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Last Updated on September 10, 2019 by Amy

Pretty much the biggest reason we brought the boat all the way from France to Palmetto to do our outfitting was that we wanted to work with the guys that our boat guru Pat had lined up to create a custom hardtop and enclosure for the helm and cockpit.

From the factory, the only option for protection at the helm is a soft top bimini and we wanted something that would last the entire life of the boat, give us more protection and would look, in our opinion, better than the other hardtops we’d seen created for other Helias. I’m pretty happy to say that we succeeded quite well in accomplishing those goals.

Step 1: Raising the Gooseneck

From the beginning, Pat suggested that in order to get the look we wanted (the factory soft top has a much steeper slope than the rest of the hardtop) we’d need to raise the gooseneck 12 inches.

As a consequence of raising the gooseneck, we needed to have the mainsail recut. Fortunately, we also wanted to have intermediate cars added in order to make the mainsail easier to drop, so this was one of the few times we could kill two birds with one stone. While the mainsail was out getting worked on, we raised the gooseneck.

Step 2:  Building the Frame

The hardtop required the custom creation of a powder-coated aluminum frame that the hardtop would attach to. For this part of the project, we turned to Artful Canvas up in St. Petersburg. They had worked closely with the hardtop manufacturer so we felt good that everything would fit well together. Geoff came to the boat several times to get measurements and then once he was ready, we moved the boat over to Snead Island Boat Works for a couple of days while they did the preliminary welding of the “ring” and the legs.

SH at Snead Island
SH at Snead Island

As I learned during this process, the “ring” is literally that, a ring that the hardtop sits on and the hardtop size is based on its measurements. Getting the ring right is a very complicated process, taking into account how high it needed to be in order to still have clearance for the boom but also give us enough headroom, how much of a slope it needed for aesthetic reasons, if the legs would get in the way of the mainsheet while we’re sailing downwind and where the canvas enclosure would sit so that it’d still look good. Fortunately, Geoff was quite good at this and was very patient as we measured dozens of times.

Once that was properly sized, we fitted a plastic sheet to the ring and sized the two windows we wanted. We have one window that gives a great view from the helm and another that gives a view from the winches. The plan was to offset the windows to starboard as that aligns better with the view needed and allows them to sit in between two of the wire conduits that are inlaid in the hardtop. Once the whole project was completed, I fitted a couple of Oceanaire screens that block out the sun and give even more shade. On a side note, it is really damn hard to get things exactly straight on a boat!

Measuring for Windows
Measuring for Windows

Step 3: Build Hardtop

After Geoff had completed the sizing of the ring, it was delivered to Mike Irvin at Mangrove Marine who actually made the hardtop for us. Mike was able to do a bit of a custom finish of the sides of the hardtop so that it has a bit of an angle to it and matches the rest of the boat much better than just a flat-sided hardtop. The underside has a smooth polished finish and the top has a non-skid finish.

As I mentioned, there are also wiring conduits inlaid in the hardtop. One down the center and one offset to each side which makes it very easy to run wires through.

Step 4: Installation

When the hardtop was finished, we moved back over to Snead Island Boat Works and everything was installed. Geoff drilled a hole in the boat cabin top under the forward starboard leg of the frame so that we can chase wires down into the boat. Two of the legs of the frame are through-bolted and the other two are screwed down. The hardtop is securely screwed down into the frame and the underside and the pipe were caulked in order to give it a good seal.

Three holes were drilled on the forward end of the hardtop where the wire conduits matched up with the frame so we could get access to all the wires and run them through. To cover these holes, we have three little circular pieces that I caulked down once we were done running wires.

The first motor sail back to our slip at Regatta Pointe Marina felt like we were on a different boat. Being protected from the sun and having shade will definitely be life-changing!

Yay for Shade!!
Yay for Shade!!

Step 5: Enclosure

This is listed as Step 5, but in truth was happening alongside almost all the other steps. We elected to have Canvas West in Sarasota make our cockpit and helm enclosure out of the same blue Sunbrella fabric on the rest of the boat and 40mil isinglass.

In the cockpit, we have 11 panels in all. Three panels have large U-Zips with bug screens in them so that we can try to get some decent airflow while keeping out insects which just love to feast on me. The panel in front of the grill has another large u-zip in it which lets me get the panel up out of the way while grilling.

We have two “J-doors” with a batten in them which act exactly like a door and provide access from the cockpit out to the transoms. This is a pretty cool feature that Pat came up with as the battens provide the doors with some rigidity so that they stay upright when opened. We had a few issues initially getting the size of the doors right, and the path of the enclosure track so that we could still have easy access to our aft winches, but in the end we got it all worked out.

At the helm, we have 7 panels. Three, starboard, aft, and port, have U-Zips with bug screens in them that let us get pretty decent airflow while we’re sailing. The front panel has a long, thin U-Zip that we can open up and get some airflow from the front of the boat. One panel has a roll-up door that gives us access to the lounge deck and we have the same style “J-door” with a batten giving access from the helm out to the starboard deck. But the real focal piece is the panel with the window insert.

Pat found a Canadian company by the name of AJR Windows (http://ajr-windows.com/) that specializes in making custom-size windows with wipers that can be inserted into canvas enclosures. During the planning phase for our hardtop, we determined that we could fit a 30”x30” window. AJR had a long lead time and we were crossing our fingers that everything would arrive on time.

Fortunately, the window did arrive before the helm enclosure was finished, but unfortunately, it got damaged during shipping and the frame was bent. Lucky for us, Rian at Mondo Marine came through in the clutch and was able to quickly straighten the frame so that we didn’t get held up.

When the panel was installed, we discovered that the window was going to need a bit of extra support, so I installed the two support legs that came with the kit. In the interest of time, our electrician George also came by to help me wire up the wiper arm, as well as the wiper control switch, which we installed at the helm pod. This was literally the last thing we did in Palmetto, and we actually left town without having all the wiring and washer fluid hoses secured to the hardtop frame, but that has since been completed!

Helm Window Insert
Helm Window Insert

Overall we’re pretty pleased with how the whole enclosure has worked out. There are a few tweaks I’d make if we had to do it over now that I know a bit more about how isinglass sits when hanging, but the “watertightness” of the helm and cockpit is much improved. When we close all the panels, we can stay very dry. Another huge plus is that with the hardtop, we have much more sun protection when at the helm. One thing we would not do is the windshield – it adds a lot of weight and we hardly ever use it.

Helm Enclosure Outside
Helm Enclosure Outside
Aft port leg connection.
Aft starboard leg connection.
Connection from the ring to the hardtop.

Total Costs:
Geoff at Artful Canvas                          $4,280.00

Mike Irvin at Mangrove Marine         $5,800.00

Canvas West – enclosure                     $16,000.00

Total                                                        $26,080.00

8 Comments

  1. Hi Guys,
    I remember that you have a great video detailing all the work that you did during this fit out, but i can’t seem to find a link to it on your website or youtube channel. I’m in the process of purchasing a Helia 44 so is it possible to point me in the right direction.
    Many thanks
    Simon

  2. Hey Guys,
    We’ve watched just about every video. Almost caught up through Fiji! Amazing!
    We are at the Annapolis Spring Boat show this weekend. We’ve mentioned how much we like the blog & video to the ACY Team (Brent, Frank and Ken). They enjoy your posts as well!

    We would like to leverage many of your ideas as we setup our Helia for passage making. Would you mind sharing who you worked with to design and build your hard bimini? Beside no front window / wiper, any changes you’d make to the bimini?

    Second question please. Based upon what you know now and have discussed with other cruisers, which folding prop would you suggest we investigate?

    Thanks!
    Jeff & Debby
    sv Making Memories

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