, meaning they reflect sound. They can also be slippery. Many operators prefer high-end contract-grade wool carpet, which helps attenuate noise and provides greater relief for legs and feet.

Some yachts are built without doors to the weather decks. This is an unfortunate design, since access to the boat’s exterior is an important consideration.

With a direct connection to the deck, the operator can quickly access wing stations, can take bearings with a pelorus, or can get a better look at approaching traffic, nav-aids or geographic features with binoculars.

On occasion, wheelhouses are fitted with one door instead of two. This is certainly better than a wheelhouse with no doors, but in a rough sea or in driving rain, if the single door is windward, opening it is sure to introduce unwanted water into the room.

Photography: Courtesy of Kongsberg Maritime, Alewijnse, Klaus Jordan and Franco Pace

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