Why Were the Old Pirate and Naval War Ships Steering Wheels Exposed to the Weather?

Jaxon Wildwood

Updated Sunday, October 22, 2023 at 11:58 PM CDT

Why Were the Old Pirate and Naval War Ships Steering Wheels Exposed to the Weather?

The Practical Reasons Behind Exposed Steering Wheels on Old Ships

In pirate movies and historical accounts of naval warships, it's common to see the helmsman at the wheel, exposed to the elements. This raises the question: why didn't they cover the steering wheel? While it may seem impractical, there were actually several reasons behind this design choice.

The Importance of Visibility and Communication

One of the primary reasons for leaving the steering wheel exposed was the need for visibility. On sailboats, the helmsman relied on observing the sails to gather crucial information about wind direction and sail performance. By having an unobstructed view, they could make immediate adjustments to ensure the ship's stability and safety.

Additionally, being exposed to the elements allowed the helmsman to hear orders and communicate effectively with the crew. In a closed-off pilot house, it would have been difficult to hear shouted commands or receive vital information from other crew members. By remaining open to the weather, the helmsman could maintain clear communication and respond promptly to any changes or emergencies.

Challenges with Glass and Cost Considerations

Another factor to consider is the availability and practicality of glass windows during the time when these ships were in use. Tempered glass, which is stronger and more resistant to breakage, wasn't invented until the 1870s. Prior to that, windows would have been made of thick, untempered glass, which was prone to constant breakage.

Manufacturing thick glass posed challenges, resulting in wavy and distorted views. This would have made it difficult for the helmsman to see clearly and navigate effectively. Moreover, the cost of installing a pilot house or covering the steering wheel would have been an unnecessary expense for ship owners, as it would only protect one or a few crew members out of the entire ship's complement.

Insights from Experienced Sailors

Comments from experienced sailors shed further light on the practical reasons behind exposed steering wheels. Quixotixtoo, a recreational sailor, explains that an open view of the sails is crucial for steering, as wind changes frequently and adjustments need to be made regularly. Having a covered wheelhouse would limit the helmsman's ability to monitor the sails effectively, potentially leading to disastrous consequences.

West25th, a lifelong sailor, adds that steering a sailboat is a constant exercise in adjustments and balancing. The helmsman needs to remain aware of changes in wind direction and strength, as well as how the sails perform in relation to these variations. Even with modern steering assistance, such as auto helms and windvanes, the helmsman must still be vigilant and adapt to the ever-changing wind properties.

Drama and Cinematic Representation

While practical reasons explain the exposed steering wheels on old ships, there's also a touch of drama involved. Kubly points out that movies often depict the helmsman getting drenched by rain and exposed to the elements for the sake of creating dramatic scenes. This portrayal adds intensity and visual appeal to the narrative, enhancing the overall cinematic experience.

The exposed steering wheels on old pirate and naval warships served practical purposes. They allowed the helmsman to maintain visibility, communicate effectively, and make immediate adjustments to ensure the ship's safety. The challenges with glass and the cost considerations further supported the decision to leave the steering wheel exposed. While there may be a touch of drama in cinematic representations, the practical reasons behind this design choice cannot be overlooked.

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