Wheel or tiller?

Does simplicity attract you or would you prefer to put your faith in more complicated mechanisms? Choices are often made for the wrong reasons.

It's my belief that the ruination of many a good after cockpit is the choice of wheel steering where a tiller would do nicely. Centre cockpit boats, with their need to route the controls through the accommodation, clearly have no alternative. Conducting a thoroughly unscientific poll among friends, I concluded that preferences depended largely upon whether a person started sailing before or after he learned to drive a car. Latecomers often felt more familiar with a wheel; those who sailed dinghies as youngsters were more ready to go for a tiller.

In small to medium sized yachts there is very little to be said in favour of wheel steering where it can be avoided. Let's look at the downsides:

  • Wheels are more complicated, troublesome. and expensive than tillers
  • They place the helmsman further aft where there is more exposure to the weather.
  • Wheels are less precise in operation than tillers. 
  • They clutter up the cockpit and cannot be hinged up or removed when in port.  Yes the wheel can be removed but that still leaves the pedestal.
  • They makes connection to both vane and electronic self-steering gears more awkward.
  • And finally they add extra weight aft where you least need it.

Look how easily a tiller an be connected to a windvane gear

As boat size increases, the benefits of wheel steering become greater and the penalties less:

  • The heavier steering loads can be reduced by mechanical gearing (rather than resorting to extraordinarily long tillers).
  • Larger boats have larger cockpits, making it easier to accommodate steering pedestals.
  • Modern yacht autopilots are usually integrated units, acting directly on the rudder stock.
  • The extra weight and costs become relatively insignificant parts of the whole.

On the sales front, boat manufacturers are very aware of the sexiness of wheels. A friend of mine, searching for the boat of his dreams, listed twin wheels as a primary requirement  and this for a size of boat that barely warranted one! Be warned. Posers will pay a price in more ways than one!

And as for adaptations! It was once common for manufacturers to offer wheel steering as an expensive extra – simply installing the mechanism without any modifications to the seating. Rarely will a boat designed for a tiller be so instantly adaptable, and the helmsman may find himself adopting all sorts of contortions in order to steer. If wheel steering is to be the choice, then the cockpit should be specifically designed for this purpose, with a properly shaped helmsman’s seat which is comfortable at any angle of heel.

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