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Old Style Rudder


Can someone explain to me why the old style rudder pops off? In what conditions does this happen? Is the boat heeled over hard?

Next I'd like to know if a good sailor can use this rudder without any problems.


New Member
When you put the rudder on you loosen the wingnut first? Install rudder and then tighten wingnut?

Check bottom strap, is it loose? Still using the original deck screw?

Do you have the spring plate that goes on top of the top hull strap?

Used the old style on four boats since 1974, remember it would occasionaly pop loose if you had way too much weatherhelm and you had to hold the tiller way over when close hauled. If all the rudder parts are in good shape and the weather helm is correct, it will not pop off. I've got gooseneck set so I only use a few degrees of rudder deflection when the boat is close hauled and heeled over. No need at all to use the tiller extension and almost no strain on the rudder.

You can tighten the wingnut to the point where the rudder hits something and it stays locked, not really a good idea.


Member Emeritus
Can someone explain to me why the old style rudder pops off? In what conditions does this happen? Is the boat heeled over hard?

Next I'd like to know if a good sailor can use this rudder without any problems.
Originally the complaint came from those who were pushing the envelope in competition, we see the issue more pervasive these days since most equipment of this age now has a couple of decades wear on it, at least.

The situation arises for two reasons. First, the spring plate and/or lower plate give enough to release when the boat is being sailed in the upper register of its wind range... either by vertical give or lateral twist. As Webfoot points out, broader awareness of weather helm adjustment and sailing the planing hull flat have mitigated this to some degree, but then comes the wear issue. Being bronze, the lip of the detent in the lower plate gets rolled and its mating edge on the vertical plate wears. The combination of these elements makes for a kick-up mechanism that releases with less force than intended.

The Sunfish Bible contains a 1967 article by Robert Johnstone called, Sunfish - Tuning to Win, where remedies are illustrated on how to tighten up the rudder plate's hold for both wear and the rigors of competition. In a nutshell, the solution at that time was to build up the detent of the lower plate with a layer of inner tube rubber. That, and screwing down both the bottom plate and the spring plate adjusting bolt so all the slack is eliminated. Of course, you need to remember to loosen the spring plate wing nut before beaching.

A little re-engineering might improve things. Double screw the bottom plate to eliminate lateral movement while still allowing vertical latching action; I've seen compact, stiff coil springs placed under the wing nut, but I've been thinking a silicon compression bushing might be a better solution... like the bushings found on performance automotive suspensions, only in miniature.

Get one of those $10 mountain bike quick release seat adjuster bolts and put it in your gooseneck; Adjust the weather helm for the wind du jour so you have a light touch at the tiller as Webfoot recommends; Hike out to “sail it flat” and take advantage of the planing ability of the hull and you should be able to do well with an older style rudder.


New Member
Well here's a question. Would the current style rudder cheek fit a old style rudder blade? Thinking that reusing tiller and old blade would put upgrade in the $100 dollar range. Parts to buy would be Cheek, Mounting brackets and new style Tiller Straps.

B I Tom

New Member
I have just acquired my first Sunfish. It has the old style rudder. I have found lots of information about what is wrong with the old rudder, but not much about how to actually operate it. This thread comes the closest. I am interested in general advice but also have some specific questions.

1. Is the way to attach the rudder to loosen the wing nut so that it slides in easily and then tighten down the wingnut? That seems obvious but I want to take little for granted.
2. How tight should the wingnut be for sailing? How easy should it be to kick the rudder out by just pulling on the rudder as if it were running into something? Does this depend on conditions? I will be sailing in a bay of Lake Michigan that is mostly sandy bottom, although there are some rocky areas. The most likely need for the rudder to kick out would be hitting a sand bar.
3. Is any of the give for the rudder to kick out supposed to come from the lower plate? That plate was loose when I got the boat but I tightened the screw at the forward end of the plate and that seems to have removed that give. That screw is the only attachment to the hull and seems like it might be inadequate.

I understand that the new design is preferable, though there is something appealing to me in the brass construction of the early system. I would love to hear from someone who loves these old rudders and has sage advice on how to sail safely with them.

Tom on Beaver Island


Active Member
The bottom strap is meant to flex just enough to allow the rudder to kick in and
out. This is tensioned by the spring plate and wing nut on top. Two things happen,
the edges of the pocket in the lower strap wear out and the wood screw holding the
bottom strap pulls out. You will get to the point where you can't tighten the wing
nut tight enough and the rudder pops out when you are close hauled. If you
want to use the old system than at a minimum I would replace the wood screw
on the bottom strap with a stainless bolt/nut and fender washer. This leaves
you with a nice inspection port on the deck should you want to upgrade to
the new rudder later. Find someone with the newer rudder and try it out,
you can get a sense if the cost of upgrade is worth the frustration saved with the old
system. If you can do some simple wood working the cost is much less. The old
rudder makes a really cool wall decoration.


Active Member
Hi Tom, When it comes to this forum, I am the "defender of the old rudder". :)

I have a 71 boat, and have never had a problem with it releasing prematurely. I was out in 20+ mph gusts with 20 degree shifts this past Sunday and again, no problems. Here is my advice on having that same experience.

1. Make sure the rudder tube is in place and in good condition. That tube prevents side to side motion of the rudder, and if it's missing the rudder is going to blow out of the bottom bronze strap. Mine had deteriorated to the point where it was falling apart. You can search this forum for the dimensions.
2. As Webfoot1 touches on, I replaced the bronze screw that holds the strap to the bottom of the boat. I believe it's a #12 bronze screw, but I cannot remember how long it is. I filled the hole with epoxy and then drilled a new hole so that the new screw would hold better.
3. Also as webfoot1 suggests, make sure the bottom strap is in good condition side to side. Mine looks perfect, and I have never seen one that wasn't, but then again I don't see a whole lot of 71 and older Sunfish. Who does? If yours is damaged, however, I would search for one on eBay.
4. I have the wing nut tight, but I wouldn't say it's at max tightness
5. I think about the boat being balanced. Dragging the rudder through the water sideways puts a lot of stress on the rudder, but more importantly it's really slow. When I was out Sunday I slid the lower boom out to 20" or so and pulled the outhauls tighter than usual. I always make sure I am not over-sheeted.
5. When I launch, I usually just drop the rudder into place and put the pin in with the rudder down.

Hope that helps.


Active Member
Hi Tom, just wanted to make sure your questions were answered, but my time to edit expired, so I had to create this post.

1. When I launch, I usually just drop the rudder into place and put the pin in with the rudder down. Occasionally, I just slam it down with my hand being careful to have it lined up. When I do that, I also hold the tiller up with one hand so that it doesn't get bounced up by the rudder. I never play around with the wing nut tension.
2. It's hard to measure for you how tight the wing nut is. I tighten it by hand pretty tight, but I could make it tighter if i tried.
3. Yes, the bottom plate flexes, actually pivots on the screw, and the rudder releases.

Hope that helps.

B I Tom

New Member
Thanks. I have not taken possession of the boat yet, but will check this all out when I get the boat. I think the screw holding the bottom plate still bites into whatever is under there, but I will keep an eye on that after sailing the first few times.From my inspections, it does not appear that the brass is worn away at the sides of the pocket. This boat has spent its life on this island and I don't think it has been sailed a lot, so I am hoping the rudder mechanism is not worn out, but we will see (though probably not until next year because we are going home in about a week). Do or did you have one of theses old rudder-equipped boats?

B I Tom

New Member
Thanks for this very helpful response. I'm glad that there even IS a "defender of the old rudder." My boat is also a '71. I do know that the rudder tube is still there, but I will take a look when I get possession of the boat to be sure it is in good shape. I have not been able to figure out yet how to search the forum, so if you could guide me to the dimensions I would be grateful. Your second point #5 is interesting. Your first point #5 reminds me of how little I know about sailing. Many years ago we had a Jetwind (the Sears version of a boat that I can't remember the name of). I knew enough to sail it around the bay and get it upright when I tipped it over. I haven't sailed for years and am now, at age 70 and just retired, excited to give it another go.

Thanks again.