Emergency Tillers—Easier Said Than Done

Is your emergency tiller usable?

At the beginning of each working season we used to take our old boat out on a really breezy day and push the boat hard to check that everything was in good working order. Whilst we had run through our winter maintenance schedule with great care, winter always seemed to find a chink in our armour. And so it proved on one occasion—two hours beating in a good 25 knots, and suddenly there was a loud bang and she rounded up with the helmsman spinning the wheel merrily to no effect—steering failure. A cable had parted up inside the binnacle, so we dug out the emergency tiller, clamped it on, and within two minutes we were making slow, steady progress back to shelter.

There’s nothing like trying these things in anger to find out what’s good (and what’s not) about them. So I can tell you that in this case even under reefed yankee jib alone in no more than fresh conditions it was damned hard work keeping the boat on track. Due to space constraints most emergency tillers are short and angular and at just the wrong height (the opposite of what’s really needed) so you either need a couple of people (push-me-pull-you style) to cope, or rig tackles to the tiller to gain enough mechanical advantage to work it effectively. God knows what it would be like in a real blow and big seas.

Try it out

On Pèlerin we have a rack and pinion steering system with a rod drive direct to the quadrant, a tough, simple system, with very little to go wrong that might require the deployment of the emergency tiller—but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. We also have a powerful autopilot with a hydraulic ram driving the other arm of the quadrant so that in the event that the steering should fail we can steer the boat that way as long as we have battery power and the autopilot holds up. And as she came with a big, solid looking emergency tiller, complete with welded tangs to attach tackles, and with excellent and well thought out access to the rudder stock, there didn’t seem a great deal of need to try out the emergency tiller—it all looked about right.

Wrong—when we set it up in port we soon found that we could turn the rudder to starboard but not port—it fouled the wheel. So we took the wheel off, which improved matters, but then the cockpit table got in the way! In order to get sufficient clearance to make it viable it was necessary to raise the square drive head on the emergency tiller by nearly three inches. And with no through bolt to secure the tiller in place it seemed to me odds on that in a seaway it would be virtually impossible to keep it in place—just what you need. So we’re busy making the modifications that will at least allow us to gain full movement of the tiller and keep it in place. It’s true that we should have checked this out before, but it’s as well we did before we found out the hard way. Don’t just assume that it will fit and function properly.

We have a fairly bombproof system, and with a bit of luck we may never have to use the tiller in anger, but there are many more boats out there with far more vulnerable steering systems, where one day you may well have to use one. In my experience cable steering is the system most likely to give trouble, either through a cable parting due to chafe or a swage failing. With centre cockpits or twin wheel arrangements that have long cables, stretch or worn sheaves can allow the cables to jump the sheave in bad weather and incapacitate the steering, almost the worst of all worlds. Re-fitting the cable and tensioning it correctly in such circumstances may well prove impossible, so hopefully the wire cutters will be handy—and the emergency tiller.

Better late than never

By the time the modifications have been made to our emergency tiller it will only be a couple of minutes work to fit it in extremis. But we now know that it’s not just a case of pulling the tiller out of the locker and fitting it to the rudder stock. We need to remove the wheel (correct spanner ready), fit it to the stock and secure it (correct spanner ready) and rig the tackles to the winches—in that order. And if that day should come we’ll be glad that we took the trouble to find that out in advance in here—not out there.

Have you had to use an emergency tiller in anger? How did it go? Please do post a comment.

{ 19 comments… add one }

  • Travis May 2, 2012, 11:48 pm

    I had an anger moment in 2009 on my way from Guam to Yap in thr Pacific. I was aboard my Tartan 37 with two non-sailing friends who were learning the ropes on passage. I slept in the cockpit to be available anytime they were on watch. Sure enough, morning of day two of a four day blow a link in the chain tore through, incapacitating the steering gear. The first trouble was getting the tiller handle out from under several large items; we used a pair of bolt cutters as an impromtu tiller. Thankfully we had test fit everything pre-passage, but steering by hand, three person watch, with two feet of leverage really wears on a crew. We might have made port a day earlier due to loss of control of the yaw angles going downwind. It was difficult to maintain an accurate course. Maybe good to within fifteen to twenty degrees on average? Thankfully we had plenty of spares in the kit to make repairs once we got to the island; I had no desire to tear apart thr column at sea.

    Reply
    • Colin May 3, 2012, 7:47 am

      Hi Travis

      Thanks for the comment, which reinforces my second concern about emergency tillers, that they really would wear out a crew in short order.

      Rigging tackles can help – we even used to do this occasionally on old gaff rigged working boats, which could otherwise pull your arms out of their sockets – but unless the attachment points for the tackles exist or can be easily rigged, it doesn’t help much.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Michael Mc Laughlin May 3, 2012, 3:44 am

    I early December 2010 in Biscay in pretty awful conditions- night-50+knots- our tiller snapped.
    Our spare tiller and the tools for removing the stump of the old one were to hand and within45 minutes the new one was on.
    The new spare tiller I had made is Stainless Steel. Aesthetics don’t count and if the mail tiller can break so can a spare made of the same laminated timber.
    The idea of struggling with a defunct wheel steering system is the stuff of nightmares.
    Tillers are simple and easy to deal with.
    Just for interest is there is a general limit to the size of yacht that can be tiller steered?
    Mine is a Cascade 36 and I feel 40ft + would be still easily steered by tiller.

    Reply
    • Colin May 3, 2012, 7:55 am

      Hi Michael

      Good point about tillers breaking, which I’ve seen happen a couple of times, once on a race when someone fell on it!

      It’s a good idea to check the state of the head of the tiller inside the cheek plates from time to time, as rot can get in through the end grain unnoticed until it fails.

      And I don’t think there is a general size limit to the length of boats that can be tiller steered – look at old sailing trawlers, for example that were often tiller steered. The limitation is the crew, in terms of numbers and strength.

      A well balanced boat of 40ft or more can easily be tiller steered, but there can be limits due to the length and sweep of the tiller, which can dominate the cockpit and crush legs.

      But tillers are simple, robust and cheap – what’s not to like? Where a wheel helps is with less strong crew, in my view. But the current situation where ever smaller ‘cruising’ boats (30ft anyone?) is bizarre beyond belief.

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
      • suzanne May 3, 2012, 10:33 am

        Good advise…I will be checking my tiller head on my 1965 CAlberg 35 we just acquired, there was a lot of deferred maintenance on that poor old girl so there is a good likelihood that that the rudder head may be compromised…Thanks

        Reply
        • Colin May 3, 2012, 10:50 am

          Hi Suzanne

          Hopefully all will be well, but I’ve seen a few cases where the rot has begun either via the end grain or via the bolt holes drilled through the tiller to secure it. If that is the case, then a nice piece of ash is ideal for a replacement, or an epoxy laminate if it’s a long tiller with any curvature.

          Best wishes

          Colin

          Reply
  • René Bornmann May 3, 2012, 4:48 am

    http://www.kmy.nl/assets/interface/global-fotoframe-515×344-zoomA.png

    On the link you see Gerard Dijkstra’s 53 feet tiller steered aluminium explorer yacht.

    Kind regards,

    René

    Reply
    • Colin May 3, 2012, 10:37 am

      Hi Rene

      I’d love to, but I’m afraid my Mac won’t open this link – sometimes happens. but there was an article in Yachting World recently about such a boat that had a tiller. Perhaps the same boat?

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Viv and Mireille May 3, 2012, 7:51 am

    In a severe blow en-route to Bermuda from NY (1982) we were hit with a green wave that seemed to cover the whole boat (C&C 48). The effect was that the boat was “pushed” down into the water. The force of the water damaged the rudder leaving it jammed up against the hull. No emergency tiller or spare cables would sort this out. Luckily by working the wheel back and forth, we managed to get some limited movement to starboard and a bit to port and once the weather calmed we limped into St. George’s with what was left of the rudder banging away under the hull.

    The inspection in port showed that the rudder had collapsed internally (this was a brand new boat). A spare rudder was flown in from Canada and we were on our way South.

    The lesson?: Having a completely independent steering system is not just a good idea but essential as the steering systems can fail in many different ways as we found out.

    Reply
    • Colin May 3, 2012, 10:46 am

      Hi Viv and Mireille

      You can prepare and prepare and things can still outwit you.

      On both our centreboard and rudder we have attachment holes for jury rigging both in the event of failure, but It would be an almighty job to get down there and sort it out except in the calmest of conditions.

      You were lucky in that you were able to get some movement, but what if that hadn’t been possible, as the rudder was just jammed solid? A nightmare scenario when it might not even be possible to trim the boat to sail herself.

      Well done for getting through it!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Billy Higgins May 3, 2012, 12:22 pm

    I’ve been shopping seriously for a good used ocean voyager since the first of the year, something around 32 feet, and have looked at half a dozen wheel-steered, production boats as well as even more tiller-steered boats. [I’m really looking for a tiller-steered boat anyway, and figure the wheel will be removed.] But not a one of them has had a workable emergency tiller that could be called practical. This has been a little shocking. Another revelation has been the number of rudders that either protrude aft from the transom, or lie so close to the transom that a wind vane self-steering gear could never be fitted. Which is one reason why I want a tiller-steered boat in the first place. The other reason is to allow for sheet-to-tiller steering when needed. I have sadly discovered that few modern (post 1985) production designs allow for both of these features.

    Reply
    • Colin May 3, 2012, 3:04 pm

      Hi Billy

      Point taken – and I’d agree with you that these things are seldom designed to be used!

      But why do builders put wheel steering on such small boats? Fashion? Or is it simply that nowadays many people have never sailed with a tiller? For me, very few boats under 36ft should need a wheel for every day sailing, and unless your wheel steering is really top quality it generally offers far less feel and pleasure when sailing a good boat than can be had with a tiller.

      A tiller can be raised up when in port, allowing more space, it’s got far less to go wrong or maintain, and it’s easier to rig a self steering system or lower cost autopilot on a boat this size – and I could go on.

      If a boat of the size you’re looking for can’t be easily steered with a tiller, then maybe there’s something wrong with it!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
  • Nicolas Kats May 4, 2012, 6:52 am

    Colin

    My boat, a 39′ LOD Colin Archer, has an outboard rudder. The rudder head is slotted to receive a tiller. It takes me a minute to get & pop in the tiller, a massive piece of ash.

    I used to switch from wheel to tiller steering for fun. The loads on the tiller are much greater & this instantly finessed my ability to balance the sails.

    Now I don’t bother much with wheel or tiller steering anymore. I use the wheel or tiller to tack or jibe, for close shore work, and under power. Otherwise I mostly use the sheets to put her on a new course then watch for a bit to see if she stays on the course I want. Then I’m free to go about any other business.

    Twice the steering cable broke, in non critical situations. Steering by sail only eliminates the wheel & cables (or tiller). This eliminates complexity & stress. Eg, a sailboat that is unbalanced in wild weather is instantly highly vulnerable to broaching & rolling should the cable break. With my setup this concern does not exist.

    I haven’t played with tacking & jibing solely by handling the sails. If I have this ability, then in most situations under sail the rudder can drop off for all I care. Be cool to have this ability. I may be approaching the ultimate in KISS when it comes to rudders & steering.

    Billy

    My boat came with a wind vane. I’ve never bothered with it given the boat’s ability to self steer by handling sails & sheets only.

    Reply
  • DerekH May 4, 2012, 9:04 am

    When we were purchasing our current boat (Oyster 53) we had a two day survey plus sea trial in the UK. As always when I buy a boat I made sure I was at the surveyor’s side for the entire process. Not only do you make sure he is doing a thorough job but you learn a lot too.

    I specifically requested that on the sea trial we dig out the emergency tiller (it is huge and heavy) from the bowels of the lazarette. I had two of the Oyster brokers on board at the same time. We heaved and pulled and got that sucker out into the bright light of the sun probably for the first time. It was immaculate. After unscrewing the port over the rudder post we dropped the tiller in and tried steering her. It worked but was heavy going. I thought in a sea way this would be torture.

    After satisfying myself it would work we put the tiller away and one of the brokers commented, “You know, on all the sea trials I have ever been on this is the first time I have seen anyone test the emergency tiller.” The other broker nodded in agreement and even the surveyor said the same thing. I thought that was interesting.

    Cheers.

    DerekH

    Reply
    • Colin May 4, 2012, 1:31 pm

      Hi Derek

      Well done on having the sense to check it out first time. Your Oyster is a big boat, and with a centre cockpit it’s often the case that the tiller sweeps low over the aft deck making it pretty difficult to manage. But at least it could be used!

      Best wishes

      Colin

      Reply
    • RDE (Richard Elder) May 4, 2012, 4:42 pm

      Hi Derek,
      Good on ya for insisting on seeing the tiller. I was in charge of stowing the lazarette preparing for a fall delivery across the Gulf Stream on a sister ship. As you know, that compartment is big enough to live in. On the bottom, the emergency tiller, then spare dingy, outboard, spare anchors, Code O— give a boat owner a space and he will fill it! And of course there is not a single pad eye or any way to safely stow the heavy gear that ends up there. When I finished with 100′ of lashings the crew thought I was crazy, but they thanked me before the trip was over.

      Just a suggestion: pad eyes and custom stowage chocks should be high priority additions to that end of the boat.

      Cheers
      Richard

      Reply
      • DerekH May 4, 2012, 7:07 pm

        Richard,

        Good idea. I will look into it.

        Thanks.

        Derek

        Reply
        • Colin May 5, 2012, 6:02 am

          I’ll second that – pad eyes in lockers and larger stowage spaces are essential – and often overlooked.

          Best wishes

          Colin

          Reply
  • RDE (Richard Elder) May 4, 2012, 4:48 pm

    Want a wood tiller that is as strong as an aluminum tube? Stack laminate 1/4″ ash with a layer of carbon fiber in each glue joint. I did a set of spreaders this way using spruce and carbon. Made the mistake of testing one by jumping my 240# on it supported 4′ on center. Damn near broke my foot!

    Reply

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