When many people picture the bridge of a cruise ship, they imagine the captain standing behind a massive steering wheel. While it is true that some modern-day cruise ships do have a classic ship steering wheel, these are rarely used for anything outside of emergencies or during precise docking procedures.

The truth is most large-scale cruise ships in the modern era use a series of sophisticated navigation systems to control and plot the direction and course of the vessel. To help you gain a more in-depth understanding of how cruise ships navigate and change directions, we will explain everything you need to know about the ship steering wheel and the more current navigation systems used in favor of them.

We will also answer a few common questions about how a cruise ship is controlled. So, if you are ready to learn about the steering wheel on a ship, it’s time to jump in!

If you are picturing a large, wooden steering wheel at the center of a cruise ship’s bridge, you have a slightly dated misconception of how cruise ships are controlled. This is because modern-day cruise ships use radar, GPS, and sophisticated computer systems to control everything from the ship’s speed to its direction.

Many cruise ship bridges will still feature a steering wheel, but it is much smaller and more discreet than you might imagine. This steering gear is reserved for emergencies, such as a complete electronic navigation system failure.

Cruise Ship Steering Wheel (Photo Credit: nattapon supanawan / Shutterstock)

In terms of their physical appearance and size, these steering wheels have more in common with your vehicle’s steering wheel than with the massive wooden wheels you would see on a large sailing ship or pirate ship. Although small, this backup steering gear is connected to a hydraulic steering system that can move the cruise ship’s massive rudder if necessary.

The rudder of a ship is a large, perfectly flat surface located at the stern or rear of a ship. The rudder sits vertically behind the ship’s main propellers. It is controlled through the ship’s primary navigation systems, but it can also be connected to a small steering wheel in the ship’s bridge as a fail-safe in case the primary navigation systems fail.

Photo Credit: El Greco 1973 / Shutterstock

When the rudder moves, it redirects the water flow being ejected by the ship’s enormous and powerful propellers. This causes the entire ship to change direction.

For large ships, like full-sized cruise ships, the rudder is powered by a powerful hydraulic or electronic system. Since the rudder is responsible for controlling the direction that the ship is moving in, it is one of the most vital components of any ship. It also ensures the ship’s overall stability, even when it is not moving.

Since steering wheels on large cruise ships are considered secondary, or even emergency fallbacks, rather than primary directional control mechanisms, most navigate using other tools.

While most of the navigation is done electronically using sophisticated computer systems, the ship’s navigation officers will use levers and joysticks to make maneuvers and adjustments to the direction the ship is traveling in.

Overview of the Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: Chen Liang-Dao / Shutterstock)

This allows for far more precision than a traditional steering wheel, which is incredibly important when talking about a water vessel as large as a cruise ship and carrying so many passengers.

The computer systems that control most of the ship’s movements are connected to highly sensitive radar and GPS systems, as this ensures that the ship can navigate safely and efficiently.

The steering wheel of a ship can be referred to as the helm, or as the boat’s wheel. The “helm” is also a term sometimes used within the maritime world to refer to the entire control and steering apparatus of a ship, which is why you may hear expressions like “the captain is at the helm.”

While steering wheels used to be large, circular wheels with paddles and handles, in the cruise ship world, they are much less prominent. The fact they are not the primary steering mechanism on a modern-day cruise ship does not change the fact that the steering wheel of a ship can still be referred to as the helm.

As we discussed above, one of the primary purposes of the steering wheel on a modern-day cruise ship is to act as a fail-safe if the ship’s primary navigation systems and controls have failed.

Another reason a cruise ship’s navigation offers might be required to use the ship’s steering wheel is during docking procedures in extremely tight, high-traffic ports.

Photo Credit: donvictorio / Shutterstock

In these situations, the ship is often guided by pilot boats. The captain of the pilot boat could communicate a request for manual support to the cruise ship’s bridge.

Essentially, the steering wheel slightly adjusts the rudder, allowing the pilot boats to position the cruise ship with greater ease. This can be repeated when the cruise ship departs the port with the pilot boats’ aid.

While there are several members of the ship’s navigation crew that could man the steering wheel if they were required to do so, the primary responsibility belongs to the helmsman. 

Not only is the helmsman the crew member that would use the steering wheel if there was a need for it to be used, but they also control the joystick, lever, or another navigation mechanism that is being used to adjust the cruise ship’s heading and course.

Photo Credit: Philip Schubert / Shutterstock

A helmsman must train for many years since it is such an important position. They are typically under the direct supervision of the Officer of the Watch, one of the highest-ranking naval officers on a ship’s bridge.

Like a steering wheel in a small vessel, a cruise ship’s steering wheel is a relatively small circular wheel mounted on a pedestal or column. It is designed to be easily turned by the helmsman or whoever else has been tasked with the responsibility.

Few cruise ships have steering wheels that feature the paddles you might imagine when you think about a traditional wooden steering wheel for a sailing ship. While most are fully circular, some have a half-wheel design, which makes them even more discreet.

Most are made from metal, such as brass or steel, but they will feature a protective and gripped covering. While it is possible to see wooden steering wheels, it is considered a dated material due to its susceptibility to warping, so it is far less common.

The steering wheel of a cruise ship will be located on the ship’s bridge or in a dedicated wheelhouse with a clearer view. On almost every modern cruise ship, the bridge is located near the top of the ship, ensuring an unobstructed view of the water surrounding the ship.

While the exact location of the steering wheel within the bridge or wheelhouse can vary, they tend to be found near the middle of the bridge. The steering wheel will be near electronic displays, traditional compasses, and navigational equipment. This gives the helmsman as much information as needed to use the steering wheel correctly.

Photo Credit: agsaz / Shutterstock

Regardless of the exact positioning of the steering wheel, the main thing is ensuring that the helmsman has a clear view. Without a good view of the ship’s surroundings, navigating the cruise ship safely would be nearly impossible.

While the ship’s captain is the crew’s highest-ranking member and has the final say on major decisions, the ship’s navigation officers are responsible for driving a cruise ship.

While they rarely use a steering wheel to do so, the navigation officers work as a team to adjust the cruise ship’s course. With the number of officers involved in a navigation team can vary, mostly depending on the size of the cruise ship, the team will be made up of the following personnel:

The Officer of the Watch takes responsibility for safely navigating the ship during their watch, which tends to last for about six hours at a time.

Officer on the Bridge (Photo Credit: Lakeview Images / Shutterstock)

Their responsibilities include maintaining the ship’s course and speed and reacting to sudden changes, like unexpected weather, oncoming vessels, or other potential obstacles. They are high-ranking officers who play an integral role in ensuring the captain does not have to get involved in navigating the cruise ship.

Assistant Officers of the Watch are understudies to the acting Officer of the Watch. They can be responsible for monitoring speed and direction and ensuring that all navigation equipment functions as it should. While the Officer of the Watch is off their shift, the Assistant Officer of the Watch can be trusted to take over their duties until they return.

Quartermaster Lookouts are responsible for maintaining a visual watch of the cruise ship’s surroundings as it navigates the water. They visually inspect the horizon for any obstacles that could be in the path of the ship.

Quartermaster Lookouts can also be tasked with other duties, including keeping an eye on the ship’s navigational and depth charts to ensure that the ship follows a safe course.

As we discussed above, the ship’s Helmsman takes physical control of the navigational controls. Whether using a navigational joystick, a series of levers, monitoring a computer system, or even using a traditional steering wheel, they must have the skills and calmness required to take the helm.

Helm on the Cruise Ship Bridge (Photo Credit: d13 / Shutterstock)

Navigation Cadet is considered the most junior position in a navigation team. Essentially, these recruits are training to take on more important roles in the future, so they observe and perform basic tasks as instructed by the Officer of the Watch or the Assistant Officer of the Watch.

You might wonder why a modern ship uses such a small steering mechanism rather than the large, wooden ship wheel you see on vintage vessels. The explanation is relatively simple. A modern steering wheel uses an electro-hydraulic system to steer the vessel, which means you do not need to create any leverage with the wheel to control the rudder.

Bridge of a Vessel (Photo Credit: Trygve Finkelsen / Shutterstock)

Since very little effort is needed to turn the wheel, it does not have to be nearly as large or feature the paddled grips you would see on a traditional ship’s steering wheel. Instead, the helmsman’s comfort is prioritized so the steering mechanism can be small and ergonomically designed.

While many cruise ships still feature a steering wheel, they are not considered the primary means of controlling the ship’s direction and movements. Given the immense size and cost of a modern ship, not to mention the responsibility of looking after the thousands of passengers on board, cruise ship navigation is carefully controlled by electronic computer systems and other highly-advanced navigation systems.

Read Also: What Is the Helm of a Ship?

With that said, steering wheels still serve an essential function during emergencies and when pilot boats need manual assistance from the ship’s bridge.

If you want to know more about the intricate techniques used to control a cruise ship, we encourage you to read about the common methods of docking a cruise ship.

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