While routine and scheduled maintenance are typically determined by annual usage and environmental conditions among other factors, boats need care and consideration to ensure reliability and longevity. At the very least you should undertake regular oil and filter changes, yet it’s highly likely that you rarely put any thought into your boat’s hydraulic steering system.
At its most basic element, a hydraulic steering system greatly enhances overall handling performance by reducing the amount of energy needed to steer your boat. And since smooth and reliable operation are critical to safe and enjoyable boating, your hydraulic steering is one of the most important systems on your vessel—no matter the size of your craft or number of outboard motors hanging off the transom.
By taking a few minutes to look things over before each trip you may catch little problems before they become major issues.
While Floridians are fortunate to have pleasurable weather and calm seas year-round, not everyone enjoys such a luxury. With seasonal boating comes routine maintenance after long periods without use. However, here in Florida it is completely different. Boaters who use their vessels on a weekly basis are much more likely to miss minor problems resulting from normal wear and tear. If left unattended, even the smallest leak or worn fitting can grow to become a major headache—and often a costly repair. To ensure the safety of your vessel and crew be sure to routinely inspect your steering system. By taking a few minutes to look things over before each trip you may catch little problems before they become major issues.
Along with routine inspections, annually and certainly more often if you rack up the hours, you should perform a complete hydraulic steering system inspection. You’ll need a wrench or two, with the proper size box-end or combination wrench recommended over an adjustable wrench. A torque wrench will also come in handy to make sure you tighten all fittings to the manufacturer’s noted specifications. You’ll also need quality marine grease and an ample supply of rags or heavy-duty absorbent paper towels.
Starting at the engine, remove the support rod from the steering/tilt tube. Make sure you clean out the hollow cavity really well. All of the old, hardened grease needs to be removed so it doesn’t contaminate the new grease. Now lubricate the support rod liberally and insert it back into the tilt tube. You also want to grease the tilt tube as well as the support bracket holes. From here you should place a little grease on the threads before you insert the washers and tighten up the nuts—saltwater is incredibly corrosive and a little grease goes a long way.
Next, inspect the tightness of all fasteners and fittings throughout the steering system. This also requires getting under or behind the dash to inspect the back of the steering helm pump. While you are at the console remove the steering wheel and re-grease the wheel shaft. At this point you are done with the grease, but you still need to inspect the hydraulic fluid for cleanliness. If the fluid is dirty and contaminated you need to flush the system with clean fluid. Depending on your mechanical abilities this may be a task best handled by your dealer or service technician, as they likely have an automatic pump that will refill and re-bleed your system.
While preventative maintenance will keep your hydraulic steering system performing perfectly, don’t ignore those quick inspections before each trip. Here are some tests you can perform before casting off.
Check the fluid level in the highest helm pump. If the level is low, simply top it off with hydraulic fluid.
Once you have checked the levels and replaced the cap in the helm pump, turn the wheel hard over from side to side. Listen for any foreign noises. You are also looking for immediate response from the engine or drive unit. If there’s a noticeable lag in engine movement you have a problem somewhere in the system that needs to be addressed. Be sure you run this check on all steering wheels on your boat, including the autopilot if you have one.
Inspect all of the hoses and fittings. You are looking for wear, kinks and/or leaks. Catching these problems early makes for easy fixes.
Inspect the steering tube(s) and support rod(s), take a look at the exposed ram shaft(s) and make sure everything moves smoothly as the engine pivots from side to side. Take a close look at the seals and wipers, and search for any bends, nicks or damage to the steering ram shaft. For boaters who ply their craft in saltwater be sure to install a grounding strap to protect from galvanic corrosion.
Steering is a vitally important control system on your boat and the ability to safely and confidently maneuver at speed or in close quarters, especially with multiple outboards, makes for enjoyable and safe operation. Just a little attention will provide long lasting performance.