Types Of Boat Steering Systems

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Design and appearance is not the only thing you should take into consideration when selecting your boat. An important component that you should also take time to think about is the steering system for your boat. With a wide variety to choose from, it can be difficult to choose which system to go for. This article looks at several of the most common types of boat steering systems and covers the basics of each.

With this post, you’ll learn what the different boat steering systems are, how they work, and the advantages of each of the steering systems. 


Types of Boat Steering Systems

Boat steering systems are responsible for directing the boat to go in a specific direction. The steering wheel is essentially part of the helm, that is connected to either a mechanical, hydraulic or electrical system. In some boats, the steering wheel may be absent but a toggle takes its place.

Steering systems are made up of the steering wheel, helm, steering cable, and cable connections that will like the steering wheel to the engine. Of all these parts, the helm is the most important part as it is responsible for converting the movement of the wheel into a push or pull motion that then moves the propeller left or right. 

Hydraulic VS Mechanical Steering Systems

Boat steering systems can be divided into two major groups. The hydraulic steering systems and the mechanical steering systems. Hydraulic systems are better recommended for larger or faster boats. It is also the most expensive.

Hydraulic Steering Systems

In hydraulic steering systems, a hydraulic hose is used. This is lightweight and feels smoother while turning the steering wheel when it is the system fitted in the boat. What’s great about hydraulic systems is its capacity to deal with varied torque conditions. It also has fewer metal parts, which makes it less prone to corrosion. 

This hydraulic system by Baystar is a good example of the design.

Dometic SeaStar Baystar Hydraulic Steering Kit, HK4200A-3
  • Gives 5 wheel turns lock-to-lock when...
  • Kit Includes: (1) BayStar helm pump...
  • Also includes (1) BayStar tubing kit...
  • 150 Horse power
  • Dn not use BayStar on smaller HP...

Mechanical Steering Systems

Mechanical steering systems, on the other hand, are more basic. They are also known as manual, or non-power steering. They are suitable for smaller boats which can reach up to 10 meters in length. The mechanical system includes a push-pull cable that is attached to the steering wheel, helm and motor.

This system by Dometic is a good example of a mechanical steering system.

Rack Vs Rotary System

Under the mechanical boat steering systems, you can find the rack and rotary steering system.

Rack Systems

Rack steering systems are the simplest to install on boats and are also the most affordable. With a rack steering system, the rotational movement of the steering wheel is converted into linear motion. This makes the boat quite easy to steer in the direction of your choice. 

Here’s an example of a rack system by SeaStar.

Dometic Seastar SS14116 Back Mount Rack Steering System, 16 feet
  • Precise, easy four turns lock-to-lock
  • Kits include cable, helm, 90° bezel and hardware
  • Standard 3/4" round tapered steering shaft
  • Stainless steel cable output ends

Rotary Systems

On the other hand, rotary steering systems use gear or wheels where the steering cables go through before it goes through the helms. It provides more resistance when steering but also gives the driver better control over the boat at all times. 

This rotary system by RER is an example of a rotary system.

R RUR Boat Steering System, Outboard Rotary Steering Kit with 16ft Boat Steering Cable and 13.5-Inch Stainless Steering Wheel for Boat
  • 【High-Performance Rotary Steering System】The...
  • 【High Quality Material】The outboard rotary...
  • 【Easy To Install】Simple snap-in cables connect...
  • 【Easy Operation】This rudder system is designed...
  • 【Wide Application】This outboard steering kit...

Which Boat Steering System Should Be Used?

When choosing a steering system for your boat there are a few things you should consider such as the following:

Boat Size

The first one to consider is the boat size. If your boat is of a larger size, more than 10 meters long, then it is best to get a hydraulic steering system. Hydraulic steering systems make it easier to turn larger boats with higher torque as compared to mechanical steering systems.

Smaller boats, those which are less than 10 meters, can use the mechanical steering system.

Party on Boat

Speed Application

Another factor to consider when choosing among the boat steering systems is the speed application or horsepower of your boat. Those that go beyond 75 HP are better off using a hydraulic steering system rather than a mechanical one. 

However, some would also suggest that boats that have an HP of 115 and below can use either mechanical or hydraulic systems as long as the speed of the boat doesn’t go beyond 50 MPH. If your boat goes over the 50MPH mark, then a double cable system of rotary or rack and pinion is suggested. 

The double cable system is preferred in this set-up because there is not enough grip and there is too much slop if only a single cable steering system is used. Single cable systems are just not suitable for higher speed ranges. 

Those that have a boat with over 150HP, a hydraulic steering system is best suited. Hydraulics are currently used in the marine industry today as there are those that have above 600 HP ranges for outboards. A rack and pinion cable on this engine simply aren’t suitable. 

Budget And Cost

Another factor to consider is your personal budget and the total cost. For those with a tighter budget, mechanical systems are more affordable while hydraulic systems are more expensive. This is especially true if you are thinking of upgrading your steering system from a mechanical to a hydraulic one. 

Mechanical steering systems work and have worked for decades now. If you don’t go beyond the high speeds discussed above, then there is really no need for you to change and get hydraulics. However, if you do have the means and are willing to splurge for hydraulic systems, then go for it. 

Also, learn to shop around because there are now hydraulic systems that are designed for smaller boats. These are more affordable than those meant for bigger boats and they are cheaper too. 

With any boat steering system you choose, you need to make sure that it is properly maintained. Hydraulic systems require less maintenance than mechanical systems because they are more reliable. However, that doesn’t mean you should skip maintenance checks and procedures with hydraulic systems. It is still very important to maintain these steering systems for your safety.

Changing Your Boat’s Steering System

boat steering

Some manufacturers will advise you to choose the same type of steering system should your boat need a replacement. However, some who have mechanical steering systems might want to upgrade to a new one. 

Although this can be done, you are likely to feel a difference when you steer your boat. It can take some time for you to get used to the difference and with that, it is advised not to expose yourself in difficult sea conditions for the time being.

It is best to get used to the changes first so you can safely maneuver your boat. 

Troubleshooting Your Mechanical Steering System

The reason for thinking of upgrading or changing your steering system is most likely because it doesn’t work anymore or if you find that there is a problem with your boat. However, replacing the steering system shouldn’t be your first solution. It is expensive and there are other things to check and to repair to get your current steering system to work. 

If you find a problem with your steering system, one of the first things you should do is to discover what really causes the problem. To do this, remove the nut attaching the steering cable and the engine steering arm together. Once the nut is removed, the steering arm can be freed out of the steering cable. 

Try to move the engine by pushing it back and forth. If it moves freely, then the problem is likely to involve the cable or helm. Also, the problem might be due to the stuck cable in the bracket. 

If your boat has the rotary system, you need to pull the pin out to release the cable. Then turn the steering wheel so that the cable is released. With this, you’ll get to see if the problem is due to a locked up helm or if the problem is found on the engine area. 

In such a case, the problem might be due to a frozen mechanical steering cable or a frozen outboard swivel bracket. Either way, freeing and cleaning them up could be a tedious task but is not impossible. 

Sometimes, cleaning and freeing up the cable is enough to make your steering system work again. However, many suggest simply replacing it because it takes so much time to do just to. Also, there is still a possibility that it gets frozen up again just after a few months of use. 

You can also just choose to replace the cable if you find the helm to be still useful. However, the cost of the cable only compared to the whole system isn’t that far. For convenience, it would be best to get a replacement.  

Troubleshooting Hydraulic Steering Systems

Hydraulic steering systems work differently from mechanical ones so the problem is solved differently. Some people may describe a problem with the steering as feeling spongy. This is when the steering bounces back when a hard turn in either direction is made. This signifies trapped air, which can be dangerous because it makes steering unpredictable. 

The simple solution to this is to bleed air out of the system. In some cases, there might also be an internal leak, which causes the spongy wheel. If the air has been removed and there are no leaks on the hose, the problem might be on the shaft of the cylinder. It can be corroded or leaking. 

Another problem characterized by a play in the steering can also happen due to a leak. The solution is to find the leak or replace the faulty component. A play in the steering can be felt with hydraulic systems but if it is already excessive, then you should figure out the cause and get it fixed. 

When you find your steering less responsive than normal, the problem might be due to a low hydraulic fluid level. With this, the system cannot exert the needed pressure to turn the boat. A low hydraulic fluid could mean there is air or the fluid is leaking. Purging the air out or replacing leaking components is the solution to this problem.