Steering system maintenance
Avoid the feeling of a wheel loose in your hands with routine steering system checks, before it breaks
My definition of “boat” entails three essential capabilities—flotation, propulsion and steering. If you lose one of these, things are going to get difficult. We all know about keeping the water out, the rig up, and engine working, but we tend to take steering for granted. I have had a wheel go loose in my hands, and I can attest to the helpless feeling that accompanies it.
Most sailboats have cable or chain steering. There is a large gauge roller chain that engages a sprocket on the shaft of the wheel, in the steering pedestal. That chain is connected to a pair of wires that are led back to the rudder, sometimes circuitously. And finally to the quadrant, a wheel-shaped apparatus on the rudder stock that causes the rudder to turn.
Proper maintenance means mechanical inspection, tension tests and lubrication. Anyone with basic mechanical skills can do the maintenance, both quickly and relatively inexpensively. A properly maintained system will run for a very long time, but one that is neglected is a precursor to flailing arms and crunching fiberglass. You should inspect the steering system once a year and before any major offshore passage.
It is best to start the inspection at the rudder with the boat out of the water if possible. Look for wear or stiffness in the rudder bearings. Try to move the rudder laterally as well as fore and aft. If you see more than a half-inch of movement, you may have a wear problem. Similarly, pivot the rudder, which should move smoothly without a lot of resistance. The wheel will move as the rudder is pivoted, so make sure the brake is off. Expect a little “weight” from the wheel, but the system should move freely.
Next, move into the boat and take a look at the quadrant, which should be firmly attached to the stock. The easiest way to check is to have someone turn the wheel while watching the quadrant. If you see any movement between the stock and the quadrant you have a problem. I have delivered two boats with quadrant play, and it makes steering difficult for humans and especially challenging for autopilots. It is critical that you fix this problem as it will get worse with time.
Now we can go up to the cockpit and look at the wheel. Start by grabbing it and wiggling, is it tight on the shaft? A wiggle could be a loose nut or worn shaft key. Is the shaft firmly in the pedestal? The shaft is mounted on bearings in the pedestal, and they can wear over time.
To look inside the pedestal on most boats, you’ll need to remove the compass from the binnacle. There are usually some trim screws and some larger bolts that hold the base onto the pedestal. With the compass off, you’ll see the sprocket on the wheel shaft. If all looks good, just lubricate it by adding a little lightweight oil on the chain as you move the wheel from lock to lock. You should see little holes on the top of the front and rear bearing braces, which should be packed with a little Teflon grease to keep the bearings running smoothly.
Next inspect the steering cables, which can be cleaned, lubricated and inspected at the same time. Grab a soft cotton rag and some 30-weight oil (engine oil will suffice). Put some oil on the rag and wipe down the entire length of each cable, moving the rudder a little to get at the cable on the sheaves. The rag will detect any broken strands with a snag. If you see any broken strands, the cables need to be replaced. When you pull the cables, take a look at the chain too. Make sure it moves smoothly and doesn’t have any wear or corrosion. Cables and chains have about a 15-year life on a well-maintained, actively sailed boat.
Also check the terminations on the end of the cables, where they attach to the chain and to the eyebolts on the quadrant. They are commonly assembled with a thimble and swaged with copper alloy fitting (a Nicopress) or with a couple of cable clamps. Make sure the connection looks solid and look for any broken strands around the thimble.
It is not uncommon to see cable clamps installed incorrectly. These are two-part clamps consisting of a U-bolt and little part that looks like a saddle, and called the same. The saddle should be on the standing part of the wire rope (the live end, the part with the load on it), not on the short tail end. This is easy to remember with the little mnemonic “never saddle a dead horse.” If they are installed backward, loosen up the adjuster bolts and flip the clamp over.
Each sheave in the system needs to be examined as well. Inspect each one looking for wear and any bronze filings and check the alignment with the cable. Lubricate each one with a little 30-weight oil; a few drops on each shaft is enough to keep them moving smoothly.
If the system all looks good, check the cable alignment and finish up. Proper tension is important: too little and the system will be sloppy, too much and the steering will bind. The cables are adjusted at the quadrant with each cable attached by a long threaded eyebolt. There are two nuts, one for adjusting and a second to lock down the adjustment. Start by centering up the rudder and locking down the wheel. If the boat is on the hard, you can try to move the rudder to make sure there isn’t any slop in the system. If there is movement, take up on each cable until the slack is gone. Loosen the wheel and move the rudder back and forth; it should move smoothly. The final tension is set by measuring the deflection in the cable, you should see about 1 inch of movement for every 3 feet of unsupported length of cable. When you have the tension where you want it, put a little blue thread locker on the nuts to keep things tight.
Inspection and maintenance are critical to a high-performing steering system. You don’t want to feel your steering go limp be it approaching the dock or 200 miles offshore. Invest a little time now and have a good time out on the water.