Make and Make Do  

By Rob Rohde-Szudy - Madison, Wisconsin - USA

Wheel Steering – Part 1
Wheel Steering Alternatives

on to Part 2

The first wheel steering system on my Light Schooner was the sort typically seen – a horizontal shaft system with a wooden wheel. I quickly came to dislike this system on small sailboats. The reactions are in the wrong direction. Sailors are used to having a tiller pull against their hand. This provides essential feedback on helm balance. If you hold a such a wheel at the top, it pushes against your hand. Backwards. I found I had to hold the wheel near the bottom to have my reactions work out right. But then you have to lean inboard and reach awkwardly. Often just when you’d rather be hiking out more! Very inconvenient in a lightweight boat. I think the wheel would be fine in a big, heavy boat where you can stand facing it no matter what the wind is doing. But where you have to move your weight to a gunwale, the typical wheel gets very inconvenient.

Unfortunately, my reasons for wanting remote steering were still present – a big motor in a tiller’s path, a wife wanting me in easy conversational range (at the mainmast), and the need to keep my weight out of the stern because of a heavy motor. So I started looking at alternatives.

Long Tiller

While this is the simplest approach, it is prevented by the motor being in the way. Even when sailing without the motor, it is not necessarily desirable to have such a long tiller. All tillers suffer from being in the center of the boat. Why? To come about, you have to put the helm down. But if you need to keep your weight on the rail to keep the boat upright against a strong wind, this is sometimes difficult or impossible. And the longer the tiller, the bigger the problem. The traditional solution is a hiking stick. I hate hiking sticks. Either they are clumsy or I am.

Push-Pull “Norwegian” Tiller

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While this system works perfectly well, it seems highly counterintuitive to me. I haven’t actually tried it, but I have trouble with the idea that it pulls when it should push on one tack, but works the right way around on the other tack. I bet it would be intuitive when you’re looking at the lever arm on the rudder post, but not so intuitive when you’re not. I suppose it would work if you could get used to the idea that push is starboard and pull is port, but I don’t think in port and starboard when sailing. I think in lee and weather. Maybe I’m too stuck on the tiller, but to me “pull” means turning downwind and “push” means turning upwind.

It also seems that having to grip a rod while pushing and pulling it would tire the hands. You could fix this by adding a vertical handle to the rod, but this doesn’t address the primary trouble.

An advantage, though, is that this sort of tiller serves as its own hiking stick. You can steer from anywhere the tiller can reach. It’s also relatively easy to simply bend the tiller around obstacles, like a motor. But on at least one tack it interferes with cockpit space aft.

Reversed console tiller

OK, since we need to be sitting forward, suppose we mount a remote tiller backwards on the forward deck.

This one is tricky. The tip of the tiller would work the same as a normal tiller. But the angle of the tiller is opposite the angle of the rudder. That is, you’d point the front of the tiller in the direction you wanted to go. Rather like a single spoke of a very large horizontal steering wheel. This doesn’t seem all that intuitive. It also requires most of the same gear as wheel steering and the same clumsy hiking stick as any other tiller.


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The gear for a whipstaff is very simple. But for hard sailing it would need the same clumsy hiking stick as any other center-mounted tiller. And it also needs to be rather tall to get enough leverage.

Regular Tiller Displaced Forward

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If you can get past my crude sketch, you’ll see that this is no more than an enhanced Norwegian push-pull tiller. But the enhancement actually counts for quite a lot, since it fixes the problems of insufficient leverage, acting differently on each tack, and allows the helmsman to wedge the steering without using any hands. This is what Bolger used on the Birdwatcher, and it actually works quite well.

Certainly this could work well on the schooner, bringing the tiller post forward of the motorwell bulkhead. It still wouldn’t be as close to my wife as we’d like, but better than wedged against the motorwell. Also, this lets the tiller drop down to the floor so you can steer with your feet when standing up in the slot top in light winds or when motoring. A nice touch that I never would have thought of without seeing it in person on Jim Michalak’s Birdwatcher.

You’d want some threaded adjustment couplings like on an automotive steering tie rod. No reason not to recycle some if you can weld. Or you could use threaded rod and threaded couplers. I wouldn’t use less than ½”. ¾” would be better.

The benefit is that it is simpler and stronger than cable over sheave steering. The difficulty is that nothing can be in the way of the arc of the crank arms or the push-pull shaft. This can be inconvenient in an already-crowded motorwell. In my case, I could have accommodated the lever arms, but the push-pull shaft needed to go right through the only place I could put the fuel tank. I didn’t feel like rebuilding the motor well again. At least not so soon. But this promising system may rise again. (Imagine singlehanding from the forward cockpit!)

Side Mount Horizontal Tillers

Well, we could address that hiking stick problem by putting a remote tiller on each side of the boat. Catamaran folks know all about this. But this is at the expense of complication. Each of those tillers would need mechanism to use either push rods or cables and sheaves. Because of the space that requires, I think you’d only consider it on a boat with side decks. It also means one more stick to foul the sheets when coming about. In any case, all that complication and expense seem like a poor trade to me. I think I’d rather just brave getting used to the Norwegian push-pull tiller.

Side Mount Vertical Tillers

So what if we use two separate whipstaffs – one on each side of the boat? This is not an unknown type of steering. It used be called a “monkey stick”. Some of William Atkin’s designs call for them. A few of Bolger’s too. Normally these were used on powerboats that only needed one, but a sailboat would require one on each side. But that’s easy, since it takes hardly any gear to make one.

Here the layout of your boat becomes important. You should first decide whether you want the monkey sticks forward or aft of the helmsman. This is important because we want weather helm to pull against his hand. He should always push to turn the boat downwind and pull to bring it up. I favor the arrangement with the monkey sticks behind the helmsman when sailing. Then it also works intuitively when you’re sitting centered under power. Like a bulldozer.

Assuming your rudder is controlled by a short tiller in front of the rudderpost, the steering line has to connect to the monkey sticks above the fulcrum point. This is easiest to build, since the fulcrum point can mount be on the boat’s bottom. It also puts the longest possible scope of line under the tiller’s control, which is good for control.

The monkey sticks seem perfect, but they’re not. A vertical stick will tend to catch sheets when tacking, especially off the wind. One might be able to mitigate this by cutting off the sticks below the rail and fitting a piece of pipe over them to steer. But you’d have to take the pipe with you when you tacked, and fit in on the other tiller in a hurry. Better not drop it overboard! Perhaps one could have one for each tiller, held to it with a lanyard.

Still, this seems fiddly. Sailing is fiddly enough. Maybe we can simplify further.

Line steering with handles

If you’re going to run a line for vertical tillers, do we need the levers? If that line can be left exposed inside the cockpit, why not simply attach a piece of dowel as a handle at the spot where you would have put a lever? It is easy to attach with a clove hitch.

In use, line steering is easy and intuitive. You grab the handle and it acts just like a tiller, but fore and aft. It works the same on both tacks. The slight flex in the rope allows one to pull the handle upward somewhat to a position comfortable for the hand.

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This one I tried out. In use the system was almost everything I hoped it would be. It operated intuitively, but it had an awful lot of resistance. In particular, as I lifted upward on a handle, it would lock the steering. On one hand, this function could be handy, since it’s almost like jam-cleating the steering. On the other hand, it was pretty stiff even in its normal position. And this was after I replaced all the fairleads with sheaves!

I guess it’s just too big a rudder to steer this way. With 13 mph winds, sailing reefed it was all I could to hold onto the handle at times. The wind might have been up to 18 mph or so when it really pulled, but no boat should become that hard to steer in any wind.

That got me thinking more carefully about leverage. A wheel can overcome all this with superior leverage. This system has no leverage at all except the 2:1 tackle on the stub tiller. Maybe this shows us why the monkey stick is helpful – adding leverage.

Sooo…..let’s try this monkey stick thing after all.

Monkey Stick Steering Revisited

I wasn’t sure how well this would work, so I didn’t want to spend a lot of effort working up a permanent installation. So I tested the theory by installing scrap wood sticks. For the bottom “hinge” I bored a hole in one end of the stick and added a screw eye in the chine. These were tied together with a short piece of Dacron line. Above, I attached the new stick to my old wooden handle with plastic wire ties. Good enough to test it.

It worked so well I didn’t even bother showing you pictures. A complete failure. To even double the leverage, the stick would have to protrude at least 18” above the gunwale. This is simply unacceptable. Imagine what a 15 foot long gaff boom would do to that stick in a gybe. The old systems have the line lower down, but we can’t do that because we have to control 22” of cable to move the tiller through its entire range. You can’t get 22” of scope any closer to the axis of a stick system than we already are. We could reduce that to 11” if we eliminated the doubling sheaves on the tiller, but then we’d be giving away as much mechanical advantage as we got back.

So our leverage is stuck at 2:1 in this system. If we shortened the tiller and used steel cable we might be able to manage 4:1 at very best. But with the steering wheel, the drum was 1.5” and the wheel is 18”, yielding a ratio of 6:1 without taking up all that space. And that doesn’t even count the doubling sheaves, which make it 12:1! I began to see the beauty of the wheel. But how to apply it to my situation?

As my arm was being pulled off in that 13 mph of wind, I had my blinding flash of the obvious.

Vertical Shaft Wheel Steering

Mount the steering wheel horizontally, and it’s easy and logical to grab the aft spokes of the wheel. They pull on your hand just like a tiller. And the spokes aren’t so long that you have to reach for the lee rail when coming about. I would’ve smacked my forehead, but letting go of the sheet would have been a bad idea on that particular downwind run.

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I’m thanking Billy Atkin and his descendants for this one. I had been looking at his designs online (, and noticing how some of his powerboats have a vertical shaft steering wheel. Like Haven, for example. This isn’t seen very often these days, but it was relatively common in the 1940s.

I now think that this is the best wheel installation for a small sailboat, if you’re fool enough to demand a wheel at all. (Don’t!) Next time we’ll look at how I installed the whole mess.

Rob Rohde-Szudy
Madison, Wisconsin, USA

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