Why Are Most Helms on the Right?

Because I said so, that’s why!

Why do we, in North America anyway, have our steering wheels in the car on the left, but on the boat it’s on the right? There are several schools of thought on the matter, and they range from outlandish to “well that makes sense!” One thing is for sure, the standard answers your mother gave when she couldn’t think of another answer, is not gonna fly here.

The standard around the globe is to have the helm over on the starboard side of the vessel. Surely there must be a reason for it.

The Outlandish…

The most ridiculous answer we’ve heard to this question is that boats were invented in the UK, and they put their wheels on the right there, so it just stuck. Well, that’s patently nuts. But I guess if you had to come up with an answer, a made up one sometimes works. It depends on whom you’re trying to impress and how expensive the drinks are.

The Plausible?

So now for the actual… let’s call them theories, since the carved in stone definitive answer is, and forever shall remain, elusive. There are two… the first is based on the fact that Rules of the Road require that you keep a proper lookout at all times (Rule 5 if you’re keeping up in your programs). Our first theory postulates that since the vessel to our right has the right of way (Rule 15a), then it’s more important to keep a better field of vision to that side to better avoid conflicting traffic.

Rubbish. If that were the case, then it implies that if we’re on the starboard side, then we haven’t got a good view of the port, and vice versa, and that’s just not the case. In fact, with thicker window mullions, the one right next to your sightline will block more of the view to starboard than the one to port. We’ve pointed out this obvious fact time and again during our tests. And are we to just ignore the vessels to the port side because they’ll keep out of our way? Not on our boats.

So comfortable are we with favoring the starboard side that manufacturers even add working gear to that side, like this fuel fill.

More Plausible

Now consider the torque factor of our single engine boats. A right-hand turning propeller will track to starboard when reversed and pull the stern along with it. Add some steering in that direction and we have a boat that is more maneuverable when favoring the starboard side than the port. Thus, putting the helm to that side allows better visibility of the whole side of the boat when coming into a dock. In fact, on asymmetrical boats, where there’s only one side deck, it’s on the starboard side for that very reason. Can we dock to port? Sure, but why not go with the flow and make life easier?

Virtually every small boat has the helm to the right, and since we all started small, we stick with what’s comfortable.
Of course, not every boat has the helm to starboard. Some plant them right in the center.

The Answer

Lastly, and the point that makes the most sense, is that all the crucial controls are geared for right-handers – which accounts for 90% of the human population. In small boats, the throttle and shift controls are on the right side because most people are right -handed, and mounting the gear on the gunwale was convenient, and it was out of the way. Also, cables could easily be run along the starboard gunwale aft to the engine.

Placing the helm to the port side would require that the controls be outboard to port on the gunwale, a location not favored by right-handers, who might logically, then, prefer to buy a boat with the helm to starboard – 9 to 1.

Still others throw convention right out the window and put the helm to port.

Okay but Wait…

Yeah, yeah, yeah… not every boat has a starboard mounted helm. I know one boat that is referred to as a “center console” and some cruisers have the helm to port. It’s not a hard and fast rule that has to be strictly adhered to. But the simple fact is, smaller boats have them there, the overwhelming majority of boaters started with smaller boats, and now that’s just what they’re used to. Don’t fix it if it’s not broke.

We also have more lax treatment of the starboard side trend with the advent of pods and joystick docking making it just as easy to both sides… and astern for that matter. So again, it’s not an absolute when it comes to building boats. There comes a point when the builder just carries on the tradition. When we asked one president of a major manufacturer why he had his boats that way, his response… “because I said so!”