Steering systems on boats are robust and durable and as far as sailors go: when the wheel turns and the boat turns, then all is well. This is true to some extent as many processes and deterioration of materials are not seen until a system failure occurs. Steering systems on a sailboat are designed to handle heavy loads and operate under harsh conditions, normally unseen, but vital for a boat afloat. I have seen many systems with decades under their belt that function well and others brand new that require more TLC and frequent service intervals. These differences are due to steering system type, sailing conditions; load applied, type of use, maintenance intervals and other considerations. Some performance sailors and those who push their sail boats to the limit, accelerate the wear on these systems and should inspect more frequently and shorten service intervals.
There are many steering systems designs with different engineering and components on the market, such as cable driven systems, direct drives, transmission boxes, hydraulic steering and more, most components are made of highly durable material, including, but not restricted to, aluminum and stainless steel. These materials suffer from electrolysis and clevis corrosion, respectively, which can deteriorate quickly. This in turn can cause a system failure during sailing or maneuvering, with hardly any warning signs before the actual failure. This is not meant to sow fear into sailors but to increase awareness of the importance of inspections and scheduled servicing. For example, some steering system manufacturers recommend replacing the chain and cable every 5 years, this will insure that these specific components will not fail you.
On an Oceanis you will find twin steering wheels with a single rudder, chain to wire system connected to a quadrant on the rudder post. The wires run a relatively short distance in the steering compartment, through sheaves to the quadrant. The following are the service points you should include in your annual servicing schedule:
The chain and wire control the quadrant on the rudderstock. The linked chain is of heavy duty design but also requires lube, use grease spray to reach all the links of the chain. Inspect the wire carefully, especially at the connecting terminals and sheaves, and look for any break or frayed wire, if any are present then consider replacing the entire wire .
The steerer is the part that transformers the wheel movement to the chain, one of the steerers has a clutch to lock the wheel when desired, this should be rinsed.
Sheaves and pins, in the steering compartment, should be checked annually, cleanliness and lube extends the components service life and benefits in lower friction steering, for this purpose use multi purpose marine grade grease.
The rudderstock is held in place by a stainless steel collar with a large pin through the shaft, making sure the pin looks in good order and has no play.
Two nylon bearings keep alignment; these units can be washed when access is available. Since these are simple machined nylon bearings and replacements are available the it is good practice to replace whenever there is doubt.
Beneteau Oceanis steering systems components diagram:
The Autopilot system manufacturer Lecomble Schmitt is a French brand that supplies various autopilot systems sizes for boats, a robust and simple system that works well with most of the electronic systems manufacturers, such as: Raymarine, B&G, Simrad and more. The power pack, with an oil reservoir, is controlled by the autopilot CPU, supplying the hydraulic pressure to move the ram that attaches to the rudder post tiller extension to control the rudder. It is recommended to check all electrical connectors and cables, these systems are sensitive to voltage drops and such failures, keep the connections clean and protected.
Like many other hydraulic systems, the hydraulic fluid should be replaced at around 5000 working hours, meaning that if you are a light cruiser or weekend sailor you can get up to 5 years with the same fluid, Lecomble Schmitt’s hydraulic fluid recommendation is to change when the fluid becomes dark in color. Replacing the fluid is done in the following steps:
Open bleeder cock number 1
Energize the electro-valve.
Run the power pack in the correct direction so that the oil is pushed out through bleeder cock number 1 (and until the cylinder rod is fully extended)
Let the power pack run until the oil coming out is free of air bubbles. Then turn the power pack off.
Close bleeder cock number 1
Open bleeder cock number 2
Run the power pack in the opposite direction. Once the rod is retracted and the oil coming out of bleeder cock number 2 is free of air bubbles, close bleeder number 2
Troubleshooting steering systems
Unfortunately, steering systems don't have many warning signs, sometimes, the only way to recognise issues is while sailing, and you would have to be able to explain the symptoms to a service provider or continue investigating in port. Here are several examples of common failures:
Failed Rudder Bearings -
When the rudder bearings fail, several symptoms could occur. Such as:
Constricted wheel turning
Shaft play or knocking sounds when the shaft hits the sides of the damaged bearing. Most cases would require replacing the bearings since the materials used are hard plastics and once damaged cannot be repaired.
Replacing rudder bearings requires removing the rudder completely, this can be done only in the yard, therefore having spare bearings for the time they would need replacing is a good idea.
Bent Rudderstock -
This may cause frequent bearing failure as the shaft would accentrate at a specific point and damage the bearings and will need to be replaced. It is possible to straighten a bent shaft but depends on the extent of the damage and the situation. Another symptom of a bent shaft is some restriction of the steering at a certain point of the rudder angle.
Damaged wire -
If any delay in reaction exists while turning the wheel, inspect the wire as the may start to fraye and might brake shortly.
Worn Rudder Stops -
If a knocking sound occurs at hard to, you might be dealing with a worn rudder stop, this is an easy fix with simply replacing the rudder stops.
After any service performed on the steering system, make sure to perform a series of tests, such as: turning the wheel hard to either side, testing the rudder stops, engaging the autopilot and testing performance. Remember, what you don’t use you lose, so use your boat and keep your steering system happy.