Solo sailors of small open boats have a problem: While we’re sailing we’re stuck minding the helm. Occasionally there’s a need to go forward to adjust the downhaul or centerboard, use both hands to steady the binoculars, change a setting on the GPS, or eat lunch. Some boats can hold a course on their own, with the sails set to provide a neutral helm, but not always, and not on every point of sail. Some boats, like mine, have weather helm when beating and will round up if you let go of the tiller. Heaving-to takes time and brings progress to a halt.
A tiller keeper is a device to hold the tiller and maintain a course while we tend to those other chores. There are many meant for conventional tillers, available both commercially available and as do-it-yourself projects, but there are not so many for the Norwegian-style, push-pull tillers. The best I have seen was the ingenious and elegant design that Eric Hvalsoe had developed for his BANDWAGON, which Tim Yeadon also implemented on his Hvalsoe-designed HAVERCHUCK. Like their boats, my FIRE-DRAKE has a Norwegian tiller to work around a mizzenmast, so I was eager to make a tiller keeper.
The keeper is a block of hardwood with a recess to hold the tiller from moving laterally. The wooden block I made is about 3-1/2″ wide by 3″ tall by 7/8″ thick, which nicely accommodates my 1″-square tiller arm. In the center of the saddle is a vertical stainless-steel pin. An aluminum strip, screwed and epoxied flush into the underside of the arm, has a number of holes drilled fore and aft of the rudder’s neutral position to allow for a number of positions for the tiller so I can dial in how much rudder angle I need. The pin is a 10-24 stainless-steel machine screw with the head filed to the same diameter as the shaft—just a touch larger than 3/16″—and rounded, set in epoxy about ¼” proud of the surface it sits in. The holes in the tiller’s aluminum strip are 13/64″, to make it easy to drop the tiller arm in place with the pin easily slipping into one of the holes, but not so loose as to be sloppy. The 19 holes are spaced 5/16″ on centers.
Different tillers would have block, pin, and strip dimensions suited for their size. The pin and strip could be made of bronze or brass. There is a vertical groove at the back of the wooden block for a piece of shock cord that goes over the top of the tiller arm to a jam cleat on the other side. I have mounted the block on the forward side of the aft watertight compartment bulkhead, but it could also be mounted on a suitable thwart.
Most of the time I just drop the tiller onto the appropriate pin and let gravity hold it there. For extra security in a bit of a chop, I pull the shock cord across and cleat it. This tiller keeper is easy to make, easy to install, and it has allowed me to tend to all of those little chores underway. Now that I don’t need to mind the tiller every moment, I am not as tired at the end of a long day of sailing.
Alex Zimmerman is a semi-retired mechanical technologist and former executive. His first boat was an abandoned Chestnut canoe that he fixed up as a teenager and paddled on the waterways of eastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. He started his professional career as a maritime engineer in the Canadian Navy, and that triggered his interest in sailing. He didn’t get back into boatbuilding until he moved back to Vancouver Island in the ’90s, where he built a number of sea kayaks that he used to explore the coast. In the early 2000s, he built his first sail-and-oar boat and he completed his latest in June of this year. He says he can stop building boats any time.
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