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 (10.67 m) 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:
Let’s take a look at some 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 compensate 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 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 fewer 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 having 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 find any, repair it as soon as possible.
In Conclusion: Best Boat Steering System
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.