How many steering wheels does your boat have?

When I purchased Orion somebody asked “How many steering wheels does this new boat of yours have?”. The quick amongst you will conclude that you can ask this question only if you do not know how a classic yacht looks like, what shape the hull has and so on. You can imagine this person’s disappointment in hearing my answer: “None, it has a tiller”.

Somehow having more than one steering wheel has become a source of pride or some indication of the quality of a boat or supposedly how much expensive it is and how fast it must sail. You see the double steering wheel being advertised as something positive (just by its presence) on new boat brochures. I heard excited charter boaters checking as first thing and happily confirming that their chartered boat had two steering wheels (in this particular case actually a 34 ft cruiser which by the sheer look of the quality of equipment and materials used, the sail plan, and the hull shape can be neither expensive neither fast, as it is was clearly developed primarily for chartering business).

Of course two steering wheels, nowadays increasingly coupled with twin rudders, have actually a very good reason. As transom became wider and wider, especially on racers, the steering wheel became larger and larger to allow the skipper to be in a position from where an unobstructed view of sails and the way forward was granted. At a certain point, two smaller steering wheels became the better and lighter option leaving also the center of the cockpit uncluttered. As the shape of racers’ hulls was gradually adopted also on cruising yachts, the same path was followed, sometime to the extreme of having this solution also where it does not make really sense: as in relatively smaller boats, where a tiller with an extension is more that sufficient.

Most of Sciarrelli designed boats have tillers, as it was the norm decades ago. Only few that I know of have a steering wheel (of course only one). Orion is a 41 ft cutter and I see that many people are actually surprised to see “only” a tiller. The most frequent comment is: “she must be hard to steer”. Of course not. When my daughter was only five years old, she was capable and able to steer it also in about 25 knots of headwind and actually having fun as Orion was ploughing trough the waves with a constant and reassuring rhythm typical of the “wave-forming” hulls. The tiller steering is so intuitive that a child can easily understand it. For years Orion”s slip was close to the one of “Angelica IV”, a 16,50m cutter, which also has a tiller (check out her page #134 – Angelica IV). I always pointed to her to demonstrate that it can be used on larger yachts as well, if sailing plan and hull is well designed and balanced. A tiller also gives the helmsman a much more direct connection with the boat and allows for both fine tuning and also quick wide adjustments to course. On top of it, a tiller with its simple design and direct connection to the rudder is as fail-safe as it can be.

Is this a feature of the past? Two tonners regularly had tiller-steered rudders. One can argue tonners are meanwhile also “classic” boats. So then let’s take “TP52” as example of a racing boat that many will agree is fast. It is frequently steered by tiller. There are some TP52 with twin steering wheels, probably a matter of skipper preference, but definitely a proof that up to and above 50ft a steering wheel is definitely not a must. And of course nobody really thinks that it only takes to two steering wheels on a TP52 to beat all the opponents with “just a tiller”.

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