Comfortable Car Helm Seat

helmseat1In 2006-7 Happy Clamz, our Nordic Tug 32, and the Happy Clamzetts, Leslie, Doug, and the ship’s cat Captain Bilbo, logged 7725 miles in 363 days, traveling America’s Great Loop, the dream trip of a lifetime. We learned many things on the year-long trip, one of them being that our helm station really was not designed for long days on the water. Even trips of a few hours left us tired. On our longest day, we traveled from West Palm Beach, FL, to Great Sale Cay in the Bahamas, a trip of 15 hours.

We reached our anchorage tired and sore just as the sun was sinking into the ocean. Our bench helm seat needed to be improved!

During the trip we attended one of the “Looper’s” Rendezvous, and in discussion about our helm seat problem, several people suggested that I use a canvas director’s chair.

It worked OK, but was much less than satisfactory.

I began seriously thinking about how to improve the comfort of the helm station.
I was worried, knowing that as you get more and more tired from a non-ergonomic station, mistakes can happen. What if you miss the coral head that happens to be just under the water’s surface? Or miss the subtle change in the water color, indicating shallow water? These “tiredness mistakes” can lead to big and expensive OOPS!

I searched catalogs, boating magazines, and websites for suggestions on how to make changes to the helm without investing a huge amount of cash. After all, we are talking experimentation here. I didn’t want to spend a fortune and find I was still unhappy. My research found that helm seats alone ran the gamut from $100 all the way to $5,000.

I decided to go with what I knew the best, cheap, and low risk. I headed to an automotive junkyard in hopes of finding a car seat that I could adapt.

I had a little time on my hands, as I had fallen off my bicycle and fractured my arm in five different places (eventually being screwed back into place with a stainless plate and 16 screws). It is dangerous for a man to have idle time and a junkyard nearby.

df_helmseat2I spent a very hot, humid morning walking the yard, looking for just the right seat. I found a good candidate in an old Ford Aerostar mini van. Since I only had one good arm, I had to go home at this time and get my able-bodied assistant, who accompanied me, shall we say, kicking and screaming all the way. She was a great help even though she was heard muttering, “I HATE junk yards,” over and over.

I stripped out the seat’s four bolts, and after much pushing, pulling, shoving and a little cursing, we got it out. We took it home, gave it a good cleaning, and deemed it acceptable.

There are several nice things about automotive seats: they are very supportive, comfortable, adjustable, and well made.

df_helmseat3Now about the installation . . . . After several trial runs and a lot of thought, I removed the present helm’s seat padding, and backrest. I theorized that if all else failed, I could always put them back.

To eliminate some of the measurement risk I first used a piece of door skin (1/8” plywood) to make a template of the footprint of the seat. That way I could see just how much room I needed to attach the seat, and where the attaching boltholes should be drilled. Because the boat is 90 minutes from the house, I couldn’t just run back and forth to make a lot of measurements.

df_helmseat4I really did not want to have any supports under the front of the seat, so I decided to use 5/8” double-sided (sanded) plywood, which I cut into two pieces. One piece would attach to the seat; the other would attach that plywood seat base to the helm station.

Using my template, I marked the holes so they would align with the bolts on the seat base. Once that was done I drilled holes into the top piece of plywood using a 3/8” bit. On the bottom piece of plywood I drilled 1” holes as the bolts on the seat base were only about 3/4” in length, and this also allowed clearance for the bolts, so they wouldn’t interfere with the mounting base.

Next I rounded the corners, sanded all the sides, and filled in the imperfections with wood filler. Once that was done, I used Gorilla® glue and wood screws to secure the top and bottom pieces together. Next I used Spar Varnish (your preference—you may prefer to use something else), and coated the base with three coats of varnish, sanding between coats. Now all that was left was mounting the seat to the base.

df_helmseat5Since there is a bulkhead aft of the mounting box that is part of the support system, I decided that I could use a piece of aluminum angle that could both be bolted through the base as well as drilled and screwed into the bulkhead. Here I used #8 by 5/8” pan-head wood screws, which were secured to the seat base as well as the bulkhead. Note of caution here: When you screw in the first screw, do it slowly to make sure it doesn’t go all the way through! For additional strength I drilled 3-3/8” holes through the seat base and the plywood base and the above aluminum angle and ran three bolts (5/16” by 2.5 inches) through the seat base and the mounting box. I also cut additional pieces of angle that fit nicely under the plywood base, which gave it additional rigidity. Lastly, I took the old bench seat and back pads to a local upholstery shop. They cut them to fit the space next to the new seat, giving my boat mate space to sit beside me. Once that was done, it was time to test out the seat and see how comfortable it would be.

df_helmseat6I must say that even though I haven’t been out on a 15-hour cruise, a nice four-hour ride proved it to be very comfortable. Another advantage that I discovered is that it becomes a great place to read and relax while at anchor. (When you only have 32 feet of boat, all available space needs to do double duty.)

For additional details and photos please see Final note: Now that I know that the seat works, I will be taking it back to the upholstery shop to have it recovered in a companion fabric to our present boat interior. In fact, if I take them a picture of the boat, they will even embroider the tug into the fabric.

Leslie & Doug Folkerth
Happy Clamz – NT 32-127