what steers a boat

Steering (and Riding In) a Sailboat

All sailboats have a rudder, an underwater movable fin that turns the boat. This rudder is attached to either a long stick (tiller) or a wheel that you use to steer. In this article, you’ll discover the differences between tiller and wheel steering systems, as well as where to sit when you drive or crew (on a sailboat, the driver’s seat isn’t always obvious; it can change when the wind changes) as well as areas to steer clear of when on a sailboat.

Tiller or wheel?

Most sailboats longer than 30 feet (9 meters) are steered with a wheel, just like a car. Through a mechanical linkage, the wheel controls the position of your rudder. When moving forward, turn the wheel left and the boat goes to the left — and vice versa. You may think that this is stating the obvious, but you see why when you compare turning the wheel to the other way of steering a sailboat — with a tiller.

You steer most smaller sailboats by using a tiller. Using a tiller for the first time takes a bit of getting used to, because the boat turns the opposite direction you move the tiller. If you move the tiller to the left, the boat turns right; move the tiller right, and the boat goes left.

Steering a sailboat is also like a car in that turning becomes more efficient the faster the boat is going (and in the fact that you can’t steer when stopped). So when you’re going fast, you can turn the tiller or wheel less to achieve the same turning arc. To turn when you’re going slow, turn harder and keep the rudder over for a longer time.

For pure sailing pleasure, some sailers prefer a tiller on any boat up to, say, 40 feet (12 meters). Although a wheel takes up less cockpit space, it compromises the feel of the boat. Because of all the associated parts and connections, wheel steering has much more internal friction. A tiller directly connects you to the rudder, allowing you to feel the water as it flows below the boat, and for me, that sensitivity is preferable.

Knowing where to sit when you drive

One of the easiest ways to spot nonsailors is to see where they sit on a boat. If you’re driving, you not only want to be able to steer well, but you also want to look good. The following tips can help:

  • When steering a dinghy, keep in mind the effect your weight has on the balance of the boat. Not only should you sit down, but the windward side (the side the wind blows on) most likely needs your weight to counteract the heeling (tipping) forces of the sails.
  • Sit just forward of the end of the tiller so that you can freely move it from side to side. Most boats have a tiller extension or hiking stick attached to the end of the tiller that enables you to sit fartherout to the side of the boat while steering. Using this extension all the time enables you to sit comfortably while steering — and look cool. Hold the tiller extension in your aft hand so that your forward hand is free to adjust the mainsheet. You also have a better view of the sails on a boat with a jib if you sit farther forward.
  • On keelboats with a wheel, stand or sit behind or to either side of the wheel. On keelboats with a tiller, sit on either side, wherever you have the most visibility and feel most comfortable — although keeping your weight on the high side to counteract heeling is important on a smaller keelboat.
  • If your boat has a blind spot because of a cabin top or the sails, move around occasionally to peek into the blind spot. Periodically asking a crew member to look for obstructions and other boats never hurts either. It’s your responsibility to be aware of everything that may pose a danger to your boat at all times.

Knowing where the crew should sit

On most boats, the crew sits forward of the skipper. The crew members often are responsible for trimming the sails and moving their weight outboard (hiking) to keep the boat from heeling. In most conditions, they can sit on the windward side. But if the wind is very light or if the boat’s sailing downwind, they may need to sit on the side opposite the skipper to help balance the boat.

On larger boats with several crew members, divide up the jobs so that everyone can feel useful. The skipper usually steers (although nothing says you can’t trade around and share the joys of being at the helm). As the boats get bigger, your individual weight makes less of a difference in counteracting the heeling forces, but you’ll still find staying on the windward side most comfortable, whether operating the boat or just hanging out.

Avoiding danger areas

Certain spots on a boat are safer than others. Before you leave the dock, make sure you know what spots to avoid (or at least be extra careful in) after you’re under way. These danger areas include

  • Anywhere in the plane of the boom when it swings across in a jibe or tack. Don’t forget to duck! Along with the boom, be aware of all the associated rigging, including the boom vang and the mainsheet.
  • Anywhere outside of the cockpit where you walk or stand. Many boats have handrails that make it easier to hold on if you must leave the cockpit.
  • At the bow and the stern. If you must go to these places, hold on tight, because the motion of the boat is accentuated at the ends.
  • In the path of the jib and jib sheets during a tacking maneuver. This path runs from the foredeck all the way back on either side to where the jib sheets go through pulleys heading for the cockpit. During a tack (or jibe), when the headsail flaps in the wind, the sailcloth and ropes are like whips.
  • In the “slingshot target zone” of pulleys under high load. If the block were to break loose, it would go flying.
  • On the leeward side of the boat. The leeward, or downwind, side is especially dangerous if the boat is heeling (leaning from the wind); the leeward side is closer to the water, and gravity is pushing you that way.
  • Shiny areas, such as varnished wood or plastic hatch covers. Shiny areas are probably as slippery as they look. Most bigger boats have a nonskid (textured) surface on deck to help keep you steady, but look where you step and hold onto something if you can. Sails on deck are also very slippery.

Yes, you figured it out — the safest place in most boats is the cockpit (as long as you stay low and watch out for the darn boom). The deck can be dangerous during maneuvers or in rough seas at any time.

Steering (and Riding In) a Sailboat All sailboats have a rudder, an underwater movable fin that turns the boat. This rudder is attached to either a long stick (tiller) or a wheel that you use

Better Boat Control

By Chris Edmonston

Even experienced boaters can benefit from these four smart tips to improve their steering control.

To steer a straight course, compare the position of the bow with an object on the horizon. If the relationship changes, the boat has changed course.

Many boaters, myself included, were taught to use the engine as the primary way to overcome the environment, to power through adverse situations. This way of thinking will sooner or later break your boat, or get someone hurt. A competent operator should be able to handle their boat in close quarters using wind and current, and be able to safely come alongside, back their boat, turn in a narrow space, and certainly dock their boat. That’s the kind of training that boaters receive by attending a hands-on boating course taught by U.S. Sailing, the Power Squadrons, the National Safe Boating Council, and local boating schools across the country. To find a course near you, visit our BoatUS Foundation website, A good one-two punch would be to take a hands-on course such as this, as well as an online course from the BoatUS Foundation.

There are four basic skills taught by instructors certified by the National Safe Boating Council; in this article we’ll focus on the first one, steering-wheel control. In upcoming issues, we’ll focus on three other important skills.

Steering Wheel Control

Over-steering and over-correcting are common problems. We must know whether the wheel is straight or turned and, if turned, which direction and how far. There isn’t room for guessing and making corrections if the boat doesn’t turn the direction anticipated.

The Difference Between Steering A Car and Steering A Boat

We’re all used to driving a car. How much different can steering-wheel control be on a boat? Well, hugely different, in reality, and it can get you in trouble if you don’t recognize the distinction. Cars steer from the front while boats steer from the stern. Boats pivot, cars don’t. When you steer a car, the front tires turn the front of the car, and the rest of the car follows. Take a corner too tightly and the inside rear wheel hits the curb. When you steer a boat, the rudder, outdrive, or outboard swivels at the stern and directs the thrust in a way that pushes the stern in the opposite direction. Because of this, when taking a corner in a boat, your boat needs room on the OUTSIDE of a turn — the exact opposite of a car. This difference isn’t too noticeable on open water, but critical in close quarters.

Effects Of Wind Or Current At Low Speed

Two forces steer a boat while moving forward (making headway) — the wash or thrust from the spinning prop, and the rudder effect of the drive or rudder slicing through the water. When making headway in forward gear, prop wash and rudder effect work together. Shifting into neutral subtracts prop wash, but the boat’s headway through the water allows the drive or rudder to keep working, so some steering control is retained. The same holds true in reverse gear (sternway). The faster the boat moves through the water, the greater the steering force of rudder effect. When operating at slow speed, your boat will handle better when the prop is turning. So, timing is important when you’re trying to steer and shift gears at the same time. Shift too soon or turn the wheel too late (or vice versa) and control may be lost.

Talk The Walk

Another factor that affects how your boat moves through the water is “prop walk,” a sideway force at the stern caused by the spin of the prop. Direction of the walk is dependent on which way the prop spins. The spin gives the boat a tendency to turn slightly, instead of going straight — and may cause your boat to lean one way or another at high speed. Prop walk is more noticeable in reverse than in forward gear, and more pronounced on inboard vessels. Viewed from behind, a right-hand prop spins clockwise in forward gear, and a left-hand prop spins counterclockwise. When a right-hand prop is in forward gear, it will “walk” the boat to starboard; in reverse gear, it will walk the boat to port. Likewise, a left-hand prop in forward gear will walk the boat to port, and walk it to starboard in reverse gear.

How To Tell If You’re Moving .

Prop walk can be put to good use when docking. When possible, it’s an advantage to approach the dock on the side where the planned maneuver will walk the stern to the dock. If you can’t do this, you’ll need to take that into account and adjust how much you steer. But before you take a boat into tight quarters, make sure you’ve gotten a working understanding of the following techniques.

Centering The Wheel

Start by figuring out the range of the wheel, which is how many times it takes to turn the wheel from hard-to-port to hard-to-starboard. Turn the wheel all the way to one side or the other, then turn hard the other way, counting the number of turns it takes. Divide the number of turns in half and remember that number. So if it takes six turns to get from one side to the other, three turns should center your wheel from either side. It’s very important to know when your wheel is centered, especially with inboard or sterndrive boats where you can’t see the drives. It’s also a handy practice if you’re asked to take the helm on an unfamiliar boat.

Steer A Straight Course

Now that you know how to center the wheel, the next technique is steering straight. Looking at the wakes of many boats, you’ll often see a serpentine path, because people are over-steering. To practice:

  • Center the wheel.
  • Shift into forward gear at idle speed.
  • Aim for a distant object, watching the bow.
  • When the bow drifts to one side, make quick, short pulses with the wheel in the opposite direction then re-center the wheel.

Many people tend to over-correct when steering and, instead of staying on course, drift too far in the other direction because they hold the turn too long. The key is to use short corrections, and when the boat initially begins to turn in the desired direction, re-center the wheel. As you practice steering straight, you can continually find new objects to use as a target and see how the boat behaves differently at different speeds.

Setting The Wheel

Make sure the wheel is in the desired direction and position BEFORE shifting into forward or reverse gear. This helps reduce your turning radius, making your turn more efficient — useful when operating in close quarters, where you might not have the ability to turn without properly setting the wheel. For many boats, you should be able to do a 180-degree turn in little more than a boat length if you set the wheel, and do so in conjunction with proper gear shifting. В

Chris Edmonston is president of the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety & Clean Water, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, independently funded by donations from BoatUS members and by grants.

Even experienced boaters can benefit from these smart tips to improve their steering control. ]]>