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Why Are Boat Steering Wheels So Big?

Two men captain the helm of this large vessel with a massive steering wheel.

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You see them on the water in summer or all year round, depending on where you live, boats, and lots of them. Riding on the water on a ship is calming and relaxing unless you are racing, then it can be exhilarating and action-filled! I have been on many boats of different shapes and sizes. However, I have noticed something similar with all of them. The steering wheels are enormous!  Why are boat steering wheels so big?  I just had to find out!

There are a few different reasons why a boat steering wheel is so big. The large steering wheels assist with ease of control for the boat’s helmsman. They also help with loss of friction in larger vessels like a cruise liner. 

Read on to find out more interesting facts about the boat wheel and the mechanics behind it. Once done reading, you can tell all your friends about why boat steering wheels are so big!

Large Steering Wheels On Racing Boats

Racing on the water in a boat can be fun and exciting. Feeling the air rush on your face and the spray of water as you zoom along is such an enjoyable experience. Racing boats have a large steering wheel, just like a lot of other ships. 

 Racing boats have a big steering wheel because it allows the helmsman to sit further windward, which gives the jib a better visual. The jib has an essential function, and that function is to increase performance and overall strength by decreasing turbulence. The vessel’s driver can then, in turn, move weight to the rail with ease. 


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Big Steering Wheels On Cruise Liners

We’ve all seen them, and lots of us have had the privilege to be onboard a massive cruise liner. Cruise ships are a fantastic vessel, are they not? These liners have top-notch suites and cabins, entertainment to last a lifetime, and many luxuries like spas, theaters, and casinos, just to name a few. Cruise ships also have huge steering wheels. Well, they used to anyway. Not to say that there isn’t a cruise ship out there with a large steering wheel.  

On modern boats, the large steering wheel is becoming a thing of the past. Most new vessels now utilize a smaller wheel or even a joystick. Why? Because of technology, that is why. These ships now have an excellent navigation system, and therefore the large steering wheel is not needed.  

The reason for having a big steering wheel on cruise ships is to assist with keeping the frictional loss at a minimum while still maintaining a light helm. It also helps to avoid wearing out the helmsman while out on a lengthy cruise trip. 

A modern sailboat steering wheel is shown in this file photo.
A Large Steering Wheel of a Sailing Vessel

Big Steering Wheels on Sailboats 

Sailboats are great water vessels. They are, however, very challenging to learn how to sail them. Once you have learned to navigate, you can sail around the world. Sails boats commonly have huge steering wheels, and they are a bit more complicated on a sailboat. Did you know that some helms(steering wheels) are so big that they can cover almost all of the vessel’s stern? 

The main reason for having a big steering wheel on sailboats is to give the boat’s driver more natural control. Other reasons as to why the steering wheels come in such a large size are:

  • Providing easy access to the Helmsman: The helmsman must be able to reach the helm with minimal effort. They are driving the boat, so he or she must have easy access.
  • Assists control the ship with minimal effort: Big steering wheels relieve effort that would be needed if the rudder is not balanced, causing a lot of pressure and force.
  • Large steering wheels were made for the sailboat: The steering wheel offers multiple uses. It helps the helmsman distinguish the distance and position of the vessel, other vessels, and landmarks. A large helm means less challenging steering. It takes a lot of power to move a sailboat once momentum has kicked it. 
  • Familiarity: Large steering wheels for Sailboats are here to stay due to the familiarity. This steering wheel is a standard on most sailboats. I bet that you won’t find a sailboat without one. I can’t imagine a sailboat without the great large wheel. They are, after all, known for having these massive wheels.

Two Steering Wheel Water Vessels

That is right; you read that correctly. Some boats come with two steering wheels. In some cases, there is a need for a second steering wheel. If a cockpit is too small, then a large steering wheel will not fit. So two are put in place. The helmsman will still be able to reach both of them with ease and most likely steer from the higher side of the cockpit to have clear visibility.

It is better to have a bigger steering wheel since it will make turning all that much easier. But sometimes it is not practical, so we compromise.  


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A large red steering wheel is shown in this file photo.
Many ships have large steering wheels.

Steering Wheel Mechanics

Most of us don’t think about how the steering wheel works or what it involves. As long as it works, we are happy and don’t are unless, of course, something happens. So, let’s take a look at the behind the scenes of a boat’s steering wheel. 

The steering wheel consists of the following:

  1. Steering wheel
  2. Steering cable 
  3. Cable connection 
  4. Helm

These essential steering components enable the water vessel to steer and stay on the course you have chosen.

The steering wheel is pretty self-explanatory. This component is part of the helm that connects to a hydraulic, mechanical, or electric system that helps turn a boat. 

Next, we have the cables and connections. These cables must be in good working order. The cables allow the boat operator to handle the boat at all speeds without much effort; it increases the system’s effectiveness and decreases cable and excess wheel play.

The helm is an essential component of the boat’s steering. The helm changes a wheel’s rotary motion in a push-pull cycle on the cable, which moves the propeller left, right, or amidship (in the middle). It is common to see rotary helms, and that use gears to turn the rudder.

Maintenance Is A Must 

Because the steering wheel is an integral part of the boat, you must keep the steering wheel system in good working order, so it requires frequent maintenance. When and if issues occur, then repairs will be needed. The maintenance can be a bit much, but it is better than having your cable system seize up, and mess with the steering. 


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Steering is critical, and if the system is not working, then it can be dangerous and not to mention a pain in the rear. 

A few tips for keeping the system in working order are listed below.

  • Look for any signs that show there may be corrosion along the cable line and remember to check the connections.
  • Grease cable connections frequently with lithium-based grease.

Wrapping Things Up

There you have it. The answer to the big question, why are boat steering wheels so big. The big wheel helps navigate the boat with minimal effort, for a better visual and even decrease friction on large ships. We have also gone over the mechanics of a boat steering wheel and some maintenance tips for you. I hope you found this article helpful.  

Please leave us a comment and let us know what you think. Good luck out there on the water, and be safe! Don’t forget to check out our other articles on Boating Guide Magazine.

The large wooden steering wheel of a ship is shown in this file photo.
Wood Steering Wheels Are Tradition.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are Boat Steering Wheels On The Right?

Right side steering goes back a few hundred years. Boats used to be steered by oars. For the most part, oars were on the starboard side of the ship because the majority of people are right-handed. Nowadays, it all has to do with the torque of the propeller. 

When torque is on the propeller, the boat can lean left. So, boat engineers designed boats to keep more weight on the right side of the vessel. Another reason is that boats yield the right of way to the starboard side, making sense to have the helmsman on the right side for better visibility of traffic on the water. 

Does The Captain Steer A Cruise Ship?

The Captain is not in charge of steering a cruise ship. Instead, the Captain is in charge of the crew onboard the boat. For the most part, the ship is driven on autopilot or by computer systems.  


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However, this does not mean that the bridge will be void of crew members. There are generally two navigation officers who report to their staff captain, who are in charge of monitoring the trip’s progress. They will take over manually if circumstances deem it so. 

Hungry for more, me matey?



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