Understanding helm orders and rudder commands is one of the requirements in becoming a good helmsman.
Since a vessel’s organization may constitute different nationalities, the IMO standardized oral commands for delivering wheel orders.
If you plan on steering a ship, you must first practice them by day or night. Constant familiarization with helm orders will help you become a better helmsman.
More importantly, proper execution of rudder commands should not be limited to cadets and ratings. Deck Officers too must know them very well.
This is important in punctually identifying helmsman or Pilot mistake that may lead to accidents.
Standardizing Helm Orders
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) standardized wheel orders which is recommended in the industry. What we use today can be found in the book Standard Marine Communication Phrases (SMCP).
The phrases used in commanding rudder angles are the same throughout the industry.
Once you learn them on one ship, you can apply them unto your next vessel. Mastering them today means mastering them forever.
Helm Orders, Meaning And Execution
Steering wheel is the wheel that you control to turn the rudder.
I will interchangeably use steering wheel and rudder henceforth.
1. Midships, Rudder midships or Midships the wheel
These three orders are one and the same. It means that the rudder to be held in the fore and aft position.
You can do this by turning the steering wheel to zero position
2. Port / starboard five
Turn the rudder five degrees to port/ starboard as shown in the indicator.
3. Port / starboard ten
Turn the rudder ten degrees to port/ starboard as shown in the indicator.
4. Port / starboard fifteen
Turn the rudder fifteen degrees to port/ starboard as shown in the indicator.
5. Port / starboard twenty
Turn the rudder twenty degrees to port/ starboard as shown in the indicator.
6. Port / starboard twenty-five
Turn the rudder twenty-five degrees to port/ starboard as shown in the indicator.
7. Hard-a-port / starboard, hard to port / starboard or hard port / starboard
All three have the same meaning.
However, their execution may vary depending on the type of rudder the vessel has. You have to obtain this information to the helmsman you’re going to relieve. Otherwise, you can ask the OOW.
I was on a tanker ship using Becker rudder and the maximum rudder angle was 60 degrees on both sides.
8. Nothing to port/starboard
Avoid allowing the vessel’s head to go to port/starboard.
9. Meet her or Check her
One of the most confusing command but the most seldom used.
In SMCP, the definition only goes as far as this: Check the swing of the vessel´s head in a turn.
It doesn’t give context so lets elaborate below.
The helm order “meet her” is used when the ship is turning.
When the conning officer or pilot gives you this command, immediately check the ship’s heading and apply counter rudder to stop the vessel’s swing.
You don’t have to follow a particular course. Your heading is the one when the ship stops turning.
Response to the Pilot? Vessel’s heading now is …..
This is similar to the wheel order meet her.
Similarly, it is given when the vessel is swinging fast. But the order steady is most widely used when steering.
When the conning officer gives this command, you as the man on the wheel, must immediately Reduce the vessel’s swing as rapidly as possible!
However, its full execution is completed when the ship stops turning.
By this, you can now say to the pilot, “Steady now, Sir” or “Steady now, Mr. Pilot”.
11. Steady as she goes
The helm order steady and steady as she goes are given consecutively.
When the conning officer sees that the ship’s swing is greatly reduced, his next command would sometimes be “steady as she goes”.
As soon as he says this, steer a steady course on the compass heading indicated at the time of the order.
Here’s the typical scenario:
Pilot: Steady as she goes.
Helmsman: (*looks at the gyro compass and responds,) Steady as she goes 0-7-7.
Helmsman: Vessel steady on 0-7-7. Or he can simply say, Vessel steady now on 0-7-7.
Pilot: Very well.
12. Ease to five / ten / fifteen / twenty
Reduce amount of rudder to 5°/ 10°/ 15°/ 20° and hold.
For example, if your current rudder angle is at port thirty and the pilot orders you to ease to ten, immediately put the rudder angle to port ten
Here’s the typical scenario
Pilot: Starboard twenty.
Helmsman: Starboard twenty… Starboard twenty now, sir.
Pilot: Ease to five.
Helmsman: Ease to five… Starboard five now, sir.
Pilot: Very well
13. Keep the buoy/ mark/ beacon/ lighthouse… on port side / starboard side/ ahead
Self explanatory. Keep the target on the side the pilot tells you.
Sometimes, he does not give order on any course but these markers.
Before doing so however, he will make sure which marker he is referring to.
Your response: Leading lights dead ahead now, Mr. Pilot.
Your response: Keep the buoy on port side, copy.
Steering by Compass
Not all the times helm orders are given.
Sometimes, the conning officer commands you to steer a specific course. Its up to how on how to best execute it.
Here are some examples.
14. Starboard, steer zero-eight-two
Bring the ship’s heading to zero eight two (082°).
Your response: Starboard, steer zero-eight-two.
*(After completing the order)
Helmsman: Starboard, steer zero-eight-two now, sir.
Other response variation may include:
Helmsman: Zero-eight-two now, sir.
Helmsman: Steering/ Heading zero-eight-two now, sir.
Conning Officer: Very well, thank you.
Other Helm Commands
Some conning officers, instead of looking at the rudder angle indicator, will ask you something.
Perhaps they are using the binoculars to try to avoid something and wants to double check the previous command.
Or they could be trying to get your attention.
15. What’s your course/ heading/ rudder?
The conning officer is asking about the course/ heading or rudder angle.
Your response: Course/ heading is zero-nine-seven.
Helmsman: Rudder is starboard five, sir.
16. Mind your helm/ rudder
In the most basic term, it says “Pay attention”!
The conning officer wants you to focus on your steering instead of being distracted with something else.
He usually says this if he notices that you are not paying attention to your duties on the wheel.
17. Report to me if you have no steering H3
Steaming at low speed affects the steering of the ship. Since the pilot is aware of this, he usually tells you to report if you have no steering.
If it comes to this situation and you report it to him, he usually gives the engine a “kick” just to turn the vessel.
Report back to him if the vessel starts turning or steering is back by saying so.
18. Finish with the wheel
Lastly, when the maneuvering is finished, ship is alongside and mooring ropes are fast, its time for the conning officer to let you go of this duty.
The proper way of saying this is, “Finish with the wheel.”
Your response would be, “Finish with the wheel, thank you.”
Or if the rudder is not in amidships (its usually in midship position before letting go), here’s a typical response.
Helmsman: Finish with the wheel, rudder is still on port ten.
The conning officer would then tell you to put into midships before letting you go.
Steering the ship doesn’t only happens during canal transit. It is also used in open sea during bad weather or when there is heavy traffic.
Shipmasters also use these helm orders during anchoring since they mostly prefer hand steering.
May the winds be in your favor.