That Damned Ship's Wheel!

Particularly since James Cameron's film came out, there has been a good deal of misunderstanding about Titanic's wheel and First Officer Murdoch's famous order to Quartermaster Hichens.

Murdoch's order was, "Hard-a-starboard!". Hichens turned the wheel rapidly to port and Titanic turned to port, not quite avoiding the iceberg. What was going on?

In 1912, steering orders were given in accordance with a very old convention, which was not phased out on British ships until January 1st, 1933. (Sir James Bisset). During a six month introductory period, the order was prefixed by the words 'wheel to', in order to reduce errors. Contrary to what some, including Walter Lord, have written, this had nothing to do with desiring to conform with motor car practice. In those days, few people owned cars and naval ratings certainly did not. It was done simply to bring the order into agreement with the action and its result.

Early western ships were steered with a steering oar and later with a rudder moved by a tiller, just as in small sailing boats today. In both these systems, to turn to port, you push the tiller or oar to starboard. I have had a lot of fun trying to teach people used to car wheels to steer with a tiller. Their reactions are often the reverse of what is needed, though some are born with a feel for it. Conversely, I find it hard to steer a yacht with a wheel, seldom having done so.

In those distant days, the officers in charge took to giving steering orders in terms of the tiller, not the direction of the turn. Thus, "Hard-a-starboard" meant "Push the tiller or steering oar as far as you can to starboard" and the ship turned hard to port.

A whipstaff on the replica of Duyfken, the first European ship to visit Australia, in 1606.  On Duyfken, the helmsman is sheltered by a hood and can only see forward.
From around 1450, a new means of steering was often used. The deck had become so high above the rudder that the helmsman needed a remote way of turning the tiller, if he was to be on the deck and able to see the sails. The answer was the whipstaff, which was a stout piece of timber, passing through a hole in the deck to a pivot and from there to the end of the tiller. A mechanical advantage of about 4 to 1 was obtained at the cost of limited rudder movement. The helmsman stood with the whipstaff roughly vertical in front of or beside him. Americans can find a fine example of this on Mayflower. The whipstaff was pushed in the direction in which the ship was to turn. The orders continued to be given with reference to the tiller. With some practice, helmsmen got used to this.

By the early eighteenth century, the ship's wheel was introduced on larger ships. Like the whipstaff, the wheel was pushed in the direction in which the ship was to turn. Again the orders remained unchanged.

There was some reason for this long adherence to what seems an illogical tradition. Until relatively recent times, naval seaman in particular had to steer vessels by at least five steering systems, not counting the obsolete whipstaff. Large ships had wheels. Small power and sailing boats had tillers and some boats, such as whale boats and some lifeboats, had steering oars. Rowing boats were often steered by a steering yoke controlled by short lengths of rope. In an emergency, large ships were sometimes steered by tackles attached to the tiller below decks. At a pinch, Titanic could be steered by connecting her warping capstans to the tiller. It simplified things if the officer in charge gave all orders with reference to a real or hypothetical tiller. It was part of a seaman's skills to react correctly to the order.

The lower end of the whipstaff is connected to the end of the tiller by a device that allows it to swing through an arc, while turning the tiller up to 15° each way.
On Titanic, the wheel worked just as wheels had done for two hundred years. The wheel was turned in the direction in which you wanted to turn. The old orders were still in use and the scene in the movie is perfectly correct. Some people have dreamed up strange theories involving a wheel that worked backwards, or Murdoch or Hichens getting confused under pressure, but this is pure twaddle, as any real seaman knows. Harland and Wolff were not in the habit of building ships with trick steering wheels and neither was anybody else.

Most of the trouble comes from a careless line in A Night to Remember and a completely incorrect statement in The Night Lives On. In the first, Walter Lord, a landlubber, wrote, "orders to Quartermaster Hichens to turn the wheel hard-a-starboard". He compounded this in the second book with, "in 1912 a ship's wheel was rigged so that the helmsman turned it to starboard in order to go to port". Lord made an honest attempt to write accurately, but on this, as on several other matters, he simply got it wrong. He probably eventually learned of the error, but some Titanic enthusiasts continue to treat his books as Holy Writ and Charles Pellegrino and Daniel Butler have repeated his error. Finally, please don't ask Harland and Wolff about this again. They love Irish jokes and they are still rolling about laughing over the idea of anybody being dumb enough to think of a reverse action steering wheel!


A relic of the old steering orders lingers on in the world of yachting. When a tiller steered yacht is about to tack, the helmsman warns the crew to be ready with a cry of, "Ready about! Lee-oh!". This means the tiller is about to be pushed to leeward, in order to turn the yacht to windward. The call is used even when the yacht is steered with a wheel and the wheel is turned to windward to turn the yacht to windward. Tradition dies hard at sea.