In my years of solo cruising in small boats I’ve found that there are many times when it’s helpful to have both hands free while sailing. I can free one hand by securing mainsheet with a cam cleat or slippery hitch, and then I just need something to hold the tiller in place so I can grab a bite to eat, take a compass bearing, or pull on a jacket.
There are a number of tiller tenders available commercially, but they tend to be bulky, overly complicated, and come at an added expense; from what I’ve seen, many of them also require you to engage and disengage them or adjust their tension.
On a recent cruise, though, my brother showed me a tiller tender that eliminates all those problems. It’s cheap, simple, and utterly reliable. It doesn’t need adjustment and there’s nothing to engage or disengage; you can steer the boat normally with the system in place, and whenever you need to let go of the tiller, it stays where you positioned it.
To set this system up for a conventional tiller, run a line athwartships under your tiller from rail to rail. If your boat has open gunwales or a pair of cleats well aft on the gunwales, you don’t need to add anything to anchor the ends of the line. This line needs to be just taut enough to minimize play in the tiller when the system is in use.
Next, take a short bungee loop with a plastic ball on the end and pass the looped end around both the tiller and the loop you just rigged. Take enough turns with the bungee around both the tiller and the loop of line to pull them tightly together before tucking the plastic ball through the bungee to finish the wrap. You can always adjust the tension if you find the bungee is not tight enough and not providing enough friction to hold the tiller in place, or too tight and making the tiller hard to move.
That’s it. Your tiller tender is ready for action. You will still be able to steer normally, but the friction of the system will hold the tiller in place when you let go. You can set the tiller to hold a steady course or push the tiller hard over to tack or jibe while you tend to the sheets.
After rigging this system on my own boat, I found myself sailing hands-free most of the time, with just a slight nudge of the tiller now and then. I doubt I’ll ever go cruising again, or even daysailing, without having this simple tiller tender in place.
One caveat: as with all tiller tenders, be aware that your boat will keep right on sailing if you fall overboard with this system rigged. Act accordingly.
Tom Pamperin is a freelance writer who lives in northwestern Wisconsin. He spends his summers cruising small boats throughout Wisconsin, the North Channel, and along the Texas coast. He is a frequent contributor to Small Boats Monthly and WoodenBoat.
To give this system a try, I made a standard tiller that I could attach to the rudder of my Caledonia Yawl (pictured here in the photographs above) and sailed without the mizzen mast in place. I was impressed how well the bungee worked with a standard tiller and wanted to use the same method to create a tiller tender for a Norwegian tiller. I first thought about using the same length of line but set fore and aft instead of athwartships, but a thole pin presented itself as a better place to start. I put the bungee loop over the push-pull tiller and then wrapped it around both tiller and thole.
That’s all it took, and the bungee worked just as well in this new arrangement. I could change course by pushing or pulling the tiller and leaving it to make the boat come about or hold a straight course. I could also disengage the tiller by lifting it—along with the bungee—from the thole and have complete freedom of motion. The tiller follows me after I tack and gets wrapped with a thole pin on the windward rail.
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