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.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. 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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