A helmsman is a person who steers
Navigation is the process of monitoring and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another. It is also the term of art used for the specialized knowledge used by navigators to perform navigation tasks...

 a ship
Since the end of the age of sail a ship has been any large buoyant marine vessel. Ships are generally distinguished from boats based on size and cargo or passenger capacity. Ships are used on lakes, seas, and rivers for a variety of activities, such as the transport of people or goods, fishing,...

, sailboat
A sailboat or sailing boat is a boat propelled partly or entirely by sails. The term covers a variety of boats, larger than small vessels such as sailboards and smaller than sailing ships, but distinctions in the size are not strictly defined and what constitutes a sailing ship, sailboat, or a...

, submarine
A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation below the surface of the water. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability...

, or other type of maritime vessel. On small vessels, particularly privately-owned noncommercial vessels, the functions of skipper and helmsman may be combined in one person. On larger vessels, there is a separate officer of the watch, who is responsible for the safe navigation
Navigation is the process of monitoring and controlling the movement of a craft or vehicle from one place to another. It is also the term of art used for the specialized knowledge used by navigators to perform navigation tasks...

 of the ship and gives orders to the helmsman. In the merchant marine
Merchant Navy
The Merchant Navy is the maritime register of the United Kingdom, and describes the seagoing commercial interests of UK-registered ships and their crews. Merchant Navy vessels fly the Red Ensign and are regulated by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency...

, the person at the helm is usually an able seaman
Able seaman
An able seaman is an unlicensed member of the deck department of a merchant ship. An AB may work as a watchstander, a day worker, or a combination of these roles.-Watchstander:...

, particularly during ship arrivals, departures, and while maneuvering in restricted waters or other conditions requiring precise steering. An ordinary seaman is commonly restricted to steering in open waters. Moreover, military ships may have a seaman
Seaman is one of the lowest ranks in a Navy. In the Commonwealth it is the lowest rank in the Navy, followed by Able Seaman and Leading Seaman, and followed by the Petty Officer ranks....

 or quartermaster
Quartermaster refers to two different military occupations depending on if the assigned unit is land based or naval.In land armies, especially US units, it is a term referring to either an individual soldier or a unit who specializes in distributing supplies and provisions to troops. The senior...

 at the helm.

A professional helmsman maintains a steady course, properly executes all rudder orders, and communicates to the officer on the bridge utilizing navigational terms relating to ship's heading and steering. A helmsman relies upon visual references, a magnetic and gyrocompass
A gyrocompass­ is a type of non-magnetic compass which bases on a fast-spinning disc and rotation of our planet to automatically find geographical direction...

, and a rudder angle indicator to steer a steady course. The mate or other officer on the bridge directs the helmsman aboard merchant or navy ships.

Clear and exact communication between the helmsman and officer on the bridge is essential to safe navigation and ship handling. Subsequently, a set of standard steering commands, responses by the helmsman, and acknowledgment by the conning officer are widely recognized in the maritime industry. The helmsman repeats any verbal commands in order to demonstrate that the command is heard and understood. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW) requires that helmsman must be able to understand and respond to helm orders in English.

The proliferation of autopilot systems and the increased computerization of operations on a ship's bridge lessen the need for helmsmen standing watch in open waters.

Helm commands

Helm orders or commands fall into two categories: rudder commands and heading commands. A rudder command dictates changing the angle of the rudder, which is a single-event action. Whereas steering a heading is a comparatively long event and will require ongoing or continuous rudder adjustments.

  • Midships (Bring rudder angle to 0 degrees)
  • Check your swing (Counter steer to stop the movement or swing of the ship's bow)
  • Hard rudder (Used infrequently, such as emergencies, when maximum rudder is required)
  • Right or left standard rudder (~20 degrees. Varies per ship)
  • Shift your rudder (Steer the same number of degrees but opposite rudder angle)

  • Steady as she goes (Steer as needed to continue current heading)
  • Steady on a course (Steer as needed to bring ship on desired course)

Acquired skills

Steering a ship effectively requires skills gained through training and experience. An expert helmsman has a keen sense of how a particular ship will respond to the helm or how different sea conditions impact steering. For instance, experience teaches a helmsman the ability to correct the rudder in advance of a ship substantially falling off course. This requires the capacity to anticipate the delay between when the helm is applied and when the ship responds to the rudder. Similarly, a skilled helmsman will avoid overcompensating for a ship's movement caused by local conditions, such as wind, swells, currents, or rough seas.

Ship simulators

Computer-based ship simulators provide a training environment for learning skills to steer a ship. Training can be programmed to replicate a variety of ship sizes and environmental conditions. Scenarios depicted in 3-D graphics range from making course corrections in open waters to maneuvering in port, rivers, or other shallow waters. Cost compared to a real vessel is low. Mariners learn responses to dangerous situations, such as steering failure, in the safety of a virtual environment.

Land-based ship simulators may feature a full-scale replica of a steering stand with a ship's wheel. Such simulators incorporate magnetic and gyro compasses (or repeaters) for steering. Moreover, a rudder angle indicator that responds appropriately to the helm is part of the configuration.

However technology also allows for a multitude of smaller workstations in a classroom setting. Administrators network student workstations so that the instructor can launch individual scenarios at each station. Computer models are used to accurately simulate conditions such as wind, seas, and currents. Moreover, shallow-water effects or other the hydrodynamic forces, such as ships passing close to each other, can also be depicted. A computer application records training sessions, complete with voice commands issued by the instructor which are received by the students via a headset.

On the job training

On-the-job training at sea is critical to a helmsman developing ability to "sense" or anticipate how a ship will respond in different conditions. The experienced helmsman uses measured responses to sea conditions, even when encountering heavy weather that may cause a ship to pitch and roll as it pounds its way through oncoming waves. Subsequently, the helmsman learns to relax and take into account the vessel's natural rhythm in order to avoid oversteering whatever the maritime environment.

Consequently, more accurate steering is attained with less rudder. Applying the minimal rudder required to steer a course reduces drag of the ship, thereby favorably impacting the ship's speed and operating costs.

One of the helmsman's most important duties is steering a ship in a harbor or seaport when reduced speeds slow a ship's response to the rudder. For it is during ship arrivals and departures, when most ship collisions or groundings occur. Clear communication, then, between the officer of the bridge and the helmsman is essential for safe operations. The officer or harbor pilot relies upon the helmsman to flawlessly execute steering commands to avoid a variety of hazards, including man-made obstacles, land formations, grounding in shallow waters, and the threat of collision with other vessels. In addition, powerful sea tides and river currents encountered in seaports heighten navigation dangers, as a ship's ability to stop is severely limited.

Relieving the helm

Helmsmen of merchant and military ships that are underway stand watch at the helm for a set period of time before being relieved by another watchstander. The person being relieved will complete any course change or other critical maneuver that is in progress before handing over the helm.

Merchant Vessels

The helmsman handing over the helm will inform the relief helmsman of any rudder commands in place and pertinent conditions. "Steering 180. We have oncoming traffic two points on the starboard" for example. In addition, the current helmsman should inform the relief if there are any peculiarities affecting steerage. Similarly, the helmsman will also point out if he or she is steering on a landmark, range, or navigational light. The relief helmsman is obligated to repeat the course being steered or other rudder command in order to demonstrate an understanding of the situation at the helm.

On merchant ships, it is taught at the various maritime academies that the proper way to relieve the helm is for the helmsman being relieved to call out loudly the ship's course per gyro, course per standard magnetic compass, steering mode, rudder angle, and the pump the vessel is steering off of. The relief helmsman will then take the helm and repeat all the information to ensure that he/she knows what to steer while on watch. An example of this would be:

Helmsman: "Helm is being relieved... steering two-four-eight per gyro, checking two-four-five per standard. Helm is in hand, rudder amidships, steering off the port pump."

Relief: "Helm has been relieved... steering two-four-eight per gyro, checking two-four-five per standard. Helm is in hand, rudder amidships, steering off the port pump."

The officer on watch will usually reply with "very well."

Naval Vessels

The following exchange is standard on ships of the Royal Navy and Commonwealth navies:

Helmsman: "Bridge, wheelhouse”.

Officer of the Watch: “Bridge”.

Helmsman: “Permission for Able Seaman Bloggins to take the wheel, sir?”

OOW: “Yes please.”

New Helmsman: "Bridge, wheelhouse”.

OOW: “Bridge”.

New Helmsman: "Helmsman relieved by Able Seaman Bloggins, steering course Zero One Zero, Main (or Both) Engine Telegraph(s) indicating half ahead, four five zero revolutions showing on the counter, sir".

OOW: Very good".

See also

  • Seafarer's professions and ranks
    Seafarer's professions and ranks
    Seafarers hold a variety of professions and ranks, and each of these roles carries unique responsibilities which are integral to the successful operation of a seafaring vessel...

  • Mao Zedong
    Mao Zedong
    Mao Zedong, also transliterated as Mao Tse-tung , and commonly referred to as Chairman Mao , was a Chinese Communist revolutionary, guerrilla warfare strategist, Marxist political philosopher, and leader of the Chinese Revolution...

    , frequently called (among other things) the Great Helmsman
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