Rudder, tiller, and wheel: The basics of steering
20th December 2021 Elena Manighetti
New boaters can easily get confused about how a rudder, tiller, and wheel work. In this article, we explain what each piece of equipment is and how it operates. We will also discuss the pros and cons of using a wheel vs a tiller.
Rudder - what is it and how does it work?
Every boat has a rudder (or two); even ships. A rudder is a vane, attached to the hull or transom of a boat, which can steer a vessel via a wheel or tiller.
Outboard and stern-drive engines have a miniature rudder, too - it’s that short piece of metal that sticks out under the prop.
The rudder deflects water flow. As you turn, the water hits it with more pressure on one side and less force on the other. This redirects the water flow past the hull. While you turn, the boat pivots around the rudder: the bow moves in one direction and the stern in another.
On boats with an inboard engine or yachts, the rudder is controlled by the wheel or tiller through a rudderpost. By turning the tiller or wheel, you control the rudder.
In older, more traditional boats, a rudder is often hung from the transom, so it is visible even outside the water.
Tiller - what is it and how does it work?
Tillers are levers that allow you to steer a boat. They are most common on small sailboats, old light motor boats, and outboard engines. A tiller acts directly on the rudder, to which it’s connected by the rudderpost. To operate it, you need to push it in the opposite direction in which you intend to turn. A tiller and rudder combination is the simplest way to steer a boat.
Tillers are only suitable for smaller vessels, as they act directly onto the rudder. The heavier the vessel you steer, the harder it will be to move the tiller.
Today, most vessels have a wheel, irrespective of size. Tiller steering is generally used on sailing dinghies, smaller sailboats, and tenders with an outboard engine.
Wheel - what is it and how does it work?
A steering wheel looks and works very much like a car’s steering wheel. It connects to a mechanical, electrical, or hydraulic system, which in turn acts on the rudder. To use it, simply turn it in the direction in which you want to go.
The steering system used by a wheel is slightly more complicated. It consists of a wheel, helm, steering cable, and cable connections. The helm converts the wheel’s rotary motion into the push-pull motion needed by the cable to move the rudder.
Wheels are used on big, heavy craft. Think of big cruisers or racing yachts. They’re also used on motorboats with powerful outboard engines, though. Think of a RIB with a centre console. Nowadays, most new boats are equipped with wheels.
Wheel vs tiller
Many boaters prefer a wheel over a tiller, as it’s more intuitive to use, especially for those who drive a car a lot. Sitting at the helm is very comfortable, as you can just get behind the wheel in a normal position. Unless the weather conditions are very heavy, turning a wheel is very easy. Plus, it looks cool.
Adjusting to a tiller’s inverted way of steering can take some time. Pushing a tiller can require quite a bit of strength in heavy weather and helming can be rather uncomfortable, as you may need to twist your back and sit sideways.
However, tillers react much faster than wheels, so you can change course immediately. Figuring out in which direction the boat is moving is also very easy: simply look where the tiller is pointing. It’s much harder to guess the position of the rudder by looking at a wheel.
The simplicity of tiller steering means that maintenance is straightforward - very little can go wrong. Tillers also take up less space than wheels, especially if you can tilt them upwards.
Some sailors claim that a tiller allows you to feel how the boat reacts to wind and waves, offering great feedback. So it’s easier to adjust the sails while tiller steering.
Both tiller and wheel steering are great. You can get used to both fairly quickly, but you will find out what’s your preference once you try out both. Don’t order a boat before you try each method.
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