What Is the Helm of a Ship?

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Even if you have a very limited understanding of maritime terms and lingo, you have probably heard of the helm of a ship. The helm is essential for guiding that water vessel through the water. Without the helm, it would be impossible for any vessel to navigate direction properly.

To help you understand what the helm of a ship actually is and its purpose, we have provided this straightforward guide. We will cover everything from the integral role the it plays in navigation to its various components.

So, let’s dive right in!

What Is the Helm of a Ship?

In simple terms, the helm of a ship is the primary control station where everything from the vessel’s course to its speed is decided and controlled. For larger ships, like cruise ships, it is located on the ship’s bridge, which is why this area is often deemed the ship’s “command center.”

The helm serves the same basic function on smaller boats as larger ships, but it is much smaller in scale. The helm of a smaller vessel is also far less sophisticated than a cruise ship’s helm. For example, a small recreational boat helm could consist of a steering wheel or tiller, ignition, and throttle.

Overview of the Ship Bridge
Overview of the Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: Chen Liang-Dao / Shutterstock)

On smaller ships this could be located on the open deck. Basically, you can think of the helm of a ship just like you would think of the driver’s seat of a typical vehicle. 

Regardless of the size and sophistication of a ship’s helm, it must provide a clear, unobstructed view and have the necessary controls and instruments to steer the ship, control its speed, and chart its course.

What Is the Main Purpose of the Helm of a Ship?

The main purpose of the helm of a boat or ship is navigation. As mentioned, it is the area of the ship where all controls are located. On larger vessels, like cruise ships, it is where navigational officers and other crew members tasked with piloting the ship are located.

They use the helm as a control station where they steer the vessel, control its speed, and monitor its progress, location, and expected course. Essentially, the helm is used to get the ship where it needs to be most safely and efficiently possible.

To help you have a greater understanding of what sorts of roles are carried out at the helm of a ship, here is a more detailed breakdown:

Controlling the Speed of the Ship

One of the most essential roles a ship’s helm serves is controlling the ship’s speed. While the exact nature of the speed controls will depend on the type of ship and its size, the helm is where the navigation crew will increase or decrease the ship’s speed.

Balcony Cabins Aft View
Balcony Cabins Aft View (Photo Credit: NAPA / Shutterstock)

Since the helm is where the ship’s speed is controlled, it is also where fuel usage and efficiency decisions are made. On more sophisticated modern ships, like a cruise ship, many of these controls are automated, but crew members will still have the option to override pre-set speeds by using optimal navigation equipment and controls.

Steering and Guiding the Ship

As discussed, the helm of a ship is also where you will find the instruments required to steer the ship. On smaller vessels, this can be a steering wheel linked to the ship’s rudder. On larger and more sophisticated ships, the ship’s course is pre-plotted, so much of this is automated ahead of time.

Helm of a Cruise Ship
Steering Controls (Photo Credit: nattapon supanawan / Shutterstock)

With that said, even the largest ships tend to have a steering wheel or similar steering mechanism, which is used in emergencies, as well as certain docking procedures.

These more sophisticated vessels will also feature a precise rudder angle indicator, which provides the navigational crew with up-to-the-second feedback on the current positioning of the ship’s rudder.

Monitoring the Ship’s Course, Position, and Avoiding Hazards

The helm is also where you will find most of a ship’s navigational tools and instruments. While a course can be plotted ahead of time, it is always important to monitor potential hazards and the ship’s course and current position.

Read Also: Docking a Cruise Ship – How Is It Done?

Ensuring the ship is on course and avoiding dangerous obstacles and weather is essential to ensure a safe and enjoyable voyage.

Navigation Systems
Navigation Systems (Photo Credit: Alexey Seafarer / Shutterstock)

This explains why the helm of a large vessel will feature weather monitoring systems, navigation displays, GPS equipment, radar screens, and much more.

Communicating with Crew, Authorities, and Other Ships

The helm can also serve as the central communication hub for the entire ship. Since the helm is where most of the critical decisions are made, and actions are conducted, crew members operating here must be able to remain in constant contact with other areas of the ship.

Cruise Ship Bridge
Cruise Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: mariakray / Shutterstock)

Not only will the helm feature communication equipment for contacting other areas of the ship, like the engine room, but you will also find satellite radios and other long-range communication tools for contacting port authorities, emergency responders, other ships in the area, and others not onboard the ship.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the difference between the helm of a cruise ship and a small boat?

While both helms serve the same basic purpose, they differ in scale and sophistication. Where the helm of a small boat or yacht might just feature a steering wheel, throttle, and fuel gauge, the helm of a large ship, like a cruise ship, is far more complex. 

For starters, the helm is operated by numerous crew members rather than an individual. Cruise ships also plot much farther courses, so they need more sophisticated navigation systems, like autopilot controls and instruments that can measure the distance from far away hazards.

What is a helmsman?

A helmsman is an informal name given to the individual in charge of steering a ship. Typically, the helmsman will be a high-ranking individual, as they have a significant amount of responsibility for the safety of the ship and all of its crewmembers and passengers.

Bridge Steering Station
Photo Credit: Gargantiopa / Shutterstock

Why is it called the “helm” of a ship?

The term helm comes from the Old English word “helme”. In modern-day English, this word roughly translates to “rudder” or “instrument used to steer a ship.” Since the rudder is the piece of equipment responsible for directing a ship, it makes sense to refer to the area that controls the rudder, the helm.

Where is the helm on a ship?

On a larger vessel, the ship’s helm is almost always located on the ship’s bridge. For smaller ships and modern boats, the helm is typically found in the center forward of the vessel.

Cruise Ship Bridge
Cruise Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: Felipe Sanchez / Shutterstock)

Regardless of what type of ship or boat you are discussing, those at the helm of the ship must have a clear and unobstructed view, which also explains why the helm is usually elevated.

How is the helm of a passenger vessel protected from unauthorized visitors?

While each ship’s safety and security protocols vary, access to the helm is always strictly controlled. In most cases, a combination of cameras, alarms, locked doors, and even security personnel ensure that the helm remains restricted.

In many cases, authorized crew members are given key cards that provide them access to the bridge, where you will find the helm of the ship.

Can those operating the helm communicate with the rest of the ship?

Yes, officers and other crew members at the helm must be able to communicate with other crew members located throughout the ship.

In fact, those at the helm will also be able to communicate with passengers, just like how the pilot of a passenger plane can communicate with crew and passengers over the intercom.

How many people work in the helm area of a ship?

The exact number of crew members and officers located in the helm area of a ship depends on the size of the vessel and its unique operating requirements.

How to become a cruise ship captain
Photo Credit: Michele Rinaldi / Shutterstock

While the number varies from ship to ship, you can expect between five to ten individuals to be present at any given time. 

Read Also: How to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

This range usually includes the captain, staff captain, navigational officers, radio operators, lookouts, and the designated helmsman. Again, this number will vary from one cruise ship to another.

Final Words

While the helm of a ship can look very different from one ship to the next, the helm always serves an essential function by controlling a ship’s speed, direction, and course.

Larger vessels, like cruise ships, feature a wide range of sophisticated instruments and control mechanisms, but the same basic principles are the same from one ship’s helm to the next.

To learn more about where the helm of a ship is located, we highly recommend reading about the front part of a ship.

If you are interested in gaining a more general understanding of the various segments of a cruise ship, we also recommend reading about the significant parts of a cruise ship. It can provide you with a basic overview of the major parts of a ship and help you the next time you are navigating a cruise ship while on vacation!

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