A wheelhouse is an enclosed compartment which contains the wheel of a ship, used to steer the ship by controlling the rudder. Today, separate wheelhouses are rare, with the wheel being housed on the rest of the bridge, when the wheel exists at all; toggle mechanisms are used to steer many ships today. While the toggle lacks the romantic associations of the ship's wheel, it takes up less space, and is becoming increasingly common, although many private sailboats still have a wheel as a reference to the history of sailing.
When ship's wheels were located in exposed conditions on the ship, they could be extremely unpleasant to use. Especially since control of the wheel could be vital in adverse conditions, sailors could find themselves quite miserable at the wheel in driving rain, snow, and other unpleasant weather. Such conditions could also damage the wheel, shortening its life in addition to causing potentially fatal interference with the steering mechanism. The wheelhouse was developed to create a shelter for the wheel and the sailor handling it.
Over time, the design of the bridge was changed, in part in response to a growing number of devices used to navigate ships. Rather than just using a wheel and a compass, a ship may have a range of controls to handle the engines, watch out for nautical hazards, chart out a navigational path, and communicate with other ships. These devices are housed in a larger enclosed bridge which has replaced the wheelhouse, although the term “wheelhouse” is sometimes still used to refer to the control center of a simple ship which is steered by wheel.
The wheelhouse is often located in the front of the ship, and it is surrounded by windows for good visibility so that the person at the wheel can clearly see where he or she is going. There may be enough room for several people, including a pilot who can help guide the ship as it enters a port. Numerous examples of traditional wheelhouses can be seen in films and works of art which depict various sailing events and scenes.
Thanks to the iconic status of the ship's wheel, it is not uncommon to see bars, pubs, and other facilities in port towns with “wheelhouse” in their name. These facilities evoke the ship's wheel to attract sailors and others with a love of the sea, and they may also echo the proprietor's longing to be out on the ocean, rather than shorebound. Naturally, such businesses are often adorned with ship's wheels.