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 knew you had been working if you were constantly moving the wheel to keep on course. The hydraulics make it possible for a single person to control the rudder but it’s not the same sort of powered steering that you get on an articulated lorry.

Sometimes you might be told to steer not on the compass heading but by reading the wind direction. Here you guideline is that you must try and keep within a certain part of the wind direction indicator ‘clock’ – it’s divided up as a clock would be into 12 units and your guideline might be to keep with 25 and 20 to the hour (not the way it should be described, that involves degrees, but the easiest way for novices to understand). Failure to do so could mean that the wind gets on the ‘wrong’ side of a sail and the consequences can possibly be quite dire. The breaking of the boom on the spanker on the TransAtlantic crossing leg of the journey was probably due to this backing of the wind. It’s from this situation that you get the saying ‘sailing too close to the wind’.

From what I understand anticipation of what will happen is the key to working successfully on a tall ship. If you leave your adjustment until it starts to show then you have left it too late as the vessel takes some time to understand what it should do, this is even more so in rough weather when the rudder might be spending some time out of the water. This might make it difficult for experienced yacht sailors as those vessels respond much more quickly. And you won’t make many friends below decks if you are constantly following instead of leading at The Helm as the ship will tend to rock back and forth making any objects not nailed down fly around at random.

One thing I’ve found interesting about being on The Helm is your impression of speed. If it is at night and the wind is behind you, blowing relatively strong (i.e., 20 – 30 knots) you think you’re racing along even if you’re not. If you’re sailing during the day, with the winds negligible and therefore under power, you get the impression you are barely moving when you might be doing 5-6 knots, which isn’t a bad speed for such a vessel.

And as to speeds they have varied, as you might expect, on such a journey. With little wind and the engines on we can expect about 6 knots. But when we had the most favourable winds in mid-Atlantic we were clocking up more than 11 knots for short periods of time. That meant it was quite uncomfortable down below but we certainly clocked the miles then and that helped us to do the crossing from Bermuda to The Azores in less than 14 days.

Since we leaving the warmth of the Caribbean being on Watch, and especially at The Helm for any length of time, a wind proof jacket is vital. As mentioned above the air temperatures have been fairly, and surprisingly, high and constant but the wind chill is what gets to you.

Although I haven’t been too successful in capturing it on film another aspect of being on The Helm in bad weather is that you are totally oblivious to the walls of water that build up behind you. The vessel has been very adept at dealing with these types of conditions but the way the vessel rises on the crests of waves and then shoots down into the troughs makes for an unforgettable picture in your mind of the power of the ocean.

Under normal conditions you wouldn’t be on The Helm for more than about 30 minutes. In conditions which are in any way challenging you need to concentrate and that would be lost if you tried to stay on too long, especially for non-professionals. This is even more the case during a night Watch. The red compass heading dial becomes quite mesmerising as it ticks away virtually every second. You try and follow the course given but with modern equipment you are trying to do what would have been impossible in the past. Before modern electronics The Helm would have followed the general course as well as they could but it would then have been corrected over a period of hours rather than a period of seconds.

But it’s not just a matter of standing and occasionally turning the wheel. If you hit either rough weather or you have a favourable wind which will tend to make the ship list to one side you have to move to maintain your centre of gravity at such a point that you can remain standing. This means you have to bend your legs to compensate for the listing and this would be an acceptable exercise regime for Premier footballers. And although you have hydraulics assisting the wheel it still needs effort to turn that wheel, especially if a quick correction is called for, and your arms and back feel the strain after a difficult Watch.

Wheelhouse of a tall ship at night

Wheelhouse at night

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A typical night at sea on a tall ship?

Tall ship masts at night

Tall ship masts at night

More on sailing on a tall ship

There’s probably no such thing as a typical night at sea, especially on a sailing tall ship, but here is an attempt to re-create the atmosphere on one night at the beginning of February, on the stretch from the Caribbean islands to Bermuda.

The southern end of a storm that had been dumping snow (and causing chaos) on the eastern seaboard of the US was to affect us for the best part of 36 hours, the first 24 being the worse easing slightly after that. This meant rough seas, a big swell (up to 4 metres at one time), squally showers (that were sometimes short and intense, other times prolonged) and battling against winds that wanted to push us south as we wanted to go north.

As is always the case the worse weather was to hit us during the night, when you can’t see what is happening and people are already weakened due to lack of sleep because of the heavy seas. (But this has to put into perspective. We weren’t battling for 40 days to get around Cape Horn as did the Bounty – before the famous mutiny – and we had all the amenities which the original sailing ships lacked, things like an engine and electricity to make life more bearable.)

Sailing on a tall ship at night is different in so many ways from during the daytime. Heavy seas are ‘doable’ when you can see what is happening. The same lurch forward at night can throw you into the dark unknown (where chances of survival are nil). Your attitude towards distance changes, psychologically. You can sit or stand at the same place at night as in the day but the distance between you and the space before you are thrown into the abyss of the raging sea reduces with the light levels.

The structure of the ship also changes. Heavy seas meant that although we were travelling on the ship’s engine (there is a deadline for getting to Bermuda) there was still some sail. I’ve been told that this helps to increase the stability of the vessel by keeping a higher centre of gravity. The few sails that are up, the spanker at the stern and the gaff and the staysail at the bow, increase the impression of height of the skeletal main mast, which reaches 108 feet from the deck below. The dark outline of these bare bones becomes more impressive against a dark sky (this was the night of the New Moon so all we had was starlight).

A sailing ship under power tends to plough into the sea (so it seems) and with the heavy swell there was plenty of that during the night. This, in its own way, creates a fascinating show. All vessels at night/under power have to show a port (red) and starboard (green) light and as the bow dives deep into the water (not what is desired as it brings the progress of the vessel to a halt) the foam takes on a red tint on one side and an eerie green on the other. For in the darkness all that can be seen is the foam that is created by the presence of the ship, all the white horses further out being effectively invisible. Lights from the portholes on the main deck adding their own particular sense of the unreal if there are still people up and about – although that night people out of their cabins not ‘on watch’ were few and far between, either trying to sleep or trying not to throw up.

This ship is never quiet, something I didn’t think about before. As we are under power there is the obvious noise of the engine but what is even more invasive is the noise of the ventilation system that attempts to bring the temperature of the engine room down to something that is slightly less than tropical. The engine being at the stern of the ship so is the ventilation system and the outlet is through the structure of the wheelhouse, which is where you stand on watch.

But the sound that is very reminiscent of the old sailing ships is that of the ship’s bell. This is located in front of the wheelhouse and the only time it sounds is when the ship’s bow ploughs into the sea. Not a warning, it comes after the event, but a mournful sound as the structure resents such mistreatment. Too many tolls of the bell signify an uncomfortable day/night and not what you want to hear. Here the question is not for whom but why the bell tolls.

The combination of bad weather, a dark night and lack of sleep (or at best disturbed sleep patterns) lead to hallucinations for those looking out at sea. All that can be really made out in the darkness are anomalies but after a few hours of staring out and seeing nothing but the darkness the brain starts to see what isn’t there, or misinterprets what is. Phantom ships appear and then just as quickly disappear. Added to that is the fact of there being so little shipping along this particular part of the Atlantic, not really being on any of the main shipping lines. Soon you start to doubt your own eyes and question if a light is really there. On this ‘typical’ night only one ship of any description came into view.

But even though the night was windy and the weather generally erratic (with a weather front passing through towards the early hours) there was still an opportunity for observing the night sky. This was the night of the New Moon and for the short time it was in view, just after sunset, the lack of light pollution meant that as well as the crescent of light being reflected from the sun the whole of the moon’s shape could clearly be seen.

If I don’t take this opportunity to get to know some of the constellations of the northern hemisphere I won’t get a better. One of the problems is that there are too many stars out there. In some ways the major constellations that are visible even in light polluted areas are easier to make out as all the less bright stars are effectively invisible. But the hours of looking out into the darkness has already provided an impression of the relative position of the major star structures. In this there has been one surprise and that is the opportunity to see, in full, the Southern Cross. As the days go by, no doubt, it will fall from view but at the moment it’s visible in the latter part of the night.

Another thing you learn NOT to do on a sailing ship like this is to move, or to move unnecessarily. Standing still in any sea conditions is doable. Perhaps not easy but you won’t fall over. Start to move and you walk as if you were a drunk baby taking its first steps. And ships are hard and if you are going to hit anything it will always be the hardest corner causing the most pain. Within a couple of days you find bruises which would normally be impossible to induce on land. You also learn NOT to forget anything if you are on watch. No ‘senior moments’ here of going to a place and not remembering why. Anyone with experience on a sailing ship, with no stabilisation whatsoever, is that the minimum of walking is the aim. This is especially so in the dark of a moonless night.

The one thing for certain is that there will be plenty of time to do all these things. Whatever work there might be on a sailing ship it tends to be needed at certain times, with urgency being part of the equation if bad weather arrives unexpectedly. The rest of the time is a matter of waiting for going on watch or sleeping. The expected length of this voyage increases all the time and I have no idea when we will reach the UK so projects will have to be devised to fill the time to come.

More on sailing on a tall ship

Sailing on a Tall Ship for the first time

Tall ship under sail in the Caribbean

Tall ship under sail in the Caribbean

More on sailing on a tall ship

First impressions of what life is like on a tall ship, for those who have limited or no experience at all of being on a sailing ship – or many other ships at all, apart from the Mersey Ferry.

Going up the masts

Was always going to be a daunting experience but at the same time the expectation was more of a problem than the reality. Modern day sailors who climb in Tall Ships at least are doing it by choice, but at the same time there still remains a risk, even though now you use harnesses and support wires which mean, unless you are very unlucky, all that you will lose if you fall is your dignity and not your life.

It’s just like climbing a very big ladder and as long as you maintain the basic principle of having three points in contact you should be OK. However, matters do take on a slightly different light when you climb when at sea with the rolling of the ship being an added factor. But this is generally more psychological than real as long as you are fixed you shouldn’t be any more at risk than if the ship was in dock.

What does become a problem is when you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. If you have a task in hand, do it and then head down again. This idea of playing around up top is a luxury that is only allowed to a relative few. Even those professionals who now work on some of these huge luxury cruise sailing ships who have to go aloft often would get down as soon as possible, I’m sure.

Getting used to the motion

So far there has been little problem in getting to grips with the motion on board. That’s not least because we have been sailing in the Caribbean in summer for the last couple of weeks or so. That’s not to say it never gets rough here.

There is quite a lot of time when there may not be a great deal to do so you tend to spend a lot of time just looking out at sea. Even when on watch the vast majority of the time is as it says, on watch, on the look out for other shipping. And looking at the sea itself.

Doing so you understand how the terms ‘ploughing’ through the water and ‘boiling’ to describe the foam that you leave behind in your wake.

There was one period of about twelve hours when we were under sail and going against the wind where the ship was bucking with the bow trying to turn the vessel into a submarine. This had the ship over at an angle of 20 or so degrees to port (that’s towards the left if you are looking towards the sharp end at the front).

But when the vessel is moving like that it’s a physical effort to take even a few steps. And it’s important to remember that – if you don’t you are soon reminded – that the surfaces on a ship are always very hard and it hurts when skin and bone comes into contact with metal. Also you realise how heavy the bulk head doors are when their weight is against you.

But it also has the effect of making you tensing the knees to deal with this, so it should be a benefit for the next project of crossing a small northern European country after crossing a major ocean.

How a ship works

There’s no way in the time I’m on this ship, even though it will probably be close on two months, that I will have little more than a general understanding of how a tall ship works.

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive piece of equipment and you can see how it has evolved over the centuries. Basic techniques have been refined and new technology has made a difference which early sailors would have killed for. However, most of the tasks involve ropes and muscle power and getting to know the best way to use whatever energy you have is part of the game. Knowing when to pull the correct rope, or more importantly when to let it go, is what getting the sails up and down quickly and smoothly is what it’s all about.

And being on the helm is fun. It’s a bit like driving someone else’s extra-large artic lorry. You can’t see exactly where you’re going and take instructions from the navigator. But trying to get a feel for things, how the wind affects your ability to steer and how to keep the wind in the sails and not to let them flap uselessly is where the real skill comes in to it, and that’s quite a way for me at the moment.


This, fortunately, hasn’t been an issue for me so far. There have been a few casualties, sea-sickness being one of those things that affects different people in different ways. However, the test is yet to come so there might be more to say on that the next time I get to add a post to the blog.

Conclusion – for now!

I did have a ‘why am I doing this’ moment the second time I had to get ready for the 12.00 to 04.00 watch. The first time was difficult but wasn’t so bad the second time. Haven’t really had one of those moments since although now looking forward to moving off from St Lucia. Only came to the Caribbean to meet the ship and so didn’t really do any research into the islands in any meaningful manner. That means I didn’t have the information to fill the time here and spent too much time drinking the awful lager beer or the rot gut super strength rum. From tomorrow (Saturday) on the ship will be dry for the next 10 days or so until we make land on Bermuda.

Attitude might be different then.

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