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The quote beneath doesn't explain why the wheel in the navigating bridge wasn't the main one. If the bridge's wheel suffices for 'frequent changes of course or maneuvering', why not make the bridge wheel the main one?

The wheelhouse's wheel feels redundant and foolish: why situate crew and helmsman where they can see forward more poorly?

On the centerline of the bridge, facing the windows, was a helm with the ship’s wheel and a binnacle housing a steering compass immediately forward of it. This wheel was not what could be considered the main ship’s wheel, as it was only used when the ship was subject to frequent changes of course or maneuvering, as would be done near land, in a narrow channel, in port or when docking. When in use it was connected via an overhead mechanical linkage to the main steering mechanism located further aft in the wheelhouse. (This linkage is visible in the photograph of Olympic’s bridge taken by Revd Browne.) Once the ship was at sea under a normal steaming watch, the wheel on the bridge had its linkage disconnected, and the ship was then steered from inside the wheelhouse. If you were standing in front of the bridge wheel and turned to face aft, you would be facing the wheelhouse and be able to see inside it through large windows on its forward side. Those within would have a clear view of everything on the bridge and out the bridge windows facing forward. Inside the wheelhouse was located the main ship’s wheel, and immediately forward of it another binnacle housing a second steering compass. The wheel at this location was connected to a steering mechanism called a Telemotor.

The 1997 movie Titanic portrays these two wheels.

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  • This discussion may be relevant.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 9:21
  • Virtually every ship I've ever seen has two or more helms. One for maximum visibility, one compromising visibility with shelter from bad weather. One behind armor, for warships...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 8:17

3 Answers 3


While on the open sea, the helmsman follows the course, as ordered by the officer of the deck (OOD). Before radar, lookouts were used to identify passing ships, and obstacles, with the information relayed to the OOD, who then made decisions, and passed orders on to the engine room, and the helmsman.

When entering a harbor, a harbor pilot would take the place of the OOD, and would often take the job of helmsman as well; the pilot would then need a wheel on the bridge.

I've stood watch as helmsman, and the job was to follow orders, and mind the compass, which in modern times is a gyrocompass, or other inertial navigation system.

  • I understand most of your experience to be on a wooden ship, but how important would restricting/managing magnetic deviation be in having the main wheel in a wheelhouse instead of forward of it? My sailing experience is all in dinghys. within sight of land. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 14:26
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    @PieterGeerkens: I also served on the USCG ice breaker Mackinaw, where the helm was on the bridge. When I was helmsman on the Mackinaw, my eyes were on the gyrorepeater, and my attention was on the OOD. Magnetic deviation is handled by the navigator, when converting the course to magnetic compass bearing. The Titanic used a magnetic compass: encyclopedia-titanica.org/true-course.html Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 18:40

The link mentioned by Steve Bird is relevant, but it is also important to recall that the North Atlantic is renowned for the ferocity of its storms and heavy seas. When your view is changing from this enter image description here to this enter image description here every few seconds, the temperature is -20C with a 40 knot wind blowing salt spray across the foredeck, the helmsman tended to perform much more reliably when under shelter.

Another video of weathering a North Atlantic storm.

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    in a storm, your heading must be tempered by the direction of the waves and the wind speed, else the ship is liable to loss of steerage. These corrections come from the OOD. On modern ships, they are both under cover. Commented Jan 28, 2019 at 18:44

The assumption that the person at the helm needs to see things is based on the assumption that the person at the helm makes decisions about which way the ship should turn.

However, the person who turns the helm is usually following the orders of an officer who has a good view from a different position on the ship and/or other sources of information about the situation and decides how the ship should be steered.

See the answers to this question about a different type of ship in a different age:

How did the helmsman know what he was sailing towards with a big mast in his face?1

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