Outdoors Informed is reader supported. We independently research and rate every product. When you buy through a link on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. However, our opinions and evaluations are our own. Outdoors Informed does not accept free products from manufacturers. Learn more
Most boaters can agree, owning a boat means keeping up with maintenance. One system that gets little attention is the boat steering system. As our boats age, this becomes a vital area of upkeep. Over time friction and loss of play means the series of components in this system may need replacement.
Knowing what to look for in a boat steering system is tricky since you don’t witness its operation. Due to the parts being on the inside of the steering compartment. Don’t worry, this article will help you identify which steering system is best for your needs.
For ease of reading, this article has two parts. First, there is a comparison table and in-depth reviews of eight of the best boat steering systems. Second, is buyer’s guide for how to choose a steering system for your boat.
If you want to jump to a specific product or section there is a clickable table of contents. Otherwise read the entire article to learn which marine steering system is best for you.
In 2020, my choice for the best boat steering kit is the Dometic BayStar Hydraulic Steering Kit. This is an all-in-one hydraulic steering kit for smaller outboards up to 150 horse power.
Looking to upgrade from a mechanical steering system? The BayStar kit is perfect, due to its affordable price and compact form factor. You can even use it on small runabouts and inflatables. But keep in mind this isn’t for use with high performance engines, like bass boats.
I love that it’s made in North America by the same company that makes the top of the line SeaStar products. For over 75 year this brand has been the top source for the best marine steering products. Think of SeaStar as the big brother to BayStar and in most cases overkill on smaller vessels. To further add some confusion, today the SeaStar brand has a new name, Dometic.
The specific model for this review is the HK4200A-3 which features 5 turns lock-to-lock. Likewise it has everything you need to get set up. So no need to buy extra parts, its comes with a low friction helm, compact cylinder, 20′ feet of tubing and 2 bottles of fluid.
This BayStar hydraulic kit is straight forward to install and over time I have found it easy to maintain. I appreciate that the instructions in the kit are concise & clear. If you aren’t comfortable with DIY boating, a local marine mechanic can do the install.
For those of you who do your own work, pay attention to cutting the hydraulic tubes. Make sure to de-burr any cuts you make, this is critical to keep debris out of the lines after install.
Downsides Of This Boat Steering System?
My biggest complaint with the BayStar is the tubing. I wish it came with the upgraded SeaStar Hoses but I imagine using tubes is how they keep costs lower. Do yourself a favor and switch out the tubes for some SeaStar hoses. Switching from the Baystar tubing to SeaStar hoses will make the wheel around 20% easier to turn. Plus it’s super simple upgrade because the fittings are the same size thread.
Who Picks A BayStar Hydraulic Steering Kit?
Boaters with smaller vessels running single engine outboards up to 150 HP. As well as those looking for a low cost upgrade from mechanical steering to hydraulic. Choosing BayStar ensures you get comfortable easy steering at a great price.
Own a slower vessel like a pontoon boat running single engine outboards under 115 hp? A great choice for 2020 is to check out the Uflex GoTech 1.0 Marine Steering Kit. Expect 4.5 Turns lock-to-lock with this kit.
These days most lower horsepower 4-stroke engines with 75, 90 and 115 hp are hard enough to steer. Why not upgrade to a hydraulic system? With the Uflex GoTech 1.0 your boat is much easier to steer and it will also have “zero torque” feedback. In fact, it will lockout propeller torque with its 1000 psi check valve. It’s a great solution for vessels with low horsepower/high torque like pontoon boats.
Three Decades Of USA Made Steering Systems
New to boating and haven’t heard of Uflex? They are an established leader in steering and control systems for the marine industry since 1989. Prefer to support USA made products? Rest assured, all Uflex products come from Sarasota, Florida, USA.
The kit includes the UP18 helm, UC81-OBF cylinder, 30′ feet of nylon tubing and 2 bottles of fluid. Like most cheaper systems you get tubing not hoses but you can upgrade if you like.
Uflex loyalists love the cylinder construction is for Uflex over other brands. The cylinder on the Uflex is a beast compared to what other brands offer and the fittings do look more robust. But keep in mind, there have been complaints with the cylinders showing rust issues. Especially at the bottom of the ORB fittings which need replacement after a couple of years. Although, corrosion is a maintenance factor on any steering system in marine environments.
Next, for installation the GoTech hydraulic kit is easy with great instructions. Except it does have with one caveat, as the cylinder uses a single piece support bracket. Boaters complain it can be a pain to try an fit under the engine during install. Whereas most SeaStar products come with two piece support brackets.
Why Buy The Uflex GoTech 1.0 Steering Kit?
Buy this kit if you want to upgrade from older hard steering to smooth hydraulic steering. Especially if you own a vessel with a less than 115 hp but with moderate torque. For an economic price you get a rugged little system that provides long term value.
Top Inboard Hydraulic Steering For Boats Under 32 Feet
Own a cruiser, center console or off-shore fishing boat that uses an inboard motor? If you answered yes and need to replace your steering, pick the SeaStar inboard hydraulic kit. This is a dependable steering system for both single and dual rudder vessels.
This model, the HK4420-3 is best for pleasure craft. It works for boaters with planing hulls using single engines from 26 feet to 32 feet. Or for dual engines of 32 feet to 38 feet. As well as for boats with a displacement hull equipped with single or dual engine up to 26 feet.
Moderate Top Speed & Future Proof Kit
The kit is suitable for speeds up to 60 mph and can be for dual station use. If you use a dual engine boat you will need to buy an extra helm, hose & fittings. For ease of use it allows for independent engine tilt in these dual engine situations. If using dual engines you will need to buy an extra tie bar kit with hardware. But you get a kit that works for both single and dual applications.
Another main feature is the patented steering lock valves. These lock valves won’t allow the rudder or drive unit to move until you move it with the steering wheel.
Quality Components Equal Excellent Performance
With 5 turns lock-to-lock (per cylinder) the steering is effortless with no helm fatigue. The kit come with a helm that uses the standard 3/4 inch taper shaft that fits steering wheels up to 28″.
Don’t worry about a large helm footprint as this one is only 4-7/16″ needing just a 3′ diameter dash cut out. The anodized aluminum steering cylinder with 2 axis articulation is high-quality. Which further confirms the amount of engineering that goes into SeaStar products.
Like other SeaStar systems this one comes with adjustable O-ring fittings. Which help to ease the install and allow for reorientation after if needed. To wrap up the kit, it includes 60′ 3/8″ nylon tube, bleeder kit and two bottles of HA5430 hydraulic fluid. Keep in mind, you need two people to bleed the system but it is not hard to do.
Disadvantages Of This Inboard Hydraulic Steering?
Like other hydraulic steering systems from SeaStar the big “con” is for your wallet. This kit isn’t cheap but if you are replacing like for like you don’t really have a choice. Old systems had some issues with seal leaks but the newer seals in this system should take care of this issue. Other than that I haven’t heard of any other issues other than install mistakes.
Why Choose SeaStar Inboard Hydraulic Steering?
Pick this marine inboard if you are replacing your old system and want a dependable kit. One made of top quality components from a trusted brand like SeaStar. The performance is simple and reliable which is crucial for safe, enjoyable days out on the water.
A new kid on the block for 2020, this is the Hydrodrive inboard hydraulic steering kit. This is a European made system from Techno Italia Ltd out of Hungary. The system is good for boats under 33 feet, it delivers 4.5 turns lock-to-lock for up to speeds of 40 mph. As a bonus it has the extra port for future install of an Autopilot.
Not much information is available about this system in the USA. I am including it for people looking for new solutions, not from the bigger steering brands.
Hand-Crafted Boat Steering
Luigi Gobbo, founder of Techno Italia, has 20 of experience in the aircraft industry. The brand seems to have been around at least 7 years. The company hand-crafts hydraulic steering system for outboard, inboard and racing boats.
At first look I’m impressed by the pump house for this steering system. Made of a hardened, hot-pressed aluminum base material, not die-cast aluminum. Inside the pump features 3 ball bearings which should ensure smooth, reliable function.
The cylinder for the system does appear to be robust. The company states it’s comprised of aircraft standard cold drawn, hardened aluminum. For corrosion resistance the entire kit has the surfaces anodized. The kit comes equipped with twin-tubes that withstand up to 1000 psi. Plus custom-made stainless steel and nickel-plated couplings. Apparently, the fittings are universal, so you can connect any type of outboards. Although I am skeptical of this promise.
Disadvantages of Hydrodrive?
The disadvantage of this system is its newness. There is almost no information about it stateside which means it’s a risky buy. But if the brand delivers on its promise it might rival all the North American inboard systems.
Verdict: Hydrodrive Inboard Steering System
Since I didn’t test this I won’t put a full stamp of approval. This is a solution for buyers looking for a new inexpensive solution for mid speed vessels. Time will tell if the reliability matches the visual build quality. Buy this if you are comfortable with the risk of the relative unknown.
Best Rotary Steering Kit For Outboards Under 50 HP
In 2020, the top rotary steering system is the SeaStar Safe-T Quick Connect. It’s best for single engine small boats up to around 24 feet in length with steering wheels up to 16″ diameter. Particularly for boats with power steering assist, inboards and outboards under 50 hp w/o NFB. Featuring a quick-response of 3 turns lock-to-lock.
Confused about the amount of “Safe-T” rotary systems available from SeaStar? Below is a simple breakdown:
Safe-T Quick Connect: which is 3 turns lock-to-lock without No Feedback (NFB).
The Safe-T II: 3 turns lock-to-lock but with a No Feedback (NFB) clutch added.
Safe-T 4.2: which also has the NFB clutch but geared down to 4.2 turns lock-to-lock.
Xtreme NFB: uses a special low friction cable with helm and 5 turns lock-to-lock.
This review focuses on the Safe-T QC version, so 3 turns lock-to-lock. It’s the kit for direct replacements of Safe-T helms made since 1968. Keep in mind that you will need to use either the SSC62 QC or SSC61 QC II steering cable dependent on the vessel. With a compact helm and high-quality cable you get stress-free and dependable performance. For peace of mind it comes with a two-year warranty.
Installation Is Simple
This steering systems claim to fame is its super easy install. You won’t need any special tools to connect the cable to the helm. The kit has stainless-steel cable ends that use a simple snap-in cable connection. In turn, installation time is around half of other brands steering kits.
While the design makes this kit near fool-proof, the instructions need a re-write. This is the one disadvantage of this marine steering system. Otherwise I can’t find any issues to deter you from buying this system, unless you want a No Feedback clutch. If that’s the case get the Safe-T II system.
Why Pick The Safe-T Quick Connect Steering Kit?
Pick this boat steering kit if you need an OEM replacement. It’s the top system for single engine small boats up to 24 feet in length with steering wheels up to 16″ diameter. You’ll love the ultra quick 3 turns lock-to-lock and the simple tool-free installation.
Inexpensive Rotary Steering System For Small Boats
For 2020, my second choice for rotary boat steering kits is the Uflex RoTech15. This is a decent steering system for non power-assisted V-4 and under single outboards up to 50 mph. The system delivers 3.8 turns lock-to-lock and is the cheapest rotary kit to buy.
Featuring the T71FC helm with a planetary gear design. Inside the helm are three gears unlike the SeaStar that only uses two. This kit reduces steering effort and delivers more balanced steer wheel pressure. By using a wider wear area from the gears it can reduce lost motion while improving gear durability. Centered on the main drive shaft, this helm needs the least amount of room under the dash.
The cable included is the M66 universal model with stainless steel output fittings. These have a great history of being able to function even if there are many bends from helm to engine.
Easy To Install
The Uflex Rotech15 is easy install with good instructions, unlike its main competitor. The compact helm fits under the most cramped dashes and the cable is a simple threaded design.
Disadvantage Of Uflex Planetary Gears
The big disadvantage of this Steering kit from Uflex is the “slop.” These planetary gears create more backlash. Called “slop” which means more wheel play (more turns lock-to-lock) than reduction gears. If turns aren’t an issue for you, then this kits is near free of disadvantages.
Verdict: Uflex ROTECH15
Pick this boat steering kit if you want a cheap and dependable steering kit. It’s best for vessels with non power-assisted V-4 and under single outboards up to 50 mph. Wondering about horsepower ratings? Uflex states it fits any outboard engine but is dependent on your boats max hp rating.
Looking for a rack steering system for your boat in 2020? Check out the SeaStar back-mounted rack kit. It’s my pick for best rack and pinion steering system under $200. Best used for power-assisted stern drives. You can also use it with most inboard and outboard boats with steering wheels up to 16 inches in diameter. Featuring 4 turns lock-to-lock and the price is outstanding for the quality.
This kit replaces all 1984 to today SeaStar rack steering without dash modification. Bare in mind, you will need either the SSC134XX Back Mount Rack cable or the Xtreme SSC154XX cable. It’s also a drop in replacement for the Morse® command 200 rack system. For boaters who prefer a No-Feedback (NFB) SeaStar even has a NFB rack version available. This kit doesn’t have a NFB though.
All Inclusive Kit
No need to buy single parts as this kit includes the helm, 90° bezel and hardware. For cable is includes a polyethylene hose with stainless steel connectors. For safety, it meets both the A.B.Y.C. standards and N.M.M.A. certification requirements.
If your boat already uses a rack system and you want a direct high quality replacement but this kit. The SeaStar rack back-mounted steering kit is easy to assemble with clear instructions. It works perfect and delivers finger-tip steering at an amazing price.
What Is A Boat Steering System?
A steering system is a series of internal parts that engage the motor to turn the rudder as you turn the wheel. Most boats use either a mechanical or hydraulic steering system.
In general, the steering system you touch consists of the steering wheel, which is part of the helm. This helm connects to an internal mechanical or hydraulic system which tells the motor which direction to turn the boat. These internal systems function either by using push-pull movements via cables and gears. Or by pumping fluids back and forth from a helm and cylinder to move the boats rudder.
Boats with outboard motors steer using a wheel which rotates an entire drive unit. Vessels with inboards use internal systems to turn rudders or an attached propeller. Whereas personal watercraft like jet skis use jet drives with an impeller to turn.
Selecting the right steering system is crucial for the safety and function of your boat. The main factors that influence which system you should use are as follows:
Size of the boat and hull type
Type and size of motor
Amount of engine power and top vessel speed
Since these systems are prone to damage overtime, it’s important to provide regular maintenance to ensure user and vessel safety.
Types Of Marine Steering Systems:
In boating, there are two categories of steering systems with each having two sub types. Either mechanical (rotary or rack and pinion) or hydraulic (manual or power-assisted).
Each steering type has different advantages which cater to a variety of boat and engine uses. The most notable difference between each is the shape of the component behind the helm. Below is a basic explanation of each type of steering system.
This steering type uses cables and gears to achieve safe handling performance. It’s best for small boats up to 35 feet with motors under 150 horsepower. Consisting of a wheel, the helm (rotary or rack and pinion), steering cables, plus the connection kit. Plus the hardware to connect the system to an outboard or inboard motor.
It operates by push-pull cables connected the steering wheel and helm at the front of the boat to the motor. The most important component to understand and choose is the helm.
A helm is the mechanism behind the steering wheel under instrument panel. It converts the wheel’s rotational motion into a push-pull motion on the cables. Which transfers motion to move the propeller or rudder right , left or amidships.
1. Rotary Helms:
Rotary steering helms have a circular shaped casing behind the dash panel. Inside the casing is a round gear which the steering cables feed around. The cable moves as you turn the steering wheel.
Rotary helms can use two types of inner gearing. Each type has different applications, strengths and weaknesses.
Reduction Gear: One or two gears that mesh with the steering drum to move the steering cable. The location of the steering shaft is outside the cable drum. It’s the original rotary design (including the Big-T and Safe-T helms). The advantage of this type is its simplicity create great strength and efficiency. The drawback of this type is its large dimensions, as it often won’t fit in a smaller, crowded dashboard.
Planetary Gear: Three or more gears which mesh with the steering drum to move the cable. For this type, the steering shaft is inside the cable drum. The advantage is the smaller size that fits in crowded dashboards. Drawbacks include it has many wear points and more backlash. Called “free play” or slop, it means more wheel play than the reduction gear type.
In real world situations, rotary helms deliver for a more resistant steering experience. Which provides the driver more control of the boat at all times.
2.Rack And Pinion Helms:
A rack and pinion system takes on a long rectangular shape behind the helm. The helm uses a pinion gear attached onto the steering shaft and engages a rack gear in a tubular housing. Most boaters agree that rack and pinion steering is easier to control. The entire system uses fewer components making it more straightforward and efficient.
This system converts the turns of the steering wheel into a linear motion. As a result, the steering wheel is much easier to turn, think of it as the power steering of the boating world.
Rack and Pinion steering systems are more precise than rotary cable systems. This is due to them using a gear on gear system, whereas a rotary utilizes a gear on cable. Rotary systems are prone to leave slop in the steering.
The setback of a rack helm is its wider and isn’t suitable for many dashboards. Although they are great for boats with low dash panels. Such as one that wouldn’t have enough vertical clearance for a rotary helm.
3. Hydraulic steering system:
Hydraulic steering, has a round shape behind the helm that is accessible. This type of system is for boats with single motors ranging from below 150 up to 350 horse power. Plus some hydraulic systems can handle dual motors of 300 to 700 horsepower.
Due to how strong and durable the system is. Hydraulic steering can be manual or power-assisted. The system functions by using a pump to push and pull fluids via hoses to move a cylinder rod to steer the boat. Below are the two main parts in this type of system.
Hydraulic Helm: contains a hydraulic pump and valves. As you turn the wheel clock-wise, the pump turns on and a swash plate presses on small piston pumps. This forces hydraulic fluid from the helm into the starboard side hose.
Cylinder: A bored cylinder with a ram or rod inside which moves when pumped in fluid enters the cylinder. The rod will extend or retract dependent on direction of wheel turn. Which moves the propeller or rudder.
For ease of identification this type uses color coded lightweight hydraulic hoses. One that’s red for the port (left) side of the boat and green for the starboard (right) side of the boat.
The big bonus of a hydraulic system is it has fewer metal parts than a mechanical system, so it’s more corrosion resistant. Plus it can deal with all torque conditions and needs around a fingertips worth of effort to steer. The main disadvantage of this system is the cost and that liquids are prone to leakage if not maintained.
You can see that each boating application dictates which type of system you’ll choose in the end.
Other Things To Consider:
Before I get into the reviews, let’s take a look at some of the other considerations to keep in mind. Doing this will help you get the most value for your money.
Replace With The Same Steering System As Before
It’s best to replace the steering system in a boat with the same type of system that it had before. Such as rotary with rotary, rack with rack, and hydraulic with hydraulic. This means a simple re-installation process and ensures the boat continues to handle as it should.
A tip for identifying your system is to look for the type of cable from marking on the jacket. Or look at the helm for the lettering on its cast/molded body.
One instance where it becomes acceptable to change types is if you want to make upgrades. This can improve performance for better response or lower steering effort. Upgrading to No Feedback (NFB), power-assisted mechanical or hydraulic steering results in big improvements. Although retrofits create fitment challenges, so weigh both performance and cost into this decision.
Many boaters are eating the initial high costs because upgrading these systems deliver better performance.
What Is No FeedBack (NFB) or Zero Torque?
No FeedBack, which some brands (Uflex) call “Zero Torque”, isolates the user from the motor’s torque.
With old steering systems, the engine tends to turn to the right, which the user has to compensates for. One does this by keeping constant pressure on the left side of the steering wheel.
These older systems would allow the boat to turn rapidly to the right if the user lost their grip on the wheel. This resulted in dangerous, tight turns and occupant safety hazards.
To lessen fatigue and the danger of grip loss NFB helms use a clutch mechanism. This clutch engages if you take your hand off the wheel and keeps the boat on course. The only time a user would feel engine torque is if they turn the wheel.
Most boaters today know that there are no disadvantages to the NFB systems, other than a modest additional cost over non NFB systems. Keep in mind though, NFB won’t operate with PowerAssist or autopilots.
Steering Cable Length Is Crucial
Before buying, it’s vital that you know the exact number of feet of cable for your boat steering. If you don’t, expect headaches while you attempt to replace the system. No one likes buying parts twice.
Likewise, if you choose to buy parts on their own, make sure you have the correct cable for the helm. Many unsuccessful installs are due to incompatible cables and helms.
Another consideration for mechanical cable systems are how many cables are best for your application. Remember types of systems rely on the push and pull of steering cables. On thing that happens with all cables is some backlash or loss of motion. This is fine for slower vessels but high performance boats (over 50 mph) won’t tolerate this amount of play.
For fast boats like jet or bass boats, it’s best to use dual cable mechanical systems. These allow you to stop backlash by adjusting one of both cables. Resulting in less engine flutter and unbalanced handling.
Number Of Turns: Lock-to-Lock
The certain number of turns “lock to lock” for a helm indicates the mechanical advantage of the helm. In lay mans terms, it’s the number of steering wheel rotations needed to fully extend the cable from a retracted state.
This number of turns from full lock-to-lock relates to the ease of steering. In general, the more number of turns lock-to-lock means the easier the boat will be to steer with less pressure on the helm. The opposite is true for less turns as this adds more helm pressure to offset motor torque.
Because of the variety of applications and handling characteristics of boats, lock to lock is a matter of personal preference. Keep in mind it isn’t recommended to have less than 4 turns lock to lock on high performance boats.
Pay special attention as you install your steering cables, the most direct route possible is best. Make as few obstructions as possible between the wheel, cable and helm. During install, try to keep the number of bends in the cable to a minimum. Tight bends reduce the lifespan of the cable and make operation stiff. In general, a radius of 8” or more is preferable.
Complete Regular Maintenance
Most maintenance within your mechanical steering system is the steering cables. I suggest you do this periodic maintenance three times a season. First clean and lubricate the engine tilt tube or cable support tube. Second, do the same for the steering cable telescopic output ram. The process is as follows:
Pull out the steering cable from the tilt tube.
Clean the tilt tube inside diameter as much as possible.
For best results, use a wire brush to remove corrosion inside the tilt tube. Make sure to wipe out all loose material.
Lubricate the clean tilt tube with a water-resistant grease.
Next uses a brass wire brush to scour the steering cable telescopic output ram. Continue to wipe until clean.
Once clean, re-lubricate the moving parts of the telescopic ram with a quality water-resistant grease.
Reassemble the ram, make sure to tighten all fasteners. There should be no binding or excessive free play in any of the moving parts.
Hydraulic Steering Maintenance
Do this proactive maintenance for the hydraulic steering system at least two times a year. I also suggest that you give the steering system a quick look over every time you hit the water.
Helm Fluid Level Checks:
First look at the helm(s) for any oil around seals and hose connections.
Next, check the fluid level in the highest helm pump. For front mount helms, it should be 1/8”-1/4” below the bottom of the hole. In rear and tilt mount helms, it needs to be 1” from top of the remote fill. If fluid levels are a little low, top it off with hydraulic fluid. Keep in mind, low fluid could mean there’s a leak. It’s worth checking out the rest of the system before you top it up.
Steering Wheel Turn Test:
After you’ve checked the levels, replace the cap in the helm pump. Next, turn the wheel from side to side, is there an immediate response from the engine or drive unit? If there’s a noticeable lag or a spongy feel when you turn the wheel, you’ve got a problem. Re-check for leaks and fix as needed. Be sure you run a turn test on all the steering wheels on your boat. Including systems with autopilot.
Steering Cable Check:
Passing the last two checks, move on to all the cable hoses and fittings. Look for any wear, kinks and/or leaks. Ensure there aren’t any hoses rubbing against a bulkhead which can create weak spots. Another maintenance area to check are fittings, if they are loose little leaks can start. Re-tighten all fittings through the system, by catching these issues early makes for simple and cheap fixes.
Inspect The Ram Shaft:
The final area to inspect is the steering tube, support rod and ram shaft. Look at the exposed areas of each and ensure smooth movement as the motor pivots from side to side. Take a close look at all the seals and wipers. Pay special attention if any bends, nicks or damage is apparent on the steering ram shaft. If you fine any repair it as soon as possible.
As of now you all the information to pick the best boat steering system for your application. Remember to follow the buyers guide to prevent purchase mistakes. By picking one of the steering kits reviewed in this article, you will ensure smooth and dependable steering for years to come.
As always, thanks for letting Outdoors Informed help with your research. Doing so, lets you spend less time indoors and more time enjoying the water.