Typical Boat Steering Problems (And How To Fix Them)

A quick inspection of your steering system can spot a problem before it leaves you stranded.

If you are underway and notice a problem, it is best to return to a safe port or dock if possible. If you have a complete steering failure, then you will have to use your judgment.

If you do not have a redundant steering system or the parts and tools to fix the problem, you should anchor if possible and call for assistance.

Each steering system has unique problems and solutions. You should become familiar with your steering system and know how to diagnose common issues. You will need tools that fit your particular components, so plan and make sure you have them available.

Always have an emergency plan should the need arise and carry communications equipment to contact help if needed.

In this article, we look at common problems of mechanical, hydraulic, and steer-by-wire steering systems:

Mechanical Steering

Mechanical systems include the rotary and rack and pinion steering systems found in smaller boats, especially outboard-powered vessels.

They use a cable or cables that extend or retract when you turn the wheel. When the cable extends, it will push the motor in one direction. When it retracts, it pulls the motor in the opposite direction.

The cable moves inside an outer flexible sleeve that protects the cable and the boat from damage.

The difference between the rotary and the rack and pinion systems lies in how they cause the cable to extend and retract.

Rotary Systems:

Rotary models have an internal gear that moves the cable directly, while rack and pinion systems use gears to move a “rack” back and forth moving the cable.

Rotary systems have a smaller machine and will fit more easily in tighter spaces. Rack and pinion systems offer more precise control and less slack.

Both systems need to be maintained routinely and have similar points of failure.

Cables for rotary systems have one end that is flexible and textured so that the teeth of the rotary gear connected to the steering wheel will grab it to move the cable back and forth.

Rack & Pinion Cable Systems:

For rack and pinion cables, one end will have a slim box that contains the rack.

The rack has teeth that fit the gear on the end of the steering wheel shaft. When the wheel is turned, the rack moves, moving the cable.

The motor end of both cable types is the same. This end of the cable will have a metal end cap on the plastic outer sleeve with a nut that attaches to the tilt tube.

There is also a metal inner sleeve covering this end of the cable with a hole to attach the cable to the steering arm on the motor.  The tilt tube is a metal tube through which the inner metal cable sleeve is routed.

The tilt tube fixes the cable’s end in place and allows for adjustment to fine-tune the steering system.

Problems With Mechanical Steering Systems

If well maintained, your mechanical steering system can last for the life of the boat.

Common problems are easily diagnosed and can usually be fixed yourself if you have average mechanical skills.

When in doubt, seek professional assistance.

To diagnose problems with mechanical steering, you must first isolate each component.

1. Start at the Steering Arm

Start by disconnecting the steering arm from the cable’s motor/rudder end and turn the steering wheel.

If the cable now moves freely, you have an issue with the motor, stern drive unit, or rudder.

If the cable does not move at all, but the steering wheel freely moves, then the problem is most likely at the helm.

2. Engine, Stern Drive, or Rudder Issues

If disconnecting the steering arm fixes the issue, then your engine, stern drive unit, or rudder are having trouble moving freely. Each of these usually requires grease to function properly.

They should all be inspected and greased at least annually to prevent issues.

First, find the grease fitting and add a little grease to see if this will fix it. Be careful not to add too much, or you can blow out the seals, depending on the type.

If adding grease doesn’t fix the issue, it is time for the boat to come out of the water for inspection and repair. If you are on the water, it is time to call for help.

3. Check for Tilt Tube Problems

If the steering problem is still present, then inspect the tilt tube. Your tilt tube should be cleaned and lubricated with white marine grease once a year for fresh water and twice a year in saltwater.

If the boat has sat and the grease is allowed to harden or corrosion allowed to build up, the cable end will not move freely through the tube.

This can be a nightmare to disassemble and repair. You may need special equipment like a torch or a push rod to get the cable end out of the tilt tube.

Start by unscrewing the nut that connects the outer sleeve to the tilt tube and carefully remove the cable end in its metal sleeve(if possible).

If the cable end is impossibly stuck in the tilt tube, it is time to phone a friend and seek professional help.

If the cable end comes out of the tilt tube and this fixes the problem, then clean the tilt tube, lubricate the cable end with marine grease, and reassemble the steering.

4. Move to the Helm

If the problem persists, then move to the helm. Disconnect the rack or remove the cable end from the rotary gear.

If the steering was stiff or sluggish before, but now the wheel moves freely, then you need to take a closer look at your cable.

5. Cable Problems

Trace the length of the cable to ensure it is not bound anywhere.

The maximum bend allowed for most cables is an eight-inch radius. If you find an area with too sharp of a bend, then readjust the cable accordingly.

If the cable is routed properly and nothing is impinging it, you will need a new cable.

If you disconnect the cable from the helm and the problem is still there, you have a problem with the helm.

6. Helm Problems Rack and pinion

If the steering wheel moves freely, but the cable’s motor end does not move, then look for a stripped gear at the helm.

There will either be a bare spot in the rack or a stripped gear on the steering shaft. If there is a bare spot on the rack, you will need a new cable.

If it is on the steering wheel shaft, replace the gear.

7. Helm Problems Rotary

Suppose you identify the helm as the problem on a rotary system starts by inspecting the cable’s helm end. It should resemble a spring with a cable running through the center.

If it is smooth all around or on one side, then you’ll need a new cable.  If the cable end looks good, then you’ll have to replace the rotary mechanism.

Hydraulic Steering

Hydraulic steering uses a column of incompressible fluid to move a steering arm instead of cables. These are the boating equivalent of power steering and allow for easy, precise control.

Hydraulic systems are found on many ocean-going boats and are becoming a more popular upgrade for smaller boats.

These systems have hoses instead of cables that go from the helm to the motor or steering linkage. The hydraulic helm is a pump that moves the hydraulic fluid in the direction you turn the wheel. The fluid moves a single or double-sided hydraulic piston, which turns the motor or rudder.

These systems allow for multiple helms, making it possible to steer from different locations.

They are also easier to steer and can easily handle larger motors and rudder systems. You can also outfit them with autopilot systems linked to GPS and programmed to stay on course.

Let’s take a closer look at some problems you can encounter with hydraulic systems. Besides component failure, hydraulic steering problems arise from leaks, low fluid levels, and/or air in the line.

As with all steering systems, pre-operations checks are crucial to detect problems before getting underway.

Problems with Hydraulic Steering

1. Leaks

To find leaks, you must know your boat. You will need access behind the helm or helms, the lazaret(if equipped), and the transom or engine compartment.

Inspect all of these areas for the hydraulic fluid on the deck.

If you detect a leak, then you can troubleshoot the cause and fix the problem. Common leaks occur where the hoses attach to various components. In smaller vessels, this is usually just the helm and the steering cylinder.

Larger vessels can connect to reservoir tanks, autopilot pumps, additional helms, and any other installed hydraulic equipment.

Larger vessels can also have multiple steering cylinders. It is important to know how your boat is set up so you can effectively troubleshoot problems and find any pesky leaks. The steering cylinder(s) can also leak from the seals on the end caps where the cylinder rod emerges.

It is important to inspect the cylinder rod routinely for nicks and dings.

Nicks can damage the seals and cause leaks. If the nicks are small, they can be sanded down with extra fine (400 grit) sandpaper.

2. Low Fluid Levels

Leaks lead to low fluid levels, which leads to steering issues. You should check your hydraulic fluid level before heading out.

This is normally done at the helm. The hydraulic helm should have a removable bolt or screw at the top. This is where you can check fluid levels and add fluid if needed.

Always add fluid in stages, turning the wheel from lock to lock several times in between.

This will help bleed air and distribute fluid through the system. Larger vessels may have a separate reservoir for hydraulic fluid. If your boat is equipped, this is where you will check/add fluid if needed.

3. Air in the lines

The air in the lines is the bane of existence for hydraulic systems. For a hydraulic system to work properly, the fluid in the lines must be incompressible.

Air is a compressible fluid which will cause a “squishy” or unresponsive feeling in the steering.

Air must be “bled” from the system. This requires some inexpensive but specialized equipment.

You will need multiple hoses(clear if possible), fittings to attach the hoses to the helm and cylinder, two reservoirs to supply and catch hydraulic fluid, and patience, lots and lots of patience.

Set this up by first running a hose from a container filled with hydraulic fluid(this can be the hydraulic fluid bottle came in) to the reservoir at the helm.

If you have multiple helms, you want to be at the higher one.

Make sure to run hydraulic fluid through the hose first. Attach a second hose from the steering cylinder fitting to another container to catch the overflow. If your boat is small enough, you can use one container for the ends of both hoses. Make sure the container has enough extra room for overflow.

Turn the wheel back and forth from lock to lock. You want to start in the correct direction so that fluid is forced out of the steering cylinder. Keep moving the steering wheel from lock to lock and observing the hoses.

If there is air, you will see bubbles coming through the hoses. You also want to watch for debris in the fluid.

Once you are satisfied that all the air is out of the system, reverse the process and place the system back into operation.

4. Contamination

Contamination in the hydraulic fluid can wreak havoc on the system components.

If components have failed and/or need to be replaced, then take the opportunity to bleed the lines and check for contamination or replace the fluid altogether.

If multiple components have failed, then contamination is usually the culprit.

Steer by Wire (aka Fly by Wire)

Steer by wire systems are modifications of aviation fly by wire technology.

These eliminate the need for cables and hoses. Electronic components, whether wired or wireless, control the steering.

When you turn the wheel, an electronic signal is sent from the helm to a control unit, usually attached to a hydraulic steering system, which turns the motor or rudder.

Electronic systems are the latest and offer the ultimate in modern performance. The hydraulic components suffer the same problems as regular hydraulic systems. However, electronic components suffer different issues, and they only work when there is electrical power.

This is normally not a problem, but prudence dictates having a redundant steering system like an emergency tiller or kicker motor if you plan to be a long way from civilization.

Otherwise, these systems are highly reliable, and a screen will flash an error code telling you if there is a problem. In the future, most, if not all, boats will have this technology.

With a system like this, you can use an app on your phone to monitor your boat’s crucial systems.

Electronics will also be used for all other boat controls like the throttle and, of course, the autopilot. You will need to inspect the traditional system components before getting underway to reduce the likelihood of a problem.

Steer by wire systems can be expensive to repair or replace the electronic components, but this will change as they become more mainstream.

Things To Do When Your Steering Fails:

A complete steering failure can be a true emergency. Being prepared is key should this happen to you.

Remember to have an emergency plan and equipment to include communications gear to call for help.

1. Make the situation safe

Try to move out of high traffic areas if possible and anchor or tie off to a structure or even another boat.

Once you and your passengers are safe, begin to assess the situation.

2. Assess the problem

Use your knowledge to assess why your steering failed and determine if you can fix the problem.

3. Call/ask for Assistance

When possible, ask a fellow boater to tow you in or call the authorities for assistance.

Some areas have towing services that will help for a fee.

This isn’t always possible, so you must have a contingency plan.

4. Use an alternate steering method

If equipped, use an emergency tiller or kicker motor to make your way back to civilization.

If you plan to be in remote areas, make sure you have a primary, alternate, contingency, and emergency plan to return safely.

If you have a small boat and are in freshwater or near shore, you can paddle to safety. A paddle is a crucial piece of safety equipment in these situations, and you can use it as a rudder if you’re strong enough.

If you are venturing into remote areas or the high seas, make sure you have parts and tools to repair your steering on board.

Final Thoughts:

Steering problems can crop up at any time. It is crucial to be prepared should your steering fail.

Know your boat, maintain it properly, and have a plan for emergencies and you can expect many happy days on the water.

As always, have pleasant travels, calm winds, and fair seas.

Be safe and watch out for your fellow boaters!

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