What Is The Steering Wheel On A Ship Called?

What Is The Steering Wheel On A Ship Called? | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

May 26, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A ship wheel is commonly referred to as the ship’s wheel, boat’s wheel, or the helm.
  • The helm or steering wheel is always located on the starboard side towards the stern.
  • The first ship wheel was invented in the early 1700s.

Boats and ships are complicated machines with lots of moving parts, and this includes the steering system. So what is the steering wheel called on a ship?

A ship wheel is called the helm, ship’s wheel, or boat’s wheel. Typically, the term helm is accurate for most boats because the steering wheel controls the ship, and the helm is defined as any associated equipment for steering a ship or boat.

I've spent countless hours behind the 'helm'—that's what the steering wheel on a ship is commonly called. Throughout my life, I've navigated a multitude of seas and oceans, steering many different types of ships. This guide tackles this question and explains everything you need to know.


Table of contents

What Is a Ship Wheel Called On A Ship? Wheel Of a Ship Defined

It’s common to hear the average boater refer to the ship wheel as the helm. Technically, this is incorrect, and the wheel itself is known as the ship’s wheel or boat steering wheel.

The boat wheel does make up a part of the helm. It usually consists of multiple components, including a steering gear system and a steering wheel. This is even more relevant on modern ships today too.

Things are much different today than you’d see in older times, like an old pirate ship steering wheel. It’s easier to refer to the boat steering wheel name as the helm because it is technically correct and most used in the boating and sailing community.

Is The Steering Wheel On a Boat The Helm?

The helm is actually the whole area where the ship or boat is controlled. In this area, you'll find not just the steering wheel but also controls for the throttle, autopilots, and other essential elements.

The helm is connected to the rudder using tiller chains or tiller lines. When you turn the wheel, it adjusts the tiller lines, eventually turning the rudder.

Now, even though most people use the term "helm" for the steering wheel on a boat, it's also possible to hear it being called a ship's wheel. This term is more specific and highlights the wheel's unique features and design on larger vessels.

In a nutshell, the steering wheel on modern boats can be called the helm, but the term itself has a broader meaning, referring to the entire area where the vessel is controlled.

From my perspective, knowing the distinction between these two terms provides deeper insight into the fascinating world of maritime navigation.

History & Evolution Of The Boat Steering Wheel

The earliest ship steering mechanisms were far simpler. In ancient maritime history, boats and ships were steered using a steering oar or a simple rudder fixed on the ship's stern.

However, as ships increased in size, these methods became impractical. The invention of the ship's wheel in the 18th century revolutionized maritime navigation, providing an efficient and reliable means of controlling larger ships.

Today, in the era of modern, technologically advanced vessels, the traditional ship's wheel may not always be present. Many contemporary ships, such as cruise liners and cargo ships, are now steered using computer-controlled and remote control systems.

Despite this, the iconic ship's wheel continues to be a symbol of nautical tradition, revered and respected in maritime culture.

Anatomy of a Ship's Steering Wheel

A ship's steering wheel, often synonymously but inaccurately referred to as the helm, is a marvel of both design and function. Let’s review what makes up the wheel on a ship and how it works.

Steering Wheel Vs. Tiller

When I first started learning about ships, I often got confused between steering wheels and tillers. A tiller is a long horizontal bar with a tiller chain, typically made of wood or metal, that helps control the boat's rudder.

The tiller is directly attached to the rudder head. On the other hand, a ship's steering wheel, also known as the helm, is a circular device used to control the ship's rudder and navigate the vessel.

Key Components

Now, let me share the key components of a typical ship's steering wheel: wooden spokes, a central nave, and an axle. The spokes are usually six to ten in number, with eight being the most common.

They are attached to the central circular nave, where a square hole called the "drive side" allows the axle to pass through.

Traditionally, the ship's steering wheel, also known as the boat wheel, is connected to the ship's rudder through a wooden spindle. The spindle is housed inside a barrel or drum, supported by two pedestals on a wooden platform.

Ship steering wheels can vary in design and materials. They are curved wooden segments that make up each spoke, adding strength and flexibility to the steering wheel.

Where Is The Ship Steering Wheel Located?

The steering wheel was located on the ship's right side or the 'starboard' side. This seems to be a common placement since the beginning of time when ships and boats were first made.

The steering wheel is connected to the rudder, which directly affects the vessel's direction. On larger ships, the helm, which houses the steering wheel, is usually placed near the vessel's stern for easy connection to the rudder.

However, on small boats, it can be located in various positions, with some even having their helm closer to the center or bow of the boat. I also discovered that boat steering wheels are part of what's known as the helm.

The helm typically connects to a mechanical, electric, or hydraulic system that assists in turning the boat. Outboard motors, inboard motors, and personal watercraft all have unique steering systems that can be connected to the helm.

What Does A Ship Wheel Look Like?

A ship's wheel or helm is a large circular object, usually made from wood, often with brass or other metal details. It's traditionally designed with six to eight spokes radiating from a central hub.

The ends of the spokes typically culminate in handles to provide a grip for the helmsman. Intricate carvings or etchings often adorn the wheel, adding to its nautical aesthetic. The wheel is mounted on a pedestal which contains the mechanism to turn the ship's rudder.

It's a symbol of navigational control and an iconic image associated with sailing, instantly recognizable across cultures and generations.

What Is The Steering Wheel On A Ship Called?
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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