My beat as technical director for the American Boat & Yacht Council includes supervising the standards covering steering. It’s important to inspect cables and hoses regularly; look for wear in the cables, leaks in hydraulic systems. Purge hydraulics to remove air. When topping up the steering, use the oil the manufacturer recommends. One thing we often see is do-it-yourselfers using Teflon tape on the fittings to prevent leaks. Don’t do it: The tape can deteriorate and get into the system. Keep the bend radius of cables within the manufacturer’s specs, and make sure the cables or hoses are run so they can’t chafe. For mechanical steering, look for excessive play, which can mean steering is ready to fail.
Rose’s Marine in Gloucester, Massachusetts, is the Northeast service center for SeaStar. The main enemy of all hydraulic steering systems is contaminated oil—it looks like molasses, rather than the clear amber of clean oil. It can make the steering difficult. If you’re having steering trouble, draw out some oil and check the color. Manual steering systems, where the helm is both the pump and the oil reservoir, can get air in the lines, which makes the steering spongy. You have to bleed the system and refill it. Power steering systems use a separate hydraulic pump and oil reservoir. The pumps run all the time and can overheat the oil. If you can keep your hand on the hydraulic tank, you’re OK. If not, you may need an oil cooler.
If your engine makes creaking noises, then you need cylinder maintenance. As supervisor of technical support for the SeaStar division of Dometic, I get lots of calls about outboard steering problems, and most stem from lack of cylinder maintenance. The steering cylinder is connected to the engine by brackets fitted to a support rod that runs through the tilt tube on the motor. When the motor is tilted, the support rod turns in the tube. If the rod binds, it transfers the stress to the piston rod in the steering cylinder, which will distort the seals and cause oil leaks. We recommend removing, cleaning and lubricating the support rod every six months. Run your fingernail along the piston rod: If your nail catches, then the rod is damaged.
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.