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Hydraulic Steering vs Cable Steering For a Boat? Differences? Similarities? What’s Better?

Watching the sun set in the calm ocean with a steering wheel.

While cable steering is popular and more affordable, hydraulic steering is the ideal option if within your price range. It offers great and easy handling. Planning to upgrade, hydraulic it is. Buying a vessel for the first time? Start right with hydraulic steering.

If you’re a novice or inexperienced boater, you might not give much thought to the steering system of your outboard. Every expert will tell you, that, of course, isn’t the ideal way to maintain and repair the steering system.

The boat’s steering mechanism is a high-risk area of concern for the crew and that we’ve learned from experience. It’s an essential component of our boat’s navigation and control systems. The consequences we face could be catastrophic if the system fails.

Hydraulic vs. Cable Steering System

A small motor boat.

Our boat’s size, engine trim, and propeller play a major role in determining which steering system is best for us.

The Boat’s Size

Larger boats (those longer than ten meters) and those traveling at high speeds may benefit from a hydraulic steering system. Mechanical steering can’t handle the power (or intensity) of a huge outboard motor, finding it challenging to exit a curve or swerve violently from a straight course.

Boats less than 10 meters in length can use a mechanical steering mechanism. Mechanics should not be employed on boats with engines that exceed the recommended maximum horsepower capacity.

Related: 30 Different Types of Boats (Mega List of Boat Options)

Maintenance

In general, all steering systems need to be inspected and maintained. However, hydraulic steering systems require less care than mechanical ones. However, even though your hydraulic system is more reliable, it still requires regular maintenance.

A Steering System’s Cost

Although mechanical systems are less costly, hydraulic systems for smaller vessels have lately become more affordable. This implies that a growing number of people are considering installing hydraulic steering systems on their boats.

In the future, boats having outboard motors of less than 50 horsepower will be increasingly likely to adopt hydraulic steering systems.

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Similarities Between Cable and Hydraulic Steering Systems

  • Both cable and hydraulic steering can work on small and large boats. However, for cable, if used on a boat over 130 hp, it will need dual cable.
  • Both systems, particularly the hydraulic steering, require little maintenance and can last for several decades.

Hydraulic Systems

VEVOR Hydraulic Outboard Steering Kit 300HP, Hydraulic Steering Kit Helm Pump, Hydraulic Boat Steering Kit with 16 Feet Hydraulic Steering Hose for Boat Steering System

Hydraulic systems are an excellent option if you’re looking for a new one. In most cases, hydraulic steering is the most cost-effective option. It is significantly easier to control a vehicle with hydraulic steering than with a wired system. They work based on the following simple idea:

1. Fluid flows through a succession of hoses and valves in the pump or helm assembly whenever you turn your steering wheel. It then returns to the engine. To steer the engine to starboard or port, the steering cylinder (also called ram) gets pushed to either side by fluid pressure.

2. However, the SeaStar systems, which are now a part of Dometic, were responsible in the 1990s for a surge in demand for hydraulic steering kits. Bass boats, in particular, have been a major influence on the boating industry’s shift to top-performing hydraulic systems like SeaStar Pro.

3. Since the 1960s, there have been bass boats on the water. During the 1980s, as bass boats grew larger, faster, and more powerful, manufacturers sought a steering system that would allow for easier and less stressful operation while still keeping the boats safe at 60 to 100 mph speeds.

4. Due to its smooth operation, high level of dependability, and ease of installation, this system continues to be the most well-known. Vetus, as well as Uflex, also have great systems that are nearly identical in design and performance.

The system comes complete with engine-mounted steering cylinders, hoses, and a helm. The installation and maintenance of these systems are not complicated. The process of bleeding air from the system can be difficult and dirty for DIYers, so they may want to hire a professional to do it for them.

5. The majority of the time, all that needs to be done is to periodically bleed the system of any trapped air. As a result of hydraulic systems’ absence of torque feedback, boats equipped with them are more comfortable to operate and navigate.

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Of course, the initial expense is a drawback. However, hydraulic steering systems are exceptionally reliable and almost maintenance-free, unlike the methods of the past.

Choosing Your Hydraulic System

Hydraulic system in a motor boat with an old propeller.

It’s common for rigs to come from the factory with steering already mounted, connected, and bled. There are several exceptions to this rule, however, when it comes to retrofitting an older boat with a newer system.

If you’ve never chosen and installed a hydraulic system before, it’s best to consult a dealer first and get advice from an experienced expert. Consider your boat, engine, and other factors before deciding on a system.

Most likely, you’ll need to buy a kit to complete the installation. In most cases, kits come with hydraulic fluid for filling and bleeding the system, engine mounted cylinder, helm assembly, and a hardware kit to make it all work together. A few things to keep in mind while purchasing a computer:

  • If your vehicle is a smaller one, has a less powerful engine, and has a top speed of less than 50 mph, you don’t need to spend big bucks on your system. UFlex and SeaStar both provide more affordable options. These systems are cost-effective and have a proven track record of high performance.
  • Upgrade to a top-performance steering system if you have a high-performance hull capable of 60 mph and a 150-plus horsepower engine with significant steering torque loads. Special helms, cylinders, and high-pressure hoses are used in these kits to meet the demands of higher performance.
  • It’s possible to buy specific turn signal-style switches that are installed behind the steering wheel to activate the power trim and a hydraulic jack plate on performance hulls. In this manner, you can retain your hands on the steering wheel for maximum control.

Cable Systems

Small yahct with cable steering system.

Push-pull cable systems, which have been in use for numerous years, are still common on various pontoons, runabouts, and fishing boats, especially the entry-level and less expensive types. Cables connect the helm unit to the outboard and the helm unit to each other.

Rack and pinion (also known as “straight rack”) and “rotary” are two common types of helm units. With no-feedback steering systems, the operator doesn’t feel as much pressure on their steering wheel at greater speeds because the outboard’s torque is buffered from their hands.

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Cable Steering System Maintenance

Close up hydraulic steering maintainance.

When installed correctly and properly maintained, cable systems can last for decades. The following are the components of proper maintenance:

  • A light coating of weatherproof marine grease should be applied yearly. Grease globs will harden and produce stiffness and binding if used excessively.
  • Remove the steering arm nut as well as the huge cable nut that connects the cable to the outboard by loosening the screws. Tighten your engine’s tilt tube by removing the cord from it. Remove the cable ram’s end used grease.
  • It’s time to remove any grease or dirt from the cable’s inner sleeve, so steer the wire out to its full length.
  • Remove the cable from your engine’s tilt tube then apply a light layer of lubricant to both the cable and the tube.
  • The steering arm nut should be reinstalled once the tube attachment nut has been tightened.
  • Purchase a tilt tube cleaning brush if your engine’s tilt tube is very rusted or dusty
  • A rap on the steering cable’s end may be necessary if it becomes caught inside the engine tube. Ensure that you secure the cable end with a bolt before you begin tapping on it.
  • You might require a slab of wood to soften the blows. A liquid wrench can be used to get it moving. Once you’ve got the end of the cable out, use a high-speed drill brush and lubrication to clean the tube.

Protect your boat and motor with pieces of cloth and prepare for a cleanup. To take the steering cables from some boats, you must remove them from the transom. Make an appointment with a dealer or service mechanic to get it fixed if you can’t remove it and hoist your outboard yourself.

Replacement systems are usually inexpensive and easy to install if your cable is beyond repair. Systems can be purchased online or at a dealer near you. It’s not uncommon for marine parts stores to keep extra cables and systems on hand for quick replacement.