Have a Seat
When I was a kid, and invincible, I was happy with a throwable PFD tucked between my butt and the mahogany thwart of a 13-foot Boston Whaler. I didn’t need no stinkin’ seat back, or arm rests, or fancy foam: The kapok seat cushion gave me all the support I needed, even with a 40-horse Evinrude leaping the Whaler across the summer-afternoon whitecaps. Sure, my spine interacted with the thwart like a jackhammer on concrete, and once in a while I came off the cushion and only a grip of death on the steering wheel and a little dumb luck kept me aboard—but at the end of the day I felt fine, ready to go again tomorrow.
Doing this today would put me in spinal traction after an hour. And if you’re past legal age, it might do you in too—if not today, then down the road. Rather than corkscrew my sacroiliac any more than I have already, from now on I’m going to invest in a proper helm chair, one that cradles me in plush upholstery, holds me in place with sturdy, padded arms, and forces my twisted spine into shape with a cleverly designed seat back. I recommend you do the same unless you’re fond of painkillers. The chintzy chairs many manufacturers provide as standard equipment don’t provide the support that aging, and not-so-aging, bodies need. It’s time to limber up the checkbook and invest in something ergonomic.
Ergonomic chairs, like the thousand-dollar model your desk-jockey boss sits in, are designed to follow the ideal shape of one’s spine, support the lower back, and encourage the sitter to maintain correct posture. Ideally, a properly designed ergonomic chair will help folks who sit for hours every workday to avoid, or at least delay, back problems. But a chair in the office doesn’t face nearly the same conditions as one aboard a boat: Offices don’t move much, they don’t bounce very often, or lurch from side to side. Desk chairs seldom jump off the floor, fly through the air and crash back down in the adjoining cubicle. Yet not many helm chairs, at least not the ones that come as standard equipment, are designed to support us correctly while our boats are doing all of the above. And, no surprise, a really good ergonomic helm chair is going to hit your bank account hard-—even more so if you have a spouse/first mate who expects a similar companion chair. But spinal surgery is pretty expensive, too. I’ll pay up front for a proper chair.
So how do you find a really first-class helm chair? Check out what builders are installing aboard their million-dollar-plus yachts. Spending a few thousand bucks more per chair doesn’t mean anything to their customers: They want the best, are willing to pay for it, and frequently choose STIDD Systems helm chairs. I see STIDDs on more gold-platers than any other make of chair. Why? Not only are STIDD chairs made about as sturdy as a chair can be, using top-notch materials and methods, but the man behind the chair is especially qualified to save your spine from further damage.
Not Just a Welder and a Dream
In 1991, Walter Gezari got “tired of getting beaten to death in $100 helm seats” that were essentially bar stools with cushions. He decided to build a better one. Gezari said it takes special knowledge to design and build a proper ergonomic chair: “It’s not just a guy with a welder and a dream,” but it’s knowledge that he carries, thanks to medical school and business background. Gezari holds a patent for an isokinetic dynamometer, a device for evaluating muscle and joint strength during exercise and rehabilitation, along with patents for several other medical-related inventions. Today Gezari is president of STIDD Systems, Inc. (Superior Technical Innovation from Design to Delivery).
Over the past 30 years, Gezari and the folks who work with him have earned multiple patents for helm seats, shock-mitigating mounts, and related equipment—including, in December, 1993, an armrest with an integral jog lever, long before joystick control became common aboard pleasure boats. “We have a terrific operation, with a capable group of very smart people,” said Gezari. “I’m not doing this alone.” STIDD chairs are used in military vessels and submarines, too, and can withstand the kind of abuse necessary for those applications. The seats have been tested under conditions most of us would rather avoid and can, for example, withstand a 360-degree roll. STIDD Series 500 Admiral seats are standard equipment aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s 47 motor lifeboats, self-righting rescue vessels designed to operate in 30-foot seas or 20-foot surf and 50-knot winds.
The company holds patents on sophisticated non-seating-related equipment for military use too, including a small submersible that can plane when operated on the surface, and a sealable engine room for open-hull submersible vessels. (Google “STIDD submersibles” if you want to see some cool stuff.) The company is currently building some of these things—and others—alongside the helm chairs, which is why we weren’t able to visit the factory and shoot some photos. Gezari offered to give me a tour, without a camera, but I’d have to get security clearance first.
What’s in a Chair?
Gezari told me there are two secrets to a superior helm chair. First, it must have biomechanical efficiency, achieved through design and materials. The structure of the STIDD seat isn’t intuitive, he said; it’s based on medical testing to get just the right combination of stabilization, positioning and a couple of other things that aren’t apparent. You could buy a STIDD chair, take it apart and copy it, but you’d miss the important details, Gezari said. “You have to understand the technology to make a copy. Otherwise, you incorporate principles you don’t understand. It’s like the secret ingredient in a recipe. That’s why our seat feels and looks different.” It’s form following function, he said, and, since the human body hasn’t changed in the past 30 years, the STIDD seat hasn’t either. There have been improvements in quality, materials, and coatings, but the basic seat is just the same. “No need to change it,” said Gezari.
So what’s the second secret to building the best helm chair? It’s one that applies to all luxury products—and a STIDD seat is certainly that. “Give people value for their money,” Gezari said. “Real luxury products are very expensive, but they’re also very good; you can’t reduce the quality to make a bigger profit.” STIDD seats are made for people with high-end boats who actually go to sea, who are real mariners. “It’s a niche market. We found our role and we’re doing it.” Make the customer happy, he added, and you’ll end up with a loyal group of happy customers.
A Chair for All Physiques
STIDD Systems builds two series of helm chairs, the 500 and 1200. The 1200 is a double seat that comes in 45- or 54-inch widths; the wider model has a removable center armrest. The 500 chair comes in high- and low-back versions, in both standard and Slimline widths; the Slimline chair is 5 inches narrower overall to fit in tighter helm stations, but its seat is only 1.5 inches narrower, so folks of normal beam can still fit comfortably. There is a wide version, too. Each chair comes with either a powdercoated, chrome-over-aluminum or polished 316L stainless steel pedestal and folding footrest.
All STIDD chairs are adjustable both vertically and fore-and-aft; power adjustment is optional. The backrests recline; high-back models have a three-position headrest. And, of course, the seats are designed for optimal comfort and support for hours of sitting, with a seat cushion that promotes adequate leg circulation. (Doctors now say that long-term sitting is as bad for us as smoking cigarettes, so you’ll want to flip on the autopilot and leave your STIDD chair every half-hour or so for a few minutes of exercise.) Upholstery is either polyurethane (Ultraleather) or vinyl (Naugahyde)—or real leather, if that’s your thing: Give the STIDD craftspeople 75 square feet of hide and they’ll cover your chair with it; you can opt for custom fabric, too.
Along with power adjustment, there are a number of options, including teak trim, protective covers, accent piping to jazz up the upholstery, a seat-back chart pocket, and so forth. (Are STIDD buyers more apt to use charts than other boaters? I’ll bet they are.) You can also buy replacement cushions that are easy to install—new fabric and foam that will make your vintage STIDD chair feel like new. You can also specify a joystick or trackball mounted on an armrest enclosure-—one that’s designed with STIDD Systems’ attention to the human body’s biomechanics. It’ll make long-term use of either input device much easier on your wrists and forearms. And for fast boats whose owners like to keep the throttles on the stops, upgrading to shock-mitigating pedestals will make the ride a lot more comfortable.
I don’t own a STIDD chair, and probably won’t, at least not right away. But after speaking with Walter Gezari and learning just how good a helm chair can be, I know I’ll never be happy sitting on a throwable cushion again. And my back is thanking me for that.
Sit Down and Fish
Having a comfortable helm chair is a luxury, but if you’re a serious offshore fisherman, a rugged fighting chair is a must. Next time you fight a fish from one, you can thank Julio Sanchez. Sanchez was born in 1899 on a sugar plantation in Cuba and educated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he earned degrees in civil and electrical engineering. He was also a lifelong fisherman. Along with his friend Ernest Hemingway, Sanchez made big-game fishing in the Bahamas something every serious fisherman wanted to experience; in 1939, he won the first Cat Cay Tuna Tournament.
When Sanchez started fishing offshore, anglers would sit in a swivel chair in the cockpit and brace their feet on the transom coaming. Sanchez designed a footrest that attached to the chair and swiveled with it, creating the first modern fighting chair. Some say he based the design on a barber chair. (Hemingway often gets the credit, but Sanchez is the man who actually designed the chair.) Sanchez also built the first fishing harness, similar to the bucket harnesses used today. Julio Sanchez died in 1985, but in 2001 he was inducted into the International Game Fishing Association Hall of Fame for his innovations. So when you sit in your fighting chair, whether to battle a grander or just enjoy a cool one and watch the wake, give a toast to Julio Sanchez.
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