Rhumb Lines December 2018 Issue

Steering Equipment Inspection

They were off the coast of Bequia in the Grenadines, near the end of a breezy passage on a 34-foot cruising sloop. Just as the boat reached past a rocky point, trouble struck. The steering wheel suddenly turned freely in the skipper’s hand.

Dyneema steering cable
Photo by Darrell Nicholson

We found this chafed Dyneema steering cable on a brand new $700K boat at the US Boat Show. It appears that play in the cable has allowed it to rub against the bulkhead. 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.

The skipper dashed below to check. The steering cable had parted. He returned on deck, rummaged through the lazarette and found the emergency tiller, but couldn’t get it to fit. A beam sea pushed the boat toward the shore. The keel bounced along the bottom. A wave hurled the boat onto the rocks.

Leaping one at a time from the boat to shore, the skipper and three crew were able to escape. The boat, wedged between two rocks with its hull cracked, would probably never sail again.

Months later, one of the crew members who had tried to help as the skipper frantically worked to fix the steering told me, “It was plain that cable hadn’t been checked in a while.”

We’ve addressed the importance of emergency rudders (see “The Hunt is on for a 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. For a more comprehensive look at maintenance check your owner’s manual. Nigel Calder’s essential Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual also covers the topic as well. If you buy it from www.practical-sailor.com/books it helps support our testing.

If you have a steering story to share for an upcoming report, drop us a note at practicalsailor@belvoirpubs.com.

Comments (6)

Why didn't the crew of this boat think about dropping an anchor to keep from drifting onto the rocks?

Posted by: sherwin | December 8, 2019 10:31 PM    Report this comment

Under cockpit autohelm motors drive the quadrant directly and the control unit can be used to steer the boat should the cables or any of its components fail. This may not be precise enough for pulling into a slip, but should be adequate for pulling close to an outside dock.

Posted by: Norris Larson | November 30, 2019 4:18 PM    Report this comment

Experienced blue water sailors know that steering failures are a matter of "when". Not "if".
Occur especially when subjected to shock loading or heavy strains on the rudder. Good practice to install a very quickly installed robust emergency tiller than can be operated from the cockpit deck winches. Not just having a short tiller. Remember that repairing a broken steering component while underway in seas is not only challenging but oft not really possible.

The 3 typically failure components are: (1) wire/stages; (2) chain links and (3) steering shelves. Wire ought be replaced say once every 5 or 10 years because its likely to failure owing to the small radii of the sheering sheaves. Well made chain if adequately spaced and lubricated is long lasting. Sheave components made of poor quality metals fail more often than realized. We've never known of any sheave/component failures made by Edson.
Offshore made components in our view are suspect.

It's good practice to learn how to steer the boat w/o a rudder in light airs. As well as spending a full day steering with an emergency rudder. Few boats are designed/built that allow easy repair of damaged steering components while underway. Ditto when it comes to complete emergency steering tiller arrangements.

Finally, give a thought to dropping the rudder assembly and inspecting the rudder post bearings. Years and years ago that was common practice especially for offshore racing. And it always helps to have onboard the specs for a new rudder. Sooner or later they need replacement. Steering/rudders need far more attention than they commonly receive. Especially with heavier loads on more modern designs.

Posted by: Piberman | November 30, 2019 11:48 AM    Report this comment

Awesome post, Darrell. As you clearly state, prevention is the key. Corrosion can cause big problems down the road. Steering gear, like thru-hulls and seacocks, are often out of sight, so it's easy to forget. Both deserve to be on a pre-sail and post-sail inspection checklist.

Posted by: Lakota44 | November 30, 2019 10:13 AM    Report this comment

Very Nice

Posted by: rajender | December 31, 2018 1:30 AM    Report this comment

Very Nice

Posted by: rajender | December 31, 2018 1:28 AM    Report this comment

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