Like many systems on your yacht, you probably will not even notice your steering system, until it has a problem! In fact, hydraulic steering tends to be very reliable and worry free. That is why it is found on most modern yachts and power boats. However, that does not mean you shouldn’t know a little bit about how it works, what could go wrong, and how to keep your steering system trouble free.
Getting to Know Marine Steering
Just as in your car or truck, your yacht’s steering system determines the direction your boat will veer towards when the steering wheel is turned. However, even with power steering, operating the helm of a boat is a little more physically demanding than driving a motor vehicle.
The significant torque generated by a yacht’s engines creates a load on the steering system that must be continually controlled by the operator, even when the boat is headed straight. Also, this engine torque continuously pushes the boat to the right, requiring the operator at the helm to compensate by keeping wheel pressure to the left. This can often lead to a condition known as “helm fatigue,” if you are at the wheel for a long time. So, if you start to feel yourself straining, stop for a break, or give the helm to someone else. Interestingly enough, this push to the right, is the reason why you will usually find the wheel on most boats on the right (starboard) side of the boat. To counteract this to-the-right motion, sometimes referred to as “propeller walk”, ship’s designers put the helm on the right and at roughly amidships, so that the weight of the driver, and the helm console would make the starboard side heavier, offsetting the movement to the right to a degree.
Marine Hydraulic Steering Systems
As stated above, hydraulic steering is pretty universal on yachts these days, and is so reliable that many yacht owners and their engineers or managers, do not even consider the steering as part of their routine maintenance plans, until it has shown signs of a problem. However, like most other systems on your vessel, your steering system needs regular inspection, maintenance and cleaning during the boating season.
Like any hydraulic system on your yacht, your steering system is made up of pumps, seals, fittings and other parts that can wear out over time. You never want to risk any kind of failure that could occur on a yacht while it is underway, if it could be avoided!
As in all hydraulic systems, hydraulic steering is made up of three basic components. A pump, a ram that connects to a rudder or outboard engine, and connecting lines that transmit the actions you take with the steering wheel to the steering pump, and to the steering ram. It’s a simple system. Turning the steering wheel in either direction pumps hydraulic fluid through the hydraulic lines to the ram, which in turn moves the rudder, or sterndrive, in the appropriate direction. When all is working, your yacht responds, turns in the direction you want to go, and all is well.
While the basics remain the same, of course the larger the boat the more complex the system. On luxury motor yachts you could have multiple helms, autopilots, and power steering. Which is all the more reason why your hydraulic steering should be on your engineer’s, or yacht manager’s radar when it comes to preventive maintenance.
How Often Should Your Yacht’s Steering System Be Inspected?
Your maintenance team should inspect your steering system at least once a year.
They need to look at the seals on the ram by checking for any fluid on the shaft. The shaft should never be wet. A wet shaft indicates leaking seals. The shaft also needs to be inspected for any signs of pitting or corrosion. Your maintenance technicians will also check the condition of the hydraulic fluid by pulling a sample of it. If the fluid is fouled, then the entire steering system will need to be flushed and the hydraulic oil replaced. The techs will also spend some time looking around the helm for any physical signs of leaking, and of course, also take the boat out for a spin during the inspection process, and feel for any signs of “spongy” steering, or other responses that could indicate a problem. All the hoses and lines will also be checked for any signs of wear.
Your Yacht’s Other Hydraulic Systems
In many ways, it is hydraulics that have made modern motor yachts safer and easier to operate. However they must be well-maintained in order to keep your yacht it tip-top shape!
Operating a motor yacht can be costly. You can reduce your expenses, and avoid costly repairs by keeping her well maintained. On Demand yachting from FYM can help. If you would like to learn more, or if you have any questions or comments about this blog post, do not hesitate to contact our Yacht Management specialists, or call us at (954) 900-9968.