When To Change From Ship’s Autopilot to Manual Steering

by | Last updated May 27, 2024 | Navigation | 0 comments

Transitioning from automatic steering to manual steering is a decision made based on a keen understanding of the ship’s location and the current situation. 

Automatic steering, often called autopilot, is a computerized navigation system that automatically maneuvers a ship at a predetermined course. It can be a valuable aid on long voyages.

Manual steering, also called hand steering, is when an actual person controls the ship’s rudder movements through the helm.

The steering system is an extremely important navigation tool. Companies typically have specific lists of situations that guide seafarers when to use which.

When to change from Autopilot to Hand Steering

The steering mode shall be changed over from ship’s autopilot to manual when:  

  • The vessel is within 2 nautical miles of the nearest coast or navigational hazard.  
  • The ship is navigating in a traffic separation scheme.
  • Sailing through congested waters.
  • Entering or leaving ports.
  • During adverse weather conditions.
  • Navigating in a Safety fairway.  
  • Navigating in an anchorage.  
  • Approaching an anchorage area for anchoring.
  • The ship is anchored (hand steering mode and the rudder is set to midships).
  • Cruising in a narrow channel.  
  • The sea depth is less than 150% of the ship’s maximum draft. 
  • In any emergency situation. 
  • As part of the scheduled drill.
  • The Pilot is on board.
  • For all maneuvers to avoid traffic. 
  • Sailing in reduced or restricted visibility.  
  • The vessel responds poorly. 
  • Automatic steering system fails or malfunctions.
  • Chased by pirates.
  • Once every watch to test its functionality.
  • Before entering port as part of the arrival checklist.
  • The ship is moored.
  • The Master considers it necessary. 

In some cases, ships may prefer automatic to manual steering, even under the above situations.

For example, I have sailed with captains and pilots who agree to use the autopilot system during canal, channel transit, or even when entering or leaving port.

I also experienced navigating in restricted visibility with the automatic steering or while transiting in a traffic separation scheme.

Helmsman Behind the Wheel of a Ship Using a Joystick for Steering
An Able Seaman “driving” the ship.

When to change from Hand to Automatic Steering

Conversely, deck officers and the master can switch to autopilot from manual steering during these conditions.

1. The ship is at open sea.

2. Weather and visibility are good.

3. There is light traffic.

4. Long voyages.

5. After passing through navigational hazards.

6. When the crew is under fatigue.

7. Ship maintains a constant course and speed over an extended period.

8. The Master considers it necessary. 

Automatic steering relieves the crew of the mundane but tedious task of manually driving the ship for days. This prevents the helmsman from making steering mistakes, especially on narrow channels.

The autopilot system also saves fuel by efficiently using small rudder angles to maintain the vessel’s heading.

A view of the ship's deck and the sea as seen from inside the bridge with all the navigational tools including the rate of turn indicator.

How to change from autopilot to hand steering and vice versa

Steps in Changing from Autopilot to Hand Steering

1. Make sure the helmsman is standing by on the steering, has observed the autopilot system, and has been briefed about the currents acting upon the ship.

2. Turn the knob in the steering console from automatic to manual.

3. Make sure the helmsman acknowledges the changeover.

4. Observe if the rudder reacts to the helmsman’s rudder angles.

5. Record the changeover on the deck log book.

In some models, you may have to press buttons instead of switching knobs.

Steps in Changing from Hand Steering to Autopilot

1. Inform the helmsman that you will change to the autopilot system.

2. Set the rudder angle to midships after bringing the ship to the desired course.

3. Turn the knob in the steering console from manual steering to automatic.

4. Make sure the helmsman acknowledges the changeover.

5. As the helmsman, observe for a few minutes that the autopilot is applying rudder angles to stay on course.

6. Record the changeover on the deck log book.

In some models, you may have to press buttons instead of switching knobs.

Selector knob for the autopilot system.

The changeover between the two systems is simple. Yet confusion can occur from time to time, which could lead to near misses or even accidents.

Many autopilot steering systems are built using the same principles. Thus, procedures for changing from ship’s autopilot to manual steering modes are similar.

May the winds be in your favor.



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *