Sailboat Tillers versus Wheel Steering

I'm a big fan of sailboat tillers and I have a question:

"Just who told the marketing men that we all want to steer our boats with wheels?"

Admittedly, centre cockpit designs have to be wheel steered owing to the distance between the helming position and the rudder. And so do large heavy displacement designs where the tiller would need to be inconveniently long. 

Centre cockpit on this Whitby 42On a heavy-displacement, centre-cockpit sailboat like this Whitby 42, wheel steering is the only option

But for most moderate-displacement, aft-cockpit designs under 45 feet (14m) or so a sailboat tiller often makes more sense, and is much more fun to use.

Nothing beats sitting out on the coaming with a tiller extension helming the boat like a large dinghy. Well, for a while anyway - gone are the days when I'd do this for hour after hour!

When we built Alacazam, a boat which responds enthusiastically to this kind of involvement, we positioned the primary and secondary winches a bum-width apart for this very purpose.

Strangely, over the years, these winches have got closer together...

Tiller steering 'Alacazam', a light-displacement, aft-cockpit cruising sailboatMary at the helm of Alacazam, our light-displacement, aft-cockpit cruiser. Maybe a tad too much weather helm, Mary? Perhaps drop the mainsheet car down the track a little? And perhaps I should have tidied up the sheets before taking the photograph...

Twin Wheels, anyone?

I could almost understand a case for twin wheels if it offered redundancy in the event of linkage failure, but in most cases it doesn't. Both wheels usually share the same linkage; so if it fails, they both fail.

Jeanneau 44i cockpitTwo wheels in this aft-cockpit 44 footer! But why?

I can understand the need for twin wheels on a wide-sterned racing yacht, but in a more conventionally proportioned cruising boat, to me, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It can only be a fashion thing...

Comparison of Sailboat Tillers and Wheels

So having confessed my preference for tiller steering, perhaps I should explain myself...

A tiller...

  • through its direct attachment to the rudder, rewards the helmsman with ultimate feel and feedback;
  • by virtue of its mechanical simplicity ensures reliability and robustness;
  • allows the helmsman, steering with the tiller between his legs, trim the jib, mainsheet and - if he's really brave - the spinnaker, without disturbing the offwatch crew;
  • allows the helmsman to gain shelter from the sprayhood;
  • at anchor can be lifted up out of the way, leaving the cockpit clear;
  • but can't be geared down to make high steering loads manageable.

Whereas a wheel...

  • can be geared down to make high steering loads manageable;
  • positions the helmsman right aft, denying him any protection from the sprayhood;
  • in most cases, doesn't allow the helmsman to trim the sails on his own;
  • is less precise than a tiller, offers the helmsman little feedback;
  • requires an expensive and complicated linkage arrangement of wires and blocks which, without regular maintenance, is prone to failure;
  • is awkward to link to both windvane self-steering gears and electronic autopilots, and
  • adds weight right aft, just where you need it least;
  • clutters up the cockpit when at anchor;
  • is expensive.

A convincing case for a tiller? Well, that's really for you to decide, but pointedly, all wheel steered boats have - or should have - an emergency tiller, which may tell us something.

Fashion has a lot to answer for!


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