Error trapping and helm commands - “Thinking with Movement”

There was a Panama Canal pilot in my radar class that I took just before getting my third mate’s license.

After we did the first collision avoidance exercise together (6 people in the class 3 radars) he told me to always point when giving helm commands. He said “At some point in your career you will most likely give the wrong command verbally but you will never point the wrong way.”.

I recall making that error one time while entering the west-bound lanes in Singapore from the south. I wanted to go west (turn to port) but had to dodge to stbd around a small vessel first. I pointed to stbd but ordered port rudder. The helmsman repeated the order but he sounded hesitant and confused.

Reading the book “The Extended Mind” by Annie Murphy Paul. In the chapter “Thinking with Movement” the difference between “procedural memory” (riding a bike) as distinct form “declarative memory”


Great advice.

I have seen engine orders goofed also, and hand gestures help to prevent this. It helps to point or gesture aft when ordering astern bells, and point or gesture forward when ordering ahead bells. Especially when on the bridge wing and yelling orders into the wheelhouse, especially so if they are being echoed by an intermediary.

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This is good practice.

It happened a few times during my Pilotage career, be it attributable to fatigue or whatever, although on each occasion I was challenged by the quartermaster after which he was both congratulated and thanked.

I notice that some Pilots also practise this under simulation.


There is some confusion about Right and Left vs Port and Starboard. Sitting in a boat, pushing the handle to the left made the rudder go to the right. Than’s how “Port your Helm” came to mean “Turn the vessel to Starboard.” That way or ordering turns was forbidden before we were all born. Now, orders to put the rudder to the left will turn the vessel to the left.

But … an LST wanting to make a 90-degree left turn and go north could not overcome the wind coming from the north. So, it made a 270-degree right turn. Just like going around a freeway cloverleaf. Sometimes, logic just can’t overcome wind.

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That confusion could be practically eliminated using the principles of “thinking with movement”,

For example, to turn the boat to starboard - first facing forward, raise the right hand (same side as you want to turn the boat). Then, hanging on with your left hand, turn around to face aft - towards the helmsman. Then give the signal by extending the right arm (which will be to port, or the same direction the tiller is to be pushed) while also giving the command.

That way you’ll first raise your hand using your perspective facing forward and then turning aft giving the signal from the helmsman’s perspective. Once it’s verified the tiller is over the correct way turn and face forward again.

Extra people can help, too. Pilot said right easy my best AB at the helm turned the wheel left but I saw and corrected him.