Hazy helm history – 4000 BCE to 1700 CE

Knowledge of the earliest methods for guiding vessels on water is either nonexistent or shadowy at best. Meager glimpses into the subject have come from artistic details in marine scenes from Egyptian burial chamber murals, Chinese rice paper watercolors, Grecian pottery and Roman bath tile mosaics, or somewhat more reliably from underwater examinations of ancient shipwrecks.

We do know that somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 years ago, watercraft of reed construction began appearing on Egypt’s Nile, powered by oars and later by solitary sails. A steering oar (or sometimes two) was used to direct a vessel’s course and consisted of a flat piece of wood attached to a sturdy wooden shaft or pole, and lashed to the side of a vessel’s stern. Later, Greek and Roman vessels used similar oared steering.

While boatbuilding technology advanced steadily during the next few thousand years, the humble steering oar remained virtually unchanged, even into the early Viking era of the 10th century. The Vikings called the Nordic version of the steering oar a styribord, or steering board. (Incidentally, the Viking steering oar was mounted on the right side of the stern — the styribord side — a relative of the English nautical term starboard.)

As ship size grew and forces acting on steering oars increased, an additional piece of wood (a long bar or handle) was fastened near the top of the steering oar shaft. This handle, the forerunner of the tiller, could be swung horizontally to provide leverage advantage to ease steering loads for the helmsman. Bigger craft required a longer handle so that more than one man might be brought to bear to keep the vessel under control when conditions deteriorated. In really heavy weather the steering oar might spend a good deal of time out of the water, resulting in loss of steering control.

About the time King Richard I was setting sail to begin his Middle Eastern military adventures (1190 ACE), some bright Teutonic shipwright living on the shores of the Baltic was building a traditional local vessel known as a cog — traditional except for some unique steering modifications. The builder had eliminated the steering oar’s limitations by attaching a hinged steering board directly to the sternpost of the cog. (If only he had had a patent!) He still employed a tiller, but it was now attached to the head of the steering board so that it could be turned from side to side to direct steering board movement about a vertical axis. Mounted on the centerline of the ship and low down so that it would always remain in the water, the newly positioned steering board improved steering response dramatically.

In the early 14th century, castle-like structures installed on decks of fighting ships began to obscure the helmsman’s view forward. This necessitated raising the helmsman’s position to a higher vantage point. To control the tiller from his new elevated position, a movable vertical shaft was installed, attached by a yoke to the tiller to transmit the helmsman’s left and right steering movements into horizontal tiller deflections. This new shaft was called a whipstaff, quite possibly because of its potential to soundly thrash an inattentive helmsman during heavy weather.

By the late 17th century the steering board was called the rudder. Vessels were now approaching megasize, making their management at sea decidedly difficult. Adapting a whipstaff to increasingly larger rudder-tiller combinations proved impractical — a situation that precipitated the next major steering innovation found today on every large ship. An anonymous Englishman devised a clever steering arrangement to control rudder movement (via the tiller) using blocks and tackle actuated by a rotatable drum attached to a steering wheel. This device greatly improved mechanical advantage and allowed more precise incremental rudder positioning by a single helmsman, at least in fair weather.

J. Gregory Dill


By Ocean Navigator