Working on the helm of a tall ship

View from the helm of a tall ship

View from the helm of a tall ship

More on sailing on a tall ship

One of the two principal tasks when on Watch is to take control of The Helm (the other is the look-out, to make sure you don’t hit something – or something hits you). The Helm is the driving seat (although you stand up) of the vessel and is welcomed – or not – very much depending upon the weather.

(So I don’t get accused of teaching grannies how to suck eggs I will assume, for the benefit of this post, that the reader knows absolutely nothing about the workings of a tall ship – very much as I did before getting on board 2 months ago.)

The first thing to stress is that The Helm is at the back of the ship which is like driving from the boot if you’re a car driver. Also you can’t see where you’re going, there’s the wheelhouse and the sails in the way. And anyway, at least for a huge chuck of this voyage it didn’t matter that you couldn’t see where you were heading as all that could be seen from the front was sea, and more sea. It’s for the look-out to make sure that you don’t hit anything.

The helm itself is a big wheel (about 4 foot in diameter) that is as far as it is possible to be at the stern (the back or the blunt end) of the vessel. Go any further back and you’re in the water. This wheel is not protected in any way from the elements. That was OK when we were in the Caribbean, when ‘the elements’ were basically the blazing sun, but it becomes a different matter when heading further north into an uncertain late European winter/early Spring.

That has meant that since we started the northward/eastward journey we have encountered more rain and the wind can be ‘bracing’ as they say. In fact, one thing that has been surprising, to me and others, is the way air temperatures have remained fairly constant and relatively high. To take a random date (when I wrote a first draft of this post) the 11th March, both the day and night-time temperatures were around the 13°C level – and at the time we were heading towards the Bay of Biscay. So it’s not necessarily the air temperature falling that makes it cold on The Helm, it’s the wind chill that you get either from the following wind that fills the sails or the wind created by the vessel itself when under power.

There is a helm under cover. That’s in the wheelhouse but that’s just there to taunt you as you fight against the gale force winds (which we had on four or five occasions) and the face stinging rain that normally accompanies the occasional squalls that we encountered with increased frequency. This wheel does work (it was tested when we were shown what would happen in the event of the wheel being put out of action for any reason) but it has never been touched in anger, to the best of my knowledge.

Inside the wheelhouse of a tall ship

Inside the wheelhouse

As this is a training ship the policy to keep The Helm outside is probably all about building character, but personally I’d rather have no character and be warm.

At the same time, to be fair, a proper, professional helmsman/woman on a sailing tall ship such as this would need to be able to see and hear how the sails are reacting to the wind. They can remain stable for a long time but the changes of wind speed and direction can happen quite quickly at times, again especially as we head north into more uncertain climatic conditions.

So that sets the picture.

What does being on The Helm entail?

Basically obeying the orders of the Officer of the Watch and looking at 4 dials that give you the information you need to understand what is happening.

I’ve forgotten to mention that actual helm of the vessel is powered by hydraulics, it would be impossible for one person to move the rudder on such a ship without powered assistance of some kind. The speed at which the rudder reacts depends upon a number of factors; the speed of the vessel at the time; whether it is under power or under sail; sea conditions, i.e., how rough it might be (a big wave can push you off course by an amazingly high level of degrees); as well as the ability of The Helm operator.

So the 4 dials to watch, from left to right, are: the wind speed indicator; the wind direction indicator; the dial that shows the position of the rudder; and the compass heading. These are illuminated at night and are all replicated inside the wheelhouse so that the Duty Officer (who doesn’t have to stand out in the elements) can see what is happening in the outside world as well. If the weather conditions are not bad it’s quite easy to take in this information. If you hit a squall and it lasts for a while then the driving rain makes reading the dials slightly more difficult.

In general, being at The helm is fun. Here you are basically controlling this 114 foot, 250 tonne vessel, on the high seas. In a sailing ship all the crew does is prevent the vessel from going where it wants to go so The Helm is where that all happens. For example, if the ship naturally wants to go towards the port but your desired direction is to the starboard this means there is a constant ‘fight’ between the two forces.

And the physical experience is dependent upon the weather conditions. In the Caribbean the seas were quite gentle, as were the winds, and it was relatively easy to follow the heading given. But when we started getting into the heavier and more aggressive open waters of the Atlantic it became more of a battle, and you kn