Tiller Versus Wheel

Posted by By Darrell Nicholson at 05:09PM - Comments: (7)

Tillers are rarely seen on new cruising boats This double-ender at the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival dates back to an earlier time.

The tiller on Tosca was rough-hewn piece of sawn ash, tough and springy. Where it fit in your hand it was about as big around as a teacup. The William Atkin ketch was built in 1937, and I liked to believe our tiller was the very same one she was born with—that this was the last piece of timber the builder had shaped, carefully hewn from a tree he’d had known as a boy, endowed with hidden magic.

It hadn’t always been varnished. The grain where you gripped it was worn smooth by so many hands. One year, I stripped down the old varnish. Looking closely, I could see what looked like finger-shaped depressions left by hands that had come before mine.

Years later, long after I’d sold the boat that had carried my wife and I across the Pacific, I was on a trip to New York City, and in one of those flashes that exposes the quirks of memory, I thought of the tiller again. There in the soft paws of Patience, one of the New York Public Library’s two guardian lions (the other is Fortitude), I found traces of countless caresses, fingerprints in stone, and realized that embarking upon a voyage—a proper voyage, one that is undertaken for all the right reasons—is not unlike sculpting marble: at once a carving-out and a filling-in. And I suppose that is why I’ll always favor a tiller over a wheel. Like the sculptor’s favorite chisel, it is a tool far better suited for the art of sail.

Tosca’s boat’s barn-door rudder had the hydrodynamics of a dumpster lid, but with a little effort the sails could be trimmed so that the helm sweetly balanced. In most conditions, when there was only a moderate sea for her to contend with, I could set my $1.69 autopilot—a single length of bungie cord, about two feet long, with a loop at one end, and figure-eight knots at intervals of four to six inches starting on the opposite side. The seaway, point of sail, or wind speed would determine which knot to use to apply the required tension.

A similar system worked with the Aries windvane. On the bottom of the tiller was a simple bronze chain hook. A small length of chain connected the two steering lines. To adjust the steering lines you would move the chain one link in either direction as needed. In the tradewind belt, we could sail for days without touching a link.

But these practical conveniences are peanuts compared to the real payoff of having a tiller. I remember that even when the self-steering vane was holding a course far better than I could do, the temptation to feel Tosca respond to my touch, (and my touch respond to her motion) was irresistible. The real test came at night—for we had no wind instruments—when we steered by the wind on the back of our necks and the motion of the sea. It was then, sailing almost blind on a moonless night, that I recognized how intuitive my helming had become.

In plainest technical terms the tiller gives us corrective feedback, an opportunity to learn from our mistakes far quicker than any wheel assembly can do. Both devices help us become better sailors, but the tiller just does it faster. It is, at its core, more honest about the conditions we’re facing—sometimes brutally so.

After thousands of corrections, countless pushes and pulls to adjust for subtle wind shifts or insistent nudges of steep following seas, our intuition takes over. Where before each subtle course change involved a conscious effort, the thought and the act become one and the same. There are few things as satisfying as looking back at your wake, and noticing how the course you’ve drawn across the surface of the ocean, appears nearly perfect, as if it, too, was drawn by natural forces independent of the hand of man. The carving out of the sea is the filling-in of the tillerman.

Comments (7)

Not mentioned is the mechanical simplicity and reliability of the tiller. Tillered sailboats don't have an "emergency steering wheel" it seems. Also, when simple gudgeons and pins are used to hang the rudder from the transom there is no through-hull stuffing box to worry about (potential leak source) for the rudder control system. Lastly, there are at least two manufacturers of excellent auto-pilots for tillered boats so one can easily have that as well.

Posted by: S2Pilot | September 10, 2015 5:12 AM    Report this comment

I'm sure it was comical watching me sail my first wheel-steered boat. For the first hour, each time I needed to bear off I headed up.

Which is better? I'm not sure the rear quarter is always the best helm station, depending on the boat. If the cabin has any height, the visibility stinks. I'm not sure I want that much helm feel, hour after hour, on all boats. I've adapted to boats with practically no feel at all, and it no longer bothers me; there are other ways to gauge if the rudders are loading up.

But there is no question, at least for me, that a dingy with a sensitive tiller teaches sailing. I need to get back into dingy sailing.

Posted by: Drew Frye | September 4, 2015 10:17 AM    Report this comment

I agree, plus tillers take up less space in the cockpit when at anchor, but wheels seem to be all the fad. I guess some people feel like they are driving a bigger boat if they get to stand behind a wheel. Unfortunately soon we won't be able to find a boat over 25 ft without two wheels!

Posted by: swordds | September 3, 2015 5:09 PM    Report this comment

I agree about the tiller. IMO, when I scour the internet in that endless addiction of looking at used boats, I am always a bit disappointed when I see wheel steering in a boat under 32 feet.

Posted by: simsjim215 | September 3, 2015 9:03 AM    Report this comment

Reply to MysticGringo: I disagree. "Practical" is not limited to mechanical issues. The spirit of sailing is, if anything, more important than the nuts and bolts. If this article was taking up the limited room of the hard copy version of PS, then you may have a point. But the unlimited space of a blog invites a more liberal approach.

Posted by: wegman | September 2, 2015 3:55 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for this; loved it.

I've had 3 tiller equipped sloops, and loved them. Currently am in my search for my next boat, a long distance liveaboard. Finding one with a tiller rather than a steering wheel is proving very difficult, but your article encourages me to not settle!

I may end up having to removed the steering wheel assembly.

Posted by: rlaribee | September 2, 2015 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Tiller VS wheel? Maybe should be titled "Why I love my tiller"? Not a very Practical Sailor article.

Posted by: MysticGringo | September 1, 2015 7:27 PM    Report this comment

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