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November 22, 2010     Post 19
Telling A Tale Of Tillers

It's winter time now- the boats are tucked away and the sailors are hard aground with nothing to do but tell sea stories.( Or maybe re-build their old woodie.) I'll share a short sea story that comes from our little schooner's former owner as to- How Sara B got her tiller

Call me a curmudgeon, dinosaur or luddite, but for the life of me I can't understand the current trend of nearly universal wheel steering on smaller new sailboats. These days even 26 footers come with optional shiny stainless wheels adding thousands dollars to the price tag. Ship's wheels are pretty much standard on thirty footers now. Some say wheels take up less room in the cockpit ( not true dockside at least, where you can swing a tiller up or off to the side or unship it to get it out of the way). I suppose wheels do give a mechanical advantage over tillers on an ill-mannered cranky boat that refuses to steer easily when the wind blows up. And I will concede that the pedestal mounted controls of a modern wheel set up make close quarters maneuvering under power easier. But heck these are sail boats! Even the best wheel steering doesn't have the sensitivity and 'feel' of a tiller when you're sailing. As an old dinghy racer, I rely on helm feel as an indicator of whether my boat is sailing efficiently. When she's pulling hard I know my main is sheeted in too tight or I'm over canvassed and/or heeling too much or otherwise screwing up.

A few years ago seeking to spice up our lives a bit, we bought Sara B, an elderly wooden boat, a thirty eight footer on eBay and brought her from salt water up to Lake Ontario. Our new acquisition was equipped with a sturdy tiller. Many people upon viewing it were moved to comment something like ye gods, it's massive. This boat must be a brute to steer. Well, she isn't. She's mannerly and with her schooner rig she is well balanced, and often can be persuaded to sail herself. And she once had a wheel.

Thirty years ago Sara B's owner was steering across New York City Harbor sitting by his salty looking wooden ship's wheel when the inbound Staten Island ferry prompted him to make a course change. When he rolled the helm down to tack, a cable jumped the sheave and jammed. Anyone who has visited New York City knows the folks down there are always in a hurry. The ferries are no exception. And they're huge. This one was not about to put his brakes on for a stupid yachtie. With a bone in her teeth the ferry bore down fast on the hapless little schooner.

Sara B's skipper did some quick work with his sails and managed to get out of the way. Then still using his sails, he nursed the boat back to her dock. Twenty minutes later the wheel assembly had been removed forcibly and deposited ashore. He presented his ship's wheel to the boat's former owner who hung it on the living room wall, and Sara B has sailed with a tiller ever since.

I conclude that the lessons to be learned from this are 1, there is value and utility in playing around at steering your boat using only the sails BEFORE an emergency arises and 2 that tillers rule!

I believe the tiller is basically fool proof with no moving parts (though I have had one break on me) however, they are easily monitored for impending failure, the most likely form of which is probably rot at the tiller head attachment. On many boats you can lift the tiller up and stand high on the after deck to peer over the cabin top with it and on Sara B, if your legs are long enough, you can put it over hard with your foot and work the engine shifter up by the bridge deck when docking. Admittedly it is not as convenient as a wheel but such contortions help keep you supple. Kinda like Yoga.

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