Boats perform best floating at their designed waterlines. Many small sailing boats force you to sit at the tiller with your weight too far aft for proper trim, and the tiller can’t be reached if you want to sit to windward. If the bow is aimed at the sky, out of the water, you lose waterline length and sail slower. And it looks ugly. Even if the bow isn’t out, having the stern settle deeper can create lee helm, making the boat bear off in a puff of wind. With a tiller extension you are not forced to be an arm’s length from the tiller. Besides trimming the boat fore and aft, it also allows you to sit well to windward to balance the boat in a breeze. You can stand when looking for a landmark or the breeze. Racing-dinghy sailors call extensions hiking sticks, because hiking—getting crew weight to windward—is essential for speed.
If you have worked hard to make a nicely shaped wooden tiller, you don’t want it cluttered with plastic, stainless-steel, and aluminum hardware. I wanted to be connected to my classic Peter Culler designed Good Little Skiff’s tiller with a nice bit of wood. I also wanted to be able to take the extension off quickly and leave the tiller with nothing more than a small, unobtrusive hole.
I’ve tried simple extensions made with just a vertical bolt connecting them on top of the tiller. They tend to bind up and can’t be lifted for sailing while standing up. A common universal joint, with double U-shaped fittings, solves this problem but spoils the look of the tiller and isn’t easily made in the home woodworking shop.
The now-common commercial extensions with rubber joints have a full range of motion and some are removable, leaving only a small fitting on the tiller and in the extension, but they are made for extensions made from a tube: aluminum, carbon fiber, or a cheap piece of PVC. Functional all, but none belong next to my nice bit of wood.
For years I’ve been using extensions made of bamboo from an old bamboo cross-country ski pole. I cut just below a node, drill down the center past a couple of diaphragms, then drill a hole through one side just above the second node, and run a bit of line through. The cord has a stopper knot or a lashing to hold it in the pole and emerges from the hole in the pole end before going through the tiller’s hole to be lashed or stopper-knotted at the tiller. The cord gives me the same range of motion as the fancy rubber fittings.
Bamboo ski poles are getting harder to find, even here in the north country, so when I decided to make an extension for my Good Little Skiff’s tiller, I’d have to use a piece of wood. I decided upon an old ash tiller that had an end broken off but was too nice to toss out. To keep the cord from splitting the end with the hole I’d drill in it, I fit a short piece of 1″ I. D. copper pipe to the end of the extension. The ring of pipe is run up the extension far enough to have enough wood sticking out to be rounded over and keep the metal from damaging the varnished tiller. I drilled a 3/16″ hole down the center beyond the ring and a cross hole for the chord to run out and be knotted.
The connecting line can be anything of the right size with a bit of stretch. I used some tarred #60 nylon marline, but leech line or some of the now common 2mm or 3mm braided cord can work as well. Thicker cord can be used, but is harder to get tight. I clove-hitched it onto the extension where it emerged, then ran it through a vertical hole on the tiller. I pulled it very tight with a couple of frapping turns, then clove-hitched it to the tiller.
The cord-connected extension works splendidly. It lets me sit on the center seat of the skiff for perfect fore-and-aft trim. The cord, lashed nice and tight to the tiller, has no slop. And this simple shop project let me recycle an old tiller that had had lots of miles and memories. You may already have the bits need for an extension, waiting to get you where you belong in your boat.
Ben Fuller, curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, Maine, has been messing about in small boats for a very long time. He is owned by a dozen or more boats ranging from an International Canoe to a faering.
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