How Boat Steering Works

As the owner of your vessel, it is a good idea to learn what kind of steering system your boat uses. If possible, try to understand how the system works, as well as the location of all system components. Knowing your steering system operation allows you to make simple repairs if the steering goes bad while you are out to sea.

Although the operation of a boat steering system can be complex, it only requires a dozen or so parts. Each part is essential in giving you full control of the boat without the need to apply too much pressure to the wheel. The better the design, the easier your vessel is to steer.

Parts of a Steering System


A ship’s wheel is used to steer the vessel and control its course. The wheel forms part of the helm (see below). It is connected to a mechanical or hydraulic steering system that alters the direction of the rudder. In some modern boats, the wheel is replaced with a simple toggle that remotely controls a drive for the rudder.


The helm is the mechanism behind the instrument panel that converts the wheel’s rotary motion into a push-pull motion on the cable. The steering wheel attaches to the helm. When you turn the wheel, the cable turns around the rotary steering helm.

Steering Cable

When you turn the steering wheel, the push-pull cable moves the rudder. Single-cable steering is designed for boats with a motor of 130 hp or less. More powerful engines use a dual-cable steering system. With one cable under tension and the other in compression, steering slop is minimized.

Cable Connections

Cable connection kits contain hardware that connects your steering system to the boat’s engine. The cable exits from the helm and makes a bend to connect with the engine, driver or rudder. In some systems, the cable is connected through the engine tilt tube.

Reduction Gear

The reduction gear transforms a rotational movement into a push-pull movement. The reduction gearbox is positioned close to the rudder stock. Via a drag link with joints, the push-pull movement is transmitted to the rudder shaft. 

Planetary Gear

A planetary gear design has three satellite gears that rotate on their axis and, at the same time, rotate around the central helm axis. This allows for equal distribution of engine torque over three points of the central gear, dividing and balancing the system loads.

How All These Parts Work Together

When a helmsman turns the ship’s wheel, the vessel smoothly begins its turn port or starboard side. While the operation looks simple enough, between the wheel and rudder is a complex operation that requires a precise response to the wheel’s position. 

A ship’s wheel is part of the helm that connects the wheel to a steering system, allowing you to turn the boat. Boats with outboard motors contain a wheel that rotates the drive unit. Inboard motors utilize a pod with an attached propeller. The helm converts a wheel’s rotary motion into a push-pull motion on the cable moving the rudder right, left or amidship. Most helms have a rotary design that utilizes gears to turn the rudder.

The steering system gears are designed to reduce friction in the push-pull action. They optimize steering by getting the most rudder action with the least movement from the steering wheel and other parts.

Steering System Maintenance Tips

Since every part of a boat steering system is a moving part, the system requires ongoing boat maintenance and care. While most of the maintenance is preventative, you will also need to replace worn out parts from time to time. A maintenance checklist may include

  • Mechanical inspection
  • Tension tests
  • Adequate lubrication
  • Wear/stiffness in the rudder bearings
  • Free movement from the wheel to the rudder
  • Wheel tightness on the shaft
  • Clean steering cables
  • Signs of corrosion
  • Proper cable attachment

The Rudder

Start the inspection at the rudder with the boat out of the water. Look for wear or stiffness in the rudder bearings. Try to move the rudder laterally as well as fore and aft. If you see more than a half-inch of movement, you may have a wear problem. Pivot the rudder, which should move smoothly without a lot of resistance. Expect a little resistance from the ship’s wheel. Otherwise, the system should move freely.

The Quadrant

Next, check the quadrant, which should be firmly attached to the stock. The easiest way to check is to have someone turn the wheel while watching the quadrant. If you see any movement between the stock and the quadrant, you have a problem. It is critical that you fix this problem, as it will get worse with time.

The Wheel

Next, check the ship’s wheel. Spin the wheel around to check the tightness on the shaft. If the wheel wiggles while being turned, there may be a loose nut or worn shaft key. Is the shaft firmly in the pedestal? The bearings in the pedestal can wear over time. If the pedestal looks good, lubricate it by adding a little lightweight oil on the chain as you move the wheel from lock to lock. You should see little holes on the top of the front and rear bearing braces, which should be packed with a little Teflon grease to keep the bearings running smoothly.

Steering Cables

Next, inspect the steering cables, which you can clean, lubricate and tighten at the same time. Put some oil on a rag and wipe down each cable, moving the rudder a little to get to the cable on the sheaves. If you see any broken strands, the cables need to be replaced. 

Contact Pensacola Shipyard Today

Pensacola Shipyard is the Emerald Coast’s premier shipyard. Whether you need professional boat repair, resources or facilities, we have everything you need for a complete boating experience.

To find out more about our marina and boating services, call 850.780.8441.