Why Do Sailboats Have Two Steering Wheels? – Facts

When it comes to sailing there are a lot of different ways to steer the boat. Most people just think there is one big wheel for the captain to steer the boat, but there is actually more options than that.

Sailboats have two steering wheels to improve visibility from the high side. When the boat is heeling over, one wheel will be on the low side with minimal views. The captain can then move to the high side wheel and have a much better view to steer the boat.

Sailboats don’t always have two wheels but a lot of the newer high end ones do. This article will discuss more about steering a sailboat and how to do it without wheels.

Two Wheels For Sailing

As mentioned above, two steering wheels helps with visibility when sailing. This is the most common reason for two wheels. There are some other reasons this is important though.

When the captain moves to the high side wheel, he or she is also shifting their weight to the high side of the boat. This will help lower the heel angle. Its the same reason you will see a bunch of people sitting the high side of the boat when it is heeling over. Its all for weight distribution.

The other reason for two wheels is for visibility around the sails. The sails on your boat will always be to one side of the boat. If you can see around them, moving to the other wheel will help you see ahead more clearly.

Do I Need Two Wheels To Steer My Sailboat? – Definitely Not

You do not need two wheels on your sailboat. Having two wheels is more of a luxury than a nessecity. One wheel will steer your sailboat just fine.

When it comes to steering your boat, one wheel will move the rudder causing your boat to turn. Two wheels will do the exact same thing. The two wheels could cause more tension meaning your boat will turn more quickly, but it is not necessary.

There are a few other ways to turn your sailboat without a wheel. Keep reading to find out.

How To Steer Your Sailboat Without A Wheel? – Multiple Options

This list will show multiple options for steering your sailboat without a wheel.

1. Tiller

The tiller is a long wooden handle that controls the rudder. It is very common on smaller boats and older boats. This use to be a very popular way of steering a sailboat. Wheels are usually much more popular and easier to manage. The Tiller does have an option for auto pilot with a Tiller Pilot. It is a rod connected to the hull and is set to a certain heading. It will automatically move the tiller back and forth to keep its heading.

2. Windvane

A windvane is mounted on the back of the cockpit and controls the rudder. When the boat moves off course, the wind will hit the big wind vance panel, causing the windvane to move the rudder back on course. This is one of the best ways to automatically steer your boat in the open waters due too no need for electricity. Check out the video below for a walkthrough of a windvane.

Windvanes are amazing! You could go with an autopilot instead of a windvane, but that is your decision. If you want more information on the two items see the link below.

Check out this article Autopilot vs. Windvane Self-Steering

3. Autopilot For Your Wheel

Autopilot is a computer way of steering your boat. It does turn a wheel to control the direction of your boat but technically you are not steering it manually with the wheel. The computer will be programmed with your destination or heading and steer the boat according to the settings. Autopilots are a very nice thing to have since you can just set them and monitor them from inside the cabin. If the weather is wet and you don’t want to stand out in it, setting your sailboat up with autopilot is a good idea. Just make sure you put a controller below deck so you don’t have to come out in the wet cold weather to adjust it.

If you want to find out more about autopilots keep reading!

How Does Autopilot Work On A Sailboat?

Autopilots work with 4 components, a compass/sensor, an ACU (autopilot control unit), a control head, and a drive unit. When the control head is set to a specific heading, the drive unit will move the rudder according to the sensor, and keep the boat on the selected course.

There is a lot more detail and components to autopilot but the above description gets the point across. . There are other options that can steer the wheel or even a tiller, but the most common option is the one connected to the rudder.

Make sure to get the correct size autopilot for your specific sailboat

Yes, autopilots come in different sizes. Boats vary in size and so do autopilots. When you are out sailing and the sea starts to get rough, your autopilot motor will have to work harder to maintain the course, putting more strain on the motor. If the strain becomes too much it could fail and lose its course. You would then have to climb out of the cabin in the bad weather and take the helm. It is recommended to purchase an autopilot that is rated for 20% more than your boat’s total displacement. Remember 20% more, minimum.

This is why you need to check the manufactures rating and make sure it is sized for your vessel. I personally recommend getting one that’s a little bigger than needed to help compensate for those rough seas. If you are going to be lake sailing only, I wouldn’t worry so much about size, but for open oceans, then definitely make sure it will handle crazy waves and winds.

There are a couple of different types of autopilots, above deck and below deck. It’s pretty obvious what they mean but let me elaborate just a touch. Below deck autopilots will have the drive motor that moves the rudder accordingly. They are mounted in the hull of the boat near the steering mechanism. With this setup, you will need an autopilot controller mounted somewhere in the cockpit for setting your autopilot on the correct heading.

If you go with an above-deck type of autopilot it will be much easier to access and probably have the controller built into it. One example of this is the tiller autopilot. The tiller is mounted near the tiller and then attached to the tiller with the autopilot rod. The autopilot has the controller built in to set the course. There are also wheel autopilots that can be mounted above the deck as well.

Autopilots are great when they work. I have read a ton of articles and seen plenty of youtube videos about autopilots and it seems like they work half the time. You have to understand these are electrical devices with a motor and many different items can break. Most of the YouTubers that I follow have both a windvane and an autopilot for this very reason. I do know some people that haven’t had any problems with their autopilot so take everything I say with a grain of salt. I just prefer windvanes since they require no electricity, and are usually very easy to repair.

Final Thoughts

Two wheels on a sailboat is a nice thing to have but not necessary to enjoy life sailing. I have only ever had one wheel or tiller and sailing the boat was no problem at all. Two wheels will also take up more space in the cockpit so just keep that in mind. If you do acquire a sailboat with two wheels, then you are a very luck person.


Boatlifehq owner and author/editor of this article.

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