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Old 02-24-2008, 02:29 PM   #1
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Any opinions on which is better? Tiller for long distance cruising.

Converting from tiller to wheel. Opinions. Has anyone done it?



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Old 02-24-2008, 04:50 PM   #2
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Depends on the size of boat--how big? Also, is it a transom hung rudder or keel hung one with a tube coming up through the sole? The latter is very easy to convert to a wheel (usually).

There are some nice things you can do with a small boat and a tiller autopilot. Conversely, I know a fellow with a 26 ton boat, too big for a tiller IMHO, yet it has a rudder hung tiller...and he hasn't been able to find a good autopilot solution for it.

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Old 02-24-2008, 06:52 PM   #3
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Redbopeep give some good opinions but I would like to add that if you boat is not too big then my advice would be to go for the tiller based on the "keep it simple" concept. Less to go wrong.

Having said that, I have sailed in vessesl of all sizes from a GP14 dingy to a Panamax container ship and never ever had problems with steering gear. Just get a good one and look after it.

Aye // Stephen
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Old 02-25-2008, 01:12 PM   #4
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Crewed for a bit on a 50 foot Pinkie schooner with a tiller, nine feet long.

Had a wheel on my 35 foot trimaran.

My list of priorities for our current boat was it HAD to be tiller steered.

On a smaller boat the wheel just takes up too much cockpit space when you are at anchor- the tiller can be taken off or tilted up out of the way. While sailing , using a tiller- you can add an extension and sail from up forward, or out on the high rail if you want. With a wheel, you are locked to a few places. Plus with wheel steering you have to carry a tiller anyway. I find the tiller much less complicated, with less to fail.

Sheet to tiller self steering works very well, particularly on the wind, using a tiller. Not so easy with a wheel.

For me personally, I much prefer the tiller.
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Old 02-25-2008, 01:59 PM   #5
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Although SV Watermelon had a wheel, and I can think of many times when I was glad to have it, I, too think that a tiller is preferable for a cruising boat on which one lives.

Wind vanes are usually easier to operate with a tiller. Same with economical autopilots.

I also believe, though, that there is a limit to the size of a boat on which tiller steering is used. The current fascination with much larger cruising boats is, I believe, incompatible with tiller steering.


Back in the 80s we sailed out of Boston in company with a friend's boat, a Seidelman 30, a very light and lively sailboat. The boat was poorly maintained and when we got to Montauk, Long Island the boat no longer had a working engine. The owner sailed it back to Block Island, with Peter and me accompanying him in Watermelon, but his family jumped ship and so our friend asked us if we would take his boat back to Massachusetts to have the engine fixed. Peter agreed, and our friend immediately thanked us profusely and hopped onto a ferry bringing him back to the mainland before we could change our mind. The next day we left Watermelon securely anchored and got onto his boat to set sail for Westport, MA where our former marina had a good mechanic able to fix the engine.

It was a very calm, light wind day and so we slowly tooled along, getting into Westport about midday. We called the marina to come tow us up the river, and they appeared at the mouth of the river just as a gust of wind caught me unawares. I really don't know what happened, but next thing I knew I was a** over teakettle in the bottom of the boat, tiller untended and the sails luffing and flapping like mad. All with these two fellows from the marina watching.

With as much dignity as I could muster I got back up, helped Peter as we dropped the sails and made ready to make fast a tow line from the marina boat. The two fellows looked back at me as they headed up the river, and with a straight face commented, "a bit different from Watermelon, eh?" I was so grateful to them for not laughing!
In 1986 we went cruising for a few years. After 20 years and 50+ countries and several oceans, we are STILL "cruising for a few years".

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Old 02-27-2008, 07:22 PM   #6
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Tiller, no ifs, ands, or buts. Tillers are simple, no hidden parts, easy to inspect, very little to fail, easy to hook up self steering, way less fatiguing for long stints on the helm, take up less room in the cockpit, a lot more finger friendly, more intuitive to steer and way more sensitive to both input and output. As far as size limiting function. Would estimate about 40' for a barndoor rudder and the skies the limit for a semi-balanced rudder.

I've sailed way over 10,000 miles with a tiller steered boat, Atlantic, Pacific Coast and SoPac. Have done 48 plus straight hours on the helm with the only problem being mental fatigue. Never had a question about which way the rudder was pointed. Easy to sail the boats short handed steering with my legs and working the sails with my hands. Could easily immobilize the tiller with lines if I needed to get away from the helm. What is the best thing about tillers is the feel. No question if the boat is overpowered as both the angle and force on the tiller tell me what's happening. Can almost sail blindfolded once you learn the boat.

Unfortunately, my current boat has a wheel. I hate the damn thing. Never know where the rudder is at in relation to the wheel. Even with the king spoke marked, often find the helm hard over when I think it's straight ahead or, worse yet, hard over left when it's hard over right. Mainly a problem under power leaving the dock but also a problem when sailing as the feed back is so poor. Find the wheel very tiresome to steer for any length of time. It's all arm and hand strength, unlike a tiller where you can put your back into it as well. Just love to grab that comfy stainless rim with bare hands when it's a bit nippy. Lord help your fingers steering with bare hands in the rain or spray. A slip of your grip on the rim and your fingers get smashed against a spoke. Try going fore and aft with a wheel, it's always in the way. Unlike a tiller that's easy to step over, there is no going over, only around, a wheel. Steering and working the boat at the same time is a pain as you have to keep a hand on the wheel and work the sheets with the other. Not efficient and certainly not quick. One of these days I'm either going to get so pissed at the wheel that I sell the boat or make the 2 boat unit plus investment and recreate it with a tiller. Last but not least, couldn't get the Pendulum self steering to work with the wheel because of inertia/friction in the steering sysem and friction in turns and twists of the control lines. A vane that can easily steer a tiller steered 10 ton boat wouldn't sail a 5 ton wheel steered boat.

I can't fathom the fascination with wheels amongst our current sailing set. It seems the bigger the better as if it's an indication of the dsiz of 'package' of the captain. The big tire syndrome displaced to the sea. Someone else hypothesized it's a power thing. Standing back there as lord and master with all the peons before them scurrying about doing their bidding. Maybe it's like the SUV thing with women. The stupidest thing I see is under 30' boats with these rediculously small wheels, talk about pretentious Probably have more money in their wheels than the boat is worth. With the fat *** new boats, they even have two wheels.

Tiller or wheel, it's no brainer!!!!!! TILLER.

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Old 02-28-2008, 03:30 PM   #7
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"Standing back there as lord and master with all the peons before them scurrying about doing their bidding."

Yep...that is what it is for me.
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Old 02-28-2008, 06:37 PM   #8
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Interesting comments and observations.

I would rather have a working tiller or wheel, than neither.

I prefer the wheel, perhaps because of my sailing boat size preference.

My first mate has a magnetic compass embedded in her mind, but has a major problem with left and right. So far, she can NOT steer a boat with a tiller. She has two wires crossed in her mind, and has been unable to compensate. She wants the boat to go to port, she moves the tiller to port, and boat is directed, influenced by hydraulic flow across the rudder, redirecting the direction of the boats' travel towards starboard.

I am working on that part with her.

She has no problem with knowing Port from Starboard, abeam, fore, aft, bow, stern, North, East, South, West, and the like. At the same time left, right, and operating a tiller, are simply non-concepts.

I could command: "Sail to South by South West, or ask what is our bearing? North-North East! I need the degrees please, I'm plotting. Without looking at the mis-calibrated compass, her response maybe something like, "My bearing is about 15 Degrees." Checking her on the GPS, adjusting magnetic to grid, she is so damn close it is uncanny.


I wouldn't trade her for anything.

I guess our choice is "THE WHEEL". If our vessel is equipped with a tiller, by default my responsibility is the helm, else we be sailing in circles, or a major zigzag pattern; both of which would cause a lot of extra work, trimming, tacking, and the like.

I suppose it all depends on the vessel, preference, and the crew.

Small vessels have tillers, larger vessels have a wheel, the big ones (like aircraft carriers, or diesel powered yachts) have a joy stick, or computer controlled steering.

The important part is to have a tiller OR wheel in hand.
When in doubt, do the right thing.

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Old 03-05-2008, 11:58 PM   #9
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A wheel is probably eaiser to use (more intuitive).

A tiller is more simple and therefore less likely to break

A tiller provides better performance, particularly downwind

A wheel probably requires less strength in heavy seas

A tiller is rarely used on boats above about 40' in length

A tiller system is much cheaper than a wheel system

On balance, unless you are particularly performance orientated, wheel is probably the way to go.

My 40' boat is tiller steered.
You what?
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Old 03-06-2008, 03:13 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by Weyalan View Post
A wheel is probably easier to use (more intuitive).
I am not so sure of that.

I would certainly agree that anyone used to driving a car would find wheel steering more intuitive but my youngest son got the hang of steering by tiller within less than a minute when he first tried at the age of 6. On the other hand, he was not hampered by having driven a car. In exactly the same way, he mastered holding a compass course almost as quickly. I am not bragging. He is not an exceptional child (except to his mother and me) but just reflects what is possible when attacking a problem without preconceived ideas or previous in-learned routines.

Irrespective of the intuitiveness of wheel steering, the learning to use a tiller or other steering method is not something which takes very long. As a cadet in the navy I daily had to alternate between steering motorboats with normal wheel steering, tiller steering, Kitchener rudders (horrible things until you got used to them when they became the best ever method of maneuvering vessels) and gigs using yoke systems. Nothing difficult in all that at all. It is just a question of familiarity but not everyone will master it just as some people, no matter what age the become, have difficulties in differentiating between left and right.

I still favour a tiller if the boat is not to big for it.

Aye // Stephen
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Old 03-07-2008, 04:57 AM   #11
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I don't favour either one over the other - both have benefits and both have disadvantages.

We've had both and had things go wrong with both at differing times, and have to say the wheel usually has weaker 'links' in its mechanism, so when it does fail due to loads, we've found it was one of those links that failed, and they were relatively easy to remedy. When tillers have gone due to excessive loading, we've had much more serious issues to address and one time, lucky to make it back to shore.

So IMHO the votes go:

Managing an excessive load - a wheel wins.

Space in cockpit - a wheel wins.

Feedback to helmsman - a tiller every time.

Easier electric autopilot fixing - wheel wins.

Easier wind pilot fixing - tiller wins.

Good luck with whatever you choose to do.


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