Steering systems on boats are robust and well-designed, 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, most of the system is unseen and normally not on the maintenance agenda, 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 Lagoons you would find a single wheel, chain and wire driven twin rudders. The twin rudderstocks are connected by a rod, each of the wires connected to one of the rudders. The return on each is applied by the connecting rod of the reciprocal rudder, here I chose the Lagoon 450 as an example.
● The helm station is located far from the engine compartments and due to this distance, the wires run through 3 separate sheaves; behind the helm station, under the cockpit and in the steering compartment. These should be inspected and greased annually, using a marine grade multi purpose grease. On Lagoon 450 hulls, up to hull number 300, might have Lewmar or Goiot systems, later hull numbers have Goiot systems only. Note, that some of the sheaves are fitted on a hinge, in order to allow the cable the correct alignment, and this hinge should be cleaned and greased.
● The rudder's connecting rod is connected to the Tiller Arm by a Universal Joint, which should be inspected and cleaned as well; this joint might seize and cause restriction on the system. Another component on the tiller arm that should be inspected is the autopilot pin connecting stud , make sure it is threaded well and no signs of cracks or material fatigue is present. To avoid any corrosion related chain and wire malfunctions, the chain manufacturers recommend replacing the linked chain* every 5 years.
Streamline boats - Learn the Hard way
The first thing to do when your boat is lifted, even before the yard team has performed the hull powerwash, is to check the rudder bearings. Grab hold of the rudder and shake, if any clearance exists then the rudderstock will slightly move in its housing, this entails that the bearings might be damaged and in need of replacing. The Lower bearing housing is a stainless steel collar so make sure it is in good order and clean before inserting the rudder, with it a nylon spacer is fitted as to reduce rudder friction with the hull, and the upper bearing is a nylon shoulder bearing that fits in the rudderstock tube.
Boat Parts - Autopilot
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. Like many other hydraulic systems, the hydraulic fluid should be checked regularly before every trip and replaced at 5000 working hours, meaning that if you are a light cruiser or weekend sailor you can get up to 7 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:
Disconnect the cylinder from the quadrant or tiller arm and retract the rod fully inside the cylinder tube.
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
Top up using oil Lecomble & Schmitt Dexron II Hydraulic Oil 2L
Troubleshooting steering systems:
Failed Rudder Bearings -
When the rudder bearings fail, several symptoms could occur. Such as:
● Restricted wheel movement
● Squeaking noise
● Wheel does not turn
● 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.
Bent Rudderstock -
This may cause frequent bearing failure as the shaft would accentuate 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.
Damaged wire -
If any delay in reaction exists while turning the wheel, inspect the wire as the may start to fray and might brake shortly.
Malfunctioned Sheave -
The sheave, which is bushed, rotates upon a pin and allows the wire to bend with no restriction using a hinge so the wire is at an optimum angle at all times. These sheaves and hinges can seize and restrict the steering and cause damage to the cable.
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 by 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.