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Ode to Pilot Berths

These resting spots abaft the helm have been steadily disappearing as designers expand salons right up to the helm.

After my recent rant about the weird shapes designers and builders create for the berths aboard our boats, I realized that I’d missed a major point—and something that irks me mightily. The pilot berth is, like the black rhino, going the way of dinosaurs. And the offshore cruising fraternity is the worse for it.

First, for those of you too young to know about pilot berths, it was a cozy bunk tucked athwartships at the after end of the pilothouse. Often, it was above and behind a settee and table where guests might watch the workings of the skipper underway.

It was one-person sized, so there was no canoodling done there, but it allowed an off-watch crewmember to grab a few winks while remaining nearby in case the skipper needed something. And, no, the occupant of the pilot berth wasn’t available to fetch a cuppa from the galley or another chocolate bar. Anyone in the pilot berth was there to sleep and refresh, ready to stand watch on a long cruise.

The natural habitat of the pilot berth—and wholly separate pilothouse—is being replaced by salons that stretch from transom to windshield. The helm, with a couple of pedestal seats, is planted at the forward end of the salon, leaving no place for a pilot berth. This makes it clear that these “cruising yachts” are intended to cruise to somewhere, anchor before dusk, and spend the night.

The traditional pilothouse is usable 24/7, easily closed off from the lights (and noise) of the salon, and designed for running all night in comfort and safety. Yes, you can run many boats from the flybridge at night, away from the action in the salon, but that’s not much fun when it’s sticky hot or freezing cold, rainy or windy. An all-weather pilothouse is a delight, whatever the weather. And having a pilot berth right behind the helm allows an off-watch skipper to keep an eye on crewmembers with less experience. Depending on the layout of the helm, someone in the pilot berth can surreptitiously peek at the depth sounder, the chartplotter and the radar.

Case in point: I was bringing a 60-footer back from deep in Mexican waters with a couple of willing but relatively inexperienced crew. Having run the boat all day, I was ready for a couple of winks, so I tucked into the pilot berth while the newbies steered the course I had set for them.

As I drifted off, I was vaguely amused by their plans to score with some girls they had met, and about how much beer they could drink. I was lulled by the thrum of the engines.

But then one of them said to the other, “What do you think that red light is over there?” My ears perked up. The other said, “Yeah, and there’s a green over there.” At that, my ears had become pointed tufts, and I leapt from the pilot berth to look where they were staring.

Yes, there was a red light and another green but, more compelling, was the darker-than-dark bulk of something between the two.

“Turn to the right, turn to the right, hard, now, now!” I screamed, wrenching the wheel away. Thankfully, we were moving fast enough that the rudders bit and we turned sharply just as the black and rusty wall of a huge tanker went past, mere yards away. Had I not been listening from the pilot berth, we would have been an Interlux-blue stripe of bottom paint down the bottom of the ship and another “missing at sea” report.

During the day, the pilot berth is convenient stowage for jackets, hats and the other assorted detritus you acquire while running long legs of a voyage. At night, you can use a jacket as a pillow (if you don’t mind waking with a zipper mark embossed across your forehead), but I prefer a more civilized approach, keeping a soft blanket and a real pillow stashed.

The pilot berth isn’t just for long passages, and I find it a delight while at anchor. Most pilothouses have a good view in all directions, and I can prop myself up with my latest trashy spy novel. Even better, because the pilot berth is tucked up near the overhead, is a day when the patter of rain is clearly heard and very soothing.

The pilot berth is nearing extinction because designers and builders (and buyers) see it as a waste of valuable space. One builder told me, “Just sleep on the settee in the pilothouse,” missing the point of a dedicated berth with high bunk boards for secrity, without banging your elbows on a table all night.

Having a separate pilothouse is wonderful for serious voyagers, but having a pilot berth tucked in it is truly splendiferous. 

This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue.