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The many terms specific to boating can cause a lot of confusion, especially for someone new to boating. That being said, what is the helm on a boat?
There are countless terms that are really only used when talking about boats and boating. The words used to describe the different parts of a boat can be especially confusing as there’s a unique and specific name for just about every part of the boat.
So then, what is the helm on a boat? In short, the helm of a boat is the space from which the boat is steered. The steering wheel as well as many other navigational instruments can be found at the helm making it one of, if not the most important part of any boat.
The ship’s helm is where the skipper and/or captain, will spend most of their time on board. However, being that the helm is such an important part of any boat, knowing more about it can be useful to any boating enthusiast, even if you’re not a skipper. So why is it called the helm and do they look the same on every boat? Besides the steering wheel, what else is normally located at the helm of a boat?
Through my many years of experience boating, I’ve spent countless hours at the helm of a variety of different boats, so I can assure you that all of the information here is coming from all of my personal experience and knowledge that I’ve collected along the way.
What Is The Helm Of A Boat?
There are lots of terms you need to learn when you first start getting into boating. The different parts of the boat are some of the most important to learn and the helm is one of the most important parts of the boat altogether.
The helm is essentially where the boat is steered from and it is where the skipper, or driver of the boat, will spend most of their time. It contains all of the necessary navigational equipment that is needed to properly operate the boat, like GPS, sonar, and radio in addition to the steering wheel, which is oftentimes also referred to as the helm, and throttle.
Depending on the type of boat, the helm can look drastically different. Small boats don’t need much in terms of electronic navigation systems and so they might just have a wheel and throttle. Sailboats, on the other hand, don’t have an engine so, unlike most other types of boats, there’s no throttle to be found at the helm of these vessels.
The smallest of boats may not even have a wheel, but instead, have a tiller to steer the boat. A tiller is basically just a lever that is attached to the rudder at the back of the boat. Using the tiller the skipper can turn the boat by directly influencing the rudder instead of using a conventional steering wheel. In this case, the tiller by itself would be the helm of the boat. No matter how large or small, every boat that can be steered has a helm.
Where Does The Term “Helm” Come From?
Now that you know what the helm of a boat is, you may be wondering where the word “helm” comes from. You may have a few ideas about this yourself. For instance, when I first started learning about boats, I originally thought of the kind of helm a medieval knight would wear on his head. After all, the helm could be considered the head of the boat as it is where the whole vessel is controlled from. However, despite how clever I thought I was, this is definitely not where the word comes from.
The word “helm” actually comes from an Old English word meaning “rudder”. As we know, the rudder is the physical mechanism used to turn the boat which can be controlled through the tiller or steering wheel.
Though the word simply meant rudder, as time went on and boats continued to evolve, the word began to evolve as well. Instead of just meaning rudder, it came to be associated with the entire mechanism used to steer the boat as well as the surrounding area from which it is controlled, including all other necessary controls and navigation systems.
What Makes A Good Helm?
The setup of the helm can vary drastically depending on the size and type of boat, but in general, there are a few things to look for in a good helm.
Most importantly, the level of visibility available from the helm is incredibly important. Ideally, you don’t want to just be able to see forward. You’ll want to be able to see in every direction so that you can, not only see where the boat is going but also be aware of what is behind you can to the sides so that you avoid any potential dangers.
The layout of all the instruments used to control the boat and gain relevant navigational information should be designed intelligently and allow the skipper to control the boat and access any information they need from one position. Having even just one instrument in an awkward place can cause constant annoyance or, in the worst case, be detrimental to the boat and crew.
The helm should also be comfortable. No one wants to be stuck sitting on an uncomfortable seat for long hours at a time, so making sure that the helm is a comfortable place to operate the boat from is essential for any good boat.
Other important things that make a helm good include whether or not the helm has good ventilation and climate control to keep the skipper warm or cool enough, as well as, whether the helm has sufficient storage for anything the skipper or anyone else needs to have close by. Ensuring that the helm has adequate deck access to allow the crew to move around efficiently, or for the skipper if they plan to sail shorthanded, is another important thing that any good helm wil have.