Started Sailing

Does Controlling The Tiller Requires Constant Strength?

by Jason

I have a 23' 1981 Irwin sailboat. Whether under power or undersail takes a lot of strength to control the steering.

I am a fairly young 31 year old male, and am in fairly good condition.

This is my first sailboat so I have no other personal experience to compare, but everyone kinda looks at me crazy when I tell them my boat is hard to control. It has almost thrown me off the deck, and my wife just can't do it at all.

Please help if you can. Oh, I did check to see if the rudder was bent and it seems straight by feel.

Hi Jason

The sailboat you describe is quite large and so it probably will be difficult to use a tiller. Also when steering you must also remember to change the main sails position to the wind, which I believe may be your problem.

When you do not change the mainsail (which actually must be done before any movement of the rudder), the boat stops heeling and gets flatter as the wind is no longer pushing against it as much.

So if you want to go downwind, you must loosen the mainsheet first before changing course as the rudder will act as a large anchor and it will be near impossible to move as the heeling action of the boat will cause the rudder to go through the water at an angle.

Going upwind should be easier, but you should still pull in the main.

Also since it is an old boat, I would recommend getting it checked out or asking someone you know who sails to try it and comment on the steering.

Hope this helps. Best regards,


Comments for Does Controlling The Tiller Requires Constant Strength?

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Jun 09, 2009
This could be a complicated matter...
by: Han

Hello Jason,
The fact that this happens under power as well as under sail intrigues me a lot. What you don't tell is whether your tiller (under power) always pulls in the same direction, to starboard or port? Another question I want to ask you: when under sail, does your boat tend to turn upwind or downwind when you let go of the tiller? And when under power you should try, if you want me to help you, to reach maximum speed forward (do these trials downwind, please) and then throttle down and put the propeller out of work; now your boat drifts free, look if you still need power to keep it on course. Then put the propeller in reverse: before you come to a stop, try to find out which way the tiller now pulls.
Please let me know the answers to these questions as soon as you've done the trial runs, and maybe we can find an answer without you hiring some expensive expert. In my experience only very badly built boats cannot be tamed in the end: every well-built sailing vessel can be sailed with one wet fingertip on the tiller!
Hope to hear from you soon,

Jun 09, 2009
My problems cont.
by: jason

Thanks to Han and Alex, It will be 10 days before i can return to my boat, unfortunately i still have to work. If it turns out my boat can be steered with "one wet finger" i will owe the person that helps me fix that. What a dream it would be. I will attempt to perform the sequence of troubleshooting manuevers and post how it goes. One last thing. The shaft? between the tiller and the rudder had some play in the steering (approximately 2-3" : 1 1/2 inches starboard or port) before actual resistance began; therefore i tightened the 'shaft bracket?' at the point where it is attached to the tiller handle. I haven't had the boat out since. But this did make it more difficult to raise and lower the vertical angle of the tiller.

Jun 10, 2009
A wet fingertip...
by: Han

The wonderful world of the web! Here's a Dutchman, living in France and writing in an enthousiastic young English guy's website, trying to help an American out of trouble! Twenty years ago nobody would have thought that possible, and here I am, 66 years of age, and it happens to lucky me.
Hello Jason,
Let's consider the play in your steering gear at a later point in time; but, however, a play of that size worries me.
For now, I would like to concentrate on "the wet fingertip". This concerns a very ancient (dating from the 17th century, when the Dutch were busy conquering the then known world) expression. At that time the three-masted Dutch ships had very small rudders, even dating from the Viking Ages.
Because of these small rudders, they were forced to steer their ships by putting more wind-pressure either on the forward sails (to steer downwind) or on the backward ones (to luff). Only small changes in wind-force or/and direction were compensated by the use of the rudder. The result was a (considering the mean wind-force and -direction) well-trimmed ship, which could, so-to-say, be steered with a wet finger-tip.
So please do take it lightly, although there's a lot of reality in it. I love to read your experiences! See you later,
Salty-dog salutations,

Jun 10, 2009
Oh, I forgot...
by: Han

Hi Jason, I forgot to refer you to my article "My life under sail", to be found in "sailing stories" on this site; especially the part where I had to sail without rudder...
See you, Han.

Jul 01, 2009
the young idiot captain
by: jason

ok,so here's the scoop to satisfy the curiosity of those generous souls who were willing to help. apparently my tiller was not the original and it was somehow placed on the boat upside down. Therefore, while looking at it correctly it was actually positioning the rudder forward. I took remounted my tiler correctly and it should all be kosher. (fingers crosse). It is now the eve of my much needed week long vacation for the 4th of july. i plan on sailing approximately eight miles across the lake to watch a fireworks display over the water, sleeping out on the water and etc.. I think my steering/handling the tiller woes are under control and will update everyone on my first big journey. thanks again for all the support. Have a great independence day everyone.

Jul 01, 2009
Just a beginner's mistake...
by: Han

Hi Jason,
Thank you for the scoop, it'll go straight into one of my Dutch yachting magazines;-). Pulling your leg, of course. You can't learn walking without hurting your pride and your knees, do you? (But I had to suppress a chuckle...)
Thank you for being honest with us; I broke my brains over your problem, because it seemed too big to be a mere question of balance-adjustment or/and propeller wheel-effect. How did you find out?
So you have balance-rudder (part before, bigger part behind the rudderstock), turning round the full clock? There you could have an advantage when powering in reverse: you'll only have to turn the tiller backward, and you'll steer much easier.
Let us know how you go, and if there are more questions, we like to hear about them.
Have a nice vacation!

Jul 10, 2009
conclusion of the 'Mad Rudder" escapade
by: Anonymous

Yes, Yes, Yes, My boat is working and i didn't look like aqua-man version of the village idiot while sailing this weekend. Actually there wasn't much wind here most of the week but Sunday after the 4th was terrific. With 10mph, I went with my 110 jib, because it is easier to tack and jibe, i wish i would have put up the 155. anyway, we averaged 4.6 to 5.2 knotts most of the time. everything was nice and relaxed. my wife wasnt getting an earful at each and every adjustment. I was actually able to take a drink of brew, scratch my nose, and puff on a smoke while sailing. woohoo!! it is so smooth. i now wish i had video of the experience before, because no one will belief how difficult that boat was to handle. I dont know what type of rudder i have but it is only designed to operate one way. Now in reverse, i will be turning the tiller a 180 degrees , because you are right Han, it will be an advantage when motoring in reverse into my slip. Oh, and by the way, id be honored to be the laughing stock of a dutch magazine. when else will i ever get that chance again. Lastly, fellow sailors on the dock finally thought of checking to see what happened if we turned the tiller over, and while tied to dock, just by simply moving the tiller handle the boat inched forward tightening the rear dock lines. At this point, I was impressed with how responsive the motion felt, almost like it was a natural feeling or something. Anyway, it was a success. And now motoring or sailing I am one happy captain. That is until my next lesson is bestowed upon me unexpectedly. Thanks again, and i hope to stay in touch, Captain J-"Woody"

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