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Tiller or Wheel – Sailing – Sail Away Girl


Hello Sailors,

For my new sailors when you go out to take your lesson, assuming that you will be on a boat of 30′ or larger, you will either be on a sailboat equipped with a tiller or wheel.  You will find that steering with a tiller takes some getting used to as you steer in the opposite direction than you want to head.  Steering with a wheel is the same as steering in your car…you want to go to starboard (right) then you steer to starboard.

I love the feel of the tiller personally, I liken it to the feel of driving a sports car where you can feel the road versus driving a station wagon where you just feel bumps and turns.  Nonetheless, I plan to have a wheel on my around the world trip boat.  Why, cockpit space mainly.

Here are various opinions I found for each steering mechanism in various sailing forums on the internet:

In favor of the tiller:

1.  it gives me a feel for the rudder better than any wheel ever could. after all, it’s a direct connection. I can feel vibrations that can give tons of information on what the boat is doing, from how well the boat is trimmed, to something as simple as knowing there’s kelp wrapped around the post.

2.  Found it way more tiring to steer for long distances than a tiller. With a wheel, it’s all hands and forearms to steer and tiring if the wheel is the least bit heavy.

3.   you can use a much wider range of muscle groups to steer so is not as tiring.

4.  Forgot your gloves on a cool day and the stainless wheel sucks the warmth out of your fingers. If it’s the least bit wet out, the wheel will not only freeze your hands but the spokes will whack your fingers good when they slip on the wet wheel.

5.   Can steer a boat with a tiller between your legs, leaves both hands free to grind the jib in or sheet the main.

6.   a tiller will always give a helmsman better ‘feedback’ from the rudder than a wheel ever could, and is usually more responsive.

7.   I hate crawling under the cockpit by way of a cramped sail locker, hanging upside down to rerun a steering cable that has jumped the quadrant. That seems to happen less with more modern wheel steering systems but it still happens.

8.   Tillers can be tilted out of the way when you get to port.
In favor of the wheel:

1.  you can let go of a wheel much easier than you can let go of a tiller. For example. You are cruising with the family, you just left the dock by yourself. You are powering down the channel and you want to retrieve your fenders and dock lines by yourself. A little wheel lock on and just go do it. A tiller your boat would instantly turn if you let go of it in this situation. Granted autopilots correct this but they are added after the fact.

2.  there is something about being able to sit in the far corner of a boat and just have your fingertips on the wheel in a nice displacement keel boat.

3.  a mid-cockpit tiller skipper blocks off more space than a back-of-cockpit wheel skipper takes.

4.   that lovely baseball bat-to-the-gut swing when reversing inattentively and having the unattended tiller come back to smite you.

5.   I think it is because you can sit/stand behind the wheel looking forward, it is easier on the neck, A few of the more prolific offshore sailors in my club at home have quite bad necks from twisting their body looking forward all the time whilst the boat is pitching around, Inshore tiller, offshore wheel, I prefer tiller but then I am young.

6.   Mechanical advantage. A tiller is a simple lever and is cockpit space constraints make it hard to have a 8′ long tiller, which is required on a big heavy displacement boats. A wheel has more mechanical advantage by virtue of the ratio of the sprocket diameter to wheel rim diameter.

7.   a tiller can get tiring if you’ve any excess weather helm or the yacht is not balanced.

8.   the binnacle for a wheel can support tables and the like. Binnacles give you something to hold onto in a seaway.

Tillers seem to be more preferable for coastal cruising while offshore cruisers seem to prefer wheels.

Tillers swing through a bigger area of the cockpit while sailing but wheels permanently occupy a bigger area of the cockpit and are a pain in the butt to get around.

Some people feel that wheels are more nautical or shippy. Others think that wheels on small boats are an affectation like the guy on a day sailor who wears a captain’s hat.

In the end, it comes down to what you feel most comfortable with. Each has their proponents and advantages.

See you on the water,

Sail Away Girl



  1. A good assessment of both tiller and wheel which matches my own observations.

    I’m coming at this from a single handed sailor so I’m veering towards the wheel option because it makes sailing easier and it also allows you to leave the wheel and attend to other matters on the boat. Also, like you mentioned, it’s generally preferred for longer distance sailing as it is probably more comfortable.

    However, it is normally present on more expensive vessels. Cheaper vessels normally come with a tiller so my options with less money are better if I accept a tiller. Also, as for solo sailing, the tiller will turn the boat into the wind if you fall off the back, whereas the wheel will keep on going whilst you bob in the water! This alone makes it an attractive proposition.

    I have learnt on both. On a smaller keeler yacht (tiller) and on a larger yacht (wheel).

    • Hi Mark,

      Yep just like standard versus automatic on cars you pay a premium for the wheel. I agree if you need to step away from the helm, it would typically be faster to secure the wheel quickly than a tiller. It still is possible to secure the tiller on a course it just takes more time and if you need to attend to something in a hurrry you could have a problem.

      I’ve actually seen and implemented an “autopilot” on a tiller using lines and a cleat. You could pre-rig this on both sides of the boat in advance of casting off so you could quickly secure the tiller before leaving the helm rather quickly.

      Nonetheless, my main issue with tillers is the cockpit space they encroach. So while I do love helming with a tiller it will be a wheel for me.

      Thank you again for commenting in my posts!

      Sail Away Girl