Skip to Content

5 Different Types of Boat Steering Systems

Zoom in half photo of a wooden steering wheel of a sailboat with blurred background.

After Sabrina, the MIT-trained boat engineer, had fixed and done the necessary touch-ups on Family Jewels, I got ready to take her (the boat that is) out of the boathouse to the mariner.

With one turn of the ignition, Family Jewels’ engine purred into life. To warm her up, I reved a couple of times, then put her into reverse. I was ready to take her for a spin, but was she?

Releasing the brake, I got ready to steer her out-but NOTHING. Despite Family Jewels’ engine purr rising to a roar as I reved her some more, the boat just wouldn’t reverse-I called Sabrina right away.

“Hello…sorry, what?…. Your boat wants a badge?!!” repeated Sabrina over the purr of Family Jewels’ idling engine.

Realizing I had spoken to Sabrina over the purring engine, I immediately cut it, and repeated what I had said earlier.

“No, I said the boat won’t budge,….seems the steering is not responding!” I shouted, forgetting I had turned off the engine.

“Oh, oh, I was afraid of that! I didn’t want to tell you this, but your boat steering system needs to be replaced,” returned Sabrina.

“Boat steering system, what’s that, and what type does Family Jewels need?” I enquired right there and then.

And right there and then, Sabrina coherently responded, even if it was on her office telephone.

Well, since I have some time, a boat steering system is…….

Cheerful couple both wearing white clothes are steering their motor boat on sea to enjoy during vacation.

A boat steering system. One that allows you to turn your boat. You need to buy it….Need I say more?!

Seriously though, normally boat owners pay particular attention to the exterior aspects of their boats. However, while they probably would like to keep them looking well-maintained externally, a well-maintained boat should also have up and running, safe systems that are likely to last for years to come. One of which is the boat’s steering system.

Before you get a new boat steering system, it’s important to understand what this type of boat equipment is, the types that exist, and the brands currently on the market. It’s not only advisable, but it is also the duty and responsibility of every boat owner to get informed about their boat steering system, if they are to finally choose the best one.

In as layman’s terms as I possibly can, a boat steering system is a mechanical system used to steer a boat. It consists of a steering wheel, a rudder, and a propeller.

The steering wheel is used to steer your boat and the rudder is used to keep the boat going in a straight line. The propeller is used to move your boat forward. Said propeller turns the rudder, which in turn causes your boat to move in the desired direction.

Characteristically, a boat steering system is made of various cables and parts. These will connect the steering wheel to the boat’s helm (the part of the boat with the steering and engine controls).

Since the helm is connected to the motor of the boat, it can easily help you drive the boat in a specific direction, as they work in a push-pull method. Undoubtedly, a boat steering system can make a huge difference in the way your boat works.

Without such a unit, you risk being left in the middle of nowhere when your boat steering system unexpectedly fails. So, it’s important to know the different types of boat steering systems in existence before buying the best boat steering system out there.

The existing types of Boat Steering Systems to select from

Like everything on planet Earth, boat steering systems will come in different types. There are FIVE main types of steering systems in existence. They can be further simplified into two categories: hydraulic steering systems and non-hydraulic steering systems. These are:

1. Have you the cash Hydraulic Boat Steering System

A cockpit of a speedboat with front seat and controller navigations.

For a large boat and generally fast boat such as your Family Jewels, a Hydraulic Boat Steering System is what you should be looking for. A hydraulic steering system is the most unique out of all the steering systems. 

See also  Can You Go Tubing Behind a Pontoon Boat?

As its name implies, it uses hydraulics to steer your boat. Many hydraulic pumps and valves make up this particular steering system. Hydraulic boat steering can be manual or power-assisted.

There are three main parts to the system: the helm, hose, and cylinder. The hydraulic hose connects the helm’s fluids to the cylinder. The cylinder is a cylindrical device that is moved when it receives the hydraulic fluid.

When the steering wheel is moved, a pump is activated, and then smaller pumps activate. The activation and connection of all the various pumps causes the cable to move, and it then moves the engine itself.

They are suitable for larger, faster boats and are readily available on the market. However, please be warned a Hydraulic Boating Steering System is also the most expensive type of boat steering system currently on the market. So, be financially prepared.

Advantages of Hydraulic boat steering systems include

  • using fewer metallic parts than the other steering systems. 
  • much greater resistance to corrosion due to the lack of metal parts
  • comfort and efficiency,
  • precise and quick response at the wheel,
  • and effortless steering, the steering wheel itself feels very smooth and lightweight.
  • ability to absorb shocks,
  • and greater safety under critical conditions.
  • requiring less maintenance than the other steering systems

Disadvantages of hydraulic boat steering systems include:

  • expensive, it comes at a cost. A hydraulic steering system will cost more than other typical steering systems, but the benefits are well worth it.
  • It is essentially only reserved for mid to high horsepower and speed boats.
  • it requires your boat to be at least 10 meters long. This means that only certain boats will be able to take advantage of the hydraulic steering system’s benefits.
  • needing a boat that fits its minimum requirements to use it. The boats that do fit its requirements are already more expensive than other boats. So, consider and weigh all the different options and prices.

2. Menial minimum Mechanical/ Cable Boat Steering System

Zoom in angle of an electric outboard engine with cable system almost touching the surface.

A mechanical steering system is the most basic of all the major types of steering systems. It’s often the first type of steering system that most people consider.

The most important factor to think about is the actual size of your boat. A mechanical steering system is meant for relatively small boats. It’s recommended that your boat shouldn’t be more than 10 meters in length and not exceed 75 horsepower. 

The mechanical system works by having a cable attached to the engine. That cable is then controlled by the steering wheel. The cable itself goes through several different connections and attachments from the engine, to the motor to the helm. It is this final connection between the cable and the helm that allows you to steer the boat.

While a Mechanical Boat Steering system is basic, it comes with some practical advantages. Namely:

  • It’s relatively simple to install in a boat.
  • The steering is easy to perform with a traditional steering wheel.
  • It’s a good system to use for new boat owners.
  • Its traits can be equally appealing even to experienced boat owners.
  • It comes with NFB (No Feedback kits which makes steering so easy because it stops the engine torque [rotational force] from being passed along to the actual steering wheel. Or else, trying to turn the steering wheel would become very difficult.] As well as non-NFB kits because certain types of engines and inboards aren’t compatible with NFB.
  • It can take care of most boating needs.
  • they’re often the least expensive option. You will be able to stay within budget.

Among a Mechanical Boat Steering system’s practical disadvantages include,

  • It’s a considerable size constraint.
  • A fair amount of maintenance requirements in comparison to the other steering systems. The overall maintenance of a mechanical steering system should also be done at least twice per year. 
  • Its cable can start to corrode. When the metal of the cable starts to corrode, it stiffens the movement of the boat. And should it reach a certain point, you could even lose steering control entirely. It’s therefore very important to monitor and maintain your mechanical steering system.

If you have basic boating needs and are not looking for a high-end boating experience, it would be advisable to stick with one of the other mechanical options.

3. Due to backlash, Dual/Twin Cable Boat Steering System

A Dual (twin) cable Boat Steering system is recommended for performance boats or engines that are unable to tolerate some backlash or lost motion. It adjusts one or both cables in the engine, thus minimizing engine flutter and handling instability.

See also  How Long Do Boats Last?

4. Rack and Pinion Boat Steering System

Zoom in photo of a rack and pinion cable steering system.

A rack and pinion steering system also uses a cable, but it doesn’t have a simple connection between the engine and the helm. Instead, the cable connection is more complicated.

A Rack and Pinion system comes in two variations: Single rack and a double rack. A double rack system works in a way that is similar to a single rack system. Instead of only having one, you simply attach another cable to the plate. This second cable makes the rack and pinion system stronger as a whole.

A Rack and Pinion Boat Steering System will work to make sure the steering wheel’s rotational motion is converted into linear motion. It does so by working in more or less the way gear teeth work. 

The steering cable has a plate attached to it that has teeth on one side. A rod also attaches to the steering wheel that has a gear at the end which fits within the teeth of the steering cable plate.

As you turn your wheel, the gear turns, which moves the plate because its teeth are in line with the gear. Consequently, while you’re on your boat, you will find it much easier to turn the steering wheel, offering you a smoother experience.

Advantages of a Rack and Pinion Boat Steering System include

  • precision, more precise compared to other steering systems- a double rack system makes it so
  • allowing fast and easy installation
  • delivering precise and comfortable steering “feel”.
  • be suitable for use on outboard and stern drive boats.
  • installation on virtually all power-assisted stern drive boats with wheels up to 16″ diameter.
  • comparatively cheaper than the hydraulic type of boat steering system
  • easiest boat installation on any boat.
  • gear design makes it hard for the plate to slip up
  • durability and reliability.
  • The price of a rack and pinion steering system is very similar and comparable to other steering systems.
  • It comes with an NFB or non-NFB kit and a single rack or a double rack system option.

However, despite its advantages, a Rack and Pinion system also has considerable drawbacks.

When you install a rack and pinion system, the cable has to be placed in a specific orientation, meaning that your boat has to be above a certain size to use the system.

It also has a very limited lock-to-lock turn range. A lock-to-lock turn range represents how many full turns of the steering wheel you have to make to turn the boat to the opposite side completely.

Typically, have a lock-to-lock turn range of either 3.5 or 4, which is very limited compared to other systems.

5. A right royal Rotary Boat Steering System

A smiling man driving his motor boat while holding unto his boat's steering wheel.

Very similar to a rack and pinion steering system, a Rotary Boat Steering System uses a different method to hold and move the cable. It too comes in a single or double rack system. Instead of using a plate to manipulate the cable, the rotary steering system has a more direct method of moving the cable.

The steering cables are fed through the helms. This allows you more control of your vessel whenever you need it. The Rotary Boat Steering System is a great steering system for people who want to ensure durability and want to feel in control at all times. All this makes it a good system.

Rotary’s Advantages

While similar to the Rack and Pinion steering system, the Rotary has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages. These are:

  •  a greater lock-to-lock turn range than most steering systems
  • requiring less space than most steering systems
  • the cable can be installed in a wide variety of ways. This means that you would most likely be able to save money on the actual cables themselves if you found a way to use fewer cables for your connection.

Rotary Disadvantage

 The only major negative it has is its lack of precision control compared to the rack and pinion system. Other than that, the rotary steering system is often comparable, if not better than other boat steering systems. It can be very advantageous for you to use depending on your particular boating needs.

 Akin to selecting a car, choosing the best and most relevant type of boat steering system is the only way to make sure you will get the performance you are looking for. But just what should you look for in the various types of boating systems?

What then should you consider in a Boat Steering System?

Searching for boat steering systems can be a true struggle if you don’t know what to look for. There are specific characteristics that a good steering system will possess, and you must be aware of them.

See also  Is it Okay for an Aluminum Boat to Stay in the Water Year-Around?

So, before you even think of purchasing a new boat steering system, you should know what to look for in such a product. Below are some of the core things to consider when shopping for a boat steering system.

Engine type, boat drive type, and intended speed of boating

Man driving a motor boat carrying an air inflated boat in the seas of Italy.

Primary important factors to consider are engine type, boat drive type, and intended speed of boating. You should already know this information for your boat, and this will help get started on deciding what kind of boat steering system you should use.

Cost

Boat steering systems are relatively affordable. Just ensure you don’t solely rely on the price when buying the boat steering system. Also, consider whether the price versus quality is worth it. You can do so by checking the specifications and the reviews of the product.                                                     

Cable Length

Cables may be the most important part of the steering system, so you cannot afford to spend cash on the wrong items. You must get the exact length that you need for your cables before purchasing a new boat steering system.

You need to ensure you take the most direct route when installing the cables. Furthermore, do not make too many cable bends. These days, most cables will not require a lot of maintenance – not unless you use them a lot.

Maintenance

A boat mechanic doing maintenance repair to an engine of a motor boat at his boat garage.

Since you will need to provide a lot of maintenance to your boat steering system, it’s not something to overlook. Often, the one area that requires more maintenance than the others will be the cables.

To help yourself when it comes to maintenance, ensure there aren’t too many obstructions between the cable, wheel, and helm. It’s important to pick a boat steering system that will resist and isn’t prone to easy wear and tear.

Also, the more frequently you intend to use the boat steering system, the more you will have to consider the provision of maintenance to it.

Steering

If you need a steering system to replace the old one, then you should pick the same type of steering system as before. So, think about what type of steering system you used before, and make sure to get the same one.

Though there are a few situations when you can replace the old system, though. Like switching from a mechanical one to a hydraulic one, then a change of system will be worth it.

Turns

A hand of a man holding his boat's steering wheel in the boat's navigation controls cockpit.

How many turns does it take for a boat steering wheel to go from lock to lock? Well, the more turns there are, the less helm pressure you will have to deal with. That being said, it’s ideal to pick something with more turns, as having fewer turns will add more pressure and make things harder.

With that, here are the best FIVE small Boat Steering Systems to select from the market-in random order…

Now, that you know the different types of steering systems, try and put the best five small boat steering systems below, in order of which you think are the best based on the above recommendations.

Mophorn 150HP Hydraulic Outboard Steering Kit Boat Marine System

Mophorn 150HP Hydraulic Outboard Steering Kit Boat Marine System.

Pros

  • Durable product
  • No rebound torque during torsion
  • 150 HP
  • Wear and corrosion resistant
  • Easy to install

Cons

  • Doesn’t fit all 150 HP outboards

Seastar Safe-T Quick Connect Rotary Steering System

Seastar Safe-T Quick Connect Rotary Steering System.

Pros                                       

  • Very durable boat steering system
  • Comes with every part that you need
  • Easy to install
  • Has a quick response of 3 turn lock-to-lock

Cons

  • May not fit every boat
  • Might not come with a 9-foot cable

Baystar Kit Hydraulic Steering Kit with Compact Cylinder

Baystar Kit Hydraulic Steering Kit with Compact Cylinder.

Pros

  • Can be installed very easily and quickly.
  • Durable construction
  • It’s not as expensive as other similar products.
  • Has 150 horsepower
  • The instructions are well-written and easy to understand.

Cons

  • The hoses are not too flexible.

Uflex ROTECH12 Rotech Rotary Steering System

Uflex ROTECH12 Rotech Rotary Steering System.

Pros

  • Isn’t too pricey
  • Will be able to give you more balanced loads on the steering wheel
  • It’s quite durable and you won’t deal with any issues in this regard
  • Has a helm, steering cable, and 90-degree bezel
  • Can be installed very easily as it needs no new holes

Cons

  • The cable may be too big to use

SeaStar Solutions Back Mount Rack Steering System

SeaStar Solutions Back Mount Rack Steering System.

Pros

  • Safe to use
  • Comes with cable, 90° bezel and hardware, and a helm
  • Corrosion-resistant
  • Heavy-duty
  • Durable
  • Can be installed very easily.

Cons

  • Sometimes, the helm will not fit with the console for the rack assembly.