How Does A Sailboat Steer

Every boat has a steering mechanism such as a rudder, a wheel or a tiller and sails that help the driver when steering the vessel. You are here to know exactly how the steering mechanism of boat work. And you want to feel comfortable using them when you start sailing. 

I have to admit, for very beginning sailors, steering a sailboat is just a bit confusing until he or she learns it. In this post, you will learn all about how a sailboat steers in this article. Before anything else let’s answer your question: 

How does a sailboat steer? Sailboats are steered by an underwater movable fin or blade called rudder. The rudder is fixed under the water at the very back part of a boat. It is connected to a tiller (a long wooden rod) or a wheel that allows the helmsman to steer the boat with.

The steering of a sailboat by way of the rudder and tiller or wheel is one of the most obvious ways a sailboat is controlled and steered. However, they are certainly a few other mechanisms that contribute to steering of a boat which we will also discuss in this article in detail.   

How To Steer A Sailboat Using The Tiller & Wheel? 

As a beginner, one of the most important skills we need to learn before we start to sail is how to steer a sailboat. In general, vessels that are longer than 30 feet use a wheel to steer. The wheel is connected to the rudder that fully controls the position of the rudder under the water.

In smaller sailboats anything below 30 feet you will find a tiller instead of a wheel. A small boat like Colgate 26, for instance, is steered with a tiller that is connected to the rudder. The tiller is a long wooden rod that is used by the driver to turn the sailboat to the left or right.

The tiller is connected through a post that runs through the sailboat to the rudder under the water allowing the driver to manipulate the direction of the boat.

How does a rudder work?

The main control for steering and changing direction of a sailboat is the rudder. The rudder serves as an underwater movable blade that is fixed at the rear part of the sailboat. From there the rudder is connected to either a tiller or a wheel that allows the driver to steer the vessel.

The rudder channels the flow of water that passes the hull and keel and creates a turning motion as the helmsman changes the angel of it by turning the tiller or wheel.

Additionally, the rudder acts as a braking mechanism. When the rudder is turned to one side by only a few degrees, it will slow down the boat significantly. so, the greater the turning angel on the rudder is, the greater the braking effect will be on the boat.

You can steer the boat with a rudder most effectively when your boat sails fast.

You need to be careful though when turning at high speeds. When you sail at high speed the impact of the rudder when turned too quickly can capsize your boat.

The turning effect of the rudder is dramatically reduced at low speeds. And when your boat is stationary the rudder does not affect the boat at all.

How does a wheel work?

A sailboat that has a wheel as a steering mechanism works pretty much the same as a steering wheel on a car. When the vessel is moving forward, a left turn on the wheel will cause your boat to go left and a right turn on the wheel will translate into a right turn, the same as a car. This sounds obvious, however, this is different when your sailboat has a tiller.

How does tiller work?

A turn on a boat with a tiller work completely the opposite way then the wheel. If you want to turn your vessel right (to the starboard side in sailing terms) you need to move the tiller to the left. And the rudder underneath the vessel will be shifted to the left side or port side of the boat allowing the water to be deflected to the left resulting in a left turn.

This is hard and very confusing way to learn how to steer your boat, it is much easier to look at the front part of your vessel (the bow) and check if it is turning to the desired direction if it is not going to the direction you want your boat to go, you know that you need to pivot your tiller to the other side to turn to the desired direction.

How do the sails affect the steering of a boat?

In general, the boat’s sails are up there to push the boat forward, but the sails also function as steering mechanism on your boat.

Typically, small sailboats are fitted with a mainsail and a jib, when both sails are trimmed well, the sailboat will be properly balanced and will not need much rudder manoeuvring and will sail on its course.

The sails are particularly very useful when you change course i.e tack, jibe or turn. For the most sailboats, the mainsail causes the vessel to head up (turning the bow towards the wind direction) and the jib makes the boat fall off (turning away from the wind).

By utilizing the turning effects of the sail you will be able to reduce the usage of the rudder, your boat requires you and your crew to work together when turning and changing course. To learn more how to tack click here to read our latest post on the issue.

How the weather conditions affect the steering of a boat?

Sailing in a rough ocean condition is almost unavoidable if you sail often. Sooner or later when you spend some time on the water you will experience to some extent the rough seas.

Generally, you would like to outrun the storm and therefore you would drive out vessel under power. However, speeding will only make things difficult for you. So, we highly recommend you to slow down and do not drive under power.

The higher the boat’s speed is the more difficult it is for you to steer it. Sailing at a slower speed will allow you to steer your vessel easier and more efficiently.

Should you find yourself driving on rough waves, make sure you do not sail head on to the waves. Driving straight into wild waves head-on may cause your boat to tip over or get seriously damaged by the stormy sea.

Likewise, you will be better off not driving parallel to the waves for obvious reasons. Instead it much safer and less bumpy if you position your vessel at 35 – 45-degree of the oncoming waves.

The point that we want to bring across here is that you want to ride the waves slowly at an angle to minimize the effect of the waves, instead of cutting through them which could cause your boat to tip over, lose electricity or get severely damaged.

You could also try to sail at a zigzag pattern over the waves, and keep your vessel nicely on top of the waves for the most part, and this way it will be much easier for you and your boat to pass the stormy sea or ocean.

How to steer a sailboat without a rudder

Should a sailboat lose its rudder while offshore, for instance, is it still possible to steer the vessel without a rudder? The answer is: yes. One can still steer back to shore with some basic anchoring provisions such as a 34-36inch drogue, a ten feet long chain and 2 sheets (ropes). 

One of the most import sailing fundamentals is to never sail to sea without proper preparation and provisions for a sea anchor. If you have those onboard you can utilise them now. 

To make the drogue help us steer the boat, the drogue needs to be trimmed by its bridle from the left side amidships snatch blocks and right side amidships chock. 

So, how can you steer the vessel using a drogue?

You can use a drogue on a long line connected to the vessel by a bridle to help steer your sailboat when you have lost your rudder out in the ocean. 

Steering with a drogue will need the sailboat to balance with the sails instead of the rudder. As we mentioned before, the mainsail causes the vessel to head up (turning the bow towards the wind direction) and the jib makes the boat fall off (turning away from the wind).

Experts suggest that most sailboats will not sail upwind if the mainsail is down and most vessels will not sail downwind unless the mainsail is lowered. To find out how these sails affect your boat, you need to experiment as you go. 

Sailing upwind with steering drogue

Back to steering your vessel with a drogue, your boat’s sails trimmers and drogue trimmers should work side by side. So, it will be much easier for your sailboat to tack if you turn it with sail trim. 

When you want to turn into the wind, you can start by easing the jib sheet up to 12 inches and then adjust your main traveler so that the boom is centered to windward of the centerline. 

To help get the bow through eye of the wind back win the jib that will turn down onto the new tack. 

Once the tack is complete, then release the jib sheet so the jib can be trimmed on to the new side. You do not need to trim the jib all the way leave it so that the vessel can accelerate with fuller sails. 

Sailing downwind with steering drogue

Your drogue is still in the water, now you want to sail downwind, how would you do it?. As mentioned above, most sailboats will only sail downwind if the mainsail is down and they sail under jib alone. So, to be able to steer the sailboat with your drogue you need to have the jib up alone. Your helmsman needs to adjust the sheets as you sail. 

It is necessary to appoint a vigilant jib trimmer as well as a driver on the drogue controls. You will need to factor in the size of the jib based on the sea condition at this point sailing downwind (also called jibing) should be achieved easily. 

How to Steer a Sailboat in Reverse

Motoring astern seems scary for many especially for beginners but sooner or later you will have to do it. One thing needs to be said here, all boats are not designed equal. Steering one boat may not be the same as the other. Because many variables play a role in the manoeuvrability of the boat, it makes it at the same time very hard to conclude as to how exactly one should steer his/her boat in reverse. 

Perhaps the best advice one can give in this regard is that since it is your (sail)boat and you will be using it a lot when reversing into confined spaces. Therefore it is imperative to learn how your boat behaves in a certain condition when sailing.

The best way to find out about your vessels is to experiment the manoeuvres in clear open water where you have plenty of space and check how your sailboat handles. 

By steering your vessel in a straight line astern at different speeds will allow you to learn a lot about your boat. During this experiment you will be able to note the following about your boat: 

  • You will find out which way your pro-walk pushes the aft of the boat
  • How much can you turn in full power, half power and at very low speed? 
  • How does the wind affect your boat? In general, even under power with the sails down, the wind catches, what is called the top side of the vessel, and pushes the bow either port or starboard
  • When you reverse your vessel you will note that the effect of moving the tiller is exactly the opposite as it normally would be. 
  •  So moving your tiller will direct you to the direction where the tillers moved to whereas the stern swings in the opposite direction. 

Where should your crew sit for effective boat steering

When we talk about the crew, we talk about members who are in charge of trimming the sails and helping you with tacking and jibbing etc. Generally, it is recommended to position them on the windward side of your boat, just to counteract the heeling forces of the sails.

Where should you sit when steering a boat?

If you are sailing a dinghy, keep low by sitting down, in fact, the windward side where the wind blows on needs more weight just to counteract the heeling forces of the sails, so that is probably the best side you want to find yourself sitting.

However, if you sail larger keelboats with wheels, you have the option to stand or sit behind or to sit at either side of the wheel where you will have a clear view of the bow and the surroundings. Just as weight balance on a dinghy, sitting on the windward side of the boat will counteract the tipping force of the sails and therefore add to the stability of your vessel.


I am the owner of sailoradvice. I live in Birmingham, UK and love to sail with my wife and three boys throughout the year.

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