The Different Types of Boat Steering Systems

In a ‘land girt by sea’, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to exploring the beauty of their country’s coastline. From small coastal towns, to intricate city waterways, there’s so much to see when travelling by water. And of course, Aussies love their boats, big or small, with countless marinas dotting inner city suburbs and holiday towns. Whether you’re out fishing, catching up on some open-water tranquility, or just need to get away from the city bustle, a boat provides an experience like no other.

Boat ownership is something that we can boast about. With roughly one million registered boats, and nearly 30 thousand boats finding new owners each year, it’s a sector spawning growing economic activity. With so many watercrafts about, retailers are picking up on customers’ needs in offering a variety of new boats, and spare parts when things go wrong or need replacement. Though looks might be important, a well-maintained boat with functioning internals like steering systems also means a safe boat. Here, I’ll guide you through the basic steering systems you’ll find in different boats, and common problems when something breaks down.

Types of Steering in Boats


Boats differ in a lot of things, one of them being the type of steering. Like most vehicles, there are mechanically operated and hydraulic steering systems. Each feature on boats of different sizes and varying engine output to give you the control you need to steer your boat safely. If you’re retrofitting your old boat with a new hydraulic system, consider getting complete hydraulic boat steering kits Australia.

Mechanical steering is found on smaller boats. It consists of a set of cables connecting the steering wheel and the helm at the front of the boat to the outboard motor at the back. The most important part here is the helm, located behind the instrument panel, which converts your input on the steering wheel into a push-pull action on the cable. Helms come in two types, rotary and rack and pinion helms.

Rotary helms have a round gear holding the turning cable. They in turn come in two types, a larger reduction gear type fitted to larger, taller dashboards, and the planetary gear type consisting of three or more gears and suited for smaller boats.

Rack and pinion helms have a pinion gear fitted directly on the steering shaft, which moves a rack-type gear. Rack and pinion steering helms give you easier and more efficient steering, as there is less friction on the cables, but occupy more space. Depending on the power output of the motor, your boat is equipped with one or two steering cables, with two cables required for boats with higher power output. Cables are connected to the engine with connection kits.

Boats with mechanical steering will be generally cheaper to buy than those with hydraulic steering systems. Hydraulic systems consist of the helm, a cylinder, a hydraulic hose and connecting tie bars. The helm houses a pump and a system of valves which push hydraulic oil through the hose lines into the cylinder rods, which either extend or retract by force of a piston, in effect turning the boat. Movement is smoother and more manageable than comparable boats with mechanical steering. Simpler ‘hynautic’ steering is found in small to mid-size boats with one outboard engine. And more complex systems with electronically controlled helm pumps, and power assist or complete power steering are found in boats over 50m. This allows for simultaneous control of multiple rudders and outboards engines Hydraulic systems are therefore the preferred choice for larger boats with higher powered engines.

Boat Steering Maintenance


All boats need regular maintenance to ensure smooth and safe steering. Mechanical steering systems will require more work and upkeep. Check for damage to steering cables. Corrosion and rust will impact your ability to steer safely, something you’ll feel through the steering wheel. If the cable is jammed, but the steering wheel moves freely, then there’s an issue with the helm gears. Stuck rudders might indicate bending or cracks in the cable routing, in which case it’s best to replace the entire cable.

Hydraulic systems are better engineered and should require less work. One common problem is oil leaks from hose lines, meaning less pressure and a change to steering feel. If you’re mechanically apt, you can fix the problem yourself. Oil leaks may mean you need to bleed the system from built-up air or that the fluid is contaminated. For more complicated issues with bigger boats, your safest bet is to get it checked by an expert.

Installing Hydraulic Steering Kits on Boats


Boats that have mechanical steering systems can have them replaced with hydraulic steering kits. If you know your stuff, you can do it yourself. Otherwise, get it done professionally as it involves disassembling all mechanical components and installing the new kit, including running hose lines, attaching cylinders to the engine, and adapting the helm to the dash and steering wheel. Once you’ve adapted the system, and bled the lines, you’re ready to go.

And lastly, for smooth sailing, you’ll need to kick out old habits and adjust to the more responsive and easier-to-operate steering. Look for mechanical and hydraulic steering parts and complete kits at boat retailers. Here, you’ll find valuable info for general maintenance, any replacement parts you may need for your particular boat, and advice on updating your mechanical to hydraulic steering.