Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . For sale: Two wheels, cheap

For sale: Two wheels, cheap

2018 May 1

We’re sailboat shopping. Replacing one beloved family boat with another is a big change, so we’ve spent a lot of time pondering the ideal design. 

Our wishlist asks that it be:

1. Large enough to stand up in, yet manageable by two.

2. Fast enough to compete, but welcoming to circumspect newcomers or for entertaining.

3. Safe in nasty weather, but light enough to not need the Wisconsin Badgers offensive line to grind in a blow.

Our overarching criteria? A tiller. Yep, we’re the folks the designers and builders have forgotten. It’s almost impossible to find a boat that does what we need and that is not steered by a wheel or even two.

Despite wheels having won this battle in a landslide, the tiller vs. wheel online conversation rages. I came across some opinions on both sides of the issue including the following:

Tillers are only practical up to about 30 feet LOA

Note that just 20 years ago, many boats longer than 40 feet could be ordered with a tiller. Today, that’s no longer an option. For good measure, there is now a new 31-footer with twin wheels. (I’m wondering if it comes with a pair of sneakers for the tack sprint.)

Sidestepping the novelty, the design challenge is to size the proper lever to move a load. Just as it seems unimaginable that a 31-foot boat would need a wheel (much less two), a heavy 100-footer would require that same offensive line to shove its giant tiller to the rail to have a chance at tacking in a blow.

The main benefit of a wheel is power: It can be geared down to make more of one person’s strength. So there is a size/weight threshold when a wheel becomes the logical choice, but it is higher than we’re seeing from builders. Notably, Open 60s and some TP 52s have tillers.

Wheels add risk and cost.

To be fair, I’ve sailed tens of thousands of miles on wheel-steered boats and never had one fail (knocking on wood). Risk is managed by proper engineering and good maintenance. Enough wheels have been installed that most manufacturing kinks are likely gone, but cables and pulleys wear out, so, logically, one wheel will cost more to maintain than a tiller, and two wheels will cost, well, as much as two times more again.

Tillers exhaust drivers when there is weather helm.

This, friends, is not the fault of the tiller. A gentle tug to weather is a sign that all is right with the world. However, if you must fight to keep the bow down and need the leverage of a wheel to do it, then your boat is telling you that something else is wrong. Perhaps it is time to mash those spiders nesting in your backstay adjuster and power down. Or buck up and reef.

Twin wheels allow the helmsman to sit on the rail.

Have you heard of a tiller extension?

My preference of a tiller over a wheel centers on the human experience, more than on mechanical systems.

While it may seem logical that anyone with a driver’s license might grab a sailboat wheel, the fact is that the best sailors learn to sail before they learn to drive, and the tiller is why they get good. The sensation of flow around the rudder transmitted via tiller, is, for many novices, a eureka moment: “Oh, I get it. I control a wing beneath my feet.”  That sets the stage to understand lift, flow, drag, attachment and angle of attack; central to the rest of the experience. In time, a tiller teaches finesse.

A tiller is also a team builder. Instead of walling off the driver from the rest of the crew, a tiller puts the driver’s body and mind in a collaborative role, as opposed to a supervisory one. You can hear the difference: tiller-drivers tend to talk, not shout, since they’re among crewmates. They participate and share in other work. Tiller drivers take the mainsheet in a pinch, or break or grind a winch with a second hand. Finally, the open lane to the tiller lets anyone take the helm in a blink. This is just as useful in a friendship as in an emergency.

That’s why a tiller will be the main feature of our next family boat. I’m afraid it may require a retrofit. Who needs a pair of binnacles? (I’m going to make a rad bike out of the wheels.)