Find me a part of a sailboat and I can find you 100 people with different (strong) opinions about it. Full versus fin keel, wire versus rod rigging … etc. The question of wheel versus tiller steering is no different.
Certainly, a wheel makes a boat look bigger. Adding a wheel could turn a boat into a yacht. On the other hand, many long distance cruisers frown upon them (particularly for small boats) since they just add to the complexity and in turn break more frequently. Plus they take up really valuable space in the cockpit. In a way a tiller instead of a wheel is sort of like going from automatic to manual transmission in a car — more control, more pure, but sometimes a pain. Saltbreaker came with a wheel, and we immediately hatched plans to get rid of it.
That all changed after a trip to the Alameda flea market.
Browsing through the endless stands of treasures/junk we came across several old wooden boat wheels. The majority of them were expensive, splintering, worn and more fit for mounting on an office wall than the helm of our boat (it was an antique faire after all). One however caught our eye, built from solid wood, with a brass lining this one looked sharp, real sharp. So sharp in fact, we didn’t even bother to ask the price, assuming it would be hundreds over our budget. Then just as we were about to walk away the vendor mumbled, “I’d get rid of that for $50.”
This threw us for a loop, $50? Did we hear that correctly? We walked away, but couldn’t stop talking about it. The conversation went something like this:
“We don’t even know if it’ll fit” one of us would say.
“Its only $50”.
“How much would it cost for the hardware to mount it?”
Long pause, then avoiding the question, “it would look so awesome”.
After a few laps around neighboring stands we finally came to a conclusion, went back to the booth and approached the vendor. “Would you take $40?”. No pause. “Its yours”.
Picking up the, rather heavy, wheel and walking the length of the flea market we were immediately convinced that not only had we made a great choice, but that walking around with an old wooden boat wheel instantly makes you look ten times cooler. This was confirmed as we passed the guitar playing girl scout cookie salesman, who began singing (to no tune in particular) “When you’re carrying a large steering wheel and you’re leaving the flea market and you’re hungry buy some cookies”.
Final wheel cost: $45.
Arriving back at the boat we all held our breath, removed the current wheel and to our amazement slipped the new (old) wheel perfectly into position. Sure we’ll probably need to do a bit of grinding, and figure out how to attach our auto-helm but this will be a much easier install job than any of us expected.
The wheel versus tiller debate will almost certainly continue, but I can tell you one thing for sure. There is no way we’ll be removing our wheel anytime soon.