Chapter IV.

HELM. Neither the master nor mates of a merchant vessel ever take the helm. The proper helmsmen are the able and ordinary seamen. Sometimes the carpenter, sailmaker, &c.. if they are seamen, are put at the helm; also the boys, in light winds, for practice. Each watch steers the ship in its turn, and the watch on deck must supply the helmsman, even when all hands are called. Each man stands at the helm two hours, which is called his trick. Thus, there are two tricks in a watch. Sometimes, in very cold weather, the tricks are reduced to one hour; and, if the ship steers badly, in a gale of wind, two men are sent to the wheel at once. In this case, the man who stands on the weather side of the wheel is the responsible helmsman, the man at the lee wheel merely assisting him by heaving the wheel when necessary.

The men in the watch usually arrange their tricks among themselves, the officers being satisfied if there is always a man ready to take the wheel at the proper time. In steering, the helmsman stands on the weather side of a wheel and on the lee side of a tiller. But when steering by tiller-ropes with no hitch round the tiller-head, or with a tackle, as in a heavy gale and bad sea, when it is necessary to ease the helm a good deal, it is better to stand up to windward and steer by the parts of the tackle or tiller-ropes.

In relieving the wheel, the man should come aft on the lee side of the quarter-deck, (as indeed he always should unless his duty lies to windward,) go to the wheel behind the helmsman and take hold of the spokes, so as to have the wheel in command when the other lets go. Before letting go, the helmsman should give the course to the man that relieves him in a an audible voice, and the new man should repeat it aloud just as it was given, so as to make it sure that he has heard correctly. This is especially necessary, since the points and half points are so much alike that a mistake easily be made. It is the duty of the officer of the watch to be present when the wheel is relieved, in order to see that the course is correctly reported and understood; which is another reason why the course should be spoken by both in a loud tome. It is unseamanlike and reprehensible to answer, "Ay, ay!" or, "I understand," or the like, instead of repeating the course.

If a vessel is sailing close-hauled and does not lay her course, the order is, "Full and by!" which means, by the wind, yet all full. If a vessel lays her course, the order then is her course, as N.W. by W., E. by S., and the like.

When a man is at the wheel, he has nothing else to attend to but steering the ship, and no conversation should be allowed with him. If he wishes to be relieved during his trick, it should not be done without the permission of the officer, and the same form of giving and repeating the course should be gone through, though he is to be absent from the helm but a minute or two.

If an order is given to the man at the wheel as to his steering, he should always repeat the order, distinctly, that the officer may be sure he is understood. For instance, if the order is a new course, or, "Keep her off a point!" "Luff a little!" "Ease her!" "Meet her!" or the like, the man should answer by repeating the course or the order, as, "Luff a little, sir," "Meet her, sir," &c., and should not answer, "Ay, ay, sir!" or simply execute the order as he understands it. This practice of repeating every, even the most minute order at the wheel, is well understood among seamen, and a failure or refusal to do so is an offence sometimes leading to disagreeable results.

If, when the watch is out and the other watch has been called, all hands are detained for any purpose, as, to reef a topsail, to set studdingsails, or the like, the helm should not be relieved until the work is done and the watch ready to go below.

Dana: The Seaman's Friend (1845), p 169-171.

Transcribed by Lars Bruzelius

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Copyright © 1998 Lars Bruzelius.