When it came to selecting a tiller for the rudder of my Sooty Tern, UNA, I had to consider the two options designer Iain Oughtred provided for getting around the mizzen mast: a wishbone tiller that divides around the mizzenmast, or a Norwegian tiller, a short tiller set at a right angle to the rudder and operated with a push-pull stick. The former would provide the same feel as a conventional tiller; the latter would clearly take some getting used to.
Common to faerings (double-ended Scandinavian workboats), the Norwegian tiller traces its ancestry to the Vikings, and has been used for ages. It consists of the transverse tiller, an extension that reaches forward, and a flexible or articulated connection between the two. The connection can be simple or complex, anything from a rope with a tensioning cam cleat, two eyebolts interlocked, an oarlock modified with socket, or an off-the-shelf or custom-built tiller universal joint.
Unlike a conventional tiller that may sweep across the boat from rail to rail—and preventing anyone from sitting in the stern—the tiller extension of the Norwegian tiller moves only along its own length, taking up very little space even when the helm is put hard over in either direction. The helmsman can steer easily anywhere within reach of the extension. With an extra-long telescoping extension, it would even be possible to steer from the bow.
The helmsman can shift his or her weight as the boat heels without the awkwardness that often comes with a conventional tiller. Sit, stand, hike out, or lie down; you’ll always find a comfortable way to hold the extension. If your boat has a neutral helm, you can rest the tiller extension in your lap, over the shoulder, or draped along the rail or held there to self-steer. At anchor it is readily lashed to the gunwale, out of the way.
The transverse tiller can be square and mortised through the rudder head with a wedge to hold it tight, or round and set in an easily drilled hole and allowed to rotate so only a simple hinge at the outboard end of the tiller is required to provide the lateral range of motion. Allow about 1″ of tiller length for every foot of boat. My 20′ boat has a 20″ tiller. Its leverage may be less than that of a standard tiller, but with balanced sail trim for a neutral helm, the short lever arm is quite adequate. The extension can be as long as is practical. UNA’s is 8′ long, short enough to clear the main sheet when tacking, and long enough to let me stretch my legs near amidships when sailing.
Using the tiller requires some mental rewiring, but after an hour it’ll become second nature. I dare say this tiller may be adapted to any well-balanced boat with a rudder. Tested for centuries, it really works. It was the best choice for my boat and has been a joy to use. Give one a try, and see what you’ve been missing.
Eddie Breeden grew up racing Moths and Lasers and has a bit of offshore sailing—Bermuda and Block Island—to his credit. A native Virginian, he’s an architect, married with four children. As an amateur boatbuilder he has built a Sooty Tern, an Eastport Pram, a cedar-strip kayak and a couple of skin-on-frame kayaks, all described on his blog, Lingering Lunacy.
When Eddie first suggested this article I didn’t believe that readers with boats already outfitted with conventional tillers would make the switch to a Norwegian tiller. At the time, I was refinishing a 14′ lapstrake Whitehall that I’d built and sold in 1984 and had come back to me after two owners. Its rudder was equipped with a yoke for steering while rowing and a tiller with a pivoting extension for sailing. When I got the boat back on the water and under sail, the tiller and extension proved awkward to use and prevented having anyone sit astern of me.
I made a transverse tiller with a locust crook and while it had a nice trim look, it put the pivot point of the extension forward of the rudder’s pintles and gudgeons, making turns to starboard (the tiller side) less effective. Even so, the Norwegian style was clearly an improvement over the conventional tiller.
I made a second transverse tiller that was perpendicular to the rudder head and extended just past the transom. With it the steering was positive in both directions and I could sail steer a passenger in the stern.
Some fans of the Norwegian tiller prefer not to use rope to join the extension to the tiller because it gets slack and introduces a disconcerting amount of play in the steering linkage. My solution is to thread a ¼″ braided nylon rope up through holes in the tiller and extension and pull it tight against a figure-8 knot on the end. The other end passes through a second hole in the extension, is drawn tight, and then wrapped around the cord between the tiller and extension. The wraps force those two pieces apart, putting the line between them under great tension. After a half-dozen turns, the tail end of the line gets half-hitched several times around the tiller, holding the tension. The wraps of the cord form a flexible but firm connection that has no detectible play. It’s cheap to make and easy to repair or replace in the field. —CC
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