Taking the helm: seizing the wheel

A friend asked the other day what ‘being on watch’ meant. I talked about the looking out for ice, the rope pulling and, of course, taking the helm. She was astonished. ‘You actually steer the ship?’ I nodded, enjoying the moment, and remembering how astonishing it was.

The first glimpse of the helm, the wheel on the aft deck, was on boarding in Punta Arenas. I tingled with delight, running my hands across the wood, waiting for departure.

My first real stint under sail was en route to Deception Island, looking beautiful and cold in the setting sun. I wrote about it rapturously as we lay at anchor off Sewing Machine Needles rocks that night.

As the voyage progressed I became more relaxed, found it easier to judge the movement needed in the wheel depending on the sea conditions, our point of sail and the amount of canvas hoisted. Most of the time, we were given a course to sail, Ruud or Harko deciding on the best compass heading for the conditions. The binnacle compass stands in front of the wheel. The green and red balls are (I think) part of the magnetic balancing, painted port and starboard colours for fun. This great picture was taken by fellow voyage crew member Lynden.  Felix and Anthony are well muffled up but it’s already warmer than it was (no gloves) and we were on our way to Tristan de Cunha. The round post between the balls houses the binnacle compass.

Ant and Felix at the helm

But that’s not what these guys are looking at. Ahead of the binnacle is the raised roof of the great cabin, now Europa’s library, and on it sits the night compass. This is a digital readout of the boat’s heading, and in darkness is what you use to steer. Unless of course the rain mists over it or your glasses have steamed up till you can’t read that far. Then you may need to wipe everything down while someone with better vision takes over.

Inevitably more pictures get taken in calmer weather, but here are Pepe and Leen on the helm on a grey day with a big swell running. The photo was taken by storm-picture queen Yasmin.

Pepe and Leen on the helm of Europa by Yasmin

Being on the helm generally needs quite a bit of concentration. Even when Europa is well balanced, a swell might knock her off, the wind shifts a little. The ideal is to be within 5° of the instructed heading, with an occasional 10° swerve allowed. Get beyond that and fairly soon there will be someone on deck putting you right. Here are three of my pics of people concentrating hard: Sharryn with the long distance gaze of the ocean, and Greg looking relaxed in the sun. Clara and RobDan (with the headphones) were obviously deep in thought.

Sharon at the helm on Europa
Greg on the helm of Europa
Rob Dan and Clara at the helm of Europa

And sometimes it’s fun to fool about. The morning after the big storm off Africa, the moon was setting behind us as Mats and Lindsey were enjoying one of our last watches. (The sleeves of Mats’ robust fishing smock had taken a mighty beating on the voyage. When he visited me on Stavros Niarchos a couple of weeks ago, he had a shiny new one.) Lindsey was in two minds about the picture session. She is leaning on one the safety ropes rigged up for rough weather and Mats is clipped on. (You can see the same harnesses on Felix and Anthony in Lynden’s night picture too.)

Even fooling around and relieved, I never got blasé about the joy of helming. The fastest speed I clocked on the wheel was 10.8 knots, and the fastest of the trip was 11.2. At the speed, you’re practically surfing. At any speed, it is a total blast. If you get the chance, seize the helm with all your might.

Mats and Lindsey after the last storm on the helm of Europa
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One Comment

  1. Over eleven must have been a real blast! Our rudderpost began humming anywhere near 7 knots on our 35′ sloop and the trembling in the wheel was really exciting. I can’t imagine the feeling of power you’d get through the rudder on a big boat or ship.

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