Boat ownership has risen drastically over the last couple of years, boosted by the effects of a long pandemic, and new ways to drown the doldrums. Buyers have picked up all sorts of watercraft, though smaller vessels still make up the majority of sales. And like in any vehicle you’ll want to know how everything works. Boat steering systems may not the first thing on any skipper’s mind, but knowing your way around when something goes wrong just pays off.
There are two types of steering systems found in boats. Mechanical systems feature in smaller and older boats, often paired to outboard motors with lower output. The other type is a hydraulic system. Marine hydraulic steering is found in larger vessels. Both types are adequate for their intended purpose, but you can also upgrade your older mechanical setup with a new hydraulic system for a smoother feel at the steering wheel.
Mechanical Steering Systems
Mechanical systems use a cable that extends from the steering wheel and helm to turn the outboard motor. These setups are good for smaller boats, providing for decent handling in different conditions. There are different types of mechanical steering systems. Rack and pinion systems have a hollow bar that attaches to the steering wheel and inside there is a plate with teeth. This attaches to the cable that turns the outboard motors. On the other end, a rod from the steering wheel turns a gear that connects to the teeth in the plate. The two units work well together, and as you turn the steering wheel, and hence the helm, the cable turns the motor. Rack and pinion systems are either single or dual racks, with the latter offering better control.
Rotary systems are the other type of mechanical steering. These work in a similar way to rack and pinion systems, but consist of a cable that fits around the gear in the helm. As you turn the steering wheel, the helm turns the cable and the motor accordingly. Two types of rotary systems are sold. Larger reduction gear variants need more space in the dash so are fitted to taller boats, while types with planetary gear are suited to smaller boats with less dash space.
Hydraulic Steering Systems
Mechanical steering suffers from the effects of the cable pulling on the steering wheel, making it hard to change course. This is known as torque steer and similar effects are found in cars with overpowered engines turning the front wheels only. You have to put some effort to maintain the desired direction. Luckily boaters have other steering options. Marine hydraulic steering systems offer more precision with little required input. The steering wheel can effectively be turned by a single finger. Hydraulic systems are both simpler in how they work and much easier to maintain. They’re also better suited to boats with more powerful motors. Hydraulic systems utilise hydraulic fluid inside a hose that pushes on a cylinder to turn the motor. The fluid is activated by pumps in the helm and by acting on the steering wheel. Changes in direction are much smoother and more precise.
Benefits of Hydraulic Systems
I’ve touched upon the basic operation of hydraulic systems. They have fewer metallic parts, so maintenance is less of an issue compared to mechanical steering systems. Though do check up on things if you notice even slight changes to steering reaction. Another obvious advantage going for hydraulic systems is the level of precision they offer. Hydraulics work better at correcting typical issues with steering resulting from more power. Things like torque steer that pull the steering wheel one way or another and steering bias make it harder to turn in one direction. Both issues are common with mechanical systems that have high wear. This makes marine hydraulic steering better suited to larger boats with single outboards with over 150 bhp, where the torque is too much to handle in any mechanical setup. With prices for smaller boats now similar to mechanical systems, many boaters are going for hydraulic steering as a safer and more relaxed option.
Retrofitting Your Old Boat with Hydraulic Steering
Hydraulic steering kits contain all the parts to replace an old and worn mechanical system. You’ll find helm pumps, outboard cylinders and rams, hydraulic fluid and hoses. Be careful to match the right kit with the motor output. To retrofit your old rig, first remove all the parts of the mechanical system. Start by removing the mechanical helm and cable. Fit in the new helm and pumps, and make any necessary adjustments in the dash. Run the hose lines, making sure to avoid twisting and bending and any sharp surfaces. Connect the hydraulic hose to the cylinder ram and this to the outboard. The system may need to be bled to get decent turning circles from the wheel. If this is too much, then hire a boat mechanic to do the work.
Hydraulic kits are available for outboards ranging from 100 to 300 bhp, and in single and dual motor setups. Once you have the new system installed, take your boat for a spin. Steering will be significantly smoother and easier to control.