The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Emergency Tillers—Easier Said Than Done

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.

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