Resolving Common Steering Problems


Your steering packed it in and you are stuck with either your emergency tiller or an emergency rudder and tiller. These often require the helmsperson to be in a spot where it is impossible to see ahead or to sit for long periods, so a tillerpilot is going to be very helpful. Keep in mind that depending on the type of failure and the amount of residual friction, you may need to disconnect the steering cables before the emergency tiller will work properly.


Balance the sails so that there is no steering load. For sailing upwind or close reaching, reef the main, and possibly ease the traveler some. Keep the jib tight. The boat should sail nearly straight with no helm input. When sailing downwind or deep reaching, use only the jib. The goal is to get the boat to track straight with minimal helm input.


For self-steering, the trick is to lash the tiller so that the lashing holds the tiller in waves, but you can still move it with just a little additional effort (see photo). First, balance the sails; the less steering input that is required the better it will work. Use an old worn length of 3/16- or 1/4-inch double braid rope, preferably with a fuzzy cover. Wrap it 2-3 times around the tiller near where you would grip it, and tension only as much as needed. You should still be able to steer with this in place by applying a little more force than normal.


The emergency tiller should be long, one-tenth of the waterline length if possible. In this way, the load on the tiller will not be more than a human can handle, and thus not more than the pilot can handle. It is folly to think an 18-inch emergency tiller is long enough for a 40-foot boat.


Raymarine and Simrad tillerpilots are rated for smaller boats (less than 10 tons), but if you only need to steer a straight line on your emergency tiller, then a self-contained tillerpilot can handle a bigger boat. To reduce the load you need to maximize leverage by moving the tiller-pin position closer toward the end of the tiller. Attaching the tillerpilot 14-21 inches forward of the rudder stock works for our F-24. For a 30-foot boat, 22-26 inches of leverage should work, and on a 40-foot boat, try around 29 inches.


For voyaging, you can get a heavy-duty tillerpilot, like one from Pelagic ( that can handle higher loads. Because of the higher push-rod force, the mounting socket must be either in solid glass with a backing plate, or through-bolted. This type of installation is a bit more involved, but you will have a rugged backup steering system.

Darrell Nicholson
Darrell Nicholson is Director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division and the editor of Practical Sailor. A lifelong thalassophile, he grew up sailing everything from El Toro dinghies to classic Morgans on Miami's Biscayne Bay. In the early 90s, he left a newspaper job to sail an old gaff-rigged ketch across the Pacific and has been writing about boats and the sea ever since. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at