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Getting the steering system right is vitally important because after all it is the main point of contact between you and your boat.

Except on the simplest and smallest boats I prefer to use semi balanced rudders with no skegs. These offer light steering - you should be able to balance the tiller extension on the end of your finger, even at speed, yet will still steer straight "hands off". A Youtube excerpt from the MSHMF video is shown below


I've sailed enough of my boats to know that it is quite possible for any of them to sail themselves in a straight line, yet still tack quickly in any sea. To say that only boats with a skeg hung rudder will steer straight is simply not true. The photo below shows our Merlin, Tucanu, sailing at 7 knots with no hand on the tiller. The straight wake is obvious.

Or, more convincingly, in this video, below, also taken on Tucanu when sailing at about 7 knots.

Boats with LAR keels have a conventional rudder setup with bearings at each end of a rudder stock tube. On boats with daggerboards the rudders have to lift when drying out. I use kick up rudders which lift clear of the water and are fixed to the boat with one bolt at deck level, and held down at the lower bearing by a rope led to a cleat. See photos below.

It's a very simple system, and has worked extremely well over the last 20 odd years. When raised the rudder does not stick out behind the boat, where it could be prone to damage from other boats when moored. It does not kick up automatically because such a method would have to ensure that the rudders didn't lift when sailing through a clump of weed at speed, but did kick up at low speeds if running aground in mud when probably the shock loads are a lot less. It doesn't seem likely that an automatic system can be devised that can differentiate between the two.

Clearly a wheel offers far more power than a tiller and thus it is essential for boats over 12m (40'). Conversely, the steering loads on boats under 30' are low and tillers work well. It's on boats between 30' and 40' where it's more a question of personal choice. Of course, there are pros and cons to both wheel and tillers. A wheel is good when motoring as the engine controls are always within easy reach, the steering position is near to the centre of the boat, so it is well protected and the helm can reach most sail controls. On the other hand, tillers are good when sailing as they allow the helmsman to move around the boat, see both sides of the sails, keep clear of the crew winching etc. Furthermore, tillers are more responsive when sailing in a quartering sea, while when coming alongside they allow the helm to stand near the gunwale for the best view.

I always use a tiller bar despite its disadvantages, as it ensures that the rudders always stay in line. With a tiller steered boat I now prefer two telescopic tiller extensions, one for each tack, rather than a very long central extension. I use standard dinghy extensions that extend out about 5' and initially hose-clamp them to the tiller bar to check for their correct position. Later I through bolt them, I haven't found pop rivets to be very successful as they tend to wear out quickly. I always draw an Akkermann linkage on the tillers (that's the same as used on the front wheels of a car). As the boat turns the inner rudder makes a smaller radius circle than the outer, so it has to be held over at greater angle.

For wheel steered boats I suggest using a quadrant to one rudder stock. You can buy one, or take a lead direct from lugs on the tiller. It's then simple to use a pair of wires (or spectra rope) from the tiller leading to a chain and sprocket fitted to the wheel. An alternative is to use a push-pull cable (eg Morse, Teleflex) although this usually only works well on smaller boats (say under 10m). I don't recommend a hydraulic system. It's heavy, complicated and seems more prone to problems than any other system I've seen. But worst of all, it gives no feel to the helm. The result is a bit like driving a car with PAS or a motorboat, not a sailboat.

It is hard to arrange a automatic disconnect wheel system for use with kick up rudders that doesn't result in some play, so if you choose a boat with daggerboards (and thus kick up rudders) the wheel is probably not for you. Having said that, some people have made a good compromise (eg a local Sagitta) and use a wheel purely when motoring and revert to tillers when sailing.

If you do use wheel steering then you must also consider emergency steering. I usually prefer to have an emergency tiller that can be fitted to the rudder without the quadrant as that means it is possible to disconnect a potentially completely jammed rudder and steer with just one.

These days autopilots are simple to set up and use (especially those with a remote control), reliable, draw very little power and so when passage making are almost certain to be used. This means that the crew comfort and protection considerations are no longer as important as they once were.

Having said that, when was the last time you drove a car with wooden seats? So why are so many boats so uncomfortable to helm?? Some don't even have a seat - forcing the helmsman to stand. In comparison I draw wrap round cockpit seats. You can sit low when on autopilot or sailing ofshore as I am doing on Eclipse, above (note, I'm holding the autopilot remote control), or steer from the seat top for racing or close quarters sailing. Much more civilized!!

One final comment, if you want a boat that is easy to build and maintain, go for tillers.