The Offshore Voyaging Reference Site

Check Your Emergency Tiller

The stuff I have found on our new-to-us J/109 amazes me.

When I first inspected the boat, we found that someone had siliconed the hatch over the rudder-shaft head. I guess it leaked a bit so, instead of replacing the O-ring or the hatch, they glued it down.

So after we fixed that with a new hatch, I figured I should check the emergency tiller, actually a better design than found on many production boats, except that the threaded rod that was supposed to hold it in place was misaligned so it would not stay attached in use.

No, not bent, misaligned. It had been like that since the boat was built and no one—particularly TPI who built the boat, or the two surveyors who had inspected her since—had ever thought to check whether it actually fitted.

In half a day I both fixed the misalignment and improved the design of the retaining bolt and its bracket to make it more secure.

Check your emergency tiller and, while doing so, assume that everyone who came before you was an incompetent, uncaring idiot. And if that turns out not to be the case, be happy.

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Colin Speedie

Hi John

I cannot support your comment enough. It’s vital to check that the emergency tiller fits and functions adequately particularly on a boat with cable steering.

And I can’t help asking how it works? Are those holes in the cross bar for attaching blocks and tackles? Yikes!

Best wishes


Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I have wondered about the inertial drag of a wheel.
Would you remove the wheel were you to have to rely on the emergency tiller? It would certainly give easier access when working the tiller.
I have also considered removing the wheel for the autopilot’s sake. It has to make the autopilot’s work harder and use more power. And on passage, one can go weeks without touching the wheel. With effort, I can come up with scenarios where instant access to the wheel might make a difference, but in reviewing the fire drills we have had over the years, we have primarily used the autopilot controls or would have had time to put our easily removably and easily replaced wheel back on.
I wonder whether others have removed the wheel on passage and whether there was any way to assess what difference it actually makes.
Thanks, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Eric Klem

Hi Dick,

I doubt that removing the wheel would result in a noticeable difference for the autopilot.

Statically, the wheel does have some mass which puts slightly higher loads on bearings but its mass is low so the additional parasitics should be really low.  

Dynamically, the wheel has a reasonable amount of inertia but that only matters if you are accelerating it really quickly. Accelerations are usually quite low so I don’t expect this to be a factor.

The bigger losses are likely to be the actual rudder bearings themselves as most boats just use something like a stainless on bronze plane bearing setup. As the force on the rudder blade increases, the bearing reaction forces increases and this increases the friction observed in them. For balanced rudders, you may be able to tell a difference by improving these bearing surfaces but with an unbalanced rudder, the water pressure on the blade is by far the biggest contributor.

If you want to get an idea of the max difference you could make by removing the wheel, steer back and forth accelerating as fast as you think you would ever do while the boat is on the hard and the amount is only a fraction of this.


Dick Stevenson

Hi Eric,
Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful reply. I have random and impulsive thoughts and notions and it is nice to have a venue in which to get feedback (there are distinct limitations to my thinking on my own). It is especially nice to have the thinking behind the answer elaborated on as I tend to learn a lot that way.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
Good advice, nice catch. It is likely sobering to walk around a marina or boatyard and ask how many have played with their emergency tillers. I wrote the following for a Safety at Sea series I did a few years back.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
Emergency tillers
Emergency tillers are important items that usually appear designed with little consideration to actual use and are often given equally little attention by their owners. Like so many safety items and procedures, practice is easy to postpone while at the same time practice is essential for efficient execution. I will speak to the most common design: tiller to rudder post while most comments can be adapted to other designs.
It might be observed that most emergency tillers are actually a bear to use, at least on sailboats. Many require a block and tackle to handle the loads effectively as the lever arm is so short and often slant-angled rather than right angled which makes use even more problematic. They can be dangerous when the rudder catches a wave if they whip around while being held. Finally, these emergency tillers should provide a way of securing the tiller onto the shaft rudder stock as, in the boisterous conditions these may be used in, it is best if they can be counted on to stay in one place.
Those really enterprising skippers can see whether their tiller can be out and steering in, say, 3 minutes. Then go and practice steering in waves and wind.    
Finally, if you are in the market for new below-decks autopilot, the above is a good argument for a system that is independent of the boat’s wheel-to-quadrant steering system.
Safe sailing, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I am curious: have you received any response from J boats or TP about the problems you have found that should not have gotten past the manufacturer’s door: let alone the surveyors and brokers and POs who have been involved? And, I am clear, that most manufacturers would fail in various and similar ways, so I do not mean to single them out. But I am would like to think that builders are responsive.
An anecdote: Years ago, when fitting out, I fumble fingered a bolt from both a Schaefer product and an Edson product. I called Edson and they sent me the bolt and an extra and there was no charge. I called Schaefer and the bolt was ordered: I was charged 3 or 4 times what it would have cost at the store had I known what to get and there was a whopping shipping/handling fee.
Later, at a boat show, Schaefer and Edson were next to each other: It was the first day of the show and the bosses were there. I spoke to the boss of Edson and thanked him for their service policies. I then went to the boss of Schaefer and told him the above. His immediate response was that “It will never happen again.” As he took out a notebook to make a note.
That was a good response.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Dick Stevenson

Hi John,
I had no thought of you contacting them or informing them where improvements should be made: quite the opposite: nor that they should step in were you to have reached out. I do think the comments in AAC might have come to their attention and I might have (naively) hoped that you might have been contacted hearing something along the lines of “We have corrected that design and recent boats reflect the change” or “Thanks for the feedback: we will review the area.” Or the like.
And, as said in the first post, agree that other boat builders also reflect various and similar problems. And, totally agree about the A40. One of many reasons to support the A40 endeavor, if you are not in the market, is that, when successful, it will nudge the industry (and the buying public) toward more responsible decisions on design and safety.
And, again perhaps naively, I consider the surveyor to work for me and to have a professional responsibility to do more than keep the insurance company happy. I would also want to have brokers feel a responsibility to have a potential buyer fully informed about the boat being sold.
Too many boaters, in their early encounters (when they are most vulnerable because of a lack of experience) in the recreational marine rely on surveyors and brokers to shepherd them through those initial years (couple that with encounters with boatyards), and end up feeling burned and disappointed and all to often change course and opt for a cabin in the Berkshires.
Random thoughts, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy

Huw Morgan

Had a beautiful emergency tiller on my old French built Ecume de mer. Didn’t really need it but it could be deployed very quickly and was robust alloy etc. Agree on surveyors! Found a good one through a reliable insurance broker but have received some crazy reports from others. Fortunately my current boat has a great Dutch builder who responds with sound answers even though they’ve been bought out more than once. His comments have saved me ruining a great boat if I had listened to a surveyor who’s a ‘name’ in the yachting press.
Pantaenious insurance were convinced by my photos and the builders email so agreed that we would both ignore the survey report. Lesson learned – wait for a good recommendation before grabbing your surveyor!

Dan Perrott

We are happy/lucky to have a great emergency tiller setup. Good enough that when we had a steering conduit failure in a location where finding a replacement was difficult we kept using with zero stress for almost a year. (If we really needed to we could have gotten a replacement sooner).
Not the same on a friend’s boat where steering would involve standing in the aft cabin with head sticking out through a hatch or an elaborate rigging of pulleys to bring things on deck.

Matthieu Chauvel

This tip rings a loud bell. I did not check/play with my emergency tiller for many miles (Brittany to Costa Rica, oops, mea culpa). On Boreals, the emergency tiller is (or was?) a thick solid metal bar that fits directly and horizontally on top of the rudder head inside the stern lazarette. At the time Obelix was built, Boreal made 44 and 47 models, almost identical except for the stern configuration (no swim platform on the 44 but a bigger stern lazarette, swim steps and platform on the ’47 but at the cost of a smaller stern lazarette. The emergency tiller installed on my boat was meant for a ’44, and didn’t fit because it was too long by a foot. It took me an hour to saw through in order to shorten it, simple fix but time that could have been sorely lacking in an actual emergency situation with a lee shore for example. So yes, by all means do check before you might need it!

Matthieu Chauvel

Hi John & Phyllis,
thank you for referring to me as an experienced sailor, it is very flattering (doubly so coming from actual, real experienced sailors like yourselves and taking into account the background of some of your regular readers), but aside from this particular example showing just how I could let some absolutely essential things slip by far too long when initially embarking on a lifetime adventure over a decade ago, I generally want to express that although I may be reasonably experienced now, I wasn’t (cruising/racing other people’s boats from a young age counts a little bit, but it is so radically different from owning one’s own yacht and going off to very remote cruising areas it really shouldn’t) back when I first outfitted Obelix and set out to sea. I kinda thought I was, but I really wasn’t. I benefited from a mix of occasional simple fool’s luck (or at least absence of bad luck when the slightest mechanical mishap would’ve been unrecoverable) and general stubbornness whether or not I had the appropriate tools to deal with whatever was thrown at me, and at first I mostly didn’t because of the aforementioned inexperience — the French have an endearing expression for this, to find yourself “avec sa bite et son couteau” which because it is a little bit rude I will let enterprising readers translate for themselves. My point is, coming across the Morganscloud site, reading and absorbing as much of the accumulated experience available on your pages as possible (articles, comments on the articles, and your responses to the comments), made up for so much of my previous lack of personal experience that it made things possible that wouldn’t have been otherwise. This is why whenever asked for advice nowadays, one of the first components of my reply is to recommend a subscription to Morganscloud. So there it is, a personal thank you that perhaps may belong best in a private message, but I wish it to be as public as possible anyway. Sincerely, –Matt

Jean-Louis Alixant

I thought we were doing a good job practising the use of our emergency tiller with the full crew before any long passage: it is easily accessible, everyone knows where it is, how to rig it, and we would steer a few minutes at low speed, under engine, just to get a feel.
During the COVID lockdowns, the trials were organized further apart. I once let 18 months pass by… I found that one of the screws holding the crossbar had seized and it took us a good ten minutes to release without breaking it – not a pleasant surprise in an emergency.
That time, we had disassembled the steering assembly to work on the rudder, and we actually needed to steer the boat in the marina using the emergency tiller, including in reverse. Even at low speed, “precision” steering with this ill-conceived device is a challenge, and reversing the direct drive requires a lot of strength!
Improving the system remains on the to-do list, but we now demonstrate the effect in reverse too.