SOME MARINE SYSTEMS ARE so reliable we tend not to notice them. I’ve owned a few boats in my time, and most of them had hydraulic steering. It’s one of those reliable systems so wide- spread, it’sallbutuniversalexceptforboatsthatuseatiller, cable, or other form of mechanical steering. Good steering systems
work as they should, year after year, and typically don’t get on the schedule of
routine maintenance, unless there is a problem.
But that might not be the best of ideas. After all, it is on a boat, and nothing on a boat is
perfect, or forever. Does the hydraulic fluid go bad over time? Do fittings work loose? Are there
any common failure points you should know about? So, how often should you think about
these things and what exactly do you look for? To find some answers, we spent time with Chad
Winget, lead technician at Zimmerman Marine, a well-respected service and repair facility in
Deltaville, Virginia, whose ABYC-certified tech staff knows how things should be done. When
we got together, he explained hydraulic steering in simple terms and showed what to look for
and how best to ensure a trouble-free system, no matter what kind of boat it’s on.
Hydraulic steering is made up of three components: a pump with an integral reservoir for
hydraulic oil, a ram that connects to a rudder or outboard engine, and connecting lines that
transmit inputs from the steering pump to the steering ram. It’s very simple and, when sized
and installed correctly, makes for a mostly carefree system. Turning the steering wheel in either
direction pumps oil through the lines to the ram, which in turn pulls or pushes the rudder, out-
CARING FOR YOUR HYDRAULIC STEERING
What you should know about this often overlooked marine system BY BILL PARLATORE
board, or sterndrive in the desired direction.
The simplest example of hydraulic steering
is found on small powerboats powered by
single outboard or multiple engines linked by
a tie bar. On a small boat, a compact hydraulic
pump with integral hydraulic-fluid reservoir
located at the steering wheel connects with
sturdy nylon hoses belowdecks and in turn to
flexible rubber hoses to a steering ram at the
transom, which reliably turns the outboard(s)
as one turns the steering wheel. Steering systems get progressively more complicated on
larger boats with multiple helms, autopilots,
and power steering, but the basics are much
the same. So, too, is the maintenance.
Winget recommends a yearly inspection.
Look at the seals on the ram, especially on an
open boat, where it’s exposed to salt, sand,
PRACTICAL BOATER | PROJECT
A spongy wheel indicates
you have a hydraulic leak.
Oil doesn’t evaporate, so
if the reservoir is low, a
leak is present.
starts at the
helm, where the
oil reservoir is