Tiller versus Steering Wheel? Which is right for you? Part 2

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Last week we went into detail about the advantages and disadvantages of forward helm steering wheel equipped boats, this week we’re going to take a look at the pros and cons of tiller handle boats.

Tiller handle open boats are considered to be the most versatile platform available for fishing the Northwest’s inland waters, from Black Mouth Chinook fishing on Puget Sound to side drifting the Cowlitz to plying the Columbia for Spring Chinook, these aluminum sled style boats in the larger sizes can do it all!

Advantages of the tiller handle boat:
Open tiller handle boats have the most room of any design.
The tiller handle does protrude slightly into the vessel, but takes up almost no space.
If your goal is to maximize space that is available for storage, seating, or just open space, then removing the steering wheel from the equation is the ultimate way to go.
Exceptionally maneuverable at low speeds.
The reason for this great low speed maneuverability is because of the speed with which the motor can be moved from full left to full right and back again, often in under two seconds.  This quick response time makes it very easy to parallel park one of these boats in a tight slip or to quickly get it on the trailer in rough conditions when most boaters find themselves having to make another go at it.
Since you’re in the rear of the vessel, you have perfect visibility over what is happening in the whole boat.
Driving from the stern let’s you see the full length of the boat and everything that is happening in it.  Is someone leaning over the side?  Did someone’s hat just blow off?  Did a rod not get stored properly and it’s now about to fall overboard?  All of these things are a non issue in a tiller handle boat because you can see these events unfolding and react in time to deter disaster. In a forward helm boat you are going to be reacting to these events after someone has told you they have happened, and worse case scenario the other passengers might not have even seen this stuff has happened at all.
Most passengers sit facing rearward towards the driver so they are watching what is happening behind the boat, which often means they see jumping fish, birds or bait that would have otherwise been missed by the captain who is facing forward.
There is definitely a communication and tactical advantage when you’re facing each other with the driver looking forward and passengers rearward. Ultimately it’s better to have more visibility over what is happening in the boat rather than less.
Always in control of the vessel.
The main motor and the trolling motor are next to each other so you are always in command of the vessel, never having to leave the ability to steer while firing up the alternate motor.
When driving from a forward helm boat, it’s necessary to turn off the main motor and leave the driving station, walk to the rear of the boat, and fire up the trolling motor. Now if you have a great crew member who is willing to help you fire up the trolling motor, then you won’t have to abandon the steering station, and someone will always be in control of the vessel. However you’re going to find occasions when you don’t have a helper, or don’t have a helper that is capable of helping, and you’re going to be running from the front of the boat to the back of the boat to quickly get that trolling motor started up.
In most cases no catastrophe arises from the small amount of time that the vessel is not under control, but every once in a while Murphy’s Law comes knocking and you’re going to find yourself in a tight spot that could’ve been avoided if you were in control of the vessel. This scenario is a non-issue onboard a tiller handle boat where both motors are next to each other and control is maintained throughout the transition from one motor to the other.
Side Drifting is one style of fishing where a tiller handle setup is highly preferred because of the inherent ability to maintain control of the vessel in fast water.
The back of the boat is very stable and provides a comfortable ride.
This is pretty straightforward, the rear of the boat is the heaviest and it has the advantage of following the front and middle portions of the boat through rough water. When you’re standing or sitting in the back of the vessel you’re going to enjoy the smoothest ride possible. Trust me; having a smooth ride is important when you’re standing for long periods of time driving a tiller handle boat.
Disadvantages of the tiller handle configuration:
Safety should always be of foremost concern when operating a boat. Driving large (20 – 26 foot) tiller handle boats isn’t for beginners.
There is a moderate amount of strength that is required to safely control the motor and the amount of strength required to operate a tiller handle increases with the motor’s horsepower, rough water, and higher speeds. You don’t just hand over the controls to your inexperienced friend and expect that everything is going to be okay.
Hard turns at higher speeds.
Performing hard turns at high speeds with a tiller handle is not recommended.  Since you are standing while driving, you have little or nothing to hold on to other than the tiller handle, and when you’re banking into a hard turn you’re going to find it hard to stay upright.
Steering wheel boats definitely have the advantage here. The steering wheel gives you something to brace your self with. It also isn’t necessary to tightly grip the wheel which allows a person to drive with one hand while holding on with the other, or to lean their body away from the turn’s inertia.
Physically demanding.
It’s hard on your body to stand at a tiller handle for long periods of time, alternatively if you don’t stand you have decreased visibility.  Driving a tiller handle is going to beat you up a little bit, it’s just the nature of the beast.
Outboard power only.
With the exception of Motion Marine’s inboard tiller handle two-stroke sport jet engines, (which have never really seemed to catch on with the majority of jet boaters); outboard power is the only option for powering a tiller handle vessel.
Outboard motors are great, but if you have your heart set on having one of the big 300 or 350 hp outboards and also running a jet pump on it, then the following is going to be sad news for you. You can’t run a jet pump on an outboard bigger than 250 hp. The aftermarket jet pumps that we put on these larger motors are manufactured by a company called Outboard Jets, (located in San Leandro California) and for whatever reason they have never made a pump available to the public that can handle more than 250 hp.
Remember when you’re building that boat of a lifetime … you’re adding every bell and whistle to it, increasing the weight, and also planning on swapping back and forth from a jet pump lower unit to a prop lower unit, don’t forget that you’re going to lose 37% of your power when switching from a prop to an outboard jet pump. This means that on a 250 hp motor you’re going to be losing 92 1/2 hp!  (By the way this loss of power won’t be as noticeable on a two-stroke as it will on a four stroke because of the two stroke’s higher torque.)
No windshield.
No windshield and the covers/tops that you see on open boats are generally more trouble than they’re worth.
Long distance ocean driving i.e. “no land in sight” or low visibility conditions such as driving in fog is going to take longer.
Not only is the trip going to take longer with an outboard tiller handle boat, but it’s also going to cost more in fuel. This is one of those things that not many people realize because we don’t find ourselves in situations like this very often.
The reason this occurs is because of the layout of a tiller handle boat, since there is no steering station with mounted electronics directly in front of the captain, it is necessary to constantly be looking forward and then back down and to the side where the GPS is mounted on the side of the boat. Since the GPS isn’t directly in front of you it’s much harder to stay on a true course and you unintentionally weave an indirect path to your destination.
This is the second part of a three part series (click here for the first article in this series) Next week in part 3 we are going to look at center console boats and why they just might be the ultimate boat layout!

The author, Kevin Newell, and his wife Lacey DeWeert are professional fishing guides in Oregon and Washington!

Click here to go fishing with Kevin or Lacey

Tiller versus Steering Wheel? Which is right for you? Part 1

Check out our Astoria Fishing Guides and Halibut Fishing Charters Washington

So you’re in the market for a new boat?

There are a lot of decisions to be made when buying that new boat and some of this can be a little intimidating. You need to figure out how much you’re going to spend, whether you’re going to buy new or used, what length, hull material etc. Just the process of researching all of these things can make buying a boat either a lot of fun, or a lot of work, depending on your perspective.

In an effort to make a little bit of this easier, let’s break down one of the most frequently asked questions by a new fishing boat buyer here in the Northwest, “Should I buy a tiller handle, or a steering wheel boat?”

There are advantages and disadvantages to both of these styles, and depending on where you fish, how you fish, and what size of boat you’re buying, making the wrong decision here can at a minimum create significant frustration or possibly even require an upgrade to another vessel after a short period of time.

Let’s start with breaking down the pros and cons of forward helm – steering wheel boats.

Advantages of the forward helm steering wheel boat:

Forward helm boats almost always have a windshield.

The wind and wave breaking ability of a windshield is a must if you are planning on fishing in less than ideal (rough) conditions on large bodies of water like  the ocean or Great Lakes.  When the boat noses into a wave or has a big one break over the bow, the windshield has the ability to shed that water down the side and out of the boat.

Safer and more maneuverable at high speeds.

At high speeds, (30+ mph) having the mechanical advantage of a steering wheel is highly preferred over having to hold onto a tiller handle especially when  needing to corner hard.
In a tight turn, the steering wheel gives you something to hold onto and being in a seat gives you the personal safety and stability that isn’t available with  a tiller handle.

Steering wheels are a lot less physical work than a tiller handle.

Find me a person that just drove a tiller handle boat 15 miles in rough water and I will show you someone that is wound as tight as a top and is sore! There is  no comparison when measuring the level of fatigue after running long distances driving a tiller vs. a steering wheel.  The steering wheel boat beats the tiller hands down for long distance comfort.
Remember large tiller handle boats are typically driven standing up so the captain can see what obstacles must be avoided, large boats are only driven from the seated position when it is relatively calm, and most of the time not even then.  Standing while driving creates this constant balancing act for the captain who has little if anything to brace himself against, and over long distances this really takes it’s toll on the body and mind.
The fellow driving the steering wheel boat arrives relatively fresh and ready to fish but the poor guy in the tiller handle boat just got beat up, isn’t that  happy, and isn’t looking forward to the run back, nor is he looking forward to doing this kind of thing for days on end!

Driving from a forward helm allows for increased visibility.

Forward helm boats allow you to see better and pick your way through tight spots with a little more finesse than if you were driving from the back of the boat.
For example, I would never want to run big white water like the Deschutes or Rogue Rivers from a tiller handle boat!  I know guys that do but some of them have  also told me that the big inboard forward helm jet boats are the best way to go in water like this.
The distance between the boat’s steering wheel and the  back of the boat is about 20 feet so if you’re driving in the front of a 24 foot boat you are going to be able to see the rocks you need to avoid hitting 20  feet before you would be able to see them if you were driving from the back of the boat.
To put this in perspective, this is approximately a half a second  advantage when driving at 30mph;driving from the front gives you a half a second better reaction time than driving from the rear.

Diesel, gas, inboard, and outboard power are all options in a steering wheel boat.

Tiller handle boats are almost exclusively outboard power; diesel and inboard power aren’t available or aren’t realistic options .

Driving a boat with a steering wheel is fairly intuitive for most people.

It’s like driving a car, turn the wheel to the right and the boat goes to the right.  If folks have driven a car then they understand how the boat is going to react.

Multiple helm locations.

In larger ocean going boats there are often primary and secondary driving locations which allow the captain to drive from inside the cabin or to be outside on the back deck closer to the action or up above in the tower looking for fish.

The captain can talk while driving.

Not only can the captain converse with the other passengers, but he can actually be heard as well.  Being away from the motor’s noise and often sheltered behind a windshield creates a much quieter ride.  Forget about much conversation while driving a tiller handle.

Disadvantages of the forward helm steering wheel configuration:

Increased maintenance.

The working components of the steering mechanism require a modest amount of maintenance, whereas a tiller handle setup requires almost none. Maintenance such as bleeding and topping off hydraulic steering fluid and greasing the moving parts on the steering shaft or cable. There isn’t much expense associated with this maintenance, however it is something that has to be taken care of a few times a year.

Not as maneuverable at low speeds.

This is due to the inability of the steering wheel to be able to move the motor from full left to full right and back again rapidly. This is of primary concern when docking.  Other than having bow thrusters there is just no beating a tiller handle when you’re taking a boat in and out of the slip.

Having the steering location in the front of the boat means you are often removed from the back of the boat where all the action is happening.

Driving from the front of the vessel really takes you out of the game. Your away from most of the conversation and excitement that is happening on the back  deck, while some captains may enjoy getting away from the chaos, others may feel that their duties as captain aren’t nearly as fun from up in the front of the  boat.

The steering location takes up a moderate to substantial amount of room in the vessel.

If you are restricted to buying a smaller boat, but you still really want to be able to comfortably take more than three or four passengers then you’re going to find the  steering wheel is taking up the location of at least one seat. Take out both the windshield and the steering helm and you add seating space for up to two anglers.

Steering components, especially hydraulic steering, add significant initial cost.

The steering console, hydraulic mechanism, and cables can add up to more than $2000 whereas an aftermarket tiller handle setup can be had for around $300-$500.

Driving from the front of the boat is rougher because of the pounding the front of the boat receives.

While driving from the front of the vessel gives the captain greater forward visibility and an enhanced reaction time, one major downside is that the front portion of the vessel is where all of the pounding takes place. The front dead-rise of the boat is what impacts and breaks the waves, and the captain is seated very close to where the impact is happening.  When the weather is bad and the seas are rough the forward part of the boat is not a pleasant place to sit.

This is the first installment of a two part series.  Next up will be the “Pros and cons of the tiller handle setup”.

The author, Kevin Newell, and his wife Lacey DeWeert are professional fishing guides in Oregon and Washington!

Click here to go fishing with the Total Fisherman Team