Why do we need a helmsman (wheelman)?

Hi, I’m gonna be starting the course to become a mariner (deck officer) this September and while I was looking up various stuffs about ships on youtube I noticed that on most vessels the captain orders the helmsman to steer the ship.

Why is there a need for this? Can’t the captain just control the vessel like how aviators do? Is it because the ship is too big and the captain constantly has to move around the bridge (when the ship’s inside the harbor)?

Edit: Another question: Why do we need the engineer? Do ships not have an automated engine control system like they do on airplanes, trucks, etc?



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4 thoughts on “Why do we need a helmsman (wheelman)?

  • July 19, 2020 at 10:43 am
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    So to compare the big unlimited tonnage ships to airplanes think of the helmsman as just a better auto pilot. While this is changing many ships don’t have sophisticated enough autopilots to maneuver in close quarters. It’s all a trust thing, if the autopilot does something wonky in pilotage, like makes a turn, by the time you realize what is going on it can be too late. So the helmsman follows the order of the master and the pilot. In an airplane, you set up the approach while the auto pilot is still on, this let’s you manage the airplane, configure the engine, study the approach plate, etc. Ships are the same way, the captain is trying to manage the big picture, if he can just tell the helmsman “steer 270” it reduces his workload so that he can think about the big picture, because there are a lot of other things going on.

    Usually as you come alongside the dock the captain does the steering himself because there isn’t as much to manage. Same with an airplane, the pilot will hand fly the last part of the approach, the engines are set, the flaps are set, gear is down, all you have to do is and the airplane. A good approach leads to a good docking/landing.

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  • July 19, 2020 at 10:43 am
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    You’ll know why as soon as you steer a ship for the first time/ take the con. It’s way too much to focus on both things as once.

    As far as your engineer question, a ships machinery requires constant maintenance and repair. Think of them as mechanics, except so much more. Again, you’ll see why a ship needs engineers as soon as you set foot in an engine room.

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  • July 19, 2020 at 10:43 am
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    As an officer you need to free yourself from as much stuff as possible so you can keep the overview of the situation. Keep a good look out, plot the position, check the heading and course, other traffic, radio traffic and communication, etc. Without having to do everything yourself and get swamped.

    Advantages over autopilot is that a helmsman responds faster to changing currents. You can yell new courses from anywhere in stead of a fixed position. And you can give rudder orders in stead of courses.

    Engineers are needed when things break and general maintenance. Most modern ships can sail for over 24/48 hours without maintenance. But eventually filters need replacing at the very least. And then there’s periodic maintenance. Airplanes are taken out of service regularly and have very clean fuels. Ships have to keep going and use dirty fuels with sediment and water in it.

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  • July 19, 2020 at 10:43 am
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    In my experience on a FFG, especially when we get close to the pier the captian and pilot are on the bridge wings. During normal underway the officer on deck needs to constantly look over radars and mind the status of the ship and cant be locked to a console.

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