Admiralty Fleet Order regarding change from ‘helm’ to ‘rudder’ orders

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      In 1913, the US Navy switched from the traditional method of giving orders to the helmsman in terms of helm or tiller to the modern practice of giving them in terms of rudder.
      General Order 30 read:
      NAVY DEPARTMENT Washington, D. C., May 5, 1913
      1. On and after July 1, 1913, the present designations “starboard” and “port” governing movements of a ship’s helm are hereby ordered discontinued in orders or directions to the steersman, and the terms “right” and “left,” referring to movement of the ship’s head, shall thereafter be used instead.
      2. The orders as to rudder angle shall be given in such terms as “Ten degrees rudder; half-rudder; standard rudder; full rudder;” etc., so that a complete order would be “Right–Half-rudder,” etc.
      3. Commanders-in-chief and commanding officers acting independently may, in their discretion, institute the above changes at an earlier date.
      Acting Secretary of the Navy.

      I believe that in the UK, Commonwealth, and Ireland, the change to ‘direct’ steering orders occurred on Jan 1 1933 in both RN and Merchant Navy. As far as merchant vessels were concerned this was in accordance with Clause 29 of the Merchant Shipping (Safety And Load Line Conventions) Act 1932, which was implementing a suggestion made in 1929, at the International Convention for Safety at Sea. The relevant clauses read:
      29. (1) No person on any British ship registered in the United Kingdom shall give a helm order containing the word “starboard” or “right” or any equivalent of “starboard” or “right”, unless he intends that the head of the ship shall move to the right, or give a helm order containing the word “port’, or “left” or any equivalent of “port” or “left”, unless he intends that the head of the ship shall move to the left.
      (2) Any person who contravenes the provisions of this section shall for each offence be liable to a fine not exceeding fifty pounds.

      Frank Scott suspects the change in the RN somewhat earlier than New Year’s Day 1933, because there were some problems with misunderstandings by RNR officers. This may well be true, but in any case it seems certain that an Admiralty Fleet Order [AFO] dealing with this would have been promulgated.
      Any suggestion as how the relevant AFO could be accessed would be welcome, and its precise wording would be of interest. With any luck it remains available in an archive somewhere in the UK. Any thoughts welcome.


        Professor Ian Buxton contacted the staff at the Admiralty Library, Naval Historical Branch, HM Dockyard Portsmouth, and they most kindly provided a copy of the relevant Admiralty Fleet Order [AFO], authorizing the change to helm orders in the Royal Navy.
        [The relevant] AFO is dated 24 Dec 1930 to come into force later, presumably during 1931.
        I : 3296.— Helm Orders. (N.L. 4025/30.—24.12.1930.)
        Their Lordships have had under consideration the procedure to be followed as a result of Article 41 of the International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea, 1929, in which the contracting powers agree as from 30th of June, 1931, to employ in their merchant shipping a system of direct helm orders, i.e., a system in which the order given refers not to a real or imaginary helm, but to the movement of the wheel, the ship’s head, and the rudder. This Convention has not yet been ratified.
        2. Their Lordships are of opinion that this change in the Mercantile Marine would necessitate a corresponding alteration of practice in the Royal Navy. They have decided that in the event of a change, the existing orders ‘starboard’ and ‘port’ shall ultimately be used in the direct sense with opposite meanings to those at present attached to them; but that in order to guard against misunderstanding, the orders ‘starboard right’ and ‘port left’ shall be used in the direct sense for a transitional period, which will normally last for 12 months. This transitional period, of which notice will be given in advance, is intended to familiarise the Fleet as a whole with the new procedure, but in order to meet the needs of officers not at sea during this period, a wide discretion will be left to Flag and Commanding Officers to re-institute it whenever considered desirable. This discretion should not be exercised to such an extent as to make the transitional orders habitual.
        It is desired to alter course to starboard, using 20° of tactical helm. At present the order ‘Port 20’ would be given. During the transitional period the order would be ‘Starboard right 20’. After a period of twelve months the order would be ‘Starboard 20’.
        The wheel, the ship’s head, and the rudder blade would all go to starboard, and, in ships fitted with helm signals, the green ball on the starboard side would rise, i.e., the higher ‘Helm Signal’ would show the side towards which the ship is turning.
        3. From the commencement of the transitional period it is intended to discontinue the use of the word ‘helm’. The words ‘rudder’, ‘wheel’, or ‘steering’ will be used as necessary; i.e. ‘helm indicators’ become ‘rudder indicators’, ‘helm orders’ become ‘steering orders’ etc.
        4. In vessels steered with a tiller, the terms ‘starboard right’ and ‘port left’ will be employed as indicating the direction in which the vessel’s head is to move. The terms ‘port’ or ‘starboard the helm’ will be discontinued.
        5. In boats under sail, the terms ‘bear up’, ‘keep her away’, ‘luff’, ‘no higher’, ‘very well thus’, should continue to be used. As the term ‘lee helm’ and ‘weather helm’ describe a state of affairs, and are not an order, they will be retained.
        8. Subsequent orders will deal with the date of commencement of the transitional period, the precautions to be taken, the training of officers and men in the new orders, and the changes in helm indicators, helm signals etc., which will be necessary.

        Thomas J

          I need your help. Were ships wheels originally rigged to turn in the same direction as the tiller? A helmsman was used to pushing a tiller to starboard to steer the ship to port. An officer was used to giving the order “20’ starboard” to steer the ship to port. It stands to reason the the ship’s wheels were originally rigged to turn the wheel to starboard, in order to steer the ship to port. It was not until automobiles were common that new helmsmen were confused by the backwoods ship’s wheel. So, it wasn’t just the officer’s order that seemed backwards and confusing, it was the originally rigged wheels too. This was my understanding. Am I wrong? When did the wheel’s change?

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