Given that I grew up sailing on boats with tillers, namely Sunfish and Hobie Cats, I have lately been inclined to wanting something different – A giant stainless steel steering wheel. But which is better?
As you’ve probably guessed, neither is necessarily better, they are just different. A tiller and a steering wheel both possess a number of pros and cons.
Tillers are good
As far as simplicity and lighter weight goes, you can’t beat a tiller for steering a boat. There are no mechanical pulleys, chains, wires, gears or hydraulics to complicated the steering system. Of course, this yields a more reliable and maintenance free system. For this reason tillers are ideal on small and simple boats. However, they are also used in larger racing sailboats because they provide an unparallel direct feel in the steering. The water flowing through the rudder can be felt all the way up the tiller, not to mention the pressure and immediate return in steering input.
Tiller steering downsides
Having stated the benefits of tiller steering, of course there are downsides too. Tillers are very simple and only provide a limited amount of leverage and mechanical advantage. On small sunfish and laser sailboats that problem is non-existent. But as soon as you start to go up in size, or have a boat with too much weather helm for example, a tiller can be fatiguing. And that’s not exclusively to large boats. I used to sail a Hobie 14 that when up on one pontoon required the strength of Hulk to keep straight.
Steering wheel advantages
The main advantage of a steering wheel on a sailboat is that they offer a lot more mechanical leverage. You don’t need brute force to hold on and to steer. The size of the wheel and the level of the gearing or hydraulics can provide all the leverage needed for the boat size. Some people will also feel a steering wheel looks better than a tiller – but of course that’s up for debate.
Unfortunately for steering wheels…
As far as simplicity and lighter weight goes, you can’t beat a tiller for steering a boat.
The problem with steering wheels is that they require more maintenance. The system is also comprised of more parts that can wear and break when compared to their tiller counterparts. Additionally, steering wheels, especially those on large sailboats, can take a whole lot more space on deck. On some boats, the steering wheel makes the cockpit feel cramped quick. In some cases, it makes accessing the helm much more of a chore.
In the end, I love the look of a good giant steering wheel on a sailboat, racing or not. But tillers are great too when installed on the right boat. Neither is a “better” option in general. But one can be a better option than the other depending on the boat.
We wrote a piece about the boat steering wheel a while back. Pretty interesting – you might want to check it out.