Tuesday, December 8, 2009


We were sailing our Soling from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown one blowy day when the tiller broke off at the stock! The tiller, a robust piece of teak, had been weakened by the corrosive products of the stainless throughbolts reacting with the aluminum tiller head. We got a tow in.

Short of an oar over the transom the rudder - tiller combination is as simple as steering gear can be, but like everything structural on a yacht it is subject to decay, corrosion and wear. Ian Nicholson wrote in his excellent book Surveying Small Craft (Adlard Coles Ltd. 1974): "A simple tiller might seem a pretty safe piece of equipment. In fact, the history of ocean cruising is littered with cases of tillers breaking off short."

In addition to making certain the rudder - tiller connection is beefy and sound, there are the rudder bearings to consider. On Journeyman the rudder is keel mounted, and the lower bearing is contained in a fairly massive bronze shoe bolted to solid glass at the after end of the keel. It's a good arrangement, but one day the bearing will wear out.

I'll know it's worn out because every year I test the bearing. The test is simplicity. With the boat hauled, I lash the tiller firmly in place, grab the rudder itself, and give it a good couple of shoves, athwartships and fore and aft.

If there is much play at all in the rudder, the bearing may need replacement. When that happens I will reach for a recent  Ocean Navigator article written by my friend Peter Stoops, who replaced the rudder bearings on Freedom, his Swan 36 (Ocean Navigator, May/June 2009).

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