Early on it was thought that twin rudders and wheel steering made sense, but this made the design complicated and expensive. Twin rudders require a complicated steering linkage that uses something called Ackermann geometry, which is also used in cars: when turning to the right, the right wheel has to turn more than the left wheel because, being closer to the point around which the car turns, it has to follow a tighter circle.
Later on, after single-handing a 36-foot sailboat from Boston to South Carolina, I discovered that wheel steering is a bad idea and that I prefer a simple tiller. There are very few steering positions that are comfortable with a wheel: sitting behind it and standing behind it are more or less the only choices, and they both get tiresome rather quickly. On the other hand, with a tiller, it is possible to steer the boat while standing, sitting or lying down, using hands, feet and hips, or, with a tiller extension clipped on, with the inside of the knee or the armpit. It is possible to operate the tiller remotely, by tying a bungee cord to one side of it and pulling it to the other side using a lanyard.
In turn, a tiller on a boat of Quidnon's size is only workable if the rudder is a balanced rudder, with about a third of its area ahead of its rotational axis, so that the boat can be steered with a fingertip instead of your heel on the tiller pushing with all your might, as is the case with an unbalanced “barn door” rudder that rotates around its forward edge.
Further on, I discovered that Quidnon doesn’t heel enough to make twin rudders necessary: just a single rudder would work fine, and so the design was changed to a single rudder hung off the center of the transom. But this arrangement was still somewhat problematic. First, the rudder assembly cluttered up the transom and made the boat a bit longer (which is a problem because marinas charge slip fees by overall length). Second, the pivot point of the rudder was too far from the cockpit to give the tiller a useful swing range.
|Rudder assembly installed in engine well|
Quidnon doesn’t always need to have a rudder. It is a houseboat, and houseboats mostly just sit at the dock, where having a rudder is not just unnecessary but also rather inconvenient. The tiller tends to whip around and hit things whenever the tidal current shifts or a boat wake hits. Since it sits in the water, it tends to accumulate marine growth which makes it not work very well when the time comes to move the boat. A better solution is a rudder assembly that is easy to install and just as easy to take out again when the boat is at rest.
|Gudgeons in engine well: top view; aft view|
With the rudder assembly removed, all that remains on the hull are two gudgeons bolted to the back of the engine well along the centerline. To install the rudder assembly, it is turned 90º, so that the tiller faces directly sideways and lowered into the engine well using a hoist. The rudder shaft has two pintles that engage with the gudgeons. The lower pintle has a longer pin than the upper pintle, so that it can be engaged first rather than having to try to line up two pintles with two gudgeons at the same time.
Once the rudder assembly is dropped into place it can be turned to the 0º amidships position, with the bottom part of the assembly sliding under a recess in the bottom of the transom. This recess serves several purposes: it provides an exit path for the stream from the propeller; it also provides an exit path for the outboard motor’s exhaust when it is in idle (when it is in gear the exhaust goes through the propeller and into the water); lastly, it provides a space for the rudder assembly.
The bottom part of the rudder assembly consists of the rudder blade case and the rudder blade. The case is a box, welded out of mild steel and galvanized, with its bottom and rear open and forming a slot from which the rudder blade protrudes. It is welded to the bottom of the rudder shaft (a steel tube) and reinforced using a triangular gusset. The gusset has a hole in it for attaching a lanyard by which the rudder assembly is hoisted out of the engine well. The sides of the box have specifically shaped cut-outs in them.
The rudder blade is made of a 3/4-inch (20 mm) piece of plywood sheathed in fiberglass and painted. Close to the bottom of the blade is a circular cut-out that is filled with a lead disk, to ballast the blade to counteract the buoyancy of the plywood and to exert a certain downward force when submerged. The top of the rudder blade is surfaced with epoxy that’s loaded with graphite powder, to create a hard bearing surface.
|Rudder blade detent mechanism: roller guide and rollers|
The rudder blade is joined to the rudder blade case using 4 rollers, 2 on each side, that are through-bolted to the blade and ride inside the cut-outs in the case. The arrangement of the rollers and the cut-outs acts as a detent: in order to get the blade to kick up the force acting on the front of the blade generated by an obstacle has to be more than 4 times the downward force on the blade due to gravity.
The lead disk is sized so that this force is significantly more than 1/4 of the force generated by drag with the boat moving through the water at its maximum speed. Once this initial resistance is overcome, the rudder blade kicks up rather easily. Once the external force acting on it is removed (because the boat is again in sufficiently deep water) it floats down into vertical position and the roller mechanism clunks into place. When the blade kicks up, it fits in the recess under the transom.
|Rudder blade in kicked-up position|
The only necessary precaution is to avoid running aground while moving astern: the rudder blade will not kick up backwards. Most of the time the centerboard will strike bottom first, because it hangs down lower, and will stop the boat, shattering if it has to, in which case it will be time to pull the remainder of the centerboard out of its slot on deck and to drop in a new centerboard. But if the centerboard somehow misses the underwater obstacle and the rudder blade doesn’t, then the rudder may suffer a bit of damage.
If the bottom is soft and the boat is moving slowly, it will simply stop with the rudder blade stuck in the sand or the mud. If the obstacle is hard or the boat is moving fast, the bolts holding the rollers to the rudder blade, which are designed to be the weakest element, will shear off and the rudder blade will drop off. Then it will be time to pull out the remainder of the rudder assembly and to jump down into the water (all 4 feet of it) to recover the rudder blade and the rollers. Then the rudder assembly can be put back together with new bolts. There is also the chance that the rudder blade will strike and damage the prop, in which case it will also be time to pull up the motor and replace the prop. In short, don’t run aground when backing up!
To summarize: the rudder assembly easily installed and easily removed when not in use and for maintenance. With the rudder assembly removed, all that remains in place are two gudgeons mounted to the back of the engine well. It doesn’t kick up unless it encounters a hard obstacle, with no amount of moving water able to displace it from vertical. Its action is fully automatic, never requiring any operator intervention. It provides for fingertip steering using a tiller because the rudder blade is balanced, with 1/3 of the area ahead of its axis. The use of the tiller makes it possible to use the simplest and most affordable kind of autopilot: a tiller pilot that clips onto the tiller. The tiller itself is of a telescoping type, with a handle that slides into its body, so that it isn’t left swinging about the cockpit when the boat is on autopilot.
After all of the various evolutions, I dare say that this rudder design is very close to final.