A professional helmsman maintains a steady course, properly executes all rudder orders, and communicates to the officer on the bridge utilizing navigational terms relating to ship's heading and steering. A helmsman relies upon visual references, a magnetic and gyrocompass, and a rudder angle indicator to steer a steady course. The mate or other officer on the bridge directs the helmsman aboard merchant or navy ships.
Clear and exact communication between the helmsman and officer on the bridge is essential to safe navigation and ship handling. Subsequently, a set of standard steering commands, responses by the helmsman, and acknowledgement by the conning officer are widely recognized in the maritime industry. The helmsman repeats any verbal commands in order to demonstrate that the command is heard and understood. The International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers(STCW) requires that helmsman must be able to understand and respond to helm orders in English.
The proliferation of autopilot systems and the increased computerization of operations on a ship's bridge lessen the need for helmsmen standing watch in open waters.
Land-based ship simulators may feature a full-scale replica of a steering stand with a ship's wheel. Such simulators incorporate magnetic and gyro compassess (or repeaters) for steering. Moreover, a rudder angle indicator that responds appropriately to the helm is part of the configuration.
However technology also allows for a multitude of smaller workstations in a classroom setting. Administrators network student workstations so that the instructor can launch individual scenarios at each station. Computer models are used to accurately simulate conditions such as wind, seas, and currents. Moreover, shallow-water effects or other the hydrodynamic forces, such as ships passing close to each other, can also be depicted. A computer application records training sessions, complete with voice commands issued by the instructor which are received by the students via a headset.
Consequently, more accurate steering is attained with less rudder. Applying the minimal rudder required to steer a course reduces drag of the ship, thereby favorably impacting the ship's speed and operating costs.
One of the helmsman's most important duties is steering a ship in a harbor or seaport when reduced speeds slow a ship's response to the rudder. For it is during ship arrivals and departures, when most ship collisions or groundings occur. Clear communication, then, between the officer of the bridge and the helmsman is essential for safe operations. The officer or harbor pilot relies upon the helmsman to flawlessly execute steering commands to avoid a variety of hazards, including man-made obstacles, land formations, grounding in shallow waters, and the threat of collision with other vessels. In addition, powerful sea tides and river currents encountered in seaports heighten navigation dangers, as a ship's ability to stop is severely limited.
The helmsman handing over the helm will inform the relief helmsman of any rudder commands in place and pertinent conditions. "Steering 180. We have oncoming traffic two points on the starboard" for example. In addition, the current helmsman should inform the relief if there are any peculiarities affecting steerage. Similarly, the helmsman will also point out if he or she is steering on a landmark, range, or navigational light. The relief helmsman is obligated to repeat the course being steered or other rudder command in order to demonstrate an understanding of the situation at the helm.