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SEA Currents: SSV Robert C. Seamans
December 14, 2018
Thoughts From the Helm
36°00.01’S x 174°57.07’E 36
Course & Speed
Course ordered and steered is 195°, speed 4.5 knots
Sailing on starboard tack under the four lowers with a single-reefed main.
Clouds 2/8 Cirrus/Cumulus, winds NNW, Force 3.
As we arrive back into the Hauraki Gulf where this trip began, I have been reflecting on helm duty. Since we left the dock in Auckland one month back, I figure I’ve logged well over one full day at the wheel (as has every trainee and intern aboard). For interns, this includes additional stints driving during our daily class and other all-student activity. This short chunk of time is just enough to make me dangerous (if that) – and it has taught a few key lessons.
RCS packs some serious heft. She weighs in at 211 tons, and a startling amount of it seems to be centered aft. This heavy aft quarter makes her finicky to steer, with a strong tendency to turn up into the wind. This is called weather helm in the sailing lexicon. The stronger the breeze, the stronger this effect becomes, with more rudder needed from the wheel to balance her back. If the wind slacks off for a moment the effect reverses, and a quick correction is needed or we go scooting off downwind. I learned from the crew’s tips and my own “trial by error” that small, frequent adjustments are key to keeping us on course. A random quote boiled up in my head to describe this method, and I think it says it well – “Aim Small, Miss Small”.
Another lesson from the helm has been learning to let the ship have her say. She’s bigger than you. She displaces 350 tons of seawater (!). And she’s 17 years old, at the height of teenage rebellion. If she wants to go some way of her own (and she usually does), it’s probably best to work with that and strike a compromise. Throwing the wheel over in a frustrated attempt to muscle things might work for a moment, but overcompensation is inevitable. By letting her edge a few degrees off and waiting for that perfect breaking swell for leverage to gently correct, a harmonious course can usually be found that avoids a jerky zig-zag.
Helm duty on a tall ship can be a lonesome task! While steering we are expected to stay focused, not engage in side conversation, and follow directions from the officer in charge to the letter. These are sound rules – it takes constant focus to keep the sometimes unpredictable RCS on her course. It also means the occasional tricky moment. A few examples: staying put alone on the quarterdeck while the rest of your watch charges off to handle sail/ogle a whale/wolf a snack. Trying to be inconspicuous while leaning in to catch important group instructions you can barely hear before they get snatched by the wind. Or standing at the wheel surrounded by people talking or joking around as they enjoy another stunner Pacific sunset that is setting over your shoulder, while you do face quietly forward.
These experiences really hammer home the responsibility at helm, and the pleasure. For a fleeting moment you are an extension of the ship, feeling the warm wheel under your palms and worn smooth by hundreds of hands, joining a line of mariners that stretches far behind you, and ahead.
Cos, this made me think of you and these esteemed helmswomen and men – Taylor, Tom, Dom, Annie, Doty, Josh S, Josh L, Katie, Jack, Halle
- Harry Podolsky - Sailing Intern