Why Are Boat Steering Wheels on the Right Side? Unlock the Mystery with this Guide

why are boat steering wheels on the right

Are you a boater who’s wondering why are boat steering wheels on the right? You’re not alone. I was there myself some time ago, finding the right-side setup a bit odd. This is a common situation, especially for new boaters as many of us are used to driving cars with steering wheels on the left. 

But there’s a fascinating story behind this seemingly peculiar design choice. In this article, we’ll dive into the historical, practical, and safety reasons behind right-side steering in boats. We’ll also explore regional differences, advantages, and how it compares to driving a car. 

So, set sail with me, and let’s navigate the interesting world of boat steering wheel placement and uncover the secrets behind this age-old maritime tradition.

Before we start, if you’ve ever wondered why the steering wheel of a boat is called ‘helm’, dive into the fascinating history, symbolism, components, and functionality in our in-depth boat helms article .

Historical Background on the Location of the Boat Steering Wheel & Misconceptions Created as a Result

steering wheels on the right side
The early use of oars on the right side of the boat may have contributed to the development of right-side steering systems.

Boating has come a long way since the days of primitive navigation. Early boat navigation methods relied heavily on manpower and basic tools like oars, poles, and paddles. 

Interestingly, oars were traditionally installed on the right side of the boat. As the more natural position for a right-handed person to use them. 

This early use of right-sided control may have contributed to the development of right-side steering systems.

As boats became larger and more complex, the need for an efficient way to steer them became clear. Enter the tiller and rudder – a game-changing innovation in boat steering. 

The tiller, a long, horizontal lever attached to the rudder, allowed sailors to direct a boat’s course with greater ease. By pushing the tiller to the left or right, the rudder would pivot, changing the boat’s direction. 

As boats continued to evolve, the need for more sophisticated steering systems grew. This led to the development of the ship’s wheel, a circular device connected to the rudder via ropes, pulleys, or gears. The ship’s wheel enabled sailors to steer larger vessels more effectively.

These advances also created misconceptions about the placement of steering wheels on boats. 

One common misconception that still exists today, is that UK boat manufacturers somehow managed to maintain steering wheels on the right side in boats they sold in North American. 

It’s true that British boats often have right-side steering wheels. However, this doesn’t explain why the majority of boats around the world follow the right-hand side setup.

Another misconception is that the location of the boat steering wheel on the right-hand side was due to the fact that most boaters are right-handed and this setup is more comfortable when using the boat throttle.

While this idea may have some basic merit, it doesn’t quite hit the mark in explaining the real reasons behind right-side steering wheels on boats.

In the next sections, we’ll explore the reasons for right-side steering and debunk these misconceptions. Get ready to set sail on a journey of discovery, as we navigate through the fascinating world of boat steering wheels!

4 Reasons Why Boat Steering Wheels Are on the Right

Historical Reason

The right-side placement of boat steering wheels has deep historical roots. It dates back to ancient times when boats steering used a large paddle called a steered oar. 

As most people were right-handed, steering oars were typically installed on the right-hand side (starboard) of the boat. This allowed the helmsman to use their dominant hand for better control and leverage when steering the vessel.

Over time, these historical preferences passed down through generations boat builders. This helped solidify the right-side placement of steering wheels as a standard feature in modern boats.

Visibility and Marine Regulations

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) handles the Collision Regulations (COLREGS). This regulation defines the conduct of vessels to prevent collisions on the water. Their goal is to ensure the safety and smooth navigation of all vessels.

One aspect of COLREGS requires boats to keep to the right on narrow water paths. Having the steering wheel and controls on the right-hand side of the boat aligns with this rule and provides better visibility for the helmsman. 

This positioning allows the person steering the boat to have a clear view of their surroundings. And also to anticipate and react to potential hazards more effectively.

The Boat Right of Way

The right of way rules are an essential aspect of boating safety. These rules help prevent collisions and establish a framework for the behavior of boats when meeting one another on the water.

When two boats approach each other, the boating right-of-way rules determine which vessel has the priority to maintain its course and speed. They also determine which vessel must yield or alter its course to avoid a collision. 

Generally, the boat on the right, or the “stand-on” vessel, has the right of way and does not need to change course. The boat on the left, or the “give-way” vessel, needs to adjust its course to prevent a collision.

Having the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the boat, away from the oncoming boat on the left, makes it much easier for the helmsman to see what’s in front of the boat.  

This setup helps the boat operator steer the boat better to avoid hitting things, and to see other boats or objects that could affect the maneuver.

Mechanical Reasons

This reason may be less well-known and involves some technical concepts. 

Boat propellers typically spin clockwise, which can result in some torque pushing the left side of the boat down by 2 to 5 degrees. So, boat designers aim to compensate for this incline by placing the steering wheel and controls, and so the boat driver, on the starboard (right) side.

Here you have it, these are four primary reasons that help answer the question of why are boats steering wheels on the right.

Because of these reasons, most boats now have their steering wheels on the right side. So next time you’re boating, remember to appreciate the smart design that went into it!

Advantages of Right-Side Steering in Boats

Most boats now have their steering wheels on the right side because it provides many advantages. 

In this section we’ll discuss these benefits, and why boaters and manufacturers prefer right-side steering.

Visibility and Safety

Right-side steering makes it easier for the person driving the boat to see better, especially in tight spaces or when passing other boats on the left. This helps them avoid things like rocks, other boats, or debris in the water that could be dangerous.

When the boat is approaching other vessels from the left, having the steering wheel and controls on the right side gives the person driving the boat a better view of the waterway. So they can make better decisions and avoid potential hazards. This helps keep everyone on the boat safe.

Ergonomics and Ease of Use

As most people are right-handed, placing the steering wheel and controls on the right side of the boat offers a more ergonomic and comfortable experience for the majority of boaters.   

They can use their stronger hand to steer and operate controls, which gives them better control and makes it easier to move the boat around. 

This makes boating feel more natural and enjoyable.

Maneuverability and Docking

Putting the steering wheel and controls on the right side of the boat also helps with maneuvering and docking. 

It gives the person driving the boat a better view of the right side of the boat, which is  the side often used for docking. 

With this clearer view, they can better judge the distance and steer the boat more accurately when approaching a dock. 

 It also helps to compensate for the propeller’s clockwise rotation, which tends to push the boat’s stern to the port side when in reverse.

Regional Differences in Steering Wheel Placement in Boats

wheels on boat
Dual steering provides enhanced control options and redundancy. This setup is useful in low visibility situations or in case of mechanical failure.

Most boats worldwide use right-side steering, but some areas have unique setups. Let’s look at steering wheel locations in different places, and how culture and history affect them.

Steering Wheel Placement in Other Regions

Most boats worldwide use right-side steering, and some areas have unique setups due to history, practicality, and safety. 

Yet, a few exceptions exist, like Japan, where some boats have left-side steering, matching the left-hand road traffic. 

A small number of boats in the UK and Australia might also use left-side steering, but this is uncommon.

Influence of Cultural and Historical Factors

Culture and history influence regional steering wheel placement preferences. Right-side steering in boats can be traced back to steered oars and visibility needs for sails and rigging. Maritime trade and naval fleet coordination also contributed to right-side steering’s popularity.

In countries with left-hand traffic, like Japan, the UK, and Australia, some boats have left-side steering reflecting the broader cultural context. But, these cases are rare, and right-side steering is still the global standard.

Exceptions and Interesting Cases

Some unique cases and exceptions exist for boat steering wheel placement. For example, racing powerboats tipically have a central steering position. This provides balance weight distribution, better performance, and a clear view for the helmsman.

Dual console boats may have two steering stations – one on the right and one on the left. This allow for greater flexibility and redundancy. Especially if the primary steering station is compromised or visibility is limited.

Are There Any Boats with Steering Wheels on the Left?

Yes, some boats have left-side steering wheels, but they’re less common than right-side steering. In countries with left-hand traffic like Japan, the UK, and Australia, a few boats might have left-side steering to match the local culture and traffic systems.

Some boat types, like dual-console boats, can have a left-side steering wheel along with the usual right-side one. This design gives more control options, especially in difficult situations where the main steering station has problems or visibility is poor.

Though left-side steering wheels exist on some boats, right-side steering is the global standard due to its practical, historical, and safety benefits.

Key Differences Between Steering a Boat and a Car

Steering a boat differs significantly from steering a car in several key aspects. Here are some of the most notable differences: 

Response Time: Boats generally have a slower response time compared to cars. When you turn the steering wheel in a car, the vehicle responds almost instantly. In contrast, boats take more time to react to steering inputs due to factors such as water resistance and hull design. This requires boaters to anticipate turns and make adjustments earlier than they would in a car.

No Brakes: Unlike cars, boats don’t have brakes to stop or slow down quickly. Instead, boaters must rely on shifting the throttle to neutral or reverse to reduce speed or come to a stop. This means that stopping distances are much greater on the water than on the road, and boaters must plan accordingly.

Drift and Current: Boats face drift and current which can significantly impact steering and maneuverability. Unlike car’s tires gripping the road, boats can slide or drift sideways in the water, especially when facing strong currents or winds. Boaters must constantly adjust their course to compensate for these external forces.

Propeller Torque: As mentioned earlier, boat propeller spin can create a torque effect that pushes the left side of the boat down. This is not a problem found in cars. So boaters must learn to manage this effect when steering and maneuvering their vessels.

Visibility: Visibility is often more restricted on boats than in cars.  Particularly when it comes to judging distances and spotting potential hazards. This makes it crucial for boaters to maintain a proper lookout and use navigation aids to ensure safe and accurate steering.

Final words

I hope you now have the answer to the question why are boats steering wheels on the right? As we’ve explored in this article, the reasons are rooted in historical, practical, and safety-related factors. So the next time you’re out on the water, take a moment to appreciate the history and thinking behind the placement of your boat’s steering wheel!

Want to master boat navigation? Discover the ins and outs of boating right of way scenarios.

And don’t forget to browse our other helpful boating guides for more tips and advice on everything boating-related. 


Do boats have steering wheels?

Yes, most boats have steering wheels, especially powerboats and larger sailing vessels. The steering wheel is a key component that allows the operator to control the boat’s direction by manipulating the rudder or drive unit.

Why is the steering wheel on the left side of a boat?

The steering wheel is typically on the right side of a boat, not the left. This is due to historical, practical, and safety-related reasons, such as the use of steered oars, improved visibility, and adherence to right-of-way rules. However, there are some regional exceptions and unique cases where the steering wheel may be on the left side of a boat.

Why are steering wheels on one side?

Steering wheels are placed on one side of the boat for better visibility and control. By having the steering wheel on the right side, the operator can maintain a clear view of the surroundings, especially when adhering to marine right-of-way rules and navigating narrow waterways.

What are the physics involved in boat steering?

The physics behind steering a boat involves the interaction of the rudder or drive unit with the surrounding water. When the steering wheel is turned, it changes the angle of the rudder or drive unit, creating a force that pushes the water in the opposite direction, causing the boat to turn. The boat’s momentum, hull shape, and water resistance also play a role in steering dynamics.

Why do ships have two steering wheels?

Some larger ships, like dual-console boats or certain sailing vessels, may have two steering wheels for redundancy and flexibility. Having two steering stations allows for better control and visibility under various conditions, and provides a backup in case one steering system fails.

Can boats be steered while in reverse?

Boats can be steered in reverse, but the process is different and less precise than steering in forward motion. In reverse, the boat’s stern will move in the direction opposite to the turn of the steering wheel, and the boat’s response may be slower due to water resistance and propeller dynamics.

Does steering a boat resemble steering a car?

Steering a boat is not exactly like steering a car. While both involve turning a wheel to change direction, boats have slower response times, no brakes, and are subject to drift and current, making boat steering a unique skill that requires anticipation and adjustments.

What is the term for the location of a boat’s steering wheel?

The area on a boat where the steering wheel is located is called the helm. The helm typically includes the boat’s steering wheel, throttle controls, and other essential navigation and control equipment.

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Hi, I'm Tim and I've been a boat enthusiast for as long as I can remember. I've spent countless hours on the water and love sharing my knowledge and experience with others. When I'm not working, you can usually find me out on my boat with my family, exploring new places and enjoying the beautiful scenery.