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Coxswain vs. Helmsman — What's the Difference?

Edited by Tayyaba Rehman — By Fiza Rafique — Updated on April 19, 2024
A coxswain commands and steers rowing boats, focusing on coordination and strategy, whereas a helmsman steers ships, focusing more on navigation and vessel control.
Coxswain vs. Helmsman — What's the Difference?

Difference Between Coxswain and Helmsman


Key Differences

A coxswain is typically responsible for the navigation, strategy, and coordination of a rowing crew in competitive and recreational rowing. They give commands to rowers, ensuring optimal performance and safety. On the other hand, a helmsman primarily handles the steering of a ship or boat, focusing on following the navigational course set by others, such as a captain or navigator.
In rowing, the coxswain sits either at the stern or the bow of the boat, depending on the design, and does not row. They play a critical role in maintaining the rhythm and speed of the boat. Whereas, a helmsman is positioned at the helm or steering wheel of the vessel, actively involved in maneuvering the direction based on current and wind conditions.
Coxswains are essential in smaller, crewed watercraft where teamwork and precise timing are crucial. They often act as the coach's representative on the water, executing race strategies and making tactical decisions. Meanwhile, helmsmen are crucial in larger maritime vessels, where the primary concern is the accurate and safe long-term navigation across water bodies.
The role of a coxswain is heavily reliant on their ability to communicate effectively and motivate the crew, requiring strong leadership qualities. In contrast, a helmsman must be highly skilled in handling the vessel’s controls and understanding navigational instruments and sea conditions.
Coxswains are integral to rowing, where their decisions can directly affect the outcome of races and the safety of their crew. Conversely, helmsmen contribute to the broader navigation team's efforts, supporting the captain's commands and focusing on the technical aspects of steering.

Comparison Chart

Primary Role

Commands and coordinates rowing crew
Steers and navigates the ship

Vessel Type

Rowing boats
Larger maritime vessels


At the stern or bow, depending on boat design
At the helm or steering wheel

Main Skill

Leadership, strategy, communication
Navigation, vessel handling


Directly affects race outcomes and crew safety
Supports navigational decisions and vessel safety

Compare with Definitions


Coordinates the power and rhythm of rowers.
The coxswain called for a power ten to pass the rival boat.


Part of the ship's navigational team.
The helmsman consulted with the captain before making any course adjustments.


Responsible for tactical calls during races.
The team relied on the coxswain’s experience for race tactics.


Handles the ship's wheel or tiller.
The helmsman stood ready at the wheel, watching the seas.


Acts as a coach's aide on the water.
The coxswain implemented the coach’s strategy during the practice.


Ensures the vessel’s steady course.
It was the helmsman’s skill that kept us on a steady course through the storm.


Leader of a rowing boat crew.
The coxswain shouted commands to synchronize the rowers.


Person who steers a ship.
The helmsman adjusted the course as the wind changed.


A non-rowing member who steers the rowing boat.
As coxswain, her job was to steer and keep the boat balanced.


Follows navigational instructions.
The helmsman changed direction as instructed by the navigator.


The coxswain ( KOK-sən) is the person in charge of a boat, particularly its navigation and steering. The etymology of the word gives a literal meaning of "boat servant" since it comes from cock, a cockboat or other small vessel kept aboard a ship, and swain, an Old English term derived from the Old Norse sveinn meaning boy or servant.


A helmsman or helm is a person who steers a ship, sailboat, submarine, other type of maritime vessel, or spacecraft. The rank and seniority of the helmsman may vary: on small vessels such as fishing vessels and yachts, the functions of the helmsman are combined with that of the skipper; on larger vessels, there is a separate officer of the watch who is responsible for the safe navigation of the ship and gives orders to the helmsman, who physically steers the ship in accordance with those orders.


The person who steers a ship's boat, racing boat, or other boat.


A person who steers a ship or boat.


A person who usually steers a ship's boat and has charge of its crew.


A man who steers a ship.


A person in a racing shell who usually directs the rest of the crew.


(nautical) A member of a ship's crew who is responsible for steering.


To act as coxswain or serve as coxswain for.


(figuratively) A leader.


In a ship's boat, the helmsman given charge of the boat's crew.


The man at the helm; a steersman.


(rowing) The member of a crew who steers the shell and coordinates the power and rhythm of the rowers.


The person who steers a ship


(archaic) The second or third mate of a vessel, in charge of the master's barge.


(naval) A rank or position.
Canadian Navy Coxswain (or Capitaine d'Armes) is the senior non-commissioned officer aboard a ship
British Royal Navy Cadets Cadet Coxswain is the highest normal rank which may be achieved.


To act as coxswain for.
To coxswain for a college rowing team
To coxswain a boat


See Cockswain.


The helmsman of a ship's boat or a racing crew

Common Curiosities

Does the coxswain have any physical tasks on the boat?

The coxswain's primary tasks are non-physical, focusing on steering, strategy, and communication rather than rowing.

Is a coxswain always required in rowing competitions?

Yes, in crewed rowing competitions, a coxswain is essential for coordination and safety.

Does a helmsman need to know how to swim?

While not universally required, swimming is a highly recommended skill for safety reasons.

How does weather affect a helmsman's duties?

Weather conditions greatly affect navigation; helmsmen must adjust steering to compensate for wind, waves, and visibility.

What type of vessels does a helmsman operate?

A helmsman operates various maritime vessels, including commercial ships, navy ships, and large boats.

Are helmsmen responsible for emergency maneuvers?

Yes, helmsmen execute emergency maneuvers to avoid collisions or navigate through harsh weather.

What leadership qualities are most important for a coxswain?

Effective communication, quick decision-making, and motivational skills are crucial for a coxswain.

How does a helmsman interact with other crew members?

A helmsman follows directions from the navigator and captain, ensuring the vessel follows the planned course.

Do coxswains need to be familiar with the waters they navigate?

Yes, familiarity with the racecourse or practice waters can significantly benefit a coxswain's strategy and safety management.

What distinguishes a coxswain in collegiate rowing from professional rowing?

In collegiate rowing, the coxswain may also take on more of a coaching role, especially in teams with limited staff, compared to professional settings where strategies are often dictated by dedicated coaches.

Can a coxswain compete individually in rowing?

No, a coxswain cannot compete individually as their role is inherently tied to managing a crew.

What training is required to become a helmsman?

Training typically involves navigation, maritime laws, and practical handling of steering mechanisms.

What are the career paths for a helmsman beyond operating ships?

Career paths can include maritime safety, navigation specialists, or advancing to captaincy.

How do coxswains contribute to a rowing team's success?

Coxswains contribute by optimizing rowing rhythm, implementing strategies, and maintaining morale.

What is the biggest challenge a coxswain faces during a race?

Managing the crew's synchronization and responding to dynamic racing conditions are significant challenges.

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Author Spotlight

Written by
Fiza Rafique
Fiza Rafique is a skilled content writer at, where she meticulously refines and enhances written pieces. Drawing from her vast editorial expertise, Fiza ensures clarity, accuracy, and precision in every article. Passionate about language, she continually seeks to elevate the quality of content for readers worldwide.
Tayyaba Rehman is a distinguished writer, currently serving as a primary contributor to As a researcher in semantics and etymology, Tayyaba's passion for the complexity of languages and their distinctions has found a perfect home on the platform. Tayyaba delves into the intricacies of language, distinguishing between commonly confused words and phrases, thereby providing clarity for readers worldwide.

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