How the Ship’s Rudder Works – The Basics

Have you ever wondered how a ship’s rudder works or what it is used for? We have all the answers. Here is our ultimate guide to ship rudders!

Even if you have a minimal understanding of maritime terminology, you have probably heard about a ship’s rudder before. While the term “rudder” is used quite often, relatively few people understand their purpose or how a ship’s rudder actually works.

This is where this guide can come in handy. Not only will we explain how a ship’s rudder works, but we will also dive into the many reasons why they are amongst the most essential components of any vessel, regardless of size.

So, if you are ready to learn what ship rudders are and how they work, it’s time to dive right in!

What Is a Ship Rudder?

Simply put, a ship’s rudder is an essential piece of navigation equipment that serves as the vessel’s primary steering means. As you may know, the rudder is almost always on the underside of a ship’s stern or rear.

Essentially, a ship rudder protrudes from the ship and has an almost wing-like structure that sits in the water. To help with steering and navigation, the rudder can be moved using manual or automated controls. When the direction of the rudder is altered, it interacts with the water to change the ship’s direction.

Ship’s Rudder (Photo Credit: Aigars Reinholds / Shutterstock)

Ship rudder movement is important for steering and maneuvering a vessel and plays an essential role in maintaining stability. Without a strong rudder, a ship would be at the mercy of water currents and the direction of the wind.

Where Is the Rudder of a Ship Located?

Rudders are located at the stern of the ship (rear), usually behind the ship’s propellers. This helps direct the flow of water so the ship can be steered. While the rudder can be angled, they are designed to pivot on a vertical turning axis, allowing the ship to move in all directions.

Large Ship Rudder
Large Ship Rudder (Photo Credit: Aytug askin / Shutterstock)

What Are the Main Functions of a Ship’s Rudder?

As mentioned, a ship’s rudder is essential navigation equipment. The following are three of the most important functions that a ship’s rudder is used for on a typical ship.

Steering the Ship

Unsurprisingly, the first and most important function of any ship rudder is to enable the helmsman (driver of the vessel) to steer and maneuver the vessel.

The rudder is controlled directly with the ship’s steering wheel on smaller, less sophisticated vessels. The helmsman can control the rudder with a joystick, computer interface, or even an automated system on larger ships.

Bridge Steering Station
Photo Credit: Gargantiopa / Shutterstock

Regardless of how it is controlled, changing the direction of the rudder generates hydrodynamic forces that can completely change the ship’s direction. While the ship’s propulsion system keeps it moving forward, the rudder force directs forward momentum.

Enabling Course Adjustments

While the primary purpose of a ship’s rudder is to give the helmsman the ability to steer the ship, another essential function is the ability to alter and maintain the vessel’s course. While this may sound like the same thing, it is a slightly different function.

Officer on the Bridge
Officer on the Bridge (Photo Credit: Lakeview Images / Shutterstock)

When a ship moves in its desired direction, various external forces can push against it and alter its course. By moving the rudder to counteract forces like wind, water currents, and waves, the rudder can be used to ensure that the ship stays on its intended and chartered course.

Improving the Stability of the Ship

Not only do ship rudders play a central role in steering and keeping it on course by counteracting external forces, but they also contribute to the overall stability of a vessel.

What is the port side
Photo Credit: NAPA / Shutterstock

This is because the rudder protrudes from the ship and helps provide a degree of resistance against the forces that would up-end the ship if nothing acted against them.

While safe weight distribution, stabilizer fins, bilge keels, and internal gyroscopic stabilizers also contribute to the overall stability of a ship, the rudder helps counteract external forces that would make a ship far less stable in rough seas.

How Does a Ship Rudder Work?

Now that you know what a ship’s rudder is used for, it is time to explain how they function. Basically, a ship rudder operates on two fundamental principles:

Hydrodynamic Force

Essentially, hydrodynamic forces are forces generated when water flows against something, creating pressure and drag along an object, which leads to negative pressure on the downstream side of the object.

While this may sound pretty complicated, the essential takeaway is that the blade of a ship’s rudder moves the flowing water to create pressure differences towards its rear intentionally. When this occurs, the ship will move in the opposite direction.

Cruise Ship Rudder in Water
Cruise Ship Rudder in Water (Photo Credit: Ian Geraint Jones / Shutterstock)

In other words, the movements of the ship’s rudder can generate hydrodynamic forces that will turn the ship. The vessel can be steered and maneuvered by manipulating these forces by angling the rudder.

Angled Deflection of Water

Not only will the direction in which the rudder is pointed generate hydrodynamic forces that can steer the ship, but it can also be angled to modify these forces, allowing ships to make sudden changes in direction and sharp turns. Slightly angling the rudder also makes it possible to straighten and maintain a specific course.

Ship Rudder
Ship Rudder at Work (Photo Credit: NZ3 / Shutterstock)

How Do Cruise Ship Rudders Work?

While you may assume that larger vessels must have much more complicated systems than a rudder, they are steered using the same basic principles. Naturally, the scale of a cruise ship’s rudder is far greater than what you would see on a much smaller boat.

Vessel Rudder in Use
Vessel Rudder in Use (Photo Credit: muratart / Shutterstock)

With that said, due to the size and weight of a cruise ship’s enormous rudder, it must be directed using powerful systems and complicated controls. Mostly, a typical cruise ship rudder is adjusted and moved using an electro-hydraulic system.

Basically, powerful hydraulic systems adjust the angle of the heavy rudder. These powerful systems can handle the rudder’s weight and the enormous hydrodynamic forces pressing against it. 

Where Is a Cruise Ship Rudder Controlled From?

Unlike a smaller boat, which relies on a steering wheel to control the rudder, navigating a full-size cruise ship is incredibly complicated and requires an entire crew. This navigational crew operates out of the ship’s bridge, which acts as its primary control center.

Using a combination of control interfaces, the crew, or an automated navigation system, will direct the ship’s rudder to maintain the ship’s course.

Cruise Ship Rudder Control
Cruise Ship Rudder Control (Photo Credit: Evannovostro / Shutterstock)

Information is sent to the electro-hydraulic systems using joysticks, steering wheels, or computer systems. The rudder’s direction and angle are adjusted when this information is received.

Sensors measure the rudder’s angle and direction with incredible precision. This information is instantly displayed on the ship’s navigation console so the relevant crew members can track the ship’s course.

What Is a Ship’s Rudder Made Out Of?

While the build material will depend on the size of the rudder and the type of ship it will be attached to, they are almost always made from high-strength materials, such as steel, aluminium alloys, or durable composite materials.

Ship Rudder During Dry Dock
Ship Rudder During Dry Dock (Photo Credit: Mariusz Niedzwiedzki / Shutterstock)

For cruise ships, the rudder is almost always made of high-grade stainless steel because it needs to withstand incredible forces and resist corrosion for the ship’s lifespan.

There are different types of ship rudders, although they are all very similar in terms of design and purpose. Some of the most common include a spade rudder, skeg rudder, and flap rudder. Each type is designed to match the unique needs of different types and sizes of ships.

Inspecting Cruise Ship Rudders

The rudders of cruise ships need to be inspected regularly. Like all important vessel components, the rudder must be inspected for signs of rust, damage, or excessive wear and tear.

Ship Rudder Inspection
Ship Rudder Inspection (Photo Credit: Iam_Anuphone / Shutterstock)

If maintenance is required, it must be done before the ship can take on passengers again. Regular maintenance tasks can include re-coating the surface of the rudder with a corrosion-resistant pain, replacing damaged or dented sections, and cleaning any stuck-on debris from the rudder’s surface.

Can the Rudder of a Ship Fail or Break While a Ship Is at Sea?

Yes, a ship’s rudder can fail while the vessel is at sea. Rudders can jam, become damaged due to a collision with an object, or even just lose the ability to be controlled due to some sort of system failure.

Cruise Ship Aft
Photo Credit: NAPA / Shutterstock

When this occurs, the ship can lose its primary steering capabilities; however, the best ships have fall-back systems that allow the ship to be steered, even if it is less efficient. 

One of Royal Caribbean’s ships was impacted by a technical issue that impacted one of its rudders. The problem was resolved immediately, resulting in only a short delay in departure.

How Big Is a Ship’s Rudder?

Naturally, the dimensions of a ship’s rudder will depend largely upon the size of the ship itself. Larger ships need much larger rudders, as they need to be capable of directing a greater volume of water to steer the ship.

Rudder width is a measurement used to describe the horizontal length of the rudder’s blade. This measurement will let you know how much of the surface area of the rudder can actually direct water when it is maneuvered.

Large Ship Rudder
Large Ship Rudder (Photo Credit: Eastimages / Shutterstock)

As you would expect, a larger rudder will have a much longer rudder width, while smaller vessels use rudders that have a relatively small rudder width.

Not only can a larger rudder width help direct and handle a larger vessel, it aids with stability. This is why full-sized cruise ships use massive ship rudders that have a significant width.

What Is the Rudder Stock?

The rudder stock on a ship is the vertical piece that connects the rudder’s main blade to the ship itself. Not only does it hold the rudder’s primary blade in place and keep it firmly connected to the ship, it allows the rudder to be pivoted in direction. This pivoting motion is what allows the ship to change direction.

Cruise Ship Propeller
Photo Credit: El Greco 1973 / Shutterstock

Like the rudder blade, the rudder stock needs to be made from an incredibly durable material, as it needs to withstand immense pressure and force from the surrounding water. In most cases, it will be made from a high-strength steel that is given a long-lasting corrosion-resistant coating.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do cruise ships have rudders?

Yes, most cruise ships use modern rudders for adjusting the direction and maintaining stability. With that said, some rely on other systems, like pod propulsion.

Pod propulsion is where the ship’s propeller systems can move from side to side. This eliminates the need for a rudder, as the propellers themselves can be steered. Within the cruise line industry, the name for this type of system is Azipod.

How does a rudder help keep a ship stable?

A ship rudder protrudes from the vessel and helps to provide some resistance against the lateral forces acting upon the ship, even in rough seas. By doing so, it can help to counteract some of the forces of wind and water currents that are pushing against the ship.

Why is it called a ship’s rudder?

“Rudder” comes from the Old English word “rodor,” which roughly translates to a boat’s paddle or oar. The word also has a Germanic root, meaning “a tool for steering.” Given a ship’s rudder’s essential role in steering, it is no wonder why this Old English word was adopted. 

Final Words

The rudder is an incredibly important piece of steering equipment on most maritime vessels. They are essential for navigation and steering and help keep the ship stable and safe while it is at sea.

Read Also: The Anatomy of a Cruise Ship Anchor Chain

While rudders have changed quite a bit since they were used to steer the earliest boats, they still follow the same fundamental principles when manipulating water and using hydrodynamic forces to steer a ship.

While Azipod propulsion systems are beginning to replace rudders on some of the largest and latest cruise ships, modern rudders are still used to steer many cruise ships. Cruise ship designers will continue to enhance the design of rudders to improve their reliability and precision.

Emrys Thakkar
Emrys Thakkar
The founder of Cruise Hive which was established in 2008 as one of the earliest cruise blogs in the industry. Emrys has been reporting on the latest cruise industry news since the site first launched. Expert insights and tips featured on a number of publications including The Express, Business Insider, and more. Worked for Carnival Cruise Line for 8 years and is well and truly dedicated to cruising! Has also been on a number of cruises so can offer an insight into the industry that many will not be able to do. What's even more impressive is that Emrys has traveled the world by visiting more than 34 countries, lived in China for 8 years, and cruised the Caribbean, Baltic, Mediterranean, Asia, and Europe. Find out more about us here.


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