Rudders, Tillers and Self-Steering Gear – Part One

2nd February 2023

Reading Time 10 Minutes

Rudders and Tillers in general

Sumara’s Rudder

My Rudder Repair

I have always regarded Sumara’s rudder as being pretty bullet-proof. It pivots on a strong bronze fitting with a 3/4″ pintle at its base. It has two sets of heavy bronze castings with a long 3/4″ bronze bolt linking them together. The upper part of the rudder is reinforced with thick oak cheeks running down either side leaving a large square hole for a laminated oak tiller.

I remember a surveyor once asked “Do you have a spare tiller?” then he looked down at my massive laminated oak tiller and said “Oh, forget that”.

Being a full-keel and transom-hung rudder, it can’t really get snagged by stray ropes and, even if Sumara ran aground, it is well protected.

So you may be wondering why I have just returned from Scotland having mended my “Bullet-Proof Rudder”?

Well, the rudder was absolutely fine and all the hangings were good too, but two of the coach screws which secured the central casting to the transom had corroded to dust.

The corroded coach screws

These mid-point fittings are just below the waterline so there seems to have been some electrolysis going on. However, the castings were sweet, with no pink patches at all. I suspect these were just two rogue coach screws. I only noticed the problem when the boat was hauled out and I saw the mounting move very slightly. When I put a spanner on one of the bolt heads, there was no resistance at all, they simply sheared off. The upper castings are held with bronze bolts and they are fine and the lower pintle is all good too. The rudder wouldn’t actually go anywhere even with the central mounting was unattached, but clearly it needed mending.

Having the boat in Scotland and me being in London adds a frisson of excitement when planning the repair. Luckily I have a set of working drawings for the yacht and I was pleased to see that there is about 8″ of solid timber behind the fitting. No wonder Vertues weigh almost 5 tonnes!

Rudder hanging with massive new 6″ x 1/2″ silicon bronze coach screws

I couldn’t locate any nuts inside the boat so I assumed the “bolts” were actually coach screws. I decided to increase the thickness from 3/8″ to 1/2″ so the new fixings would be grabbing fresh timber. I went for 6″x 1/2″ coach screws from Anglia Stainless. It meant that I needed to drill out the casting, and I also needed to open up an area for the spanner’s socket to fit around the hex head. My pillar drill only just managed this simple task with its totally rubbish keyless chuck (note: always buy a pillar drill with a proper keyed chuck!).

There has been a bit of play in the rudder, nothing to worry about, but a tad annoying as it tended to go clonk-click whilst moored up unless the tiller was lashed up hard. I decided to get a new bolt made up to replace the old 3/4″ one which has worn away slightly over the 32 years. Anglia Stainless sorted it out quickly and efficiently.

Bruce Morley, who built the beautiful Vertue called Tui of Opua has the added refinement of acetal bearings machined into his rudder hangings. These can be easily replaced when some slack develops and strike me as being an excellent idea. Bruce also has a Teflon thrust bearing at the base of his rudder.

Ouzing with Stixall brown mastic and lashings of lanolin on the coach screws

I didn’t want to leave this job until the spring, when I travel to Scotland to do the varnishing. I was worried if something didn’t work to plan it could hold up the launch date, so I have just made a special trip, and “luckily” it all went very smoothly and the rudder is now solidly mounted again and better than ever.

Rudder with the reinstated central fitting.
The vertical bolt has two nuts with the lower one is secured with a split pin.
It just needs priming and antifouling.

My personal thoughts on steering gear in general, and this may be controversial!


I like things to be simple. In my view the simpler the better. So the complication of wheels makes them a bit of a no-go area for me. I would always prefer a tiller on a boat, even if, on larger boats, it needs a block and tackle to haul it across.

With a wheel system, all those meshed cogs, rods, hydraulics or wire ropes anchored to quadrants with cable grips are just asking for trouble, unless they are really well engineered, and sadly many aren’t. I realise that a tiller wouldn’t work for helming in a wheelhouse so I understand that some boats need wheels but there seem to be many yachts with unnecessary wheel or unnecessary massive wheels. Or even two of them! Perhaps it is some kind of macho thing?

I remember being on a chartered Oyster yacht mid-Biscay in a storm. The skipper who chartered the boat insisted that we find a yacht with a really big wheel. Strangely, that was his main criteria, God knows why. In any case, during this storm with Biscay type waves, the boat became quite unmanageable and we needed to steer her up each wave, twist her at the top and slide her sideways down the other side. If you leaped straight off the top of the wave, the slamming was phenomenal to the point that we thought the boat would actually break up. Our marginal situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the welds began to break on the wheel and several spokes came loose at the hub! We started to prepare a jury rudder but we were so busy bailing out the yacht that there was little spare time available. I was glad to get off the boat when we finally made it back to England. Give me a 26 foot Vertue with a nice sturdy wooden tiller any day, in preference to a 43 foot Oyster with an oversized wheel, especially in heavy weather.

Logbook extract with the last line showing spokes on the Oyster’s wheel beginning to snap off at the hub

So, apart from the fact that tillers don’t have spokes to give way, the other things I love about tillers are:

  • You can instantly feel the rudder.
  • You can quickly judge any weather helm, or, if you are really unlucky, any lee helm.
  • You can sit down securely with your feet wedged against the lee cockpit seat and your back on the windward combings and relax while you sail.
  • When you tack, you can stand up and put the tiller between your legs and use both hands to tail and crank the sheets.
  • It is very easy to attach and adjust a wind vane to a tiller with a small length of chain.
  • You can even attempt to rig sheet-to-tiller steering.
  • Should a tiller break, it is easy to rig up a repair or a replacement.
  • You don’t have a massive wheel cluttering up the cockpit.
  • You can just take the tiller off when in harbour to free up space.
  • You can dry your swimming gear on them.
  • They look nice, and you can while away time doing fancy ropework on them.


I should point, although it is by now blindingly obvious, out that I am a cruising yachtsman. I like to gently cross oceans and get to the other side without fuss. If I wanted to race around the cans then I would probably have a different opinion. So, with that in mind, here we go.

I often wander around boatyards in amazement at some of the rudders that I see. They look like you could grab the bottom of them and snap them off. It’s tempting to try, but I have managed to restrain myself so far.

This Dehler 34 has a rudder not for the faint hearted. It is very tempting to give it a wiggle and see what happens!

Even those rudders with skegs don’t generally impress me, having read tales of skegs which start delaminating where they join the hull and allowing water to weep in.

Unbelievably there have been at least 18 rudder failures in the ARC rallies. I bet you none were full-keel and transom-hung. One entrant, In 2019 a Beneteau First 40 hit a buoy off Cowes, broke off their rudder and sank in the Solent. They didn’t get far!

Beneteau First 40 – asking for trouble!

Spade rudders can’t be made too strong because if they hit something (and that is very probable!) they are designed to deliberately bend or break in preference to them causing damage to the hull. Hulls nowadays are built lighter and lighter in pursuit of speed. So if you end up with a bent rudder which has jammed, you will have a hell of a problem trying to rig up a jury steering system. It would be easiest if it just broke off, and many do just that. They break off sometimes without needing to hit anything, but due to corrosion which can be hard to detect in stainless steel. Basically as these boats get older there is a ticking timebomb just waiting for the corrosion or stress to do their evil work.

Apparently Hallberg Rassy, Contest, Amel, Oyster, Najad, Jeanneau, Beneteau, Bavaria and Hanse only build yachts with unsupported spade rudders. Maybe they are OK when the yacht is new but after twenty or thirty years when the yacht will be outside any guarantee, will they still be safe?

As if that isn’t enough to worry about, all the spade and skeg type rudders also look like they are designed for catching lobster pot lines. In 32 years of owning Sumara I have never fouled the rudder or even the prop. Have any Vertue owners ever been trapped by a lobster pot? I suspect not.

A well supported full keel rudder even though it is not transom hung, but they have a good excuse!

I know a transom hung rudder wouldn’t work on one of those drop dead gorgeous classic yachts with an overhanging counter stern, so I accept that sometimes the rudder stock may need to penetrate the hull, but the only reason I spotted my loose centre rudder hanging was purely because it is in full view.

Having said that I have a strong preference for a transom hung rudder, there are some exceptions…….

Here’s a transom hung rudder but lacking the protection of the long keel.
Mind you, it’s a bilge keeler so that’s a good excuse!
Nice piece of engineering! Let’s move on.
A tough “Barn Door” rudder. These rudders can be used to deflect the wash off the prop to turn a boat on a sixpence, but they need to be removed to withdraw the prop shaft.
This junk has a “Barn Door” rudder with traditional diamond holes in it. The diamond holes are referred to as “fenestration”. The purpose was probably to allow dead water to run through the thin blade to prevent its build up on the trailing edge.
Although a spade rudder, this sample is well protected and would provide great turning under power.
The rudder would need to be dropped to remove the prop shaft
Although this is a full keel rudder there would be little behind the prop when the helm is over,
so turning under power would be restricted
Sumara’s rudder is close to the prop so the wash can be deflected. Also rudders with a cutaway allow the prop shaft to be removed without needing to remove the rudder (as is the case with most “Barn Door” rudders).

Sumara’s rudder is easy to access everywhere with the annual antifouling, even with the rudder in place, but as it only takes five minutes to take it off, there can be no secret hiding places for the dreaded gribble.

Removing a spade rudder is a different thing altogether. Firstly you need to buy a spade to dig a hole in the boatyard to get the thing down far enough. Is that why they are called “Spade Rudders”?

It’s a bit creepy how the newsfeed on my phone seems to know what I am up to, but just one day after posting this piece I received this link to a poor chap trying to get his spade rudder off. All those fiddly seals to go wrong – not for me, I’m afraid!

The full keel protects Sumara’s rudder, what could possibly go wrong?

Of course you can’t have a full-keel rudder on a fin keeled yacht so I suppose I am basically arguing that if you want to safely cross an ocean, then a long-keeled yacht is the only way to go. There are many advantages to the long keeled yacht, but the protection it affords to the rudder is an important one.

I am aware that a spade hung rudder may help your boat sail wonderfully, and even allow you to reverse into your finger berth. They may be perfect for coastal sailing. All I am saying, is I don’t think they are suitable for crossing oceans.

I know, I know, you think I am a total dinosaur but nothing will persuade me that it is safe to sail over an ocean with a spade rudder connected to a wheel. It just doesn’t feel right to me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.