We’ve addressed the importance of emergency tillers (see The Hunt is on for a Quality, Well-placed Emergency Tiller, 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). And most recently, we’ve taken a broad look at the pros, cons and maintenance quirks of various types of steering systems (see Steady at the Helm, March 2020).
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. And like all mechanical systems on the boat, it needs periodic maintenance. Here are a few things to consider when inspecting your steering system at the start of each season, or before any long passage. Pay especially close attention to clevis pins, cotter pins, and small components that can succumb to corrosion. These inexpensive parts have a habit of failing when the stakes are high, and neglecting them could land you in the “consequential damage” insurance loophole, which we elaborated upon in a follow-up report insuring old boats.
- 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).
- 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 www.practical-sailor.com/books. If you have a steering story or tip to share for an upcoming report, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.