Why Do Sailboats Have Two Steering Wheels?


Sailboats come in a wide variety of aesthetically pleasing designs and practical configurations. Each facet of the final product is meant to serve a unique purpose, whether it be ease of movement throughout the vessel or improved control. One of those facets that offer these specific advantages and more is the sailboat’s steering wheel, especially in the form of a two-wheel design.

Sailboats have two steering wheels for a variety of reasons. The dual wheel system offers the helmsman greater control when turning the vessel. Turns can be executed much more quickly and efficiently when compared to a single wheel. They also allow the helmsman better visibility since they can choose to steer from either the port or starboard side.

The steering system is a critical component of your sailboat and can be a make-or-break element of your driving experience. Of course, your steering wheel is your direct connection to this system, so it needs to be able to perform up to standard. Two wheels offer tremendous advantages over a single one, yet, this is not the only factor to consider. Read on to learn how both the dual wheel design and steering wheel size influence your sailing efficiency.

Why Do Sailboats Have Two Steering Wheels?

The presence of two steering wheels in sailboats offers several advantages. The double-wheel combo, most often referred to as “dual wheels” or “twin wheels,” is available in a wide variety of sailboat and yacht configurations. It takes a bit of background knowledge to be able to utilize this design properly.

(Note: A yacht and a sailboat are essentially the same thing. The primary difference is that the yacht is meant for luxury and racing, whereas the sailboat is a generally smaller vessel intended for commercial applications or leisurely, personal use. Source: Back Cove Yachts)

The two steering wheels will be positioned separately: one at the starboard side of the sailboat, and the other, at the port side. Most people assume that this requires more than one helmsman; however, that is not the case. (If there are two helmsmen, it’s best to trade-off, rather than steer together!) The reasoning and advantage of a twin wheel system can vary from general aesthetic purposes to practical applications.

First, the two wheels are not intended for simultaneous use. They are meant to give a single helmsman options for where they wish to position themselves on the vessel as they are controlling it. Your first thought regarding this might be, “Why do I need options for steering positioning.”

You must consider the types of challenges you may face while navigating the sailboat:

  • You may need to correct your course. Steering on the starboard side may render the task much more comfortable than it would be if you were attempting it from the port side.
  • You may need to turn the sailboat rather quickly. Doing so from one side of the vessel may achieve this with greater efficiency than the other.
    • For example, if you were trying to avoid a rock outcropping on the starboard side, it may be best to use the wheel located on the port side to evade the hazard. Turning from the starboard side may take too long and put your vessel at risk.
  • Visibility for navigational purposes may be much better on one side of the vessel than the other.
    • For instance, imagine that you are rounding the corner of a small island, and there is dense vegetation blocking your view. It would be wise to move over to the starboard side of the vessel to gain a clear view of the waters, allowing you to avoid any hazards, such as oncoming traffic.

Further Considerations for the Advantages of Dual Wheels

Wouldn’t these advantages be present with a single wheel vessel, though? Not necessarily. Since a single wheel vessel has its wheel located in the center of the deck, your visibility and control of each side of the sailboat are limited. You’ll hardly be able to see either side of the ship’s hull. Comparatively, this introduces quite a disadvantage when compared to other designs.

Also, you must consider the size of modern sailboats. As mentioned above, a wheel in the center of the deck would not allow the same opportunity to get outboard quite far enough to gain the proper visibility. This comes in handy not only while you the sailboat is out on the open water, but when you
are docking as well.

Additional benefits that will become immediately apparent include:

  • If the helmsman is busy with another task, they can have someone temporarily take control of the vessel using the other wheel.
  • Guests can move through the cockpit with greater ease, now that they can maneuver around the unused wheel. They do not have to bother the helmsman in any way as they move throughout the boat.

Depending on what you are trying to accomplish with your boat (e.g., racing vs. commercial sailing vs. leisure), twin wheels may be the better choice for you. (Source: RCR Yachts)

Why Are Sailboat Steering Wheels so Big?

The presence of two steering wheels is an entirely separate matter from the size of the wheels themselves. When determining the proper size and proportions of your sailboat, consider how large the wheel is in relation to your vessel.

A steering wheel that is too small may introduce unprecedented challenges to your control and navigation of the boat, whereas a large wheel can be particularly advantageous.

You’ll likely appreciate a large steering wheel for the following reasons:

  • A larger wheel provides more leverage on the helm of the sailboat. This gives the helmsman better control of the boat and much more ease when driving it. (Source: Boat Outfitters)
  • Smaller steering wheels would require significantly more physical labor from the helmsman. Recall what it feels like to turn your vessel in any direction. When using a relatively small steering wheel, you are required to perform many more rotations of this component than you would have to with a larger one. A larger wheel will be much less physically demanding on the helmsman, as it requires fewer rotations per turn.

As you mull this facet of your sailboat over, understand that, while it is essential to customize the size of the steering wheel to your needs, the manufacturer installed the original wheel for a reason. The general rule is that it’s best to stick with the design produced by the manufacturer. Still, there is always room for improvement, especially if you are not comfortable operating with the given design. (Source: Marine Depot Direct)

In Conclusion

Your steering system is arguably the most critical element in your sailboat’s configuration. It is where you will spend a large portion of your time on your vessel, so you must consider the implication of the steering wheel design in depth.

With a twin wheel design, there are several advantages to be had, primarily in the form of heightened visibility from the helm and versatility for evading hazards. The wheels of sailboats tend to be quite large, especially when installed as a single component rather than a dual wheel system. This is to improve the ease of use for the helmsman, offering greater leverage over the steering system.

Steering wheels in dual wheel design will likely be smaller than a single component, though. Consider the type of sailing you’ll be doing to appropriately weigh the pros and cons of your steering wheel size and configuration.

Recent Content