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The bridge of the freighter shown here has two steering stands. This redundancy is a safety measure in case one of the steering mechanisms that control the ship's rudder fails.

A helmsman is a person who steers a ship, sailboat, submarine, or other type of maritime vessel. In the merchant marine, the person at the helm is usually an able seaman, 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 or quartermaster at the wheel.

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, 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 acknowledgement 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.[1]

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

A ship bridge simulator with 3-D graphics creates scenarios with realistic sights and sounds to train mariners in ship handling.

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 correctons 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 compassess (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

Underway replenishment during which an oil tanker refuels ships at sea demands that the helmsman steer an exceedingly precise course.

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 rythmn 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.[2] 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.

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 always reply with "very well."

See also


  1. ^ "Approval of programs leading to certification as a rating forming part of a navigational watch,"United States Coast Guard National Maritime Center.
  2. ^ "Ship navigation in harbors: safety issues," U.S. Congressional Research Service. February 8, 2008.


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010
(Redirected to The Helmsman article)

From Wikisource

The Helmsman
by Franz Kafka, translated by Wikisource

"Am I not the helmsman?" I cried? "You?" asked a tall dark man and passed his hand over his eyes, as if to banish a dream. I was standing at the helm in the dark night, the weak-burning lantern over my head and now this man had come and wanted to brush me aside.

And as I would not give, he set his foot on my chest and trampled me slowly down, while I continued to cling to the spokes of the ship's wheel and falling down, pulled it all the way around. But the man grabbed it and brought it back around; me, however, he pushed away. I came to myself soon, walked to the hatch which led to the cabin and cried: "Men! Comrades! Come quickly! A stranger has deposed me from the wheel!" They came slowly, climbing up the ship's ladder, swaying tired powerful figures. "Am I the helmsman?" I asked". They nodded, but only had eyes for the stranger, stood in a semi-circle about him and as he commandingly said "Don't disturb me", they gathered themselves, nodded to me and moved again down the ship's ladder. What sort of people are these? Do they think at all or do they merely shuffle thoughtlessly over the Earth?

This translation is hosted with different licensing information than from the original text. The translation status applies to this edition.
PD-icon.svg This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1924, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

Heckert GNU white.svg This work is licensed under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.


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