In search of steering feel, Finding it at Sea.

One criticism seems to be common to every online car review I ever take the time to read. Sometimes the reviewer has a point, other times I know that they’re making it up. Occasionally it seems suspiciously as if they have no idea what they’re talking about, just like how so many reviewers can’t see the difference between handling and roadholding.
I’m talking about steering feel.
To remind yourself just what steering feel means, you need to hang up your car keys and take control of something a little more visceral, where the connection is purer, more direct. You could do it on a motorcycle, but a sudden, big movement through the bars on a bike is gonna send you shredding your leathers along the blacktop, and maybe worse. No, you’ve got to feel it somewhere that wipeouts don’t necessarily mean game over.
You gotta sail a boat.

Feedback, steering communication, feel, call it what you will, it’s something a Caterham has because the steering wheel is mechanically linked to the road through skinny grippy tyres. And it’s something many so-called sporting cars lack, thanks to the way the steering is divorced from the road by any manner of things including big wheels, wide tyres, pumps, pulleys and electric motors. Unfortunately this is the way of things. Car manufacturers know that steering feel is a “must have”, so they try to engineer it in, with sports modes, adjustable power assistance and egregiously thick-rimmed, small diameter steering wheels.
Ever seen the steering wheel on a classic car? It was huge, bus-like, with a thin rim. You could feel not only the amount of grip the tyre could give, but you could feel the difference between that and the flex in the tyre sidewalls, acting as a buffer, a carrier, for the actual information you wanted. You felt it through your fingertips, not your palms. I’m not sure many of today’s journalists have the faintest idea what that feels like.
Grab the tiller of a sailing boat. Any sailing boat, providing it has an actual, direct-acting rudder. If it’s a good-size sailboat with a single inboard motor, you’ll probably feel that the rudder wants to swing in the direction that the prop-wash forces it. This is the boat equivalent of torque-steer, and it you have to fight it constantly. It’s like radio interference; creating a constant swirl that robs the helm of any sense of meaningful data, though its accuracy is still absolute.
It all changes when the engine is turned off and it’s just you, the boat and the wind.
The tilller of a sailing boat is simultaneously the steering wheel, the accelerator, brake and clutch of the boat, and it provides feel in the same way that each of those controls should in a car, but with several hundred times the tactility.
We begin with steering, of course. The tiller moves the rudder, which effects direction changes by directing the flow of water as it passes astern. The greater the force of water past it, the more pronounced the effect of the tiller movement will be. You can feel that.
Imagine the boat charging along, leaning well over under full sail. Now the tiller gives you all the feeling of the rudder biting into the water as you hold a course against the movement of the waves, but there’s more. The good seaman will have set the sails to make the most of the prevailling wind. He will have recognised what direction the wind is coming from compared with where he wants the boat to go, and will have deployed the correct cloths, and released or tensioned enough rope to catch the blow to sail on either a broad, beam or fine reach.
Whatever point of sail is the case, the helmsman has to use the tiller in such a way as to not only steer a course, but to also keep the sails full of wind. Winds can be choppy bastards, and blustery, and can be deflected by scenery and so many other factors, so tiny course adjustments are needed as it’s better to find the wind than to wait for it to come to you. And when you find it, you sure as hell know it through the tingling of the tiller.
Beyond relaying the forces acted upon the rudder by the rushing of water past it and the actions of the waves, the tiller also determines the boat’s angle of attack. Sailing hard in any condition other than a dead run, a monohull keelboat will heel over out of or into the wind, and the more aggressively you’re using the wind, the more that angle of heel is likely to be. There comes that extra feeling, sometimes a vibration, that can be likened to feeling a big fish tugging on your rod and you know exactly what to do right away.
On a boat you try to hold it on that sweet spot, just a tiny movement away from which you’ll lose all that lovely wind, like disengaging the clutch, mechanically decoupling the boat from the wind. You want to get right back to where you need to be, where the tiller takes on a new weight and authority and all the power of the boat is passing via the mast, through the hull and into your arm. This is feedback. This is information. It’s a hell of a feeling.
The helm will feel different on any kind of reach, depending on the way the boat is rigged, with some boats performing better to windward than others. An experienced sailor, or in other words one who is much better than me, would be able to tell whether he was on a broad, beam or fine reach depending on what he felt through the tiller.
It’s why I kind of pity those bigger boats which use a wheel rather than a tiller. As an inexperienced sailor I can’t imagine how that feel translates into a big aluminium wheel, especially if it’s decoupled from the rudder by a hydraulic system or, worse, ropes and pulleys. If that feedback is lessened, you no longer have the boat physically telling you what’s going on. Presumably you have to use your other senses to know when to push harder and when to back off. You have to watch the sails, measure the heel and listen for the sound that tells you that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.
Of course, a neutral helm with no outside forces acting upon it other than those you need is what you want, although there are circumstances when there is no information for it to convey, and that can be dangerous. When running in a straight line with the wind directly astern the rudder is doing no work whatsoever, it has little force acting on it aside from the rushing water holding it straight ahead. If the helmsman was clumsy enough to make a sudden tiller input without spilling the wind from the sails first, he could cause the boat to suddenly, spectacularly and dangerously, gybe. If the boat is set up greedily with all the sails and spars under full load, the sudden release of force could be cataclysmic.
It’s like suddenly tugging on the wheel in a car doing 100, with steering that feels numb in the straightahead position. You’re going to have a bad time. Obviously. There needs to be a degree of slack in the steering, otherwise every sneeze would mean instant carnage. But there should be weight immediately beyond that detent, and it should be exponential.
Steering feel used to be essential, but a generation of drivers brought up on Forza and Gran Turismo can have plenty of fun without it. A force-feedback wheel does a really convincing job of giving you an impression of when you’re pushing the car really hard, and when the steering lets go, or starts letting go, you know you’ve overcooked it and it’s time to rethink your strategy.
It’s fake, though, all fake; just like the Multisense system on the Renault Megane, and countless similar systems. Adding weight and friction is no substitute for the tyres telling you directly that they’re about to go their separate ways from the road. It’s just a case of some fakes being better than others.
In many cars these days, though, the lack of steering “feel” relates to the fact that the limits of grip are really, really high. Journalists don’t feel the tyres protesting because the tyres aren’t protesting. Your hot shot writer in the Golf R on the country lane is probably not taking the car beyond 70% of its chassis capabilities. And if he does do the job properly and track it, if he reaches the limits there will be no warning that grip is about to expire. It’ll just let go and slide. The steering will go light, and that’s the best it can offer.
Ironically, you get more feel through the controls of cars which the same reviewers would see as inadequately set up for sports driving. Cars like the Dacia Duster have far lower limits, and you can feel through the helm when the car is no longer willing to go where you want it to. Sadly, few reviewers seem to think there’s any fun to be had in that kind of situation. There is – it’s just rather unruly.
I guess that’s where we are now. With even recent Ferrari reviews following the same pattern, light and precise but lacking feedback, steering feel could well soon become a thing of the past. Feel is being replaced by knowledge, certainty that you will make it around the next corner without lifting off.
But we’ll always have boats.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2016. Thanks to my best friend Simon and his yacht, Wildwood)

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  1. CruisinTime Avatar

    That is a very nice story.

  2. GTXcellent Avatar

    Chris – I really like reading all of your articles, stories and tales, but this was really, really good. I’m not a sailor man, I’m a motor man, but it did get me thinking about a tiller-handled outboard and the feedback that provides (and I’m not talking about these new big HP tillers with power steering). I’d honestly never correlated the two (boats and cars and the feedback), but damn did the light bulb over my head go off.

    1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
      dead_elvis, inc.

      Very well said, and vigorously seconded.

  3. kogashiwa Avatar

    Great article. And I’ve been badly wanting a small cruising boat and this doesn’t help.

  4. AlexG55 Avatar

    While you have more feel with a tiller, you definitely have plenty of feel with a wheel, at least on some of the boats I’ve sailed. Enough to feel each “kick” as a wave hits the rudder, for instance.

  5. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Feel goes up with the tautness that comes from increasing speed and running close to the wind

  6. nanoop Avatar

    I grew up with digital joysticks, the rattling and shaking of Xbox controllers was a breakthrough, and I never used a force feedback wheel controller. Point and go. I’d be overwhelmed by the amount of info from an old school steering wheel, and would simply ignore most of it.
    But I don’t move myself to be the edge of grip, anyway, I drive two different cars a year, the discussion of steering soul is above my head.

  7. Dean Bigglesworth Avatar
    Dean Bigglesworth

    I’ve only sailed a dinghy, and that was more than 15 years ago. I can relate to the steering feel. We were about 10 boats with two kids in each, and one motorboat with a couple of adults in it to supervise. It got really interesting when the wind and waves suddenly picked up a lot so we couldn’t stay out on the open sea as we kept on taking on water over the side. The motorboat was slowly towing the boats to shore one by one, starting with the most incompetent kids. Which meant we were pretty much last in line, and with the wind blowing us towards the rocks we were definitely going to run aground. We just had to choose where..
    Headed to the closest sand bank, ran aground, lift keel, lower sail, and sat there laughing while waiting for the motorboat to come and tow us back.

    1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

      It pays to keep a beer on board for precisely that situation.

  8. Troggy Avatar

    The feel through a wheel is very similar. That slightly disconnected sloppiness when the engine is providing the motion, to the taut connected feel when cracking along under sail. You can tell so much through the wheel or tiller of a boat. This article is the best explanation of that feeling I’ve ever read.
    It feels slightly strange to get straight off a boat and into a car with steering which feels so much the same no matter what the conditions outside are, and the lack of prop walk effects can be briefly disconcerting.

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