How to make sure your emergency tiller is up to the job should your wheel steering fail at sea

Wheel steering and emergency tillers

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Your rudder is unlikely to actually part company with the boat – although if it does, this article may help! What is far more likely is that something, somewhere between wheel and rudder stock, has gone awry. I came close to an accident on my way down a river once when a fender jammed the steering quadrant.
So the first thing to do is check the rudder stock and steering quadrant for an errant bucket, dinghy, line or other obstruction. If it seems to be clear, it’s probably the linkage. If you have an autopilot that has a direct linkage to the steering quadrant, this might restore control.

What can go wrong
There are a few types of wheel steering. First up is the Whitlock-type pedestal. ‘I see lots of these suffering from catastrophic failure due to neglect,’ says Cliff Mogridge, who services them from his workshop in Deacons Boatyard on the River Hamble. ‘Some owners never bother to even open up the system to check it once a year.
With neglect, they will always fail when you need it most: in heavy weather when the rudder is at maximum load.’

It’s important to check each year for grinding and clunking noises, and for water ingress, which can rapidly rust the bearings inside.

Steering that uses wires to connect to the rudder is also prone to failure. The wires can jump off their sheaves, break or jam, especially if the wire isn’t checked regularly. To repair, you may need to rig a relieving tackle so you can remove the errant wire or sheave. This system has the advantage that it’s basic and fairly easy to repair if you have the spares on board.
Other systems, such as those with a chain or belt link, can sometimes fail, especially if the chain or belt jumps off its spindle. These are often seen on modern production boats, especially in charter fleets. Repair can be a simple case of opening an access hatch and putting the chain back on its cog, unless there’s a more serious issue.

Emergency Tiller

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David struggles to control State Eleven as the emergency tiller loads up

If you don’t have the type of autopilot described above, it’s time to get out the emergency tiller. On most boats, this sits and rusts in the cockpit locker, but it’s vitally important to try it out. To see what provision for emergency steering was made on a modern production boat we took out SailTime Poole’s Bénéteau Océanis 40, State Eleven. As we headed out of the mouth of Poole Harbour we were met by a stiff 20-knot breeze, gusting up to 28 knots. To give the system a good test, we bypassed the still waters of Studland Bay and rounded Old Harry, where a lumpy southwesterly swell was making its way around Peveril Point.

State Eleven’s emergency tiller didn’t inspire confidence. It is a T-shaped bar which locates on top of the rudder stock, between the boat’s twin wheels. We removed the cap from the deck over the rudder stock with a winch handle and plugged the tiller in. We had about a foot of lateral ‘tiller’ to steer a wide-sterned boat, and it was tricky. Under power it was feasible to use, but as soon as we hoisted any sail the loads increased, making it difficult to keep the boat on course without the judicious application of a foot. Clearly, this would be a challenge to maintain for any length of time – we were out of breath after five minutes.

Rigging relieving tackles

DSC_0087cmykWith a T-bar facing athwartships, it was difficult to rig a traditional fore and aft-facing tiller, and we didn’t have room to extend the bar sideways as the twin wheels were in the way. There was a good lead to the genoa winches, so we lashed a spinnaker sheet to each end of the T-bar and braced the tiller aft to the pushpit. Using these two relieving tackles, it became easy to steer – we could take the load using the winches, simply adjusting the tension on each to keep her on her course. In waves, it proved tricky to do this fast enough, but eventually we got the rhythm and could steer a reasonable course. As with all these methods, we found it was important to balance the rig to reduce the loads transmitted to the tiller and to stop the wide-sterned State Eleven rounding up in the gusts.

Lashing a proper tiller

We tried a boathook, which improved the steering, but wasn't man enough for the loads

We tried a boathook, which improved the steering, but wasn’t man enough for the loads

Finally, we tried a barge-style tiller. First we lashed a boathook to the T-bar using a square lashing. In the lulls this proved very effective, adding the required leverage, but it began to bend and work the lashing loose as it loaded up. You’d need a strong boathook, but if you could adapt the tiller ready to receive a chunky pole in an emergency, you’d be halfway there.
We’d brought along a piece of timber which we cross-braced to the T-bar, and it worked remarkably well. We could steer State Eleven with ease, and although I speak as a fan of the tiller, it greatly improved her handling! We steered from two miles out to sea all the way to the boat’s mooring with no problems.

This particular lashup might not be practical to stow, but shows how well a pre-planned tiller can work

This particular lashup might not be practical to stow, but shows how well a pre-planned tiller can work

Improve your tiller!
It’s well worth putting in some time to look at and improve your emergency tiller. If State Eleven were mine, I’d get a fore-and-aft piece welded on to the T-bar, which could then be extended using a boathook or spare timber. A stainless bar that slotted together would be perfect and, disassembled, wouldn’t take up much room, but it would let you get yourself to a safe haven in the event of steering failure.

For me, the main learning point is to get out and try your system before you need it in an emergency. In the winter, take the steering system apart and get yourself acquainted intimately with its inner workings, so that you know exactly what to do if it breaks. One day, you’ll be happy you did!

  • Don’t forget your Oceansteer emergency rudder