Sailboat Steering System Check-up

Posted by Darrell Nicholson at 08:54AM - Comments: (5)


We found this chafed Dyneema steering cable on a brand new $700K boat at the US Boat Show. As we pointed out in the November 2018 issue, Dyneema’s chafe resistance isn’t great, and is certainly worse than wire, which is traditionally used for this purpose.

We’ve addressed the importance of emergency rudders (see “The Hunt is on for a Quality, Well-placed Emergency Rudder,” PS November 2008). And we’ve looked at ways to steer the boat using a drogue should the steering fail (see “Sailing Without a Rudder,” PS June 2017).

The sensible approach, of course, is to prevent steering failure in the first place. Like rigging, sails, and hull integrity, steering is one of those essential items that needs close monitoring. Here are a few things to consider when inspecting your steering system each season, or before any long passage. Pay especially close attention to clevis pins, cotter pins, and small components that can succumb to corrosion.

  • Tiller - Stainless steel pintles and gudgeons should be checked carefully for cracks or corrosion, especially at welds.
  • Rack-and-pinion steering – Check the mounting bracket and fasteners for the pinion gear where the steering loads are carried.
  • Worm drive steering – Corrosion is the biggest enemy here. Alignment is critical for smooth operation. Any binding is cause for concern.
  • Pull-pull cable steering – The most common form of steering system is also one of the more problematic—but nearly all of the problems are due to neglect. Check cable tension regularly, before, during, and after a long passage. End fittings require close inspection. Check sheaves for corrosion, wear, and proper diameter (20 times the wire diameter).
  • Push-pull cable steering – Check for any binding or sticking, especially at the exit point from the conduit. At the sign of any trouble—cracked conduit or corroded wire, replace the entire cable. Remove the cable for inspection at least once a year.
  • Hydraulic steering – Regularly check for leaks, and proper fluid level. Look for chafe on hoses.

This is a very brief view of steering systems, and not every type is covered. For a more comprehensive look at maintenance check your owner’s manual. The topic of steering is also  covered well in Nigel Calder’s essential Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual, available in our online bookstore 

If you have a steering story or tip to share for an upcoming report, drop us a note at



Comments (5)

It appears that the wear is only to that portion of the line that rides in and out of the V grooves on the quadrant. Every time the wheel is turned, the rope must slide across the sandpaper-like surface of the casting, causing the damage you see. While Dyneema does well in end-to-end abrasion testing, this type of side-to-side rubbing across a rough surface is the very Achilles heel that we have been investigating at PS. If Dyneema is to be used for a steering cable, the quadrant must be well polished. Better yet, use a section of cable or chain.

This mirrors the documented vulnerability of Dyneema in lifeline stanchions that have burrs in the holes. In that case, the burs often resulted from the prior use of bare stainless wire, leaned on by rail meat.

We have tested Dyneema as a leaders for a secondary or kedge anchor rode. It has significant handling advantages over chain. But we always covered the Dyneema with a webbing chafe guard.

We've started using Dyneema more and more on one of our test boats for standing rigging, and the experience has generally been very positive. But you must watch for chafe and change the design if something is rubbing. If you can avoid cross-fiber rubbing, it's impressive stuff.

Posted by: Drew Frye | November 19, 2018 2:16 PM    Report this comment

I am a Canadian chartered accountant, but I would never suggest a steering system be built that way!

Posted by: barrington | November 18, 2018 7:34 AM    Report this comment

It is unconscionable that anyone would use Dyneema for a steering system. It certainly looks like an accountant was directing the choice of steering cable for the company that built the $700k sailboat!

Posted by: Winsome | November 15, 2018 7:12 PM    Report this comment

Ditto. My "new-to-me" boat's system broke at both chain-to-cable links in a gale. So, how to use the emergency steering tiller and how to replace the chain and cable were the lessons learned...

Posted by: Dave Denekas | November 15, 2018 12:36 PM    Report this comment

If you are a new owner to the boat be sure to check the steering system. As a new owner, whether to a brand new boat or new-to-you boat, your enthusiasm will be challenged in many directions and particularly if it is a bigger more complicated boat. The steering system will most likely not be number one on your list. Check it out early before getting out on the water and don't depend upon the surveyor to do it...I did and it failed.

~ ~ _/) ~ ~ MJH

Posted by: MJH | November 15, 2018 12:28 PM    Report this comment

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