Hydraulic steering is an oft-overlooked part of the maintenance process. Without it, though, you’ll be in for a bad day on the water. Understanding how to maintain this type of steering requires not only understanding the basic maintenance processes, but also understand a bit about how hydraulic steering works.

What is Hydraulic Steering?

Basic hydraulic steering is a three-part machine. There is a ram that connects to the outboard engine (or rudder), a pump that includes a reservoir for hydraulic oil, and a series of connecting lines that transmit input from the pump to the ram. It’s not actually a very complicated system, and that’s by design – once you have the system installed, it’s meant to be forgotten. You should have to think about the mechanics of steering when you are in the water and for the most part, these systems just work as intended. 

If you want to see hydraulic steering in action, you can find a simple form of the system on most small powerboats. These boats tend to have a either a single outboard engine or a few engines linked together, and they’re typically controlled by a simple single console. If you move up to bigger boats, you’ll see much more complicated systems – autopilots, power steering, and even multiple helms will start coming into play. The basics of this kind of steering will continue to be very important, though.

Maintenance

The good news for those who have ignored their steering systems for years is that this won’t usually cause a major problem. With that said, checking out the system should be on your yearly maintenance checklist. It’s one part of your boat that should last for a very long time, especially if you take care of it on a regular basis. 

So, where should you start? Generally, it’s with the ram. Take a look at the seals – if the shaft is wet, you might have a problem. Wipe it down and check it again after going through a single steering cycle. If it’s wet again, you have leaky seals and you’ll need to replace them. A bad seal can lead to corrosion as well, so make sure you don’t see any pitting on the shaft. The last thing you want is a hydraulic fluid leak. 

Next, you’ll want to take a look at the hydraulic reservoir, which is located at the helm. Remove the cap to take a sample of the oil – it’s easy enough that almost anyone can do it. What you want to see is clear, basically odorless hydraulic steering fluid. This fluid is full of various ingredients that are meant to keep the system running in good shape. If you see black oil or you notice a strong smell, there’s a good chance that you have a problem. 
If you find any kind of particulate matter in the oil, you’ll need to flush the entire system and replace the oil. Abrasive dirt is a huge problem in these systems and it most commonly hangs around after installation. If it’s noticeable, there’s a good chance that it could enter the system and cause problems. Don’t chance major damage – go ahead and flush out the system. 

Flushing out the system should also be done on a regular basis. Make sure to flush out the system about once every five years, while making sure to pay attention to any air bubbles the form. If you take your boat to a service yard, they’ll get the job done in a few minutes.

Now that you’re done looking at the oil, you’ll want to look at the helm again. Pay attention to how the wheel feels when it is turned. If it feels spongy, there might be air in the system. If you’ve purged everything and you know that the air has been removed, this is a good way to find a leak. The leak can be in the ram or the steering pump, both of which are hard to pinpoint visually. Problems turning will give you a good idea of whether or not this kind of damage is a possibility. 

Another fantastic way to find leaks is to see if you need to add oil to the reservoir. The oil in hydraulic steering isn’t used up, so a loss of oil means that there is a leak somewhere. If you’re missing oil, you’ll need to go back and check for leaks again.

Finally, take a moment to look at all the hoses and connections. These areas need to be cleaned off at least once a year. If there’s any wetness at the connections, there might be issues with the plastic hoses. They’re relatively tough under most circumstances, but those that are showing signs of leakage or damage do need to be replaced. 

Moving Past Hydraulics

Hydraulic steering isn’t the only game on the water these days. There are also electronic steering, which is becoming more common in newer boats. Electronic steering uses electrical signals to turn the pump on and off, relegating the hydraulic steering system to just part of the overall process. Far from being tougher on boats, this type of steering has actually made steering even more robust, making it easy to add in features like autopilot with relative ease. You can even add a second steering station with just a little effort, as the complexities of the traditional hydraulic systems are slowly becoming a thing of the past. 

Even those in that manufacture hydraulic steering admit that boating is moving towards a combination of electric and hydraulic. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your maintenance now – if you’re noticing problems with your hydraulic system, it might be smarter to replace the entire system (or boat) than to seek out parts of a system that’s past its prime. If you’re having problems with an old steering system, it’s probably worth your time to replace the steering entirely. It’s not the world’s most difficult DIY project and it might be easier than keeping up with hydraulic maintenance.