Saturday, April 20, 2013

Sailor Mouth Saturday: Steer

Most of us are familiar with today's word. We steer our cars, our bicycles, our skateboards, our lives; and steer at sea has similar meaning. Not surprisingly perhaps, it has different ones as well.

Steering, according to the oft-quoted Admiral Smyth, comes from the Anglo-Saxon word steoran. To quote the Admiral once again:

The perfection of steering consists in a vigilant attention to the motion of the ship's head, so as to check every deviation from the line of her course in the first instant of its commencement, and in applying as little of the power of the helm as possible, for the action of the rudder checks a ship's speed.

Thus a skilled helmsman is capable of keeping a ship at her optimal speed while staying on her optimal course. A helmsman might also be called a steersman for this very reason. As an aside, the word for helmsman in French is timonier, from the French word for helm: timon. Thus in the Cinque Ports era and somewhat beyond, the word timoneer might be used for the steersman.

To steer large is to allow her to go free or to steer her loosely. To steer her small is the opposite; as the Admiral puts it "to steer well and within small compass, not dragging the tiller over from side to side." To steer her course is to go with a fair wind, allowing it to move the ship along on her charted course. Steerage way indicates the ship has enough room to use her helm effectively for steering.

An old, and the Admiral notes incorrect, term for studding sails is steering-sails.

Steerage, that fateful term so familiar to many an American whose ancestors came over in it, originally meant the act of steering. Steerage, when one spoke of the decks of a fighting ship, often referred to where the mechanisms of the helm worked their way to the tiller. Thus, the deck below the quarter and immediately before the bulkhead of the great cabin was steerage. Sometimes, the Admiral's cabin on the middle deck of a three-decker was known by this name. When passenger ships came into vogue in the late 19th century, steerage acquired its less-than-savory reputation as the lowest deck before the bilge where the least of the passengers were crammed together like the rats among them. It is only one such as Jame Cameron, in his high fantasy film Titanic, who would have the temerity to portray this steerage as the most delightful and carefree deck aboard a liner.

And finally, on a similar note, there is the word steeving, which applies to the painting above. In this now mostly archaic form of rigging, the bowsprit's angle was some 70 or 80 degrees above the horizon. This made it a proper mast upon which a sail could be rigged as shown.

And with that, I wish you a happy Saturday once again and all steerage way upon your cruises, Brethren.

Header: HMS Surprise by Randal Wilson via NAVART


Timmy! said...

This post made me think of Barret Bonden in "Master and Commander", Pauline... since he was always at the helm.

Pauline said...

"I'm really tired..." But that was only in the movie, in all fairness.

Irwin Bryan said...


I was of the impression that "steerage way" meant enough way, or speed through the water, for the rudder and the ship to respond to the tiller or helm's actions.

Pauline said...

And so it is. To quote Admiral Smyth: "Steerage-Way: When a vessel has sufficient motion in the water to admit of the helm being effective."

My sincere apologies if I gave a different impression.