Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Helm Commands

In the early 20th Century, American ships were still using many helm commands left over from the days of the clipper ships. A surprising number of things that take place on a ship are dictated by law. Diet and sleeping arrangements are two major examples, but so are the commands that the officer of the watch gives to the helmsman to get a vessel going in a particular direction. Many commands given in the Age of Sail would still be recognizable by modern mariners, as recounted in John Harland's book Seamanship In The Age Of Sail:
'Steer West-North-West!' to follow a particular course. "Starboard!', 'Helm a-starboard!' 'Starboard handsomely!' when the turn is to be made circumspectly. 'Give her more helm!' when it was desired to swing more quickly, 'Hard over!', to increase the helm already on, and make the quickest possible swing. 'Steady!' when headed in the desired direction. The quartermaster reports the course at the moment the order is given, and if satisfactory the order 'Keep her so!" is given.
Some other helm commands are still in use today, including "meet her", "midships", and "shift your rudder." Others would make little sense on todays powered vessels including "Let her go off handsomely," "Let her come to," and "Let her luff."

Tiller Orders. Today only the smallest craft are steered by tiller, but this used to be true of all vessels. When steering by tiller, force is applied to the tiller at the opposite end from the rudder, so to go to starboard, you push to port. The process was the same even on large vessels until the relatively modern development of motorized steering. As Harland writes:

Orders to the helmsman were traditionally given in terms of ‘helm’. That is to say, the position of the tiller rather than the rudder. ‘Hard a-starboard!’ meant ‘put the tiller (helm) to starboard, so that the ship may go to port!’ It will be realised that not only the bow turned to port, but also the rudder, [and] the top of the wheel...

In the 1997 movie Titanic, for instance, the officer of the watch gives the order to go hard to starboard to avoid the iceberg, but the helmsman turns the heel to port. This has been cited as an era by some, but was perfectly correct in its time.

In 1935, in an attempt to update the helm commands for a primarily power-driven era, the US Congress eliminated the old commands and replaced them with more modern ones, still largely used today (the UK made the change in 1933). Some examples:

  • "Port X Degrees" or "Left X Degrees" - Turn the wheel to port until the rudder angle indicator reads X degrees port.
  •  "Starboard X Degrees" or "Right X Degrees" - Turn the wheel to starboard until the rudder angle indicator reads X degrees starboard.
  •  "Amidships" - put the rudder amidships, or to 0 degrees.
  •  "Ease to X" - From the current rudder angle, slack off on the turn until X degrees is reached.
  •  "Shift your rudder" - Switch rudder from current to position to opposite position, ex. from 10 port to 10 starboard
  •  "Left Full Rudder" or "Right Full Rudder" - put the rudder at 30 degrees in the proper direction
  •  "Hard to Port" or "Hard to Starboard" - put the rudder over as far as it will go in the proper direction (on most ships, between 35 and 40 degrees)
  •  "Steady up on course X" - Hold the desired course, applying rudder as needed to maintain the course.
  •  "Left to course X" or "Right to course X" - apply rudder enough to come to the desired course in a timely fashion, hopefully without passing your course.

For an excerpt from Seamanship in the Age of Sail at googlebooks, click here.