When it comes to outboard steering systems, you have choices. Read on to learn what might be right for your boat and your wallet.
Most boaters don’t pay a lot of attention to their outboard boat’s steering system until it causes problems. Of course, that’s not the best way to approach steering system maintenance and upkeep. The boat’s steering system is a high-risk safety priority. It’s an integral part of the control systems on your boat. If the system fails, the results could be disastrous.
Popular for many decades, “push-pull” cable systems are still the standard on many runabouts, fishing craft, and pontoons, particularly the entry level and lower cost models. The system consists of a helm unit and a cable that runs from the helm to the outboard. The helm units can be one of two styles: rack and pinion (sometimes called “straight rack”) and “rotary.” No-feedback units are popular as they provide a cushion between the torque of the outboard and the steering wheel, so the operator feels less pull on the wheel at higher speeds.
Cable systems work well and when installed and maintained properly, they can last for decades. Proper maintenance consists of the following:
- Apply a light application of waterproof marine grease annually. Avoid using too much, as globs of grease will harden over time and cause stiffness and binding. Remove the cable from the engine by removing the steering arm nut and the large cable nut that attaches the cable to the outboard. Pull the cable out from the engine’s tilt tube. Remove all the old grease from the cable ram end. Steer the cable all the way out until fully extended and remove all grease and dirt from the inner sleeve of the cable as well. Apply a thin coating of grease to both the outside and inside of the cable, then reinstall it into the engine tilt tube. Tighten the tube attachment nut and reinstall the steering arm nut.
- If the engine’s tilt tube is especially rusty or dirty inside, buy a tilt tube cleaning brush (available at your local marine dealer or search “steering tube cleaning brush” online). If the steering cable is stuck inside the engine tube, you may have to rap the end of the steering cable to get it to move. Be sure to put a bolt on the link end at the end of the cable, otherwise it will quickly deform it as you tap it. You may need to use a block of wood to cushion the blows. Use a lubricant such as Liquid Wrench to help it move. When you get the cable end out, again apply lubricant while cleaning the tube with the brush chucked into a cordless drill at high speed. This makes a mess, so protect the boat and engine with rags and be ready for cleanup.
- Some boat transoms are so crowded the motor must be removed in order to pull out the steering cable. If yours is like this and you’re not equipped to unbolt and lift the outboard from the transom, bring it to a dealer or servicing mechanic.
- If your cable is beyond help, replacement systems are relatively inexpensive (typically less than $300 complete) and pretty simple to install. Systems are available online or from your local dealer. Even marine parts stores typically stock replacement cables and complete systems.
If you’re in need of a new system, strongly consider a hydraulic one. Unless you are on a tight budget, hydraulic is really the best way to go. Hydraulic steering systems are much smoother and easier to steer than cable systems. They operate on a very simple principle: When you turn the steering wheel, hydraulic fluid moves through a series of valves in the helm/pump assembly, through hoses, and back to the engine. The fluid is forced to apply pressure on one side or the other of an engine steering cylinder (ram) to move the engine to port or starboard.
Hydraulic steering kits have been available since the late 1970s, but they really gained popularity in the early 1990s thanks to the SeaStar and SeaStar Pro systems, now part of Dometic. The move to high-performance hydraulic systems like SeaStar Pro was really brought about by the bass boat segment of the boating market. Bass boats have been around since the 1960s. As they became larger and faster, powered by high-horsepower, high-torque V6 outboards in the 1980s, bass boat manufacturers looked for a steering system that would allow for easier and less strenuous operation yet still be safe at the 60 to 100 mph speeds these boats could attain.
This system continues to be the name most recognized due to its smooth control, high level of reliability, and ease of installation. Competitors such as Vetus and Uflex (Silversteer and Protech systems) also offer excellent systems that are quite similar in design and performance. System prices range between around $1,000 to $1,500 complete with helm, hoses, engine-mounted steering cylinder, and hydraulic fluid. These systems are not difficult to install or maintain. However, DIYers may opt for a dealer installation as bleeding air from the system can be tricky and messy.
Maintenance is typically limited to occasional bleeding of excess air trapped in the system. The primary advantage for hydraulic systems over mechanical is lack of torque feedback, making the boat easier and smoother to drive and maneuver. The downside of course is initial cost. Unlike systems of yesteryear, hydraulic steering systems are extremely reliable and nearly maintenance-free.
Most rigs come from the manufacturer with steering already installed, connected and bled, ready for use. However, if you are retrofitting an older boat with a new system, now’s the time to study up on what you’ll need. While doing web research on your own is a great way to gather information, if you’ve never selected and installed a hydraulic system, visit a dealer first and speak to a knowledgeable technician. Get the right advice on which system would best fit your hull, engine, application, and installation.
To complete the installation, you will likely simply buy a kit (as opposed to buying separate components). Kits typically come with helm/reservoir assembly, engine-mounted cylinder, hydraulic hoses, enough hydraulic fluid to fill and bleed the system once installed, and a hardware kit to make it all work together. Here are some tips when selecting a system:
- You don’t have to spend upward of a grand on your system if your rig is a smaller one, has an engine with less than 150 horsepower, and top speed is under 50 mph. Both UFlex and SeaStar build less expensive systems to meet your needs. These systems are priced in the $500 to $1,000 range and have an excellent performance track record.
- If you have a high-performance hull capable of 60-plus mph with a 150-plus horsepower engine with resulting high steering torque loads, upgrade to the high-performance system. These kits use a special helm, cylinder, and high-pressure hoses to accommodate the higher performance application.
- Again, for performance hulls, if you have power trim and/or a hydraulic jack plate, you can purchase special turn signal-style switches that mount behind the steering wheel (to the hydraulic helm reservoir) to activate these features. This way, you can keep both hands where they belong for best control: on the steering wheel.
- With the high cost of a new system, it may be tempting to buy a used setup from Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. Don’t do it unless you can be absolutely certain the engine cylinder assembly is the correct one for your make, model, and year outboard, and the helm and hoses are right for your application. Unfortunately, it’s fairly common to see a cylinder mismatched to the engine it’s mounted to. This can cause dangerous binding, lack of response, damaged components, and potentially disastrous results if the cylinder breaks or becomes detached from the engine.
Installing and bleeding a hydraulic steering kit is fairly straightforward. This is not the time to be macho and throw the instructions away. Read the installation instructions more than once if necessary.
- Begin by removing your old system. This is relatively easy as the helm can be quickly unbolted from the dash, the cable removed from the helm and engine steering tube, and the whole assembly from the boat in less than an hour. You may need to enlarge the dash hole to accept the hydraulic helm. A scrolling jigsaw is a great tool for this; just be sure to protect the dash finish from the saw foot by using masking tape.
- Once the helm is securely bolted to the dash, the hydraulic hoses must be run from the helm to the transom area.
- It’s important to keep bends to a minimum and not too tight to avoid kinking the hoses.
- Protect the hoses from chafing or puncturing by routing them away from sharp bulkhead edges and exposed screw ends.
- At the engine end, the hoses must move freely with the engine cylinder from full port to starboard and back. Leave enough slack for this to be possible.
- Bulkhead fittings and hose strain relief spiral wraps are both available to keep the hoses from kinking or chafing.
- Install the steering cylinder to the engine, paying close attention to the mounting instructions. After it’s installed, ensure the cylinder and outboard can move freely through the entire steering arc. The hydraulic hoses can now be connected to the engine and the helm; pay close attention to the connection ports to ensure the system doesn’t steer backward!
- To bleed the system, you will need two people — one to move the steering wheel and hold the fill bottle of fluid upright, and the other at the engine end to crack open the bleeding valves and let air bubbles escape. This process can be frustrating and somewhat messy. Again, follow the instructions to the letter. When you’re done bleeding, there will be no air bubbles present at the bleeder valves, and the engine will steer smoothly through its entire travel with no hiccups or skips.
Fortunately, hydraulic systems require little maintenance. A good way to check the system each time you use your boat is to steer the engine hard over lock-to-lock. This will allow you to see if it’s leaking or needs a fresh bleeding.
Spongy steering can often be fixed by bleeding air out of the system.
Check the helm (behind the steering wheel and behind the dash at the hose fittings) and the engine cylinder for leaks. Leaks are usually localized at the engine cylinder cap O-rings or the steering shaft O-ring just behind the steering wheel. While the hoses rarely leak, check them often for kinking or chafing. If your boat’s left outside, check the exposed hoses often for sun bleaching and resultant degradation.
It’s not a bad idea to bleed the system at the start of each season. Lastly, keep the engine cylinder clean, especially the ram. Any blemishes, rust, or pitting will cause the ram end caps to leak.