What is the Steering Wheel on a Ship Called?

what is the steering wheel on a ship called

If you have ever heard of the term “helmsman” or the phrase “at the helm,” then you should have an idea of why, from both a figurative and boating standpoint, the helm is where most of the leading, directing, and navigating is done. However, would it be accurate to say that a ship or boat’s steering wheel is synonymous with the helm of the vessel?

In both technical terms and layman’s terms, what is the steering wheel on a ship called and how exactly does it function? Continue reading to find out!

What Do Most Boaters Call the Steering Wheel and Why?

Regardless of shape, size, or even time period, most, if not all, boaters have called the steering wheel (or the steering wheel area) of a boat the “helm.” There is a multitude of reasons that could have caused the assumed synonymity. Here is a quick list of the most popular explanations:

  • “Helm” is easier to say than “steering wheel.”
  • Requesting or commanding someone to take control of the ship is equivalent to an order to take control of the helm.
  • Operating the steering wheel of a boat or ship also entails the use of other navigational mechanisms such as the toggle, tiller, and console, which are all part of the helm.
  • Using “helm” instead of “steering wheel” has been practiced for several decades and there is no important reason to do away with it.

The Proper Name for a Boat or Ship Steering Wheel

The proper name for a boat or ship steering wheel is most commonly either a “ship’s wheel” or a “boat’s wheel.” Depending on the type of system of steering of the boat or ship, however, you may encounter any of the following technical terms that are identical or similar in function or purpose to a boat or ship steering wheel:

  • Mechanical steering system
  • Rotary steering system
  • Rack and pinion steering
  • Hydraulic steering system
  • Electro-mechanical steering system
  • Electro-hydraulic drive system
  • Rudder
  • Tiller
  • Lever System
  • Helm Station
  • Console
  • Whipstaff

What is the Steering Wheel on Different Types of Vessels Called?

Fortunately for beginners and experienced boaters, there is no hard rule for differentiating steering wheels across different types of boats, ships, or vessels. The most dominant term used in modern days is still “helm” to avoid confusion.

However, if you plan on joining a boat or ship crew as a sailor, first mate, cook, engineer, or any other position, then it would be best to orient yourself with how the crew normally identifies common boat areas, roles, and operations for the sake of safety, proper communication, and efficiency.

What do Ship Steering Wheels Look Like?

Nowadays, there are literally thousands of different shapes, sizes, and designs for steering wheels, from the classic wooden, 8-spoke steering wheel that you would fondly remember from childhood pirate stories (most notably Peter Pan) all the way to advanced technological mechanisms that only require a smaller, metallic steering wheel with the rest of the navigational options being accessible by buttons or touch screen functions on an electronic console.

Listed below are a few of the most used steering wheels and a brief description of each:

Old-fashioned Steering Wheel

Similar to what you may find on older boats or pirate ships, an old-fashioned steering wheel is typically large and made of wood. There are a lot of moving parts and stabilizers to this type of boat or ship steering wheel, including the felloe, barrel, handles, spokes, tiller ropes, platform, axle, spindle, tiller ropes, and pedestal. The use of this type of steering wheel gets rarer by the day as there are more practical, durable, and space-efficient steering markets available in the market these days.

Metallic Steering Wheel

A metallic steering wheel is considered to be an industrial-level type of steering wheel that is typically smaller in size with a more ergonomic shape. These steering wheels come at a steeper price range but are most commonly used by heavy-duty ships and war vessels for their durability, grip, and overall compatibility with different navigational systems. High-end vessels such as yachts can also be seen using this type of steering wheel. 

Soft Grip Steering Wheel

A soft grip steering wheel is arguably the most popular and most mass-produced type of steering wheel due to its comfort, design, and cost-efficiency. Similar to a metallic steering wheel, a soft grip steering wheel sports a sleeker and more slender design and relies more on the steering mechanism than it does on brute force or power (as compared to the old-fashioned steering wheel system). Soft grip steering wheels can typically be found on medium-end to high-end vessels of different shapes and sizes.

An Explanation on Ship Steering Wheel Designs and How They Work

Steering wheel designs are probably one of the most underrated aspects of buying a boat. Usually, buyers would focus more on the type of navigational system used, the technological features available, the dimensions of the boat, and perhaps most importantly, the engine size or horsepower of the vessel.

In this section, we take a look at important aspects of ship steering wheel designs and how each can contribute to a better (and safer) boating experience.

Material of the Grip

The material of the grip is a very important factor, especially during long boat operation or navigation. Like with driving cars, the grip of your steering wheel can dictate how precisely or effectively you can navigate a vessel through the waters.

There are several different ship steering wheel grip types in the market, including the following:

  • Traditional wooden grip
  • Varnished wood grip
  • Soft grip
  • Leather grip
  • Synthetic leather grip
  • Metallic grip
  • Hard plastic grip
  • Foam grip
  • Textured grip
  • Weatherproof grip

In choosing the grip, always prioritize function over style. However, if you feel like you (or your helmsman) would easily be able to adapt to the type of grip of the vessel, then feel free to go with whatever you think looks best on your boat. In any case, you could always look to buy steering wheel sleeves to customize the grip feel and grip diameter.

Diameter of the Grip

The diameter of the grip is just as important as the material used for the grip. Although the preferred diameter of the grip may vary from person to person, the general rule of thumb is that a grip diameter that is too small will affect the helmsman’s ability to make accurate or precise movements while a grip diameter that is too big will hamper the ability of the navigator to make swift movements.

As a good reference point, the standard diameter is anywhere from roughly 3 inches to 5 inches. We strongly recommend visiting your nearby boat shop to check out the different diameters.

Just like what was mentioned in the previous subsection, equipping your boat steering wheel with a sleeve may also assist in providing you with the best grip possible. It is also important to take note that if your boat has power steering or electronic power steering capabilities, then this aspect of the boat steering wheel may not be as impactful.

Steering Wheel Dimensions

Steering wheel dimensions refer to the overall diameter of the wheel itself, the quantity, width, and thickness of the spokes, and the height of the entire steering mechanism relative to the surface of the boat.

There is no hard and fast rule to determine the best steering wheel dimensions for your boat as it depends on the size of the vessel you have and the space allowance it has for the navigation area or the helm.

If you plan on customizing your boat, try to go for similar dimensions to its stock counterparts, if not smaller. Generally, going for bigger dimensions when customizing is not a good idea as boats are typically designed to be efficient with space management.

Where is the Ship Steering Wheel Located and Why?

For obvious reasons, the steering wheel and essentially the helm of modern-day boats are located on the front of the ship (or the bow). However, a lot of boats have the helm installed on the right-hand side (or starboard). There are a few notable reasons for this, including the following:


Centuries ago, when boats were propelled manually, without engines, the oars were installed and used on the right-hand side (starboard) because the majority of the population was right-hand dominant.

International Travel

According to the rules and guidelines that govern international sea travel and navigation, boats should keep to the right-hand side of a particular passageway. Having the helm stationed on the right-hand side (starboard) helps provide the helmsman with greater visibility for oncoming vessels. This also gives the navigator better visibility when giving way to boats coming in from the rear, looking to overtake via the right side.

Take note that most boat manufacturers are gradually veering away from this practice. There are several boats, both privately owned and for public transits, that have their steering wheels installed on the left-hand side (portside) or even the center.


Hopefully, we have provided you with more than enough information when it comes to the question, “what is the steering wheel on a ship called?” To sum it all up, whether the convention is to use “steering wheel” or “helm” in a particular ship or crew, the function and purpose still stay the same.

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