To be at the controls - Nautical field

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James Brandon

Senior Member
English + French - UK
When it comes to flying aeroplanes, the phrase is: "the controls", "to be at the controls". I was wondering whether this phrase can be used when referring to a modern ship that has all the kind of equipment, for navigation, that a plane would have. I don't believe it is used for a ship, however. The next question is: what would one say for a ship (as opposed to an aircraft)? In French, "les instruments de navigation" could be used for both a ship and an aircraft, I believe, although I am not 100% sure. I suppose, for a ship, in English, one could talk about "navigation instruments", "navigation equipment", or "navigation system". What about the phrase, "to be at the controls"? The verb "to steer" should be brought into it, perhaps ("the captain was steering the ship"), and "steering equipment" might be used.

Suggestions from old sea dogs and others most welcome...
 
  • MrPedantic

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    Hello James

    "At the helm" seems more appropriate, for a sea-going vessel.

    Perhaps "at the controls" seems more appropriate for a plane because one man could very well be "driving" it; whereas on a ship, several people might be involved.

    MrP
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    MrPedantic has the best term for large craft, and for figurative use-- one can be "at the helm" of a large corporation, for example.

    "At the wheel" is a synonym, and more appropriate for older and smaller craft, specifically those that ply rivers. Ships have helms, boats have wheelhouses-- older ships simply have a wheel amidships, out on the open desk just fore of the mainmast. When ship design changed so that the fore and aftcastles became part of the main deck and a superstructure was mounted amidships, the wheel could be located in a place of vantage, making the crowsnest obsolete, and I'd say that's when the wheelman probably started feeling he was "at the helm."

    The word is related to "holm," an early-Medieval word meaning a central high spot in wooded hilly country, where the Saxons would station a sentry or command post. In later times, 9th century or so, when the land-based Saxons clashed more and more with Danes, a holm was a channel or estuary island that the same use in the nautical "field."

    In stern-steered craft, of course, "at the helm" is either wrong or mock-heroic, and "at the tiller" is what you'd want to say. "Rudder" is too inelegant a word, as it originally meant a specialized rear-mounted "rower" on a raft or other clumsy freight-humping rig, and it both steered and powered, and was sometimes used as a poler would, to lever the old tub off a high spot. Why can't a man get a decent chart of this cursed waterway?
    .
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    I knew there would be at least one expert out there on the art of navigation... Thanks and this clarifies the point. For some reason (and probably because I am not familiar with either flying planes or steering boats), the fact "at the controls" merely translates into "at the helm" or "at the wheel", when it comes to ships, did not occur to me, partly also because I was looking for a word relating to a complex set of navigation instruments, as found in a modern/big ship. Would you say "navigation instruments" by the way? "Navigation system" is used and is general in meaning...
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    James Brandon said:
    I was looking for a word relating to a complex set of navigation instruments, as found in a modern/big ship. Would you say "navigation instruments" by the way? "Navigation system" is used and is general in meaning...
    As far as I know Navigation is the term, and it's a specialized part of the general "helm,"whether the navigator (and/or his crew) use a sextant or a state-of-the-art computerized system. It's a collective noun, like "the Galley" or the Infirmary or "sick bay"-- or like Steerage was, before it came to mean everything in the ship "below the waterline."

    And by the way, you do "drive" a boat if it's engine-powered. You steer a barge, pilot a large riverboat or tug, and "captain" a ship. To pilot (not pirate) a ship is to take over a captain's command, legitimately and temporarily-- as a channel or harbor pilot is sometimes required by law to do.
    .
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Foxfirebrand,
    Useful clarifications - thank you very much, and I can see you have all the vocab at the tip of your fingers on the keyboard. So, would you actually say "navigation instruments", to mean the lot, or not?
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    James Brandon said:
    So, would you actually say "navigation instruments", to mean the lot, or not?
    Well yes, it makes sense and is correct. But it refers to the instruments, not the whole area of navigation. The navigator uses and has control of the navigation (or navigational) instruments, but his area of responsibility, or in military terms his rating or "job description," is simply Navigation.

    If you're talking about the breakdown of the ship's infrastructure, into the bridge (that's actually the modern and military word for "helm," by the way), the galley, the dispensary and so forth, you might refer to the "navigation system." But that's part of the bridge, just as the dispensary is part of the infirmary (known collectively as sick bay).

    What's the ordnance on this ship?
    (such-and-such kind of torpedos, missiles, guns, whatever)
    What's the navigation system on this ship?
    (such-and-such technical components, GPS, Loran, radar-- whatever applies)
    What's the command structure?
    (she's the flagship, or an oiler in the such-and-such carrier group, or a barracks ship in shore support, or whatever)
    .
     

    James Brandon

    Senior Member
    English + French - UK
    Foxfirebrand,
    Thanks and this answers the question. Your knowledge of matters maritime appears related to the naval side of things, more so than the sea-freight side of the exercise, if you don't mind my saying so.
    Cheers!
     
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