Throughout human history people have been taking to the water in sailing boats, be it for trade, exploration or war. Not until the twentieth century, though, did the idea first surface that a sailing boat might be able to steer itself. In the heyday of the tall ships, and even well into the modern era steering meant hands on the wheel. Crew were plentiful and cheap, and all the work on deck, in the rigging or with the anchor was performed manually. Where brute force was insufficient there were blocks and tackle, cargo runners and, for the anchor, the mechanical advantage of long bars and a capstan. Some of the last generation of tall ships, engaged in their losing battle with the expanding steamship fleet, did carry small steam-powered engines to assist the crew, but steering nevertheless remained a strictly manual task. There were three steering watches and the work was hard - even lashing the helm with a warp helped considerably. The great square-riggers plied the oceans without the help of electric motors or hydraulic systems.
In the early part of the twentieth century, recreational sailing was the preserve of the elite. Yachting was a sport for wealthy owners with large crews, and nobody would have dreamt of allowing the 'prime' position on board, the helm, to be automated.
It was only after the triumph of steam and the ensuing rapid increase in international trade and travel that the human helmsperson gradually became unnecessary; the first autopilot was invented in 1950.
Powerful electrohydraulic autopilots were soon part of the standard equipment on every new ship, and although the wheel was retained, it now came to be positioned to the side of the increasingly important automatic controls. Commercial ships and fishing boats quickly adapted electric or hydraulic systems to just about every task above and below deck - from loading gear, anchor capstans and cargo hatch controls to winches for net recovery and making fast. Before long ships had become complex systems of electric generators and consumers, and as long as the main engine was running there was power in abundance.
Today, the world's commercial and fishing fleets are steered exclusively by autopilots - a fact that should give every blue water sailor pause for thought. Even the most alert watchperson on the bridge of a container ship at 22 knots is powerless to prevent it from ploughing ahead a little longer before gently turning to one side. A freighter on the horizon comes up quickly, particularly since the height of eye on a sailing yacht is virtually zero. Collisions between sailing boats and container ships, as immortalised in the cartoons of Mike Peyton, prey on the mind of every sailor. Horror stories appear time and again in the yachting magazines, and in almost all of them the sailing boat ends up with the fish. Sometimes the sailors are rescued and the story has a happy ending. The tale of one solo sailor whose yacht inadvertently turned the tables on the merchant fleet by steering a fish cutter while he was sleeping caught the attention of the daily press all around the world. As sensational as it is unique, this incident involved the courts as well.
It is tempting on these ground to condemn single-handed sailing as highly dangerous -after all, this skipper has to sleep sooner or later. All too easily overlooked, however, is the fact that commercial vessels the world over are regularly entrusted to a lone pair of eyes on long night watches ... And if they should fall shut, the end result is same: A ghost ship and great danger for any unfortunate seafarer who strays into the wrong place at the wrong time.
The human helm's time at sea is just about up; not only tireless and more reliable, but often more competent as well, the iron helm is making the hand on the tiller all but superfluous. Even through the narrowest straits of the coast of Sweden, Stena Line's large ferries navigate every rock and shoal at full speed with only an autopilot and the Decca pulses of their purpose-designed software at the helm. All that remains for the sailor is a supervisory role - a role which, of course, you can only carry out as long as your eyes stay open!
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