Why Do Sailboats Have Big Steering Wheels?

Around the world, sailing is known as a relaxing and engaging activity to take up. Many people enjoy being one with nature, seeing great sights, and learning how to control a beautiful boat. When you are first getting started sailing, however, one of the first things you need to do is learn the boat’s anatomy. This allows you to best understand how it all works out on the water.

Why do sailboats have big steering wheels? The large size of a sailboat’s steering wheel can help the helmsman have more control over the boat and so that he or she can access it from either side of the boat. Also, a large steering wheel helps with leverage, in a mechanical sense. It helps the helmsman to turn the large rudder without having to exert a large amount of effort. 

Read on to learn more about sailboat steering wheels, as well as some tips to understand the boat’s different parts.

Why Are the Steering Wheels on Sailboats So Large?

Apart from the sail itself, the steering wheel (known as the helm) of a boat is probably one of the most well-known parts. It is often a main component of sailing imagery and tattoos. However, many people who are outside of the sailing world wonder why these steering wheels can be so big. Some helms are so large that they can span almost the entire stern of the boat, some almost five feet in diameter!

Helms on a sailboat are large for a number of reasons, but to put it simply, they are big to provide easier control for the vessel’s helmsman. Here are some more reasons why the steering wheel comes in its large size:

Provides the Helmsman Ease of Access

One of the main reasons a sailboat’s helm is so big is so you can reach it! When tacking, you sit on the high side of the boat. With a large steering wheel, you are able to sit on either side of the boat and still reach the steering wheel. You want to be fully comfortable while steering, so you don’t have to strain or reach too far. If you are uncomfortable or straining while steering, you could make some dangerous mistakes on the water.

Helps Control the Boat with Little Effort

If your boat has a big rudder that is not balanced and runs around its center of effort, that can generate a lot of pressure and force. This will require a big steering wheel that relieves some of that effort. The large diameter gives you the leverage to steer with minimal effort.

A big wheel can also allow the helmsman to get further outboard in order to look around the water or under the sails.

Big Steering Wheels Are Perfect For Sailboats

A big steering wheel has multiple uses when sailing. These steering wheels act as sights, meaning that they help the helmsman judge the distance and overall position of landmarks, other vessels, and more. A tiny steering wheel would simply not offer this convenience. 

In addition, bigger sailboat steering wheels offer an overall less labor-intensive steering experience. The name of the game is leverage, and getting such a large mass of steel to turn course once momentum has built-in a different direction takes lots of power. This is where the large steering wheel shows its merit. 

Big Steering Wheels Are The Standard

I’ll bet that you haven’t seen many, if any, sailboats that don’t have a large steering wheel. This is because of their familiarity. Ever since big steering wheels have been used for sailboats, this interesting visual aesthetic has become standard. It is rare to see a sailboat without a large steering wheel. I believe that, even if there was a smaller alternative to using a large wheel, the larger one would still be preferred for its familiarity. 

Big Steering Wheels on Racing Boats

On racing boats, big wheels allow the helmsman to sit further windward. This can give him or her better visibility of the jib. The sailor can, in turn, move weight to the rail more easily.

Big Steering Wheels on Cruising Boats

On cruising boats, large wheels can help minimize the frictional loss while maintaining a light helm. This helps avoid wearing out the helmsman while on a long cruise.

Depends on the Size of the Cockpit

The size of a sailing boat’s helm is designed to provide the helmsman with ease of use. You want to be able to reach the wheel from either side of the boat. However, some smaller cockpits will not be able to hold a large one. 

In this case, when a boat cannot be built with a large steering wheel, it may be designed with two. That way, there will be one on each side. The helmsman will generally steer from the higher side of the cockpit so that he can still see clearly when the boated is healed over. So, whether your boat has one steering wheel or two, you want to be able to reach it no matter where you are.

Essentially, the bigger the helms wheel, the easier it is to turn. And, the bigger the force, the bigger the wheel needs to be.

The Steering System As A Whole

It’s easy to ignore the intricate details of steering in a boat, but knowing a bit about it really puts you at an advantage. For those who are not aware of how sailing works, we will look at the steering system as a whole. The steering system of a sailboat is comprised of several components, including:

  1. The wheel
  2. The helm
  3. The steering cable
  4. The cable connections

All of these work together to enable boaters to change the boat’s course as they desire. 

Let’s examine a bit of information about how a boat’s steering wheel works. While the steering system would be useless without one of the components listed earlier, the helm is debatably the most important part of a sailboat’s steering system. 

This is because the helm translates the turning motion of the steering wheel to a push and pull motion to either move the rudder right, left, etc. 

Why do you need to know this? Because in the probable event that you’ll need to make repairs to the steering system, it’ll be nice to know how it works. This holds true whether you are looking to rent a boat for a day or buy a boat and become a regular boater. Boating is an incredibly beautiful experience, but let’s face it, it can definitely go horribly wrong, and the more knowledge you have, the better off you’d be in any situation. 

Maintaining the Steering System on A Boat 

Any experienced boater knows that a boat’s steering system requires maintenance. The proper maintenance of a steering system requires periodic inspection of the steering system. If an issue is found, then, of course, something must be done to fix the issue. Regular cleaning of the system should also be done. 

As far as steering systems go, the steering cable needs to be painstakingly maintained. This is because ill-maintained steering cables can seize up or corrode, impeding the steering system from working properly (and this could lead to frustration and danger from being unable to steer the boat efficiently).

There are several things to do to ensure that your steering cables are in tip-top shape, including: 

  1. Set a realistic routine for steering cable inspection. Look for signs of wear or corrosion along with the cables. Don’t forget to also check the cable connections.
  2. Regularly clean and grease the cable connections. You’ll need to use a grease that is lithium-based.

Maintenance When The Boat Is Not in Use 

Maintenance on a steering system doesn’t stop when you aren’t using it. When you are storing your boat for an extended amount of time, there are steps that you should take. 

  1. Detach the steering cable connection from the engine.
  2. Clean it fully and apply grease to it.
  3. Reconnect when you are ready to sail again.

Steering System Health Check

When your steering system is in good condition, you’ll notice that it handles really well at all speeds. Also, there won’t be much play in the wheel and cables while you’re steering. 

When there is something wrong with your steering system, it’s not always easy to ignore. You’ll notice that the steering is not precise. You’ll be turning the wheel one way, and the boat will not respond as expected. Also, you might experience an issue with wheel resistance. It may become harder to turn the wheel while sailing. You may also see signs of corrosion on the steering cables, which may look like cuts or holes on the surface. 

Keep Your Steering System In Mind

It’s so important to evaluate and take care of your steering system because of the danger that can come to you in the case of a malfunction. Several things can happen with a faulty steering system, from a frustrating time spent trying to steer the boat safely to a large crash that ends in casualties. 

If you’ll be at the helm of any boat in the future, make sure that you know about the different mechanisms that make the boat go. Even if you aren’t going to be at the helm, this knowledge could still prove to be useful. You never know when you’ll need to use the knowledge you’ve gained. 

Understanding Other Sailboat Features

What do you already know about the anatomy of a sailing boat? Well, now that you have a simple understanding of the purpose and size of a boat’s steering wheel, it is also important to learn about the other parts of the boat. There are many moving parts that provide you the functionality you need to propel your boat forward, cruise, or even race.

These parts can often be a little confusing for novice sailors. However, with much practice, research, and study, you can learn it all. Only when you understand your boat, its many parts, and their functions will you be ready to sail on the water.

When you are getting started with this hobby, also consider joining a sailing community in your local area. These groups are full of veteran sailors and instructors who would be more than willing to share their expertise. 

Here are some of the main parts of a sailboat you need to know:


First, there is the hull. This is the primary structural body of the boat, also known as the shell of the boat. This part will contain all of the boat’s internal components like the rigging equipment. It is also where the passengers will sit or stand in the boat. The hull of a sailboat has a symmetrical shape to help it balances the boat and reduce drag. 


Next, the tiller is located inside the hull in the stern (or the back of the boat). This stick is attached to the rudder and can be made out of metal or wood. Its purpose is to turn the rudder of the boat, so it acts kind of like the vessel’s steering wheel.


The rudder of a sailboat is the underwater, movable steering device. This part sits in the water, attached to the tiller. When the tiller is turned, the rudder will also move to steer the boat.


The mainsail is the main, large sail on a boat. This mainsail is used to catch the force of the wind and propel the vessel forward. Sailors can move and turn this sail as necessary to move in whichever direction they desire (and that the wind allows).


The mast of a sailboat is the large, vertical pole. This pole is used to support your sails.


Next is the boom. This is another pole that attaches to the mast. Instead, this pole sits horizontally. The boom of a sailboat is used for extending the foot of the mainsail.


The jib is the smaller foresail. This part will fit inside the foretriangle and the clew. The jib does not extend past the mast of the boat.


The keel is also known as the centerboard. This part is attached to the bottom of the hull, fixed underneath the boat. The keel’s purpose is to keep the boat from sliding sideways while you are in the water. It’s one of the most important parts for providing stability.

Learn More about Sailboats

Ready to get started sailing? Well, before you get out on the water, it is crucial for novice sailors to learn about the various parts of the boat they will be cruising on. It’s important to study these parts and their functions before you try to sail on a lake or other body of water. This will help you have a more successful and stress-free sailing experience. 

Keep reading helpful articles like this one to learn more about the hobby of sailing. You can learn about different types of boats and how they cruise, so that you can determine the best vessel for your needs/.


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

Recent Posts