Sunday, 2 February 2014

Where's the Ship's Wheel?

I nearly called this: 'Steer?  I can't see where we're going?'  I shall explain.

A while back I wrote a blog about where the galley was on 16th/17th century ships.  The accursed thing could be almost anywhere, or the crew might settle for a barbecue on the top deck - yep, no kidding, it was a possibility.  As a child I was taught of sailors' fear of fire, yes, they were very careful about it, and yet their definition of health and safety was very different to modern 21st person's view of the matter.

I thought I was on safer ground with the ship's wheel.  Big galleon in danger,  my young heroine sees no one is at the wheel, she steps forward to wrestle the mighty vessel to safety.  Hah ha!  No wheel!

I thought as soon as ships grew so large that the rudder would be too heavy to control directly, the ship's wheel would be an obvious invention.  I thought wrong.  The ship's wheel is a rather late invention coming in around the turn of the 18th century.  My early seventeenth century vessel would definitely not have one.  It would use a whipstaff.  In fact, ship's wheels weren't quickly adopted, with many vessels still using a whipstaff well into the 18th century.

Below is a model in Dorchester Museum of the Mary and John circa 1630.  I used it as proof of the moving galley.  Now I can show off what a whipstaff is.


The Mary and John 1630

The Whipstaff
This vertical shaft gave the helmsman a bit of mechanical advantage to steer a big vessel.  It has loads of disadvantages over a wheel; for example:  its hard to get lots of hands on it when in heavy weather; so control goes down as the wind picks up.  Unlike a wheel the movement of the whipstaff, and therefore the tiller, is limited by the size of the slot the whipstaff moves in.  That means big steering motions are out.

It also has a major disadvantage shared with early ship's wheels - placement.  You can't see where you're going.  You can see from the model, it's in a room below the quarterdeck.  Even if the forward wall wasn't there the helmsman's view would be appalling.  Look at the first picture.  Notice that the mainmast, foremast, forecastle and bulwarks all block the view of the sailor on the whipstaff.

No one alone can steer a big ship without the risk of hitting something.

This leads on to ship's operation.  The helmsman would never be expected to see where he was going.  The sailor would obey the orders of his officers, men standing on the quarterdeck above him, who could see beyond the limits of the hull.  He would steer to a compass bearing and though he wouldn't watching where he was going, he would be watching the ship intently.  His best view would be of the sails and rigging.  He would be ensuring they held the wind.  He would be watching for when men were aloft, because bad steering on his part could cause the yards to jerk or buck and his crewmates to fall to their deaths. 

Helmsmen needed great concentration and skill to do their job well, and there is an old adage that helmsmen steer by their fingers and toes: they feel the ship and control with a delicate touch.  They also need to be strong.


While writing my story, I realised my heroine wouldn't have the muscle to hold the ship, so two of her friends came to help.  Research is important.

Useful Links

Replica Ship Half Moon - a great resource on a historical vessel from 1603.  See if you can find the whipstaff.  Try here: I like to make things easy for people:)

Useful Books

Tudor Sea Power by David Childs
The Galleon by Peter Kirsch


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