What is a Helmsman?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Images By: Pavlo Vakhrushev, Commander, U.s. 7Th Fleet
  • Last Modified Date: 14 February 2020
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A helmsman is an individual who is responsible for the steering of any type of transportation used in or on the water. A professional helmsman may serve on a submarine, a private vessel such as a yacht or sailboat, or a military vessel such as a ship or aircraft carrier. It is the responsibility of helmsmen to carry out the orders of the captain in terms of plotting courses and making sure the vessel arrives and departs at various ports in a timely manner.

Depending on the circumstances, the helmsmen may be called upon to perform specific tasks in relation to some type of movement of the vessel. In the case of a cruising helmsman, the focus is on keeping the ship on course in open waters. At other times, seamen who function in this capacity may be called upon specifically to guide the ship as it enters a port and prepares to dock, or during the departure process when it is necessary to successfully clear the docking area and advance safely into open waters.


In many cases, the process to become a helmsman involves the acquisition of a great deal of experience. An individual who has proven to be an able seaman may begin to assist helmsmen in their duties, effectively receiving on the job training. A coast guard helmsman will receive a combination of training in land-based simulations as well as logging actual time on a ship before being granted full authority to act in this capacity.

One of the key skills necessary to become a successful helmsman is the ability to communicate quickly and clearly with any officer who is in charge of the bridge of the ship. This means the helmsman must be able to supply information immediately when it is requested, affirm the receipt of an order at once, and execute the order without any delays at all. Strong communication skills can make a huge difference in the overall function of the ship, especially if the vessel is currently involved in wartime activities or is attempting to navigate through bad weather.

Along with well-define communication skills, a helmsman must also have an eye for detail. While modern technology has made it easier to receive and assimilate data related to what is going on in the waters around the ship, the ability to read that data accurately as well as gather data using the eyes remains very important. Helmsmen who are able to notice the little things as well as the larger and more apparent things can often alert the crew to potential threats in time to neutralize the problem and allow the ship to continue on its course.


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