In this post I’m going to talk on a subject that truly needs to be discussed. That is the subject of the Wheelsmen who steer the Ships that ply the waters of the Great Lakes. As you know, I have been “piloting” ships on the Great Lakes for 19 years now.  I have learned that; if there is one person on a Great Lakes Ship who’s job description is not understood by anyone except a real Great Lakes Pilot, it is the Wheelsman on Great Lakes Ships. Now, if you will read this Post from top to bottom, you’ll will have an infinitely better understanding of this job.

Steering A Ship Is Not Like Steering An Automobile In Any Way, Shape or Form

A ship, any ship or large waterborne vessel does not steer like any vehicle of any size that is operated on a road, period.  There is absolutely NO comparison.  Not simply because of the size of a ship. It is because of the mechanical forces involved.

A ship’s course is controlled by it’s rudder or sometimes more than one rudder, depending on the design of the ship. The rudder or rudders are at the after-end of the hull. A vehicle on land is most often, (but not always), steered by the front wheels which of course are turned in the direction the driver wants to go. The rudder on a ship is also “turned” in the direction that the Helmsman wants to go but at that point ALL aspects of the mechanical forces involved in steering the two vehicles end.  I am sure, if you use your minds eye, you can imagine what I’m talking about.

There is simply NO similarity in the two vehicles when it comes to controlling their direction. As you can imagine, the Helmsman, (Wheelsman), needs to be keenly aware of what the rudder does. S/He needs to know how to use it to make the ship “start” turning and how to use the rudder to make the ship STOP turning. And more importantly, s/he needs to know how to slow or speed up the rate at which the ship is “turning”.  Compared to a vehicle driven on a road or highway, it takes a relatively LONG time to accomplish these actions.

You Better Stop The Swinging Ship

"Piloting" on the open Lake is where I shine!
"Piloting" on the open Lake is where I shine!

When you turn the steering wheel of your car the front wheels turn in the same direction. Then the front end of the car begins to go in that direction and the vehicle “pivots” on its rear tires. That is a very “general” explanation. When you turn the rudder of a ship different pressures on either side of the rudder cause the stern to swing in the opposite direction of that which you turned the rudder to.

If you turn the rudder to the left the stern swings to the right which then causes the bow to “point” in the direction you wish to go, in this case to the left.  The ship “pivots” at a point about 1/3 of the ships length from the bow, give or take. But, as the stern swings it gains momentum moving through the water.  The swing will become increasingly faster as it gains momentum.

Of course you must control this by either slowing or increasing the speed of the swing or stopping the swing when you’ve reached the direction you wish to maintain.  This is a very general description of the forces at play when turning a ship. I don’t wish to spend enough time here to explain, (even if I could), all the forces effecting the ship when the Helmsman is turning it. Besides I think you get the idea. Suffice it to say; Regardless of how well you can drive a car or truck, etc…  You will not do well “driving” a ship until you have had some serious practice.

In real life it takes several seasons for a new Wheelsman to learn to steer like a professional wheelsman and to be thought of, (by Great Lakes Pilots), as a true Great Lakes Wheelsman.  I don’t care what anyone thinks or says about it – I, (and every other Great Lakes Pilot), KNOW the difference between a REAL Great Lakes Wheelsman and someone who is at the wheel simply because he holds an Able-Seaman’s endorsement.

Controlling The Direction A Ship Is Heading To Should Be Elementary, (my dear Watson)

Captains and Mates/Pilots of Great Lakes Ships have always maintained that an Able-Seaman who takes a job as a Great Lakes Wheelsman should already have done some “serious” practice at the wheel. Why? I’m certain that in your heart of hearts you already know the answer.  But if you don’t then I will tell you. It is because;  Controlling the direction the ship is heading in when you are in confined waters, shoal areas and heavy traffic areas should be of paramount importance to all concerned.  I won’t say anymore about it.  It should be obvious to everyone that the above statement cannot be anything but simply irrefutable. Like an old, very intelligent retired Great Lakes Captain told me once;  If you want to be a Wheelsman then learn the job!

The Duties Of A Great Lakes Wheelsman While In Port

Besides steering the ship with precision in confined waters, on the open Lake the Great Lakes Wheelsman serves as Lookout. It is important

Our Boom In The Hopper At St. Clair Edison
Our Boom In The Hopper At St. Clair Edison

that you always have a lookout while underway. In today’s World, with the ever-increasing need to keep everybody informed of everything that you’re doing all of the time, the Mate/Pilot “on watch” on a modern Great Lakes Bulk Freighter has her hands full. Like I said in another Post to this Blog, the Pilothouse is a floating “office”. There are literally hundreds of clerical things going on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A good Wheelsman is always looking out for what the Mate on watch might not see while s/he is busy doing “other” things.

But, when the ship is in port the Wheelsman has duties on deck as well. S/He is in charge of operating the mooring winches. Checking out who’s coming and going up and down the accommodations ladder or gangway. While unloading the Wheelsman operates the Conveyor system and swings and lowers the 250 foot boom that is used for unloading.  S/he even helps crewmembers bring aboard their packages and parcels they may have purchased while “up the street”.  The Wheelsman will oftentimes help the Bosun and deck gang to bring aboard groceries and other supplies and stores as well.

A Great Lakes Mate who has been around for even a moderately long time appreciates a good Wheelsman more than anyone else on the ship. An experienced Wheelsman on watch is one of the most important ingredients to having a safe and efficient Watch “team”.

Now you know the importance of having an experienced and efficient Great Lakes Wheelsman on each “watch” on a Great Lakes Self-Unloading Bulk Freighter!  And now when you see a Great Lakes Freighter transiting a River or Harbor, you will know that there is about a 70% chance that ship is being steered by ONE of the best Helmsman, (Quartermaster or Wheelsman), in the World. If it is not, then it is being steered under the guidance of a Great Lakes Pilot by a young Able-Seaman who wants to be one of the BEST.  There’s no other way….  “If you want to be a real Great Lakes Wheelsman you must learn the job!”

    5 replies to "The Great Lakes Wheelsman"

    • Galen Witham

      My retirement job!…. Hopefully!

    • Todd Shorkey

      Great stuff! Thanks again Doug!

    • Connie Bayhan

      Hi Doug,

      I have been enjoying reading your posts! I was wondering if you could touch on how they, for lack of correct terms, parallel park a ship. Years ago when my son was sailing for ASC I was at one of the ports waiting for his ship to come in. There were two other ships already tied up along side the dock. My son’s ship literally maneuvered in between the two others. It was a tight fit for sure! I remember standing there in amazement watching. I know that had to take skill. Could you explain what all it takes for a ship to do such a thing please?



      • Doug LaLonde

        I’m glad you like the Post Connie. I’ll try to do an article on what you’ve described. I might better have Captain Bensman or Captain Nelson explain it though. Maybe I can “interview” one or both of them on a video. Sounds like that might make a great video post! 🙂

    • holly jorgenson


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