As I covered the maintenance of hydraulic steering systems in my last post, I thought it appropriate to add some comments on cable, chain, and other forms of mechanical steering. While these are often the steering gear of choice in sailboats, mechanical steering is not as common as the hydraulic ram system commonly found on trawlers and cruising motorboats.
Whatever the application, however, if these systems are installed properly, mechanical steering is a very reliable and proven steering system that typically require only minimal maintenance and inspection. Again, if installed properly.
Robert Beebe’s Passagemaker used automotive rack and pinion components as the backbone of its steering system. And, of course, the legendary Grand Banks 42 Classic uses a system of sprockets, pulleys, stainless steel cable, and chain for reliable steering. I think all but one of my sailboats used a quadrant on the rudder, with wire cable running through pulleys that transmitted input from the chain around the sprocket on the pedestal wheel steering.
These maintenance and inspection points were first published by what is now SeaStar Solutions. They provide a good checklist of what to look at and consider.
Coat all contact points between steering arms, pulleys, and cables with waterproof marine grease.
On a regular basis, apply the recommended marine grease to any and all grease fittings in the steering system, which may include lubrication points in the bushings of pulleys, pillow blocks, and control arms.
Every few months, and especially before a passage or extended cruising, visually inspect the wire cable, making sure it is in good condition with no cracks, chafing, or broken strands. A loose rag is a good way to find these nasty breaks in the wire cable. DO NOT run your bare hands along the wire cable. Meathooks hurt and can cause a nasty infection in no time.
Pay attention to twisted or unfair cable runs, which might unduly wear a section of wire cable that would otherwise be fine. If a pulley has come loose, or its angle changed for any reason, you may have a situation that will cause the wire cable to fail prematurely. I always found it helpful to get up close and personal with each section of wire and chain runs, to really look at the angle of how the wire moves as someone turns the wheel. A wobbly pulley sheave will alert you to a problem that you would not have noticed with a casual glance of a static steering system.
Watch for a sloppy feel at the wheel or helm. Cables can stretch from use, especially after heavy weather, and the significant forces at work might cause a pulley assembly to loosen.
Again, it is a really good idea to check the lead of all wire cabling that runs over the steering system of pulleys, and make sure to maintain the tightness of the wire as recommended for your system and boat.
Occasionally it is a good idea to pull the wheel off the helm or pedestal and grease the steering shaft with waterproof marine grease to prevent corrosion and binding. Before you grease the sprocket and chain assembly, inspect the chain for rust or broken links. Make sure the steering cable is attached to the chain with properly secured split pins or fittings.
Especially on an older boat, these cable clamps may have been sourced locally when there was a previous problem, and plain hardware store cable clamps are not a good choice for use in the marine environment.
As you can see, there is not much to it, so keeping your steering system operational does not take a huge amount of effort.
Stay safe out there.