There are plenty of pros and cons when it comes to leaving the steering system on a sailing yacht or switching to the helms. For some seafarers, this issue is extremely important, judging by the level of emotion that flares up when discussing this topic. As for me, in sailing I have always preferred the helm, but perhaps I changed my mind. And that’s why…
Comparison of the helm and tiller on the Oceanis 30.1
We have an Oceanis 30.1 for sale available for test drives. This boat has a fairly simple configuration, almost standard – in the case of a steering system, this means that the boat is equipped with a tiller. I know the Oceanis 30.1 pretty closely as I traveled 450 miles across the Baltic Sea to Sweden on an analog, and until recently I was considering it as a boat for myself. In this case, I would prefer the optional handwheels over the standard tiller. Now that I have spent three days at sea in gusty 5-point winds, I must say that I am beginning to understand the advantages of a tiller.
Main advantages and disadvantages of tiller and steering wheels
Let’s take a look at the steering wheels first. Of course they look cooler, especially when they are composite. This is such an elegant and sporty look that most clients like so much. Steering the boat with the steering wheel is also much more convenient. You just sit on the coaming or wedge yourself between the rails and all it takes to steer the boat is little effort, even on long crossings.
In some ways, handwheels are more ergonomic
For many people, especially sailing beginners, steering a boat with the helm is also much easier: it’s like driving a car. Do you want to go left? You just turn the steering wheel to the left. Do you want to turn right? You turn the steering wheel to the right. It was so easy that my 3-year-old son needed a minute of instruction a la “it’s like on your toy car …” and he went to steer the yacht. There is even nothing to think about.
Ease of handling, direct feeling of maneuvers, quick and sharp reaction – this is possible only with a tiller
The tiller is a completely different story. If you didn’t come on a yacht from a dinghy – Optimist, Laser, 420 or something else and didn’t grow up on tiller-controlled boats, it will take time to adapt. Do you want to go left? Push the tiller to the right … exactly the opposite. I saw quite a few people who had problems getting it right the first time, especially as we learned that steering a yacht should be like driving a car. But yesterday I tested this system with a girl who was a guest on the boat and sat on the tiller for the first time in her life: it took her 10 minutes to keep her course steady. So these are definitely not rockets to launch into space.
More complete version with composite handwheels
Wheels, in my opinion, have the disadvantage of slower response. It just takes a little more time for the boat to react to course changes or waves. Depending on the gear of the gear, it may indeed take some time for a quick response when the boat is off course. I noticed this on my Atlantic crossing and most recently during the Oceanis 46.1 ferry to Greece – when both autopilot and myself had to put in a lot of effort to get the rudder back to prevent broaching. In the case of a tiller, it is a matter of a few seconds.
Fast response and immediate feel of the tiller rudder
It is also much faster to determine the rudder position with a tiller – the boat simply goes in the direction that the tiller tip points. That is why, in an instant, everyone on board can see in which direction the rudders are now turned. Not like with the helm – even the zero position mark cannot indicate the true bearing, since the helm can make a full revolution for this. Since I have walked with both types of steering systems, I know this from my own experience, but it was always on different boats. Now with the Oceanis 30.1 on hand, I can compare them directly. Let’s see what we have.
Head-to-Head Comparison: Tiller vs Steering Wheels on Oceanis 30.1
First, let’s look at the bare numbers. For this model, the price of the optional two steering wheels is 1,500 euros (excluding VAT). For this money, you can put a teak in the cockpit. Or spend this money on a three-week hike across the Baltic Sea. At the same time, you get a very basic steering gear that is much easier to maintain – even virtually maintenance-free – and no cables, quadrants, fine tuning or anything involved with the complex mechanics of twin steering wheels.
Very robust and simple tiller mechanism
Second, and most obviously to me, the tiller saves a lot of deck space, especially on the Oceanis 30.1. When you dock and the tiller is tilted up, there is plenty of space aft for useful use. While with the helms, at this point you will always have the helm racks taking up space and the helms themselves, reducing access to the bathing platform.
Control posts “eat up” the length of the cans: it will not work
Another point is the large length of the cans in the cockpit. It may seem that the difference is not great, but it really is. On the Oceanis 30.1 with two steering wheels, the cans are 20 cm shorter, so lying in the sun, stretching out to your full height, will not work. The tiller version definitely has the chance to sunbathe more comfortably. Perfectly! But how does the helmsman feel?
See this long can? No helm station = more resting space
This is a double-edged sword, at least when it comes to cruisers. I have to admit I’m a fan of autopilot. Both versions can be fitted with a B&G NAC3 autopilot and most sailors I know rarely taxi by hand on long passages. They usually have fun for 10-20 minutes, and then Mr. Autopilot takes over. But in any case, it is bliss to operate the Oceanis 30.1 on your own; it is fast, very maneuverable and responsive, which cannot be said from its high freeboard, but it really is.
I like it more and more. The tiller feel is amazing!
Of course, such management requires a lot of effort. Much more muscle strength is required, especially when steering the boat in strong heel with the Spinlock tiller handle – hours of sailing will strain the helmsman’s muscles and guarantee hand pain the next day. In any case, standing or sitting at the helm has a similar effect, at least on my spine and neck: no less stress. So I think this is a draw.
Which to choose: tiller or steering wheel?
Of course, this is everyone’s choice and will always be so. But what I’ve learned over the past few days by comparing directly the performance, comfort, pros and cons of the helm versus the tiller on the Oceanis 30.1 is, to be honest, I’m behind the tiller on this little boat. Why? Well, if you look at the facts, then, in my opinion, there are more advantages of steering control than disadvantages.
The steering wheels work better the larger the boat
Therefore, if you are looking for fast, agile yachting, choose a tiller. Celebrate the money you have saved now and reinvest in other options like a good gennaker or code 0, and enjoy the icing on the cake – much more headspace in the cockpit, which is very important on a small boat like the Oceanis 30.1. I myself am surprised that I have come to this conclusion now, and it teaches me that nothing contributes to the growth of your competence as a sailor as … actually the time spent at sea on a yacht. Happy Sunday guys!
Author: Lars Reisberg