A boat steering issue can be a serious problem if it happens on a deserted area of the high seas. Whether you own a new or aging boat, it’s vital to know common steering problems and the solutions.
Most times you can salvage the situation if the system didn’t fail totally.
We’ve researched this topic to show typical problems you can experience with a boat steering system and how to fix them.
Note that there are different boat steering systems and each has its distinct problems.
In this article, we look at the problems of mechanical, hydraulic and fly-by-wire steering systems. Here we go!
Problems With Mechanical Steering Systems
These include the rotary and rack steering systems found in small boats, especially outboard-powered vessels.
Mechanical steering systems are affordable, long-lasting and easy to install by the boater. They are also easy to use and provide a high level of maneuverability.
But over time, these systems can become stiff, unresponsive and even fail without warning.
Below are common problems of mechanical boat steering systems.
1. Limited Range of Motion
When mechanical steering experiences a limited range of motion, such as steering in one direction, it is a sign of cable damage or seizure.
Because cable steering systems work perfectly most of the time, most boaters forget about their maintenance until it is too late. If your steering won’t move in the other direction, it may be because of:
- The Stainless Steel Cable Is Seized In the Tilt Tube
The tilt tube is an engine component through which the steering cable runs. Your steering won’t move freely if the cables are stuck in the tilt tube.
While the end of the tilt tube and the entry point of the cable are sealed off with valves, the former receives a lot of saltwater.
Over time, the saltwater exposure causes accumulation of salt which can quickly corrode the tilt tube because it is made of steel.
You can prevent the corrosion by dismantling the tilt tube and applying marine grease, especially during winter.
Otherwise, the long period of non-use can cause corrosion. This can make the steering cable to seize up, reducing the range of motion.
If the tilt tube is badly corroded, it may be impossible to remove the cable without destroying it. After removing the cable, use a wire brush to clean the inside of the tilt tube. If the stainless steel cable is not damaged, clean the ends and apply marine grease and reassemble the compartment.
But if the cable is damaged, hung in many places or even broken, get a replacement.
- Strands of the Stainless Steel Cable Have Corroded, Worn or Poorly Routed
Sometimes, a seized helm might not be from the tilt-tube/cable assembly.
It might be because of poor installation.
During the installation, it is important to reduce the bends in the cable to minimize steering inefficiency and backlash.
If you force steering cables around tight corners, you may bind the outer lining with the inner core.
This will increase friction, speed up wear and make steering more difficult.
The seals which protect the core of the steering cable from seawater become worn and damaged after some time. Saltwater exposure causes the cables to corrode and stiffen.
Follow the installation guideline to the latter.
Most mechanical steering systems are easy to install, but get a professional if you lack the technical skills to DIY the job.
Regular maintenance is crucial to enjoying excellent service from your steering.
Check the seals and ensure the cables are not exposed to saltwater.
If the cable is corroded, worn, or damaged, get a replacement because they are not designed to be repaired.
Don’t bother lubricating an old steering cable as they are pre-lubricated at the factory to last for the product’s lifetime.
However, if the cable is manageable, keep it as a spare.
- Engine Problems
Sticky steering might be engine-related.
A good way to check this is by disengaging the steering cable from the tilt tube.
If the helm moves freely, the issue might be from engine pivot points which have stiffen because of lack of lubrication.
A quick way to fix this problem is to grease the engine pivot points regularly.
A common reaction when boaters experience a seized steering is to force it back and forth hoping to release the tension.
Unfortunately, this can seriously damage the helm unit and cost you expensive repairs.
The best way to keep your mechanical steering system in top shape is through regular maintenance. It’s important to perform preventative maintenance before winter storage. Remember that steering cables are designed to work for a finite period.
They won’t perform efficiently even with the best care when they reach the end of their useful life.
The prudent choice is to buy upgraded replacements for hitch-free steering on the water.
Hydraulic steering systems are easier to turn compared to mechanical steering.
However, they are more expensive and you may need professional knowledge to install or repair it.
Large boats have hydraulic steering to reduce the physical stress of piloting them. Hydraulic steering systems can encounter the following problems:
2. Visible Fluid Leaks
If you notice visible fluid leaks in your hydraulics, that is a sign of air in the steering system.
Check the shaft of the ram to see if it is wet. Wipe it down and check for damp again.
If the shaft is still wet, you have fluid leaks in your hydraulic steering. This can mean that you have leaky seals which may need you to replace the seals. Visible leaks could result from corrosion.
Corroded seals must be replaced and you need to bleed out air in the hydraulic system.
Note that every part of the hydraulic steering including the helm (pump and fluid reservoir), hoses, steering cylinder, and fluid can all develop leaks.
In most cases, this problem arises when there is air in the system.
Bleeding air from the hydraulic is DIYable, but it requires time and patience.
However, you can buy kits that make the process faster and easier but this depends may on availability from your brand.
In the short-term, you can top up the oil for small leaks but the best solution is to bleed the system or replace any broken seals.
3. Contaminated Oil
Hydraulic systems work perfectly when the oil is uncontaminated.
But any presence of abrasive dirt in the oil can compromise the whole operation.
Poor attention to detail causes dirt, dust and debris to enter the hoses and the oil during installation.
If the hydraulic oil is dirty, milky, smelly or decolorized, flush the system and replace the oil for optimal function of your steering.
Even if the oil is not contaminated, change it every five years or as recommended by the manufacturer.
4. Spongy Steering
Air in the hydraulics will make it feel spongy.
If the steering bounces back after turning it hard in both directions, it’s a sign of trapped air. Trapped air not only makes the steering unpredictable, but it can make it fail completely while underway.
To prevent bouncy steering, follow the manufacturer’s instruction on how to bleed air from the system.
Because air is compressible, it makes the hydraulic pick up gas instead of oil and this leads to inconsistent performance.
A spongy wheel may also indicate an internal leak in the steering pump or cylinder although these parts are difficult to access.
If you have purged the system of air and there are no visible leaks in the hoses, the shaft in the cylinder may be corroded or leaking.
Replace leaking or corroded cylinder shafts.
5. Play in the Steering
Most of the time, play in the wheel happens when you have a leak.
Check the helm and cylinder for leaks and make sure no hoses or ram is wet.
A leak may be a sign of air in the hydraulic system. Look for the leak and replace or repair the faulty component.
You may need to bleed the air to get your steering up to speed.
It is normal for hydraulics to have some play buy consistently bleeding the cylinder can solve the problem.
When the play is excessive, find the cause and fix it.
6. Reduced Response during Steering
A hydraulic steering should be highly responsive when it is running normally.
If it delivers a sub-optimal response while underway, this is usually because of low hydraulic fluid.
The hydraulic fluid is the component that transmits energy from the wheel to the rudder, allowing the system to steer the boat in different directions.
When the fluid is low, the system cannot exert the correct pressure to turn the boat in a particular direction, hence the reduced response.
Normally, the hydraulic fluid level should stay constant as oil does not evaporate.
Low hydraulic oil levels means that the fluid is leaking or has air.
A leaky or air-filled hydraulic system can cause serious havoc to your steering.
Purge the air according to the manufacturer’s instructions and replace any leaky component such as the shaft or hoses.
7. Drifty Boat
If your boat drifts uncontrollably without changing the angle of the steering wheel or rudder, this indicates a problem with the helm or the cylinder.
Check the valves in the helm and make sure the cylinder is not leaking.
You may need to service either or both the helm and cylinder to correct this problem.
Fly By Wire Steering
The next generation of boat steering is electrohydraulic systems with fly-by-wire controls.
These intuitive systems are highly efficient, long-lasting and responsive.
They do all the grunt work and eliminate the physical stress that comes with cable steering systems.
However, fly-by-wire steering systems are expensive and their installation, maintenance and repair may not be DIYable.
If you plan to get a fly-by-wire system for your boat, look out for these problems:
8. Diagnostic Warning Code
Fly by wire steering gives a diagnostic warning on the engine monitoring system when something is about to go wrong.
Unfortunately, you may not understand the real problem before things get out of hand.
If you notice any codes related to your FBW steering operation, consult your user manual immediately.
9. Delayed Response
Many FBW users complain that the system can produce erratic responses without warning.
Sometimes, an actuator might fail, a resistor can misfire and other things which are out of your control can happen.
In such situations, a fly-by-wire steering can be a liability.
10. Expensive Repairs
Fly by wire systems are reliable and durable, but they are not fail-proof.
When they fail, repairs are costly because of their complicated and advanced construction.
However, most people who switch from cable and hydraulics to digitally controlled steering never go back to the vintage technology.
5 Things To Do When Your Steering Fails
Boat steering systems rarely fail, but you can become stranded when they do.
It’s important to practice what to do when your steering fails while underway as this can save you and your boat. Here are things you can do during emergency steering failures.
1) Steer With an Emergency Tiller
If your boat has an emergency tiller, you can use it to steer the boat if you lose control of the main system.
Unfortunately, many boaters don’t know the location of the tiller or how to use it, making it useless in emergencies.
Sometimes, rust will prevent you from assembling the tiller onto the post.
Even if you can install the tiller and use it correctly, it may be difficult to control in rough conditions.
Make sure the tiller is not corroded and readily accessible.
You need to make sure the tiller is durable as it can break or split under pressure.
It’s advisable to have a spare tiller fashioned out of a sturdy material in case one fails. You want to practice steering with a tiller before you need to use it in an emergency.
2) Use the Autopilot
In many conditions, you can use a well setup autopilot to steer your boat if the steering fails.
However, there must be a common point between the autopilot and the steering system for this to work.
If your autopilot has a separate pump, it can still do.
3) Tighten the Steering Cables
You may regain steering power by tightening the steering cables.
If the cables are slack, you can use the emergency tiller to increase tension.
Check that the cable has not slipped out of the sheaves.
So long as the cable is in good condition, tightening it can help restore steering if the autopilot fails.
4) Drop Anchor
Drop the anchor if you are in shallow water. This will prevent you from drifting out while trying to figure out what to do.
5) Call for Help
When everything fails, call for help.
This makes it imperative for your radio and GPS facilities to be in good condition so you can get help when it matters most.
How to Maintain Your Steering Systems
Don’t neglect your boat steering because of its reliability. Use the following tips to fine-tune it for improved performance.
- If you use a mechanical steering system, inspect the cables for frayed wire, corrosion, and deformities.
- With a hand-glove, check the cable, particularly where it passes over sheaves. Change frayed and corroded cables.
- For best results, upgrade to high-strength ultra-flex cables.
- Make sure the cables are installed properly and clamped correctly.
- Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines regarding the number of overlaps and ensure that the cable clamp secures the wire end properly.
- Inspect the sheaves for misalignment as this can wear it quickly.
- Worn sheaves reduce tension in the cables, increasing the chances of slippage. It’s also vital to service lubrication points on sheaves.
- For hydraulic systems, the most important maintenance is to keep the fluid level and air pressure at the recommended level.
- Check for leaks if you have air in the system or the fluid level is reducing.
- Common places to check include the hydraulic hoses, jacket, ram seals, and cylinder shaft.
- Connections and fittings exposed to saltwater and friction can cause leaks.
- If your steering feels bouncy, sloppy, or unresponsive, you have air in the system which needs to be purged.
- Bleeding hydraulics takes time and may be more difficult than you expect, but follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and be patient.
- Check the hydraulic oil every three years. If it is cloudy, milky, smelly or dirty, the oil is contaminated.
- Abrasive dirt can spell doom for your hydraulic system. If the oil is contaminated, flush the system and replace the fluid.
Fly By Wire Systems
Digital steering systems rarely need any maintenance. However, adhere to the manufacturer’s instructions regarding operation.
Boat steering systems are unsung heroes in the marine world.
These systems rarely develop issues when they work perfectly but you will know when something is wrong.
If your steering feels different, something is wrong.
With regular maintenance and vigilance, you can get the best out of your boat’s steering with minimal effort.
And if the system on your vessel is outdated, upgrade to one of the many advanced hydraulic and electronic steering solutions for a seamless operation in and out of port. Most problems with your boat’s steering are DIYable but contact a professional for high-level repairs and system overhauls.
I’ve always lived on the coast and have loved boating since my dad took me sailing as a toddler. Together with my wife I’ve rebuilt two RVs in which we travel as much as we can. We’ve filmed and interviewed tiny houses and RVs since 2011. Read our personal story here.