This is an option attributed mainly to small skiffs, flats and jon boats. It is also a choice that needs to be made on Panga boats up to 25 ft in length.
Tiller steering is only available on outboard engines and refers to controlling the boat with a handle that attaches directly to the engine and is driven from the back of the boat; Contrary to remote steering where you have a steering wheel, like in most boats.
I will touch on the 5 most common points on which these two options are compared:
Having a tiller means you have no need for a center console. This happens to free up most of your cockpit space for you to use with coolers, equipment, gear and friends! It opens everything up. As a bonus, you are also driving from the most comfortable part of the boat, the aft, which bounces the least!
With a remote steering, you need several turns of the wheel to make a U-turn. Making zig-zags and parking in tight spaces might be a challenge. A tiller steering gives you faster response and better control. The 25ft Panga is now a nimble boat that can turn in closed spaces and park very easy anywhere. Even when backing down on fish and keeping right where you need to be. Some of this control can be gained by using a trolling motor while still using a remote steering.
More equipment means more maintenance. With a remote steering, you have cables and harnesses that extend to the console, plus the console and the controls and the steering system (hydraulic or mechanical) and the steering wheel. They all need constant upkeep and may fail at one point or another. Tillers keep it simple and inexpensive. It is basically an arm that extends from the outboard engine. Not much to go wrong there.
Ease of Use / Comfortability
Tiller steering boats can be much more tiring than a boat with a wheel. You are actually fighting against the torque and power of the engine. It is the nature of the beast. Remote steering boats tend to be easier to drive due to the similarity of the car and other equipment. You also have an enclosure or a windshield to shield you from the elements. This usually makes for a much comfortable ride.
I have personally owned and fished both types of Panga boats. I really enjoyed owning a tiller engine Panga because of its simplicity and easy maintenance, plus less “things” on the boat to take care of and that can fail. When doing some long runs from home this is a BIG plus!
It all comes down to preference and the use you want for your boat. You might want a steering wheel for your long fishing runs in the Gulf or just a simple, open cockpit to fill with diving and fishing gear.
It is very important to take into account the type of fishing/diving/adventure that your boat will take you in. Do not leave the tiller option on the side, it is a great one for many reasons previously discussed. All you need is practice!