I’ve seen it happen many times. A boat turns in to the channel between two piers at a marina but then begins to veer off line. The skipper makes a small steering adjustment, followed by a larger one, and then he realizes that the wheel is no longer connected to the rudder. What comes next is often not pleasant, and it is why you need to check your steering system at least once a year.
Sudden steering failure and the level of maintenance required to prevent it are both inversely related to the rigidity of the link between your hand and the rudder. Tiller steering, for example, is the most rigid, and therefore the most dependable, as it requires the least amount of maintenance. All that’s needed is to protect the tiller from the elements and occasionally lubricate its pivot.
Although not as rigid as the hand-to-rudder link, a robust worm gear or rack-and-pinion steering can be almost as trustworthy and requires just a little more maintenance. Grit is the enemy of mechanical movements, which is why you should clean off all the grease with kerosene or diesel fuel at least once a year. You don’t need to disassemble anything, but you do need to rotate the wheel to access and clean the entire rack and/or gear. When the gears are thoroughly clean, recoat them with fresh Teflon grease to lubricate and protect them from corrosion.
If the wheel shaft has a universal joint, clean and repack it with Teflon grease. Lubricate the pillow blocks supporting the shaft with 30W motor oil; remove the cap bolts and slide the bushings clear to expose the bearing area. Use 30W oil on the worm-gear assembly to lubricate its pivots and bearings.
Typically, there will be an adjusting screw beneath a geared quadrant, right below the pinion. Release the locknut and rotate the screw to lift the quadrant; the idea is to force the quadrant into the pinion far enough to eliminate slack but not so deep that it causes the steering to bind up or to feel tight. On some older units, the teeth on the central part of the quadrant are likely to be more worn than those at the ends. This means that you may not be able to remove all the play in this section of the rack. Put a good coating of Teflon grease on the underside of the quadrant where it rides on the adjusting screw.
If the gearing is in the pedestal, remove the binnacle to gain access to it. If the engine controls are also in the pedestal, you might want to remove the control housing to get better access to the steering. Before you loosen anything, apply three strips of tape vertically; run them up from the pedestal’s main section to the compass dome, making sure to space the tape at irregular intervals. Slit the tape with a razor knife at the point where the various housings join. The idea is that when it is time to reassemble them, the tapes will let you get the correct alignment.
Like rudder-head gears, those housed in a pedestal also need to be cleaned and lubricated with Teflon grease. Torque-tube bearings near the top and the bottom of the pedestal must also be lubricated through the grease ports in their housings. Compensate for ring gear wear by repositioning the ring so that the pinion operates on fresh teeth. If the bevel gear, or half-circle rack, is inside the pedestal, compensating for wear will likely mean removing one of the adjustment shims from beneath the pinion shaft housing to slide the pinion slightly forward for tighter engagement.
Chain and wire
Remove the binnacle from your steering pedestal and you are 10 times more likely to find a sprocket than a gear, because most wheel-steered sailboats produced in this country have a chain-and-wire system that turns the rudder by pulling on a pair of wire ropes—like reins on a horse. Unlike a geared steering mechanism, a chain-and-wire system will not tolerate indifferent maintenance, and if it’s not properly maintained, it will fail suddenly and completely. The only thing you won’t know is when that will happen.
The sprocket inside the pedestal is fixed to the steering-wheel shaft, and a heavy drive chain, much like a motorcycle chain, passes over the sprocket. Each end is attached to a wire rope that runs either through a conduit—similar to a shift cable—or is led bare over a series of turning blocks. Then the wire ropes run aft to the rudder, where they attach to opposite sides of a disk or a quadrant that’s affixed to the rudder shaft.
Turning the wheel turns the sprocket, which lifts one end of the chain and lowers the other as it pulls on one rope wire and slackens the other. This action is what causes the disk, or quadrant, to rotate, turn the rudder shaft, and swing the rudder.
To maintain this system, begin with a thorough inspection of all the components inside the pedestal. Carefully inspect the chain-to-wire attachment, because this is where a flaw can produce a failure. This typically involves loosening or even releasing the wire by freeing the locknuts and then backing off the adjusting nuts on the take-up eyes on the disk or quadrant.
A wire-to-chain attachment can also be a specially swaged fitting or a simple eye around a stainless-steel thimble that is secured with compression (Nicopress) sleeves. A swaged steering fitting can suffer the same failure as a swaged rigging terminal, so you must also examine the swage barrel for cracks. Eye fittings can fail at the point where the thimble wears against the clevis. Also, inspect the condition of the clevis pins and the cotter pins that secure them.
When the chain is off the sprocket, lubricate the front and rear shaft bearings. Typically, this involves inserting the tip of a squeeze tube of Teflon grease into a hole in the bearing housing. To distribute the grease, spin the wheel while squeezing the tube. If there is any play between the wheel and the sprocket, dismantle the shaft and replace the worn components.
Clean and examine the chain link by link, and position it on the sprocket so it is centered when the wheel is centered; this ensures that neither cable end will reach the sprocket when the helm is hard over. Lubricate all the chain links with 30W motor oil, and put a couple of drops of oil on the threads of the brake knob on the pedestal.
It is not a good idea to locate electrical wiring inside a pedestal for two reasons. First, even the tiniest current leak can produce rampant corrosion. Second, any slack in the electrical wire could get under the chain and jam or otherwise disable the steering. If there are wires inside your pedestal, make sure they are in good condition and secured so that they can’t make contact with the chain.
At the bottom of the pedestal, the steering wires will either pass over idler sheaves that direct them straight to the disk on the rudder or run to additional sheaves that are part of the steering configuration. On some boats they may enter conduits that will route them, snake-like, through the boat. There should be a grease cup in the middle that can pump fresh grease into the conduit. If your conduits don’t have this feature (a worthwhile addition), you’ll have to grease the enclosed wires as best you can. Grease reduces friction and wear and also protects against corrosion.
A bare wire, in contrast, should be oiled rather than greased, and this is the time to check the integrity of the wires. Apply some 30W oil on a cotton ball, fold it around a wire, and then slide the cotton back and forth along the wire. If the cotton catches on a broken strand, you must replace both the port and starboard wires.
When the wires are slack or released, check all the sheaves; all should rotate easily and smoothly. If any of them wobble, replace the axle pins. Also look for bronze dust on, or below, a sheave; this is a sign that the sheave needs to be realigned. Check that all the cotter pins securing the axle pins are in place, and then oil each axle with 30W oil. Check all mounting bolts with a wrench to make sure they are tight.
Finally, check the attachment of the disk or quadrant. If the rudderstock is solid, it must be keyed, through-bolted, or possibly machined square where the disk or quadrant is located. Hollow rudderstocks typically will have a hardened pin that runs through the quadrant and stock. While there could also be opposing bolts that are threaded into the stock wall, this attachment is the least trustworthy and the bolts must be extracted and examined. If there is any sign of distortion, replace them.