What is the Steering Wheel on a Ship Called? Unveiling Maritime Terminology

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ships steering wheel

The steering wheel on a ship is commonly known as the helm.

Overview of Ship Steering Wheel

The steering wheel on a ship, also known as the helm, plays a crucial role in navigating and controlling the vessel’s direction. It is typically located on the starboard side towards the stern, providing the helmsman with a clear view of the water and allowing them to steer the ship with precision. Larger ships often use the term “ship wheel,” while smaller boats generally refer to it as the “steering wheel” source.

The ship’s steering system comprises the steering gear, steering wheel, and rudder. The steering wheel connects to the rudder through a series of wires and hydraulics, allowing for seamless maneuverability source. In modern ships, the traditional steering wheel is often replaced by a joystick, which uses computerized sensors to control the steering gear, providing a more sophisticated and accurate method of navigation.

When someone “takes the helm” of a ship or boat, it means that they are taking control of its steering and navigation source. This responsibility requires skill and knowledge, as the helmsman must be aware of various factors such as water currents, wind direction, and obstacles in their path. Consequently, steering a ship smoothly and efficiently is an essential aspect of maritime navigation.

Though the design and technology of ship steering wheels have evolved over the years, their fundamental purpose and importance remain the same. From ancient sailing vessels to modern cruise ships, the helm remains a vital component that ensures the safety and success of any maritime journey.

Historical Evolution

The invention of the ship’s wheel marked a significant milestone in the history of maritime navigation. Prior to the ship’s wheel, the helmsman relied on a tiller or a whipstaff to steer the vessel. A tiller is a horizontal bar fitted directly to the top of the rudder post, while a whipstaff is a vertical stick acting on the arm of the ship’s tiller (source).

The first ship’s wheel was invented in the early 1700s, greatly improving the steering system of boats and ships (source). This new technology allowed for more precise control of the vessel, making it easier for the captain to steer the ship and navigate through various challenging conditions.

Over time, ship steering systems continued to evolve and improve. Some of the advancements include the development of the steering gear, which is a mechanical system used to transmit and amplify the force from the ship’s wheel to the rudder (source). Another development was the introduction of hydraulic and electronic steering systems that enhanced the efficiency and responsiveness of the ship’s wheel.

Today, modern boats and ships have an array of sophisticated technology at their disposal to aid in navigation and steering. However, the ship’s wheel remains an enduring symbol of maritime history and an essential component of traditional sailing vessels.

Nomenclature and Terminology


The term “helm” is often used to refer to the steering wheel on a ship. Helm is indeed an accurate term for most vessels, as it not only pertains to the wheel itself but also encompasses any associated equipment required to steer a ship or boat. The helm plays a crucial role in navigating and controlling a vessel’s course. It’s important to note that this term is common not only for large ships but also for smaller boats (source).


Another term related to the ship’s steering wheel is the “wheelhouse.” The wheelhouse is the enclosed area on a vessel where the helm is located, providing protection to the person responsible for steering. This area typically contains various navigational equipment and instruments that help the helmsman to monitor and maintain the ship’s course. The term wheelhouse emphasizes the physical space that houses the helm, while still acknowledging the importance of the wheel as the main control mechanism in navigating a ship (source).

Functioning and Construction


The steering wheel on a ship, commonly referred to as the helm, plays a vital role in navigating and controlling the vessel’s course. It operates in conjunction with other components, such as the rudder and tiller lines. The helm is connected to the rudder through a system of steering chains or ropes called tiller lines. As the wheel is turned, these lines transmit the force to the rudder, causing it to pivot and alter the ship’s direction. The location of the steering wheel may vary depending on the size of the vessel. It is typically situated on the starboard side, towards the stern.

Materials Used

Ship’s wheels have evolved over the years, with materials and construction methods changing to meet the demands of modern sailing. Historically, ship’s wheels were made from wood, such as oak or teak, and featured brass or metal fittings to ensure durability and strength. Some wheels had intricately carved spokes and handles, showcasing the craftsmanship of skilled artisans. Today, ship’s wheels can be constructed from a variety of materials, including stainless steel, aluminum, and durable plastics. These modern materials offer enhanced strength, corrosion resistance, and lower maintenance requirements compared to traditional wooden wheels. Regardless of the material used, the fundamental function and purpose of the ship’s wheel remain the same: to provide a reliable means for controlling the vessel’s course.

Significance and Symbolism

The steering wheel on a ship, also known as the helm, carries immense importance beyond its practical function. It serves as a representation of the captain’s authority and responsibility for the safety of the ship and its crew. The helm is an essential navigational component, which is why its symbolism carries significant weight.

One symbolic aspect of the ship’s wheel is its representation of discovery. As a device that assists in taking vessels to new places, the wheel has become an emblem of journeys and voyages. It is associated with exploration, adventure, and venturing into the unknown, much like sailors who traversed the seas in search of new lands and opportunities.

Furthermore, the ship’s wheel symbolizes life’s path, often highlighting the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of the course we take. It serves as a reminder that, just as a captain must navigate through difficult waters, individuals must face obstacles and utilize their strength and determination to overcome challenges in life.

Another symbolic aspect of the ship’s wheel is its representation of perseverance. In order to successfully steer a ship, a helmsman must demonstrate resilience and tenacity; likewise, the symbolism of the wheel encourages individuals to exhibit these qualities in their own lives. As we face adversity and change, the ship’s wheel stands as an emblem of hope and motivation.

In conclusion, the ship’s wheel is an iconic symbol of navigation, authority, and personal growth. Its significance and symbolism are deeply rooted in the rich history of maritime exploration and the human experience, transcending its functional purpose to inspire and guide generations of sailors and non-sailors alike.

Contemporary Developments

In the world of maritime navigation, the steering wheel, often called the helm, has undergone significant advancements over the centuries. From early wooden steering wheels to the contemporary, technologically advanced systems, the helm has evolved to meet the changing needs of modern ships.

One notable advancement in ship steering is the introduction of electronic and hydraulic systems. These modern systems provide increased precision and responsiveness when compared to traditional mechanical systems. With the aid of computers and sensors, electronic steering systems can automatically adjust the rudder based on various factors such as wind, currents, and vessel speed. This increased accuracy and efficiency greatly enhances navigational capabilities, especially in adverse weather conditions.

Another development in ship steering is the use of joystick controls. These intuitive systems replace the traditional steering wheel, allowing for more precise maneuverability and control. Joystick steering is especially useful for navigating tight spaces or docking procedures. Furthermore, joystick systems often integrate with other navigational technologies, such as GPS and radar, to provide a seamless and efficient experience for the user.

Additionally, modern ships have adopted the bridge layout, which centralizes all navigational and control systems into one location. Within the bridge, the steering wheel is strategically positioned for easy access to other critical navigation tools, such as radar, GPS, and communication systems. This centralized design allows for enhanced situational awareness and improved decision-making during navigation.

While the steering wheel, or helm, remains a fundamental element of ship navigation, contemporary developments have greatly evolved the way ships are steered and controlled. From the introduction of electronic and hydraulic systems to the use of joystick controls and centralized bridge layouts, these advancements have significantly improved the capabilities of modern ships, making navigation more accurate, efficient, and user-friendly.


The steering wheel on a ship is commonly referred to as the helm. This vital component plays a crucial role in controlling the direction of the vessel. The helm is connected to another component called the rudder, which is operated through a system of steering chains or ropes called tiller lines.

In the early days of sailing, the ship’s wheel was sometimes constructed as a double wheel, with each wheel connected to the other via a wooden spindle that ran through a barrel or drum. Today, the ship’s wheel has come a long way, with advanced technologies improving its design and functionality.

It is important to note that the helm has been an integral part of sailing for centuries. Before modern technological advancements, the helm was the ultimate tool for steering a ship. The first ship wheel can be traced back to the early 1700s, marking a significant milestone in the world of sailing.

In summary, the ship’s steering wheel, also known as the helm, is a vital component for directing the course of any vessel. Its historical importance and continued relevance in the modern world of sailing highlights the adaptability and evolution of maritime navigation.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the proper term for a ship’s steering mechanism?

The proper term for a ship’s steering mechanism is the helm. The helm typically refers to the entire steering system, which includes the ship’s wheel, rudder, and other components that work together to control the ship’s direction.

How does the helm of a ship function?

The helm of a ship functions by using a combination of the ship’s wheel, rudder, and steering mechanism to control the direction of the vessel. The ship’s wheel is turned by the person at the helm, which in turn moves the rudder through a system of steering chains or ropes called tiller lines. This movement alters the flow of water around the rudder, thus changing the direction of the ship.

What are the main components of a ship steering wheel?

The main components of a ship steering wheel are the wheel itself, the rudder, the steering mechanism, and the compass. The wheel is usually a circular device with handles around its edge for ease of turning. The rudder is a flat, vertical piece usually located towards the rear of the ship, which is responsible for steering. The steering mechanism comprises the system of chains, ropes, or other devices that connect the wheel to the rudder. Finally, the compass is an essential navigational tool that guides the helmsman in determining the ship’s direction.

What is the difference between steering a ship and a sailboat?

The primary difference between steering a ship and a sailboat lies in the method of propulsion. Ships typically rely on engines, while sailboats depend on wind power to move. Due to this difference, sailboats require additional components, such as sails and rigging, for steering. Sailboats usually have a tiller instead of a wheel, which directly controls the rudder, and their steering might involve adjusting the sails and lines depending on wind conditions.

What is the steering side of a ship called?

The steering side of a ship is called the starboard side. According to historical nautical customs, the helm or steering wheel is usually located on the starboard side towards the stern (rear) of the vessel.

How is a ship’s steering wheel connected to the rudder?

A ship’s steering wheel is connected to the rudder through a system of steering chains or ropes called tiller lines. When the helmsman turns the wheel, these lines transfer the movement to the rudder, causing it to pivot and change the direction of the ship’s movement through the water.

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I am an experienced captain with over 6 years of experience navigating the waters of the North Carolina coast and the Chesapeake Bay. I am the founder of Vanquish Boats, a leading resource for boating enthusiasts seeking to learn more about boating safety, navigation, and maintenance. Whether you're a seasoned boater or a novice just starting out, you're in the right spot to get the most out of your time on the water.

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