Sailboat Steering System Check-up

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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 practicalsailor@belvoirpubs.com.

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on marine products for serious sailors for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising or any form of compensation from manufacturers whose products we test. Testing is carried out by a team of experts from a wide range of fields including marine electronics, marine safety, marine surveying, sailboat rigging, sailmaking, engineering, ocean sailing, sailboat racing, and sailboat construction and design. This diversity of expertise allows us to carry out in-depth, objective evaluation of virtually every product available to serious sailors. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser with more than three decades of experience as a marine writer, photographer, boat captain, and product tester. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this reminder. I have had the steering fail on my boat while underway and it was an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat.

    I’m curious how many people actually remove the entire steering cable every year. Removal on my boat is miserable, as access to the quadrant is limited; and it requires disassembling the binnacle. I do examine and lubricate the entire cable, and a run a glove along the cable to look for broken wires.

  2. Pintles and gudgeons should be bronze, not stainless steel. Sailors have tillers; those who choose another way should caucus with powerboaters.

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