Best 7 Tips on How to Steer a Ship & Become a Better Helmsman

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

If you want to learn how to steer a ship, ask the people on board. They are more than ready to help you. 

They may tell you something about what they’re doing to keep the vessel steady and execute the steering commands effectively. As you listen, it might seem straightforward, making you feel well-prepared.

However, theory is good but experience is something else. Being the person on the wheel teaches you many things.

Being a helmsman can be very challenging. It’s different when you are driving a car or a motorcycle.

Cars’ reactions are instantaneous when applying the wheel. With enough driving experience, you can calculate your moves on the road with other vehicles.

Steering a vessel is different. There are many factors involved and the “road” is unique. Its property varies from time to time.

A helmsman who has been on the wheel for some time can attest to that.

Here are some tips on how to steer a ship.

1. Practice. Practice. Practice

In everything that we strive to be better at, practice makes perfect- or nearly perfect.

In fact, a crew of different ranks on board started with a practice called training.

So if you want to steer a ship, you have to practice first. Lots of hours.

Initially, you will be allowed to man the helm in open waters with zero to light traffic and a responsible officer beside you.

This is level 1, the easy part. It’s perfect for beginners, especially the deck cadets.

Once you get the hang of it, the difficulty increases. Of course, who likes to be stuck on the first level?

Steer during different conditions

Your driving practice will not be limited to daylight and in good weather. This is not how the sea works. Ships navigate in all weather conditions including heavy storms at sea.

Thus, your practice includes varying ship types and sea states.

You will steer the vessel at night time, in low visibility, strong currents, and bad weather. Steering at 12 knots is different than a ship at 6 knots.

Loaded and ballast conditions? See the difference yourself.

But this is good for building up confidence.

Once you gain experience over time, you will start to show your skills. And the Officers or veteran helmsman will notice that.

A helmsman wearing blue coverall steering a vessel while the Pilot and Ship Master give the commands during a maneuvering operation.

2. Focus on steering the vessel

While you are on the wheel, focus is your friend.

Focusing your energy on steering a vessel involves getting your attention to lots of details.

The sea and ship condition is one thing but you must also be attentive to something equally important.

And that’s the Pilot’s next command. Therefore, you must be familiar with the standard helm orders.

Aside from that, you have to be aware of different indicators inside the bridge such as rudder angle indicator, rate of turn indicator, speed log, and under-keel clearance since they are readily available for reference.

All in your head

See? If you steer a ship, there are so many things to consider!

Knowing them gives you an overview of the forces acting on the ship. Additionally, these tools make your steering more precise so you can steer the vessel effectively.

All are important while steering.

Currents, wind forces, speed of the ship, her draft, and rudder response are some factors you must understand.

How these things affect your vessel while steering will be clearly visible if you focus enough.

Coupled with the knowledge of wheel orders, driving a vessel will be easier.

3. Learn and unlearn from your colleagues

I always try to learn from my colleagues.

My experience is limited and I know that a few of them have driven several types of vessels with various sizes and different rudder systems.

With their experience, I can learn something in advance that I may use later on.

I can even copy some of their techniques, refine them, and incorporate them into my own style!

Here’s an example.

Copying an experienced helmsman while he steers the vessel

When I was an Ordinary Seaman (OS), I would go to the bridge earlier for my watch so I could learn from the Able Seafarer who was on the wheel.

I am well aware that my experience is limited on a few tanker sizes even though I have steered many times already.

While he was steering the vessel, I noticed he would give huge rudder angles. I was interested in that part since I’m hesitant to do that, especially in a loaded condition.

The next scenario surprised me.

He managed to stop the vessel’s swing like a boss almost instantly. The Pilot was just cool with it.

A tanker transiting along the Istanbul Strait with the magnificent views around and a bridge up ahead.
One good thing that happens when you steer a ship is the view that you see outside. Here is a tanker transiting along the Istanbul Strait.

4. Play scenarios in your head

In order to quickly learn how to steer a ship like a pro, it’s very helpful to play steering scenarios in your head.

We know that there are times we make mistakes while at the wheel. Some of them are glaring while others are minor ones easily forgotten.

But if you truly want to be a better helmsman, you should exert extra effort into it.

“Shadow Steering”

As part of their training, boxing fighters use a technique called “shadow boxing” where they fight an imaginary opponent.

You can apply similar to this but with the wheel of course.

Imagine yourself steering the vessel.

Feel the steering wheel in your hand. Hear the harbor Pilot’s orders. Watch the vessel turn as you apply rudder angles.

Play different scenarios and watch your response to them. This will help you become better the next time you steer a ship.

5. Review your steering techniques and improve them

Another method to improve your steering technique is to review them.

Sometimes, we make mistakes while steering. But we don’t dig into the details as to why.

Going over our own steering practices may help us discover some flaws in it. We may see something to improve them.

Calling upon all your past experiences and studying them may help us remember useful lessons buried in the past.

These same lessons could have prevented us from making those little mistakes while steering the vessel.

6. Share your experience

One of the best ways to learn onboard is to teach the next generations.

And this is true for steering.

As helmsmen, we have our own understanding of how the ship works and the best way to steer them. This is true for me, too.

But teaching these things to the younger generations opened me up to another knowledge that I never even saw.

Sometimes, they ask “out-of-the-box” questions and these get me thinking a lot. It provided me with new insights I could not find on my own.

If you want to become a better helmsman and steer a vessel safely, teach the young ones the ways of the wheel.

A helmsman wearing a facemask while steering a general cargo vessel.
Steering the ship with a facemask

7. Rinse and repeat

Repetition is the mother of learning.

Now that you have the process of how to become a better helmsman, the next method is to repeat them from time to time.

But of course, these steering tips are not limited to this post. I’m only sharing my ways of doing it.

Rinsing means refining them to be better.

But you don’t have to do this all the time. As you go into your career, a little visit to these lists will help you a lot.

Hope you find your knowledge to safely steer a ship.

May the winds be in your favor.



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