10 Common Mistakes of a Helmsman & How to Avoid Them

by | Last updated May 9, 2024 | Jobs and Tips, Navigation, Shipboard Operations | 0 comments

A Helmsman is a very important member of the bridge team.

Even with today’s modern technology, Captains still prefer helmsmen for steering the ship during channeling and pilotage.

With this inclination, the room for human error remains which is basically 75% to 96% of all marine accidents.

While some of these errors look very simple and preventable, being in that moment proves to be challenging.

Common Helmsman Mistakes While Steering and How to Avoid Them

When you are on the steering wheel, you basically hold the lives of the crew on that ship.

It’s normal to make minor errors while steering as long as they are manageable.

Unfortunately, mistakes at the helm if left unchecked take longer to undo. When discovered, there may not be enough time to save the vessel!

Girl on the steering wheel as the helmsman of a yacht.
Helmswoman on a yacht

I too made some errors while steering the ship. Luckily, our bridge team was working effectively which prevented accidents from happening.

I learned a lot while behind the wheel and I keep remembering those lessons even until now. Sometimes, I share them with curious seafarers hungry for learning on board.

This time, I’m sharing it with you.

Here are some common mistakes of a helmsman and how to avoid them.

1. Wrong execution

There are only a few orders when it comes to steering the ship.

The helm basically has two movements namely port and starboard. Other commands are a variation of the two.

But for some reason, a helmsman still commits errors. He puts the helm to the starboard side when the rudder command is to port.

And he keeps on adding a starboard rudder when the Captain orders more port rudder.

Sounds familiar?

This kind of mistake has resulted in accidents like grounding as reported by the Nautical Institute.


All of us are prone to mistakes especially if stress and fatigue are just around the corner.

Wrong helm execution can be primarily prevented or corrected earlier with the help of the bridge team.

Specifically, it is the OOW’s responsibility to double-check the helmsman if he’s executing the rudder command properly.

But if you, as a helmsman, want to avoid that mistake as much as you can, here are some useful tricks that you can apply.

First, before going to the bridge, train your mind to repeatedly remember which way is the port and starboard side.

In my case, I associate my left hand with the port side and my right hand with the starboard while holding the wheel.

When the Master or Pilot gives a starboard rudder command, I look into my right hand to reinforce that execution.

I find this very useful especially on short voyages and long pilotage.

2. Following the Pilot instead of the Captain

Sometimes, the Captain is not really satisfied with the Pilot’s orders and the person caught in the crossfire is the helmsman.

I experienced this many times over and learned to deal with it.

Once, the Pilot gave a Starboard 5 and I followed him correctly.

Our Captain, who was sitting beside the steering wheel, secretly added more rudder.

When the Pilot noticed that the rate of turn suddenly increased and the rudder at 10 degrees to starboard, he looked at me suspiciously.

I looked at him also and ran my eyeballs repeatedly to Captain.

Integrated equipment and control system in the bridge showing various panels and the helm.


Always follow the Captain.

Even when the two gives conflicting command, stick with what the Master of your ship is ordering you to do.

As long as you execute the orders correctly, you’re good to go.

And keep this in mind.

The Captain is still and will always be the person in charge. He is responsible for the vessel even when there is a Pilot.

Hence, he retains the status as the overall commander of the ship.

The Pilot is hired only as an assistant, adviser, and guide.

3. Not repeating the command after execution

This is basic steering seamanship.

However, I noticed that some helmsmen made this mistake. I asked them why and they said that they were in this area before.

The Pilot told them not to repeat the command once executed. He remembered this and carried it with him.

Others said they were with that Pilot years or months ago and told them the same. However, situations could change so it’s better to be on the safe side.


Even if you are sailing in the same area and that same pilot told you before not to repeat the command after executing it, it’s still best to do otherwise.

But if he tells you that again, then you may oblige with the Captain’s consent.

Normally, we repeat the command twice- first when the command is given and after we successfully execute it.

It’s called closed-loop communication.

This is a recommended good practice in the industry especially if everyone has different nationalities.

When accidents happen, everything on the bridge is recorded including your voice. This leads to our next mistake.

4. Speaking in a soft, small voice

Through the course of my sea life, I saw the effects between those who steer with soft small responses and those who speak loudly and clearly.

Now this doesn’t mean that we should shout out loud inside the bridge.

In my experience, I tend to be more alert if I respond lively with the command. The opposite happens if my voice seems tired.


Relaxing your voice is fine when there is light traffic and the vessel has enough sea room.

But when the traffic is high and your vessel has less water to navigate, keeping a clear voice gives a sense of confidence.

Don’t be afraid if you hear the command wrongly and repeat it loudly enough for everyone to hear.

The master or pilot will immediately correct you without second thought thus avoiding further problems.

The pilot will also improve his diction so you can understand him better.

5. Loss of Concentration

Steering the ship requires concentration that may last for hours. As time goes by, you as the helmsman, could get distracted by so many things.

You won’t initially notice it but you could be thinking about your family while steering.

I had an experience where the helmsman was making chit-chats with the officer and the pilot. They stopped when he could not properly maintain his course.

Forgetting the course and wrong execution are also the results of loss of concentration.

A Passenger vessel passing ahead of a tanker ship while small yachts cruise around the area.
Crossing vessel.


To counter this, focus on steering the ship. This won’t be boring at all.

You can learn to “feel” the vessel’s movement as it transits along the channel. Observing the ship’s response at certain rudder angles could also be fun.

See, it’s not boring at all.

Jumping between the sights along the coast and back to steering is something I do from time to time.

You can even listen and obtain information while the captain and pilot converse.

As long as you don’t indulge too much in the distractions but focus more on being a helmsman, you will find balance.

You won’t get easily tired while steering the ship safely.

6. Micro-sleeping while steering

Sleeping while steering the ship?

This happened to me on a time-chartered ship in Europe. I was on board a handy-sized tanker vessel and we had rockstar voyages.

With 6 to 12-hour navigation, 3 to 8-hour pilotage, 6-hour port watch between shifts, and less than 24-hour cargo operation, our rest hours went overboard.

This was a time when regulations were not so strict about rest hours.

It sounds ridiculous but true.

The moment I woke up, I was surprised that I slept while steering. But the ship was still on course!

It felt like closing my eyes for 30 minutes but actually, it was just a few 15 to 60 seconds!


As a helmsman, this incident is very serious.

My solution is to get as much sleep as possible. If not, take some coffee before steering the ship. It also helps not to sit down while on the wheel.

Mind and body connection is important so it’s better to stand upright.

This position activates your mind. Remember, it’s very difficult to sleep when standing with a straight back.

If everything fails, inform the OOW about your state. The captain will surely understand as he knows the kind of voyage you are in.

There are even instances where the captain anchored the ship for six hours after shifting to so many terminals. He allowed his crew to sleep before proceeding to the next berth.

Sailor simulates helmsman watch in the bridge during a fast cruise aboard USS Wasp.
Source: Official U.S. Navy Page.

7. Becoming the Lookout while steering

When you are the helmsman steering the vessel, your main job is to correctly execute the given commands and duly maintain them.

That job alone can be very challenging requiring focus. This is also the reason why we have lookouts dedicated to performing lookout duties.

Sometimes, you see your fellow helmsman reporting navigational hazards while steering.

This may seem okay but as soon as something unpleasant happens, you as the person behind the wheel, will be held as a contributor for the accident.


Focus on driving the ship.

If you want to get the attention of Master or Pilot, you can do so by saying, “Heading is still (given course), Mr. Pilot.

Sometimes, you can tell them out directly but concisely.

Remember that talking too much while steering loses your concentration. Additionally, it creates unnecessary confusion.

This alone is something you should avoid.

8. Unfamiliar with the rudder and rudder commands

Most ship’s hard rudder angles are at 30 to 35 degrees on the port and starboard side.

However, there are vessels that can reach up to 65-degree hard rudder.

The helmsman should know these limitations including the type of rudder the ship is equipped with.

Meanwhile, rudder commands are standardized. Keeping yourself familiar with them results in safer transits.


When signing on the ship, ask about this part especially if you will be the next helmsman.

Include the type of rudder your vessel is equipped with and its limitations. Some merchant ships have secrets too when steering. You should ask about that.

Aside from that, familiarize yourself with the helm orders in the book Standard Marine Communication Phrases.

10. Relying on a single Indicator

There are many indicators a helmsman can use to assist him in his steering.

We have indicators for the rate of turn (ROT), rudder angle, wind, current, speed, and draft. Even the forward mast is useful at times!

However, some helmsmen only use a few of them, the most common one being the rudder angle indicator.

Others lose their confidence when their favorite ROT indicator can not be found on their new vessel.


As a helmsman, it is important to utilize all the available tools that could make your steering safer.

You will have an advanced idea of how much rudder to give when stopping the ship’s turn in shallow waters versus deep waters.

In a vessel constrained by her draft, you will know not to give huge rudder angles as this may result in the ship rolling. Boxed-shaped vessels with small UKC may touch the bottom if she rolls.

Even if there is no rate of turn visible, you will still be able to get a good grasp of her turn if you incorporate the forward mast into your technique.

Helmsman Behind the Wheel of a Ship Using a Joystick for Steering
Steering the ship.

10. Improper helmsman changeover

I was on a vessel where a helmsman changeover happened very stealthily. It was a surprise for the pilot that there was a new guy on the wheel!

Since I was new to that company, they were also surprised when I properly handed out the wheel to the next guy.


What is a proper wheel handover?

The relieving helmsman should first observe the current helmsman steering the ship.

He should ask questions on the current, usual commands of the pilot, how much is hard rudder, and if he speaks good English.

Lastly, he should know the course being steered.

When he is satisfied, he can take over the wheel.

The handover usually goes like this:

Current Helmsman: Change man on the wheel, heading 0-7-0.

(Relieving helmsman takes the helm followed by saying…)

Relieving Helmsman: New man on the wheel, heading 0-7-0.

After that, the old helmsman should first observe if the relieving helmsman can manage the rudder well.

He can also give insights from what he experienced while steering.

Lastly, he should leave the bridge when the new helmsman has the hang of it, or if the captain sends him down earlier.

Have a safe steering and

May the winds be in your favor.



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