Nowadays, I understand its done differently. The ship’s helmsman sits in a comfortable chair and steers the ship with a joystick. Its a fly-by-wire thing, a gentle touch of the hand, a flick of the wrist, and the message is sent to the steering gear and the computer sets the rudders and the ship turns. I’m not familiar with the full story, for all I know, the helmsman can just tell the computer what course he wants with a keypad and software brings the ship onto a new course, then a quick flip of a toggle engages the autopilot and the ship steers itself. In my day there was a direct physical connection between the helmsman’s hands and the two great rudders, one behind each screw. No, it did not require massive physical strength to turn the wheel, hydraulics did that, but the helmsman steered the ship directly. You could feel the sea under your feet, like the driver of a 1952 D Jag could feel the pavement through the wheel with his hands. No power steering for that baby. And there was no autopilot, either. Merchantmen had those, so they wouldn’t have to give a seaman overtime pay to do it. In the Navy, the helm was manned as soon as the ship was underway, and round the clock while she was steaming. Of course, ships are diesel electric now, or jet fuel-powered turbine, I don’t think they use steam any more.
The helmsman’s station was in the center of the bridge, about halfway between the door to the passageway and the bridge windows that overlooked the bow, foc’sle and the forward gun mount. The helmsman stood on a rubber pad so he would not lose his footing in a seaway. A couple of convenient handles (decorated with fancy ropework) were provided to help him keep his footing in a blow, or when the ship was maneuvering at speed. On my ship, the helmsman could actually see out the windows from where he stood, but if the ship was on an even keel he could only see the sky. I suppose a really tall helmsman could probably see the horizon, but I was too short. Not that it mattered. I didn’t have to see where I was going. The ship was conned by the officers, they gave me rudder angles, commands and compass courses, my job was to look at the helm pedestal before me and the instruments on it. The wheel itself was a solid, highly polished disk of brass, a yard or more in diameter, with a fancy leather cover (just like that Jaguar!) that was good for the grip, even when your hands were sweaty or there was water on the bridge. The wheel’s axis ran fore-and-aft parallel with the lubber’s line, right down the centerline of the ship, through the pedestal that rose up from the deck. The vertical radius of the wheel was perpendicular to the deck, the horizontal one parallel to it.. The helmsman stood on the rubber mat facing forward, both hands on the wheel at the two and ten o’clock positions. On the pedestal, facing the helmsman, were the compasses, a gyro repeater connected to the ship’s master gyro, and a switch that could be used to switch to the backup gyro. There was also a repeater for the magnetic compass, located aloft, as far as possible from the magnetic interference of the steel and electrical cables of the ship. Dominating the entire display was the rudder angle indicator, a dial with two pointers, a long white one showing where the rudder was actually pointing, and a short red one indicating where the helmsman was directing the rudder to point. The rudders were massive, after turning the wheel, it took time for the hydraulics to move the rudders and the white rudder angle pointer to catch up with the red one. Dim night lights allowed these to be read in the dark without disturbing anyone’s night vision. The compass repeaters and rudder angle indicators were almost a foot across, this console was not cluttered with unnecessary displays and controls, only just what was needed to steer the ship.
It was the Officer of the Deck (OD) who directed the helmsman to steer. He could give you a new course directly (“Helmsman, come right to zero five zero.”) or give a rudder command (“Helmsman, right standard (or full) rudder, come to course three two five.”) Or he could simply give a rudder command and as the ship swung around he could tell you where to stop. (“Meet her at…” For minor course adjustments, the “right” and “left” were left off. Incidentally, “right” and “left”, not “starboard” and “port” were used in rudder commands. Its too easy to get confused in a critical situation…The helmsman responded to orders in a specific way, so the OD knew his order was heard and understood; “Right to zero five zero, Aye, sir.” or , “left to three two five, Aye, sir.” I don’t know if they even say “Aye”, any more.
It takes time for the ship to respond, start to turn (or stop turning) after the rudder command is executed. And that time depends on the speed of the ship and the state of the seas. Traveling at slow speeds in a following sea was particularly difficult, especially if the waves were high, or coming from two directions. It required almost athletic dexterity from the man at the wheel. A good helmsman executed his orders smartly, quickly and sharply, with a minimum of correction and overshoot and carrying the minimum amount of rudder (too much slows the ship down). With a little practice, and after experiencing the sea state on that watch, a good helmsman could actually anticipate when the ship would fall off course due to the forces acting on the hull, and preemptively compensate for them. It was possible to sense these pressures and shifts before they actually manifested themselves. You could feel it in your body as your legs contacted the deck. Remember, the nature of the steering machinery was such that you could move the rudders, but they could not communicate to you the forces acting on them–you had to feel the ship and guess what it was going to do next, and respond with just enough to counteract it. And it was different on every watch.
If you were on deck when the helm watch changed, you could always tell because the ship’s wake wound around like a snake until the helmsman got the hang of it and settled down. Afterwards, it trailed behind the ship in a perfectly straight line, off to the edge of the earth. At night, you could even see it glowing in the water if there was phosphorescence on the sea. Below decks, you could tell the watch had changed too, particularly in bad weather, because the ride would get rough until the new man at the wheel got his act together. The crew always had a laugh at the new man’s struggles; “Oh, oh. ER’s got helm watch again, stand by for heavy rolls.” Actually doing this required skill, of course, you could feel the ship start to respond as it came off a wave, or slammed into another one, or rolled in a sea. The trick was to give her just enough rudder to compensate for the forces trying to drive you off course–but not too much, every time the rudder moved off the centerline the ship slowed and heeled. And there was always that delay, and the temptation to over-correct. Meanwhile, the man at the wheel never looked up, his eyes were locked on the compass card as it rolled under the ship.
It was fun to watch the helmsman, too, his feet wide apart on the non-skid, gradually tweaking the wheel one way or another in anticipation of the seas. When a command came, he might spin the wheel rapidly, braking it suddenly with the heel of his palm, then slowly backing it off so the ship came to its new course, using just enough counter-rudder to damp the swing with only a minimum of roll. If conditions were really difficult and the task required great skill and precision, say during refueling or UNREP operations, the Captain always called a Gunner’s Mate Second Class who was recognized by all as the ship’s best helmsman. Especially if you knew the job well, the man was always a delight to watch.
All the qualified helmsmen (as a QM, I was one) could do this, but some of us were better at it than others. And as a rated Quartermaster, I was also qualified to instruct and certify new helmsmen, as well as supervise their performance. There was a tiny ship’s wheel under my crow,(the rating badge sewn on my left sleeve), the symbol of the Quartermaster.