Acting under starboard helm

I’ve tuned in to a History International show that says a ship ‘appeared to be acting under starboard helm’. The narrator said that in the 19th Century turning the wheel to starboard actually moves the ship in the opposite direction.

Ar? :confused:

This is true if your vessel is steered with a tiller. Pushing the tiller starboard turns the vessel to ports, anc vice versa. But the ship they’re showing has a wheel, and I’ve assumed that tillers on ships had been superceded by wheels about a hundred years earlier.

Question: Does ‘acting under starboard helm’ really mean what they said it meant?

Yes, or at least, it used to:

In other words, turning the wheel to the right does, indeed, turn the ship to starboard, but the order “starboard helm” actually meant to turn the ship to port.

The narrator was correct in that the wheel used to be turned in the opposite direction. I think it was to do with consistency between orders for ships with rudders and with tillers. The actual direction of the turn on the wheel (in terms of the ship’s turn) was to be read from the movement of the bottom of the wheel rather than the top.

There’s also something about orders actually being given as opposites, so that ‘hard a-starboard’ was called to turn the ship to port, and I believe that also has its origins in tiller-operated rudders. I’m not 100% sure of that, though, or when and how the practice was changed.

When Cameron’s Titanic was released, there was a lot of noise about the (First?) Officer’s command, “Hard A-Starboard!” with people complaing that it did not make sense to turn toward the iceberg. In response, a lot of web pages popped up with explanations. This page has one of the better explanations that includes history. (There may be even better pages than this, of course.)

One way you can think of it: since a ship is turned by it’s rudder, the helm directions match which way the stern is moving.