1 Answer 1


Modern vessels of all sizes have "mechanically assisted" steering (for the automobilephiles: power steering) as well as numerous visual aids, such as cameras, to give the helmsman line of sight where needed.

Sailboats, both historical and other, not only lacked mechanically assisted steering but also had other considerations for wheel design:

  • When close hauled on an upwind course sailboats heel considerably; and velocity made good upwind is enhanced by keeping the boat level against the heeling moment. Moving all possible crew, including the helmsman, towards the upwind rail helps considerably with reducing the vessel's heel. A large wheel allows the helmsman to steer further from the boat's centreline.

  • Leverage. In rough weather wind and waves will exert very considerable force against the rudder. Giving the helmsman every possible advantage against this will never again be deprecated by anyone who has experienced being over a leeshore in a storm. In calmer weather it reduces physical fatigue on the helmsman, aiding mental alertness.

  • Fine motor control. An expert helmsman enhances boat speed by rocking the boat subtly with the wind and waves. A larger wheel provides better control over this rocking motion, allowing the boat to move faster. (Aside: In dinghies this is achieved through a tiller extension and ensuring no backlash in the connection between tiller and extension.)

In contrast, modern steering stations have key electronics mounted by the wheel; so manufacturers have reduced wheel size to discourage wandering by the helmsman.

  • 2
    You actually know something about the subject. That's cheating
    – Ne Mo
    Jan 15 at 21:32
  • Are modern ship's wheels even physically connected at all? I'd expect, at least for large ships, that it would be a purely electronic "drive by wire" system.
    – Mark
    Jan 20 at 1:52

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