Be warned - I am an unseasoned and not very salty sailor. Any tips I share about boat buying are of the low sodium variety.
Scott and I are looking to buy a new sailboat next year so I'm trying to learn more about what you should look for when buying a boat. The extent of my involvement in buying our current boat was to check out the boat cushions (not the prettiest) and the seahorse painted on the stern (cuter than the cushions). This time around we'll be spending a heck of a lot more money so I've set out to learn more about boats. I started with hulls, keels, more about keels and then rudders. Now it is time to look at how you turn the rudder to make the boat go where you want it to go. Unlike many other aspects of boat buying there are only two choices - a tiller or a steering wheel.
A tiller is the simplest option. It is basically a long handle that attaches to the rudder post. You push the tiller from side to side to turn the boat. No fancy pulleys, gears, wires, hydraulics etc. to worry about. Just a simple connection between the tiller and the rudder post. You push the rudder, the boat turns.
Seems pretty straightforward except that it works like something out of "Alice in Wonderland" where nothing is at it seems. When you're driving a car and you want to go right, you turn the steering wheel right. When you want to go left, you turn the steering wheel left. But when you are using a tiller, you do everything backwards. To turn right, you push the tiller left. To turn left, you push the tiller right. I struggle to tell my left from my right on a good day and when you add in the pressure of having to remember left from right and then try to figure out which way to push the tiller it can all be a bit too much. Especially when you are about to crash into a very expensive launch and you start to worry that the launch costs more then your insurance will cover. You should see the look on Scott's face when that sort of thing happens with me at the helm. Priceless. (Tip: if you can't tell your left from you right, hold both hands out in front of you. The thumb and index finger on your left hand makes an "L" - "L" for left. Now try to do this while steering the boat with a tiller. Not so easy now!)
Tillers are more commonly found on smaller boats. They have the advantage of being more responsive and you can get a better "feel" for what's going on as your hand on the tiller is closer to where the action is happening down where the water is pushing against the rudder. If you put a tiller extension on your tiller (a thin, long pole which attaches to the tiller), you have more freedom as to where you sit in the cockpit and can rest the tiller extension on your lap or between your knees thus freeing your hands up for snacks. However, one of the downsides of a tiller is that it takes up a lot of room in the cockpit as it swings from side to side. This means people sometimes have to scoot around and readjust their position when you move the tiller over to the other side. However, when you're anchored, you can pull the tiller up and tie it upright leaving the cockpit free. In larger boats, tillers can be more difficult to manage as there is more pressure to contend with. You have to use your own brute strength to push the tiller from side to side. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending upon your perspective), I'm not very brutish.
Wheels are the alternative to tillers and often found on larger boats (as well as on smaller boats whose captains think they look cooler with a wheel). They work just like a steering wheel in your car and can be easier to turn than a tiller in a larger boat as less brute force is required. You also don't have all of that left = right and right = left confusion that you get with a tiller. Wheels are a more complicated set-up than a tiller with more stuff that can potentially get broken. And while you look pretty cool behind the wheel, you are pretty much stuck behind the wheel unlike with a tiller extension.
It is probably a draw for me as to whether I prefer a tiller or a wheel. Having only used a tiller I have kind of gotten used to them and their backwards way of steering and like the idea of less chance of things breaking. But as we'll be getting a bigger boat, the idea of it being easier to steer is appealing. We'll have to wait and see which way this one plays out.
Next up - the great monohull vs. catamaran debate. Would you prefer to buy a "normal" boat with one hull or the "Siamese twins" of boats with two hulls? Stay tuned.
If you're interested in other slightly eccentric posts on how to buy a sailboat when you know nothing about sailing or boats, check out this page.
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