The sea has always been a source of inspiration for landlubber tattoo artists. So let’s take a closer look at the wooden device which keeps a ship on course…

In the beginning there were Egyptians

Examples of early ship’s wheels date back to the times of the ancient Egyptians, around 3000 B.C. though they used an odd device which is quite different from what is common today. It was a sort of “side rudder” formed of some oars mounted on just one side of the vessel.

The turning point came in the 12th century when the side rudder finally gave way to the nautical instrument we know today, the wooden “ship’s wheel” with an indefinite number of spokes, connected to a rudder mounted at the stern on a pintle and gudgeon.

Daniela Sagel, On The Road, Salzburg, Austria
Daniela Sagel, On The Road, Salzburg, Austria

Modern rudders

On more modern ships, the rudders are assisted by computerised systems which obviously also act as automatic pilot. In some cases such as those exceptional ships like aircraft carriers or transatlantic liners, there are two side propellers which boost the main propeller.

The driving force of this side propeller is of enormous help in shifting the ship in the opposite direction of any obstacle, whether this be another vessel, a natural phenomenon or when they draw close to the harbour.

Shaun Topper, Captured Tattoo, Old Town Tustin, USA
Shaun Topper, Captured Tattoo, Old Town Tustin, USA

The De Gaulle statement

The choice of a Traditional tattoo of the ship’s wheel can often be associated with the famous aphorism of Charles De Gaulle – general in time of war and then President of the French Republic from 1959 al 1969 who, speaking about himself, said, «Those in command must be concise, precise and always at the helm». De Gaulle was right, seeing how aboard a ship a captain can choose the course but then it will be the waves and wind that favour or hinder it on its way.

Otte Timar, Red Lion Tattoo, Budapest, Hungary
Otte Timar, Red Lion Tattoo, Budapest, Hungary

Destiny, opportunity etc.

The ship’s wheel can help us with some subliminal messages which could be summed up as follows: the meaning of life, direction to take, life path, destiny, opportunity and discovery. The rudder is an invisible instrument actuated by the helmsman. A passenger below decks won’t even notice its movements in a high sea. But they know it’s there and, if it’s in proper working order, a rudder can steer a ship through the wildest wind. Thanks to it the rudder, disaster will be averted and the ship will arrive at its destination and sail into the harbour safe and sound.

Andres Acosta, Red Dagger Tattoo, Houston, USA
Andres Acosta, Red Dagger Tattoo, Houston, USA

A talisman for perseverance

The tattoo of the ship’s wheel is a symbol of good luck, and a talisman too. The ship’s wheel is an emblem of perseverance, because a good helmsman never gives in to false temptations which have no genuine meaning. They stay faithful to their ideas and principles despite the myriad obstacles life will put in their way.