Did Smith or the officers ever steer

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I recall that in the 1996 miniseries, Captain Smith is shown steering the ship when the two main characters come up to visit.

Did Smith or the officers ever steer the ship? I know the 1996 miniseries isn't a great resource for historical fact, so I thought I'd ask.


Sean C. Corenki

I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that task was performed exclusively by the Quartermaster. Regards, Sean
As a general rule, Sean is correct. The actual hands on working of the wheel is something the helmsman/quartermaster would have done. There may well be some exceptions to this...and I'll invite David Haisman to speak to this since he understands British merchent navy practice from first hand experience...but in order to effectively and safely conn the ship, the guy giving the orders has to be able to see where the ship is going and where he intends to take it.

Not possible to do from within the confines of the wheelhouse.
Thanks for the feedback, I had always assumed that steering was left exclusively to the quartermasters, since that was what they were hired to do.

Although I obviously know not to use the flawed 1996 miniseries as a historical reference, the scene of E.J. steering aroused the question in my mind.
Except in the most dire emergency:

No certificated British merchant navy deck officer, let alone master, would be seen dead (!) steering a ship.

One has AB's, secunnys and QM's for that purpose.


David Haisman

It is rare indeed for a Deck Officer to take the wheel although coastal pilots will take the wheel in some instances. These people are certificated officers and navigators, many ex mercantile marine, taking up positions with the Trinity House Pilotage service.
This usually applies to those ports where local knowledge is essential to carry out certain manouevers under tricky tidal and swashway conditions.
The Shoreham Pilot always took the wheel when we entered that port although it is a fairly straight forward pilotage.
Apparently he liked to ''keep his hand in'' and also ''earn his corn '' as he sometimes put it.

David H
Thanks to David and Noel for their insights on this.
As an afterthought and just to drive home my point:

All MN apprentices/cadets acquire an official 'steering certificate' during their training.

Expecting them to steer a ship later in their careers is tantamount to asking them to soogie the awning spars!

Pilots I can understand, but it's unusual and it's a trade-off. The channel may indeed be tricky for the crew helmsman but a strange ship may well be trickier for a pilot who elects to steer.

If he puts her aground or comes into collision the resulting court case could be interesting. Any precedents?

I've a few retired Trinity House pilots around here. I'll canvass their opinion and let you know.


David Haisman


Some of what you say is correct although when taking my steering certificate, dated 24/2/54 it stated,
'' Being a vessel of gross tonnage of 100 tons or more other than a fishing boat for the duration of 10 hours or more '' (Apart from periods of instruction ) elsewhere.
Like AB's, pilots would have the general ''feel'' of a vessel before entering harbour, much the same as an AB or QM when taking up their first ''trick'' on the wheel of joining a ship for the first time.
Like relieving QMs, pilots always ask the master when joining a ship about the vessels capabilities for helm and engine room movements and are trained to take their decisions on how to handle each particular vessel within a very short period.
They wouldn't be in the job if they didn't.
On tankers and cargo ships in my experience, the officer of the watch has taken the wheel on the occasion from the QM in order for them to carry out a certain task whilst the ''farmer'' of the watch has been elsewhere deployed.
Your piloting friends may well come up with their own stories but it wouldn't alter the fact that pilots do take the wheel as do ships officers, albeit on rare occasions.
I also recall the pilot taking the wheel briefly on a skin boat on the bend in the river at Tiko, West Africa and during the approaches to an anchorage in Golfito, Costa Rica.
Whoever is on the wheel during mishap, the ''Old Man'' will always take the blame regardless, as you and your friends will appreciate.

David H
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