A ship's wheel or boat's wheel is used to change course. Together with the rest of the steering mechanism it forms part of the helm. It is typically connected to a mechanical, electric servo, or hydraulic system. In some modern ships the wheel is replaced with a simple toggle that remotely controls an electro-mechanical or electro-hydraulic drive for the rudder, with a rudder position indicator presenting feedback to the helmsman.
Early ships' wheels (c. 1700) were operated to correspond to the motion of the tiller, with a clockwise motion (corresponding to a right tiller motion) turning the rudder and thus the ship to the left. Eventually the control direction of the wheel was reversed to make it more consistent with the action of a motor vehicle's steering wheel.[dubious ] The design of ships' wheels probably influenced that of the modern steering wheel.
A traditional ship's wheel is composed of eight cylindrical wooden spokes (though sometimes as few as six or as many as ten) shaped like balusters and all joined at a central wooden hub or nave (sometimes covered with a brass nave plate) which housed the axle. The square hole at the centre of the hub through which the axle ran is called a drive square and was often lined with a brass plate (and therefore called a brass boss, though this term was used more often to refer to a brass hub and nave plate) which was frequently etched with the name of the wheel's manufacturer. The outer rim is composed of four sections each made up of stacks of three felloes, the facing felloe, the middle felloe, and the after felloe. Because each group of three felloes at one time made up a quarter of the distance around the rim, the entire outer wooden wheel was sometimes called the quadrant. Each spoke ran through the middle felloe creating a series of handles on the outside of the wheel's rim. One of these handles/ spokes was frequently given extra grooves at its tip which could be felt by a helmsman steering in the dark and used by him to determine the exact position of the rudder—this was the king spoke and when it pointed straight upward the rudder was dead straight. The wood used in construction of this type of wheel was most often either teak or mahogany.
The steering gear of earlier ships sometimes consisted of a double wheel where each wheel was connected to the other with a wooden spindle that ran through a barrel or drum. The spindle was held up by two pedestals that rested on a wooden platform, often no more than a grate. A tiller rope or chain (sometimes called a steering rope or chain) ran around the barrel in five or six loops and then down through two tiller rope slots at the top of the platform before connecting to two sheaves just below deck (one on either side of the ship's wheel) and thence out to a pair of pulleys before coming back together at the tiller and therefore the ships rudder. Movement of the wheels (which were connected and moved simultaneously) caused the tiller rope to wind in one of two directions and shifted the tiller left or right. In a typical and intuitive arrangement, a forward-facing helmsman turning the wheel counterclockwise would cause the tiller to move to starboard and therefore the rudder to swing to port causing the vessel to also turn to port (see animation).:p.152 On many vessels the helmsman stood facing the rear of the ship with the ship's wheel before him and the rest of the ship behind him-- this still means that the direction of travel of the wheel at its apex still corresponds to the direction of turn of the ship.
Britannia Yacht Club's Commodore Boardroom features a ship's wheel table
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