Some people believe there is a mistake in the movie Titanic. The lookout
spots an iceberg straight ahead but slightly off to starboard (right).
He telephones the command deck with the news, and then the officer shouts to
the man at the helm "Hard a' starboard!" upon which the man
starts turning the wheel to port (left) and after some turning shouts back
"Hard'a starboard. The helm is hard over, sir."
The order is to turn the helm to starboard but we see the man turning
the wheel to port. Is there a mistake or contradiction? No.
There is no mistake or contradiction. This is correct.
Traditionally orders and references to the helm were referred to the tiller
and not to the rudder and that is the way it still is on most small sailboats.
"Helm hard to starboard" means the tiller is to starboard which means the
rudder is to port and the ship will be turning to port. Even after
ships had steering wheels or other mechanical means of handling the tiller the
orders and other references anways referred to the tiller. To turn the
tiller to starboard the wheel is turned to port so there is no contradiction.
Sometime in the 20th century the American navy changed this and orders
were then referred to the rudder and not to the tiller. I am not
exactly certain when this change was made but it should be easily found.
This was probably also done so that orders and references would be more
precise as they were now done in degrees: "Rudder 15º to port".
This allowed greater precision and also removed the apparent contradiction
that the helmsman was to turn the wheel in the opposite direction of the
helm order he was given.
Let us imagine an old ship where the captain wanted to come about from port to
starboard tack. The captain would never get involved in the details or in
giving particular orders to the sailors. He would call the first mate and
tell him what he wanted done and it was up to the first mate to carry out the
order in his own way. The mate would then order the men to "stand by
to come about!" and the men would take their posts ready for the operation.
When everything was ready the mate would tell the captain "Ready to
come about, sir!". Then the captain would give the order to come about
and the first order given was the mate to the helmsman to turn the helm down to
leeward so the ship would start turning into the wind. The helmsman would
turn the helm to leeward for which, if the ship had a wheel, he would turn the
wheel to windward, and once the helm was full to leeward he would shout
"Helm's a'lee, sir!". Of course, in a small boat this is immediately
apparent but in a large ship it was not and needed to be communicated.
So, we see that to turn the boat into the wind the helmsman needs to turn the
rudder to windward for which he needs to turn the helm (tiller) to leeward,
for which he needs to turn the wheel to windward. Confusing? No!
I can tell you that you learn this on your first day of sailing and it is not
confusing at all.
Here is an account by Richard Henry Dana in
Two Years Before The Mast published in 1840.
The second day out, the wind drew ahead, and we had to beat up the coast; so that, in tacking ship, I could see the regulations of the vessel. Instead of going wherever was most convenient, and running from place to place, wherever work was to be done, each man had his station. A regular tacking and wearing bill was made out. The chief mate commanded on the forecastle, and had charge of the head sails and the forward part of the ship. Two of the best men in the ship, the sail-maker from our watch, and John, the Frenchman, from the other, worked the forecastle. The third mate commanded in the waist, and, with the carpenter and one man, worked the main tack and bowline; the cook, ex officio, the fore sheet, and the steward the main. The second mate had charge of the after yards, and let go the lee fore and main braces. I was stationed at the weather cross-jack braces; three other light hands at the lee; one boy at the spanker-sheet and guy; a man and a boy at the main topsail, top-gallant, and royal braces; and all the rest of the crew-- men and boys-- tallied on to the main brace. Every one here knew his station, must be there when all hands were called to put the ship about, and was answerable for the ropes committed to him. Each man's rope must be let go and hauled in at the order, properly made fast, and neatly coiled away when the ship was about. As soon as all hands are at their stations, the captain, who stands on the weather side of the quarter-deck, makes a sign to the man at the wheel to put it down, and calls out ``Helm's a lee'!'' ``Helm's a lee'!'' answers the mate on the forecastle, and the head sheets are let go. ``Raise tacks and sheets!'' says the captain; ``tacks and sheets!'' is passed forward, and the fore tack and main sheet are let go. The next thing is to haul taut for a swing. The weather cross-jack braces and the lee main braces are belayed together upon two pins, and ready to be let go, and the opposite braces hauled taut. ``Main topsail haul!'' shouts the captain; the braces are let go; and if he has chosen his time well, the yards swing round like a top; but if he is too late, or too soon, it is like drawing teeth. The after yards are then braced up and belayed, the main sheet hauled aft, the spanker eased over to leeward, and the men from the braces stand by the head yards. ``Let go and haul!'' says the captain; the second mate lets go the weather fore braces, and the men haul in to leeward. The mate, on the forecastle, looks out for the head yards. ``Well the fore topsail yard!'' ``Top-gallant yard's well!'' ``Royal yard too much! Haul in to windward! So! well that!'' ``Well all!'' Then the starboard watch board the main tack, and the larboard watch lay forward and board the fore tack and haul down the jib sheet, clapping a tackle upon it if it blows very fresh. The after yards are then trimmed, the captain generally looking out for them himself. ``Well the cross-jack yard!'' ``Small pull the main top-gallant yard!'' ``Well that!'' ``Well the mizzen topsail yard!'' ``Cross-jack yards all well!'' ``Well all aft!'' ``Haul taut to windward!'' Everything being now trimmed and in order, each man coils up the rigging at his own station, and the order is given, ``Go below the watch!''
Books which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the old days of sail are
the already mentioned
Two Years Before The Mast and, also by Henry Dana The Seaman's Friend,
a Treatise on Practical Seamanship. These books give a fascinating account
of what life was like aboard a ship in the early-mid 19th century.
Another very interesting book is The Making of a Sailor or Sea Life Aboard a
Yankee Square-Rigger by Frederick Pease Harlow. This is the best description
of the hard life of an American sailor in the 1870s. Harlow, from New England, describes
his first coastal voyage on a schooner, down the coast and up the Chesapeake and the Potomac.
Then he tells of his long voyage to Australia on a square rigger. The book is fascinating
and easy to read even if you don't fully understand all the nautical terms. It is well
documented with sea chanteys, pictures and explanatory footnotes.
Other relatively recent changes implemented to simplify and clarify nautical jargon
are courses and bearings are now expressed in sexagesimal degrees instead
of the old 32 points of the compass and the change of the old "larboard",
which could easily be misunderstood as "starboard" for "port" which replaced
"larboard" in the early 20th century.