The nerve centre of any ship is the Bridge, although
marine engineers can not understand this statement ! The bridge is
always occupied by an officer on watch when the ship is in service. It
was originally called a 'bridge' because the early paddle steamers were
controlled from a structure built between the paddle boxes to provide good
visibility - as it looked like a bridge, the name stuck !
The ship is also controlled from the bridge. The main controls are
the steering wheel and engine telegraphs. However there are also the docking
telegraphs , the communications systems, radar, charts and flags. Also on
the bridge is the most important navigation tool from the days Balmoral was
built - the compass. Today there is also an electronic chart plotter
and GPS ( global positioning system) so that the Captain will know the
position of the ship to about 2 meters anywhere in the world.
The bridge of a modern passenger ship may not be the highest point as
designers like to give the people who pay the best view, and thus lounges
and often a bar will be at the top of the ship, but the bridge will always
have an excellent view ahead and to both sides, although it may not be
possible to see the stern ( back ) of the ship and some of the communication
and navigation facilities may be in adjacent areas. CCTV cameras and
computer communications mean this isn't a problem on modern ships, but
Balmoral is built to a traditional design. Her bridge is the highest
point and contains all the navigation equipment and control systems - and
apart from modern equipment like radar, GPS and VHF radios, she still
has all her original fittings and they are used to navigate the ship.
The ship is controlled by the Master ( Captain ) or an officer, but is
usually steered by a seaman who responds to orders given to him by the
person in control. These instructions can either be to keep the ship
on a magnetic compass course and to adjust the steering so that the compass
remains on a given heading, so that the ship is continuously pointing in a
certain direction, or he can be told to steer by degrees - to turn the wheel
and hence the rudder by a certain amount. Sometimes the Captain will
ask the helmsman to steer at his discretion but he has to trust the man on
the wheel as the Captain will be responsible if anything goes wrong !
However in the Bristol Channel, the tides and currents are so difficult
that on Campbell's ships, it was not unusual for the Captain to steer the
ship himself when approaching a pier or harbour!
As you can see, while the view ahead and to the sides is excellent, the
view to the rear ( stern ) is awful, and unlike most new ships, Balmoral
does not have extended bridge 'wings' that project over the side, so there
is not much view of what is going on at the back. This is one of the
reasons why it is necessary to maintain a continual lookout all round the
ship and also why it is necessary to have what is known as a docking
telegraph. We will look at these later.
Port and Starboard
Left and Right in nautical terms. The two sides are
also defined by colors.
Port is Red and
Starboard is Green.
An easy way to remember this is
the saying : Is there any red port left ?
This is the wheel in the original wheel house and also the compass.
The steering wheel controls the direction of the rudder and thus the
direction of the ship, while the compass is used to keep the ship on a
particular course. While this is not a problem when in sight of the
shore and if the Captain knows where he is, at night, in bad weather or when
out of sight of land, the compass is a vital tool for navigation. The
compass needle points in the direction of the Earth's magnetic North and is
used to steer the ship, either by giving a direction in degrees or the old
fashioned way by referring to points of the compass. So, steering 090
degrees ( zero nine zero ) would be due East. However before degrees
were used, directions were split into cardinal points, not an issue when
heading, say, West. However if you wanted to head a little bit to the
west of north, the Captain would have to tell the man on the wheel to steer
'North West by North'- it is rather easier to tell the helmsman to steer
327.5 degrees in modern terms - less room for confusion and a lot more
This is a compass rose - North is 0 degrees, East is 090
degrees, South is 180 degrees and West is 270 degrees.
Computers don't understand words so modern navigation
systems all work in degrees which is much easier and less likely to cause
The steering system mechanically links the steering wheel to the rudders
via shafts and gear wheels that run the length of the ship. The steering is
very low geared so that many turns of the wheel are needed to operate the
rudder. Modern ships are computer controlled and many have a joy stick
like a model radio control, but Balmoral has a traditional mechanical
In the 'steering flat' is a hydraulic engine that powers the rudders
although this can be uncoupled and a reserve manual steering linked up in
case of a breakdown. Thus the ship can be steered from the bridge or
from the rear ( poop ) deck although this is hard work and would require a
chain of commands to be sent along the deck ( or by walkie talkie radio as
that's a lot quicker and only needs one person at each end of the
communication chain !) so that the man on the bridge can tell the man on the
wheel what to do. However when all is going well, the system is fully
automatic and a light touch on the steering wheel on the bridge will
immediately alter the position of the rudders - although the system will
take a few seconds to respond and the ship, as she weighs about 750 tons
will take much longer to react. Thus it is important to anticipate and to
The steering is not like a car as it depends on water flowing over the
rudders to alter direction. This is a factor of the speed of the ship
and also the speed and direction of the propellers. When going ahead (
forwards ) there is plenty of water flow and the rudders are effective as
there is something to push on. Going astern ( backwards )there is very
little flow and the ship is not as easy to manoeuvre.
In this case, the Captain can use the engines to assist. As there are
two propellers, one on each side, the direction of each can be altered and
the speed varied so that the ship can be pulled round by one going ahead and
the other astern on each side. The ship does not turn like a car as
the rudders and propellers are at the back. Instead the back of the
ship swings out during a turn and the hull pivots around a point somewhere
under the bridge - this takes a lot of getting used to as the turning the
wheel one way actually pushes the back of the ship the wrong way and
this carries on for several seconds before the bow ( front ) begins to turn
in the desired direction.
That is the easy part of steering - the rest is called navigation and is
the science of getting the ship to its destination without hitting anything
or running aground.
The problem on water is that you can't see what is under the surface and
its always moving- and if you hit something like a rock or a wrecked
ship, your boat may sink. Tides also flow in and out which causes the
water to move at varying speeds at different times of the day and depending
on where you are. At Clevedon the tide can be 6 knots while at
Southampton it may be half that, and the water level rises and falls up to
15 meters in the Bristol Channel in the space of 12 hours, so you have to
know if there is enough water to float your ship and enough depth to avoid
any obstructions on the bottom. There is also the effect of wind on
the ship and all these factors have to be calculated. The one thing
you can be certain is that the ship won't actually travel in the direction
it is pointing. So you need to factor all this into he direction in
which you point your boat.
Then you have to know which way its actually going. The main tool for
navigation in the days when Balmoral was built was the compass. This
is a direction indicator that always points to the Earth's magnetic North.
It is held in gimbals that allow it to move as the ship rocks and rolls so
that it is always level and is very accurate. If you have a map of the
sea area you are in ( a chart ) then you can work out where you are by
taking sightings on land marks and by working out the direction ( bearing )
of each one from your position you can draw lines on the chart to show where
you are - or were when you started taking the measurements! Thus
all you need to do is to know where you are, where you want to go and to
join the two with a line on your chart - the direction of the line in
degrees will be the reading on the compass you want to steer.
If only it was that simple ! Your chart is drawn on a fixed
direction system known as True North so that every one has a similar
orientation, but compass works on Magnetic North which varies slightly every
year and needs to be taken into account before you can convert the magnet
direction ( Magnetic Deviation ) to the true direction. To make it
even worse, most large ships are made of steel, or have steel parts, this
will affect the way the compass needle points. This wouldn't be very
important in an all wooden dinghy, but in a steel ship it can create a huge
error and the compass would be useless - or worse give the wrong readings so
that you were making mistakes. Over long distances, even one degree of
error can make a huge difference to the destination and many ships have been
wrecked because the compass was incorrect. There are two red and green balls
which hold magnets either side of the compass. Before the ship sails, the
compass is adjusted so that as much of the error is removed by changing the
magnets round the outside of the instrument and any remaining errors
are written down on a 'deviation card' so that the officer doing the
navigation and working out where the ship is heading can take all this into
account. He also has to take the tides, currents and wind into account, so
navigating a ship is an extremely complicated business.
Thus when you want to go in a particular direction, the tide and wind
will push the ship in different directions, the speed and direction
over the ground ( course over ground COG ) will not be the same as the
direction through the water, and the compass direction won't be showing
where you want to go - and the water and the local direction and speed of
the tide may alter - all at the same time. So, although you want to go
in a particular direction, you may have to point the bow of the ship
somewhere else - and working out what direction that is, is up to the
navigator ! These days its all done using electronic chart plotters
and GPS, but when Balmoral was built it was done by hand and even today, all
bridge officers must be able to navigate traditionally - if there is a
problem or the power fails, not being able to steer the ship isn't an option
CONTROLLING THE ENGINES
If you are an engineer, then the engine room telegraph is the most
important part of the control system. Modern ships have computer
controlled engines and the man on the Bridge presses buttons and uses a
lever to control the engine speed and direction of the propellers. On
Balmoral, she has a traditional system of engine room telegraphs.
There are two dials for each engine and in the engine room, an engineer is
stationed beside each one.
When the Captain wants to alter the engine output he 'rings down' to the
engine room by moving the handle for the appropriate engine. The
telegraphs are linked and duplicated on the other side of the bridge.
Moving the lever operates a gong in the engine room that can be heard above
the din of the engines and the pointer will then move to the required
command. The engineer's first job is to confirm the command by
altering his own pointer and this moves o the bridge telegraph so that the
arrow will point to the position the Captain has requested. Once that
is done , the engineer alters and engine and gearbox controls to adjust the
engine speed and propeller direction.
The system is a mass of chains, pulleys and linkages but once adjusted is
very reliable, although there are two back up systems, a set of lights and
a system of bell rings. It is very unusual for the system to fail but
if it did, there would be no problem as the reserve system is immediately
available. There is also a note pinned up in the engine room as a sort
of 'if all else fails' instruction - 'continuous ringing of the bell means
full astern' !! . ...just in case !
In addition to ahead and astern, the telegraph has a positions for 'stand
by' . This is to tell the engineers that they will soon be needed.
On a long run there is no need to have the men waiting for an instruction to
alter the engine speed until the ship is approaching its destination.
As it gets near, the Captain will ring down 'stand by' to tell the engine
room crew to be prepared to respond to commands. Likewise when the
ship is tied up to the quay and the engines can be shut down, the bridge
will ring 'finished with engines', releasing the engineers from continual
duty. This saves manpower and a lot of boredom !
There is also a speaking tube system on Balmoral. This is
long out of use on modern ships, but before hand held radios, you had a pipe
that ran from the bridge to the engine room control station. At each end was
a plug with a whistle built into it. If someone at one end wanted to
speak to the other,, they removed their plug and blew hard down the pipe.
This caused the plug at the other end to whistle, so the receiving end
removed their plug, put their ear to the opening .... and could just about
hear what was being shouted from the other end. Simple, reliable two
way communication - and it usually worked !
On the bridge, the engine room telegraph... each of the brass levers is
connected to a dial above the engine control station on that side of the
All ships need a hooter and Balmoral's works from the engines compressed
air supply. It is EXTREMELY loud and always scares the life out of
passengers on the foredeck - however it needs to be loud as it has to
be heard by other ships over the noise of wind and engines.
Like most things on a ship, it has several other uses. It serves as
a signal to evacuate the vessel in an emergency and also tells other water
users what the ship intends to do next. In crowded waters where there
may be people without access to a radio it is easier to use a sound signal.
In this case the horn. If you hear a series of short hoots from a
ship, they are not just given because its saying hello - every signal has a
code. A short blast on the horn is about a second. A long blast is
about 5 seconds.