Wheel Watch

Helm vs. Rudder

A critical distinction must be made between the helm and the rudder. The helm is the controlling device through which a helmsman makes adjustments (think: wheel) The rudder is the aspect of the vessel changing the ship’s direction by affecting the vessel’s underwater profile (think: the fin of the fish).

Originally the rudder was controlled by a tiller which was a piece of wood affixed to the top of the rudder. To make the vessel go left, the tiller had to be placed to the right. For the desired outcome of starboard rudder the helm had to be placed to port. Wheels then had the nerve to be invented which then reversed the process: now turning to starboard required starboard helm. While this may seem a vast improvement (it was), it led to even greater confusion when a pilot, mate, or helmsman then took control of a vessel with a different steering system and had to resume either issuing or obeying steering commands.

The commands themselves were inconsistently being issued to refer to either the helm or the rudder. This all led to such increasing levels of confusion that an Act of Congress, under General Order No. 98 actually banned using the term “helm” altogether for steering commands, now all commands must refer to the rudder. To further simplify the commands port and starboard were also discontinued to be replaced by left and right.

The Commands

Amidships – return the rudder to the central position.
Hard right/left – place the rudder over until the rudders touch their stops.
Half right/left – place the rudder at half its maximum travel.
Shift the rudder – put the rudder over to the opposite side, the same number of degrees it is now.
Ease her – reduce the angle of the rudder towards amidships.
Check her – use rudder to check the swing of the ship as she turns.
Meet her – same as check her.Steady as you go – steer the course you are on now.
Nothing to the left/right – do NOT steer left/right of the ordered course.
Left twenty – put the rudder left twenty degrees.
Ordered course 235 degrees – adjust heading to commanded number.
Mark your helm – report the position and number of degrees of the rudder.
Mark your head – report the present heading of the vessel.

Practice vs. Reality

Ordinarily the officer conning (in command) of the vessel relies a great deal on the good judgment of the helmsman. So much so, in fact, that he may seem rather indifferent to the helm altogether. In theory commands will be consistent, clearly understood, and intelligible. For anyone who has never steered a ship before it may come as a surprise when the old man or mate on watch simply waves his arm in a direction and apparently assumes that the ship will follow of her own accord. The degree of formality will have much to do with the relationship between the officers and the crew.

Weather & Lee Helm

Each vessel will respond to the effects of wind and current slightly different. Some choose to head up and face into the wind like a weathercock. This vessel is said to have weather helm. This means the rudder must counteract the force of the wind to some degree; the amount of rudder required to sail a straight line is the amount of weather helm required.

Some ships with their superstructures located forward will tend to fall off the wind and run with it, and this is called lee helm. A sailing vessel is constantly changing how it lays with the wind with every sail change and correction. The helmsman will feel this immediately. It is very helpful to indicate to the oncoming helmsman how much weather or lee helm is present and should be accounted for.

Small Corrections

Perhaps the most common bane of the new helmsman is over steering. It is very common when making the attempt to settle on a course to shoot past it only to shoot past it again going in the opposite direction. Small rudder movements as a rule are preferable to sweeping motions that take some time for the vessel to settle into.

Make a small adjustment, then wait. The maximum angle at which a rudder will continue to have effect is approximately 35 degrees over either way. Any more than this and the rudder acts more like a break than it does a steering device.

In larger seas it may be required to anticipate the swells and steer into them before they lay against the rudder. This takes some practice when quartering (approaching at 45 degrees) large seas or being followed by them.