Boats

5 min read

Navigating Boat Steering Choices: Find Your Smooth Sail

Set sail into the nautical world of boat steering systems, where the right choice leads to smooth seas and the wrong one? Well, let's navigate the pros, cons, and costs together. Anchors aweigh!

Tobi Miles
March 25, 2023

A boat’s steering system is more important than nearly any other component of the vessel. It is responsible for your boat’s handling which determines how smooth your ride is. So, what are the types of boat steering systems?

The main types of boat steering systems are rotary, rack and pinion, and hydraulic. Mechanical steering systems are among the most common and popular types because of their smooth handling and how easy they are to install. Electronic and hydraulic steering systems are reliable, but they are much more expensive than mechanical systems which cost as little as $300.

You need to consider your boat’s engine, horsepower, and size before you choose a boat steering system. Some types of boat steering systems, such as hydraulic systems, are only suitable for large and fast boats. Follow along as we explore the types of boat steering systems and highlight their benefits and downsides.

Boat Steering Systems

There are several types of boat steering systems ranging from mechanical and hydraulic to rotary. Each type of boat steering system is unique and boasts advantages and downsides. They all vary in cost, function, installation, and boat size requirements. Let’s take a deep dive into each type of bot steering system and see how they vary.

1. Rotary

Rotary steering systems are quite common because of their impressive performance and easy installation. Using a series of cables and gears, rotary steering systems use simple movements to control the engine. The steering cables lead to the helm where you can control the boat.

Rotary steering system kits are quite affordable and start at $120. However, it’s worth hiring a professional to install it for you if you have limited experience. You won’t commonly find rotary steering systems on boats with engines that boast more than 100 horsepower.

Pros

The main appeal of rotary systems is the generous steering range. This makes it easy to turn quickly or make wide turns to avoid rough or shallow water. Luckily, rotary steering systems don’t take up a lot of space within your boat.

You get lots of freedom with different cable combinations if you install a rotary steering system yourself. However, you always need to make sure that the cables go through the helm, or else the system won’t work.

  • Generous steering range
  • Lots of freedom with installation
  • Doesn’t take up a lot of space

Cons

Rotary steering systems can be difficult to install, so you may have to hire professional help. The only other downside is that cable problems are common. You will either have to replace individual cables or install a new rotary steering kit altogether.

  • Difficult to install
  • Cable problems

2. Rack and Pinion Boat

Rack and pinion steering systems are quite common for small-to-medium-sized boats. You won’t find a rack and pinion system on a boat that has over 100 horsepower. They consist of cables attached to a pinion gear that allows you to steer.

The gears turn while you adjust the wheel and that is responsible for your movement. You can choose between a single or double rack and pinion steering systems. Double rack systems are generally considered better because they add durability.

Pros

The durability of rack and pinion steering systems is hard to compete with. They are also easy to install even if you have limited boating or mechanical experience. You can find rack and pinion steering installation kits for as little as $200 which is hard to beat.

  • Durable
  • Easy to install
  • Affordable
  • Accurate

Cons

The main downside of rack and pinion steering systems is that you have a limited turn range. That means that you may have to turn the wheel fully a few times before you can turn it all the way around. Other than that, the only downside is that they can be difficult to repair without ordering spare parts.

  • Turn range isn’t generous
  • Difficult to maintain

3. Hydraulic

Hydraulic boat steering systems are among the best, albeit the most expensive options on the market. This system makes use of valves and pumps that are connected to the steering wheel. The pumps and valves are activated each time you move the steering wheel via hydraulic fluid.

Generally, you will find hydraulic steering systems that measure over 32 feet long. Hydraulic steering systems are also mostly recommended for high-speed boats because of their quick reaction time. They aren’t cheap, however, and hydraulic steering system kits start at $600 on the low end.

Pros

You always get a smooth ride with a hydraulic steering system, even in choppy waters. Luckily, there is little to no risk of corrosion because hydraulic steering systems feature minimal hardware. This is a key benefit because mechanical components often require replacement due to water exposure and heavy use.

It is all too easy to steer a boat with a hydraulic steering system. That is because the reaction time between the steering wheel and the pumps is instantaneous.

  • Provides a smooth ride
  • Easy to steer
  • Low maintenance
  • Durable

Cons

While hydraulic steering systems are durable, they are still prone to problems such as leaks. You can tell that this is the problem if you suddenly have less control over the steering wheel or it handles less firmly. They are also more expensive than rack and pinion or mechanical steering systems.

Another downside to hydraulic steering systems is that they don’t work well with small or slow boats. That means that they are generally reserved for expensive boats that aren’t attainable for everyone.

  • Expensive
  • Only suitable for big and fast boats
  • Hydraulic fluid can leak

4. Mechanical

Mechanical steering systems are among the most popular options because of how simple they are. The system consists of cables and a steering wheel that are connected to the motor. This lets you easily control the boat from the helm without having to steer from the stern.

The cable connects directly to the helm from the engine which is one of the most direct connections you can find. Many modern boats on the market that measure 32 feet long or smaller feature a mechanical steering system. You can upgrade to mechanical steering if you have a tiller arm via a kit that costs $190-$300.

Pros

Mechanical steering systems are popular because of how easy they are to control. You can use a steering wheel with a mechanical steering system which is a huge plus. This appeals to new boaters that are apprehensive about less familiar steering methods.

Mechanical steering lets you easily traverse rough and choppy waters. That way, your arm won’t wear out from having to continually straighten the boat. Finally, even a novice boater can easily install or repair a mechanical steering system with a simple kit.

  • Easy handling
  • Simple installation
  • Works with a steering wheel

Cons

The biggest downside of mechanical steering systems is that they are high maintenance. Boat owners frequently have to replace the cable that is necessary for a mechanical steering system to work. This is necessary because the cable can wear down over time due to prolonged moisture exposure and temperature changes.

Another downside of mechanical steering is that it doesn’t work well with high-powered engines. You should typically only use a mechanical steering system on a boat that is under 70 horsepower. Mechanical steering works best with boats that are under 32 feet long, but even 32 feet can be too big.

  • High maintenance
  • Cables wear down over time
  • Only works with small boats

5. Electronic

Electronic steering systems are the newest type on the market to make this list. They only date back to the early 2000s, but electronic steering systems have gotten exponentially better. Electronic systems are known for being fuel efficient which can help you save money over time.

Part of their appeal is that they often come with smart features akin to modern cars. Many of them include a feature that is designed to help you stay on your path. Of course, this is similar to what boat navigation systems do, but electronic systems help you stay in line on a steering level.

Pros

The reason why electronic steering systems are so popular is that they are low maintenance. You should still regularly inspect your electronic system, but they are much less demanding than hydraulic or mechanical systems. Electronic steering systems are reliable and make it much easier to steer your boat.

Some electronic steering systems even include an automatic parking feature. This can work wonders to remove the monotony of docking a boat when you’re ready to unload your cargo. They have essentially brought the convenience and luxury of smart cars into the world of boats.

  • Low maintenance
  • Reliable
  • Automatic parking
  • Fuel efficiency

Cons

It is difficult to find replacement parts for an electronic steering system, and that can pose several problems. For example, you may need to replace your electronic system even due to simple problems if replacement parts are unavailable. Sensor failures are among the most common problems for electronic steering systems.

  • Difficult to find replacement parts
  • Potential sensor failure

How To Choose a Boat Steering System

Choosing a boat steering system is difficult because of how many factors you need to consider. Your steering system affects everything from cost and maintenance to handling. Let’s take a look at the factors that you need to consider when you choose a boat steering system.

Boat Size

Boat size is a limiting factor when you choose between the several types of boat steering systems. Some systems simply only work for boats of a specific size. This can be frustrating if you want a particular steering system that isn’t compatible with your boat.

For example, you cannot generally use a mechanical steering system if you have a boat that is over 32 feet long. Boat length is important because the components in a steering system need to be a certain length. In other words, a cable that is too small for a boat’s length won’t be able to connect from the helm to the engine.

Always check the recommended boat length for a particular steering system before you purchase it. Otherwise, you may wind up with a steering system that you cannot even install because it can’t reach the helm from the stern.

Engine

Horsepower and engine strength can limit which type of steering system you choose. Much like how size plays a factor, you need to check to see if the system you want is compatible with your boat’s horsepower. Rotary steering systems, for example, don’t work with any engine that goes over 100 horsepower which can be limiting.

You are less restricted with certain systems when it comes to horsepower, such as a hydraulic steering system. Engine strength is important because high speeds may put too much stress on mechanical and rotary steering systems. The last thing that you want is to push your engine and snap a cable on your steering system leading to expensive repairs.

Maintenance

Maintenance is an important factor to consider when choosing a boat steering system because it can be expensive. It can cost as little as $300 or as much as $900 or more to repair or replace a boat’s steering system. In some cases, you could spend over $1,500 to repair or replace a boat steering system, especially if it is hydraulic.

Mechanical systems can be tricky for beginners because you may need to replace the cables. Cables suffer corrosion over time, especially when exposed to saltwater. Maintenance is unavoidable no matter which type of steering system you have, especially if you use your boat heavily.

Consider an electronic steering system if you want to avoid as much maintenance as possible. They rarely require maintenance unless there is some sort of sensor failure.

Installation

Do you plan to install your own steering system? If so, then you need to consider the complexity of the installation before you make your choice. Installing a steering system on your boat without professional help can save you hundreds of dollars in labor

Some types of boat steering systems are simply too hard to install without professional help, such as hydraulic systems.

Mechanical, rotary, and rack and pinion steering systems are generally much easier to install. The hardest part of installing a mechanical or rotary steering system is connecting the cables and gears. Otherwise, you can install a mechanical steering system without professional help for $300 all in a day’s work.

Handling

Handling is everything when it comes to steering a boat or even a car. The last thing that you want is a steering system that you have to wrestle to get to move how you need it to. Generally, mechanical steering systems are the most widely praised for being easy to handle.

That is because mechanical steering is similar to driving a car which makes it easy for anyone to understand. Hydraulic steering systems are also commonly recognized as being among the easiest to handle. Rack and pinion systems have good handling, but the turn range is less forgiving than mechanical or hydraulic systems.

Budget

Finally, you should always consider your budget when you choose a boat steering system. Hydraulic steering systems are the most expensive option, so they aren’t ideal for everyone. Not only is the initial cost expensive, but you can also spend a fortune on maintenance and hydraulic fluid.

You can save money if you choose a rotary or mechanical steering system. They are among the cheapest types of steering systems, and they are cheap to repair compared to a hydraulic system. You can save anywhere from $400 to $1,100 if you choose a mechanical system over a hydraulic steering system.

What Is Boat’s Steering Device Called?

The steering device on a boat is called the helm, but some people call it the steering wheel. Almost all types of steering systems feature components that connect from the stern to the helm. The only exception is inboard engines which are located in the middle of the boat instead of the stern.

Outboard engines are located at the stern of the boat, and the steering system runs from the back to the helm. Steering systems for inboard engines typically run from the helm to the center of the boat. The steering system is concealed within the boat, and you can use an access hatch to install one.

What Is The Best Boat Steering System?

Many people consider mechanical boat steering systems to be the best. That is because of the smooth handling, easy steering, and consistency that they offer. There is less room for error with mechanical steering systems than with hydraulic or even electronic systems.

With that said, there is a rising movement of boaters that champion electronic systems because of their convenience. Electronic systems have the added benefit of smart features and better fuel efficiency. Even still, mechanical, and rotary steering systems will always be popular because of how easy they are to install.

Replacement cables and gears for mechanical systems are readily available. However, you cannot say the same about electronic systems which you typically need to replace when they fail. Mechanical systems are ultimately the best because they are timeless, reliable, and work with most boats under 32 feet long.

So, What Are The Types of Boat Steering Systems?

The main types of boat steering systems are mechanical, rotary, and hydraulic. Mechanical and rotary are among the most affordable because you can install them with professional help. Hydraulic steering systems are the most expensive and they only work for boats that measure over 32 feet long.

Electronic steering systems are the most convenient because they require almost no maintenance. However, you may have to replace the system if the sensors or other electrical components fail. Mechanical steering systems offer the best handling because it is similar to driving a car.

Article updated:
January 5, 2024

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