Types of Boat Steering Systems

If you are a discerning boat owner that takes an interest in how your boat operates, you probably pay attention to your boat’s steering system. This is especially true when it’s time to replace the boat’s steering system. 

There are two main types of boat steering systems. The first type is mechanical steering systems divided into rotary steering and rack and pinion steering. The second type is hydraulic steering systems, which can be divided into manual steering and power-assisted steering. Let’s take a closer look at each type of steering system below. If you have any further questions about boat steering systems, feel free to contact our boat maintenance and repair crew. We provide full maintenance services on all boats and yachts.

Mechanical Steering System

Mechanical steering uses push-pull cables that connect the steering wheel and helm at the front of the boat with the outboard motor. This system provides good handling performance and safe operation for smaller boats. Small boat owners that use a tiller arm to steer the boat may want to upgrade to mechanical steering. This allows them to use a steering wheel, sit closer to the front and steer with less physical force.

Rack and Pinion

There are two different rack and pinion steering systems: a single rack and a dual rack. A hollow bar attaches to the steering cable. The hollow bar contains a plate that has teeth all along one side. The flat plate attaches to the steering cable. 

At the helm is a rod that attaches to the steering wheel. At the other end of the rod is a round gear with teeth that fit perfectly with the plate’s teeth inside the bar. The bar is bolted onto the mechanism that allows the plate and the gear to fit smoothly together. As you turn the steering wheel, the gear spins. 

Rotary Steering

A rotary steering system operates similarly but with a different mechanism operating the cable. The system utilizes the same attachments at the engine, using the bracket and steering arm. The difference is that the rotary helm utilizes the cable instead of a plate. The end of the cable that slides back and forth inside the cable sheath is the plate in the rack and pinion portion.

The cable has teeth attached around it for about a 12″ portion of the cable. A larger rod-style helm contains a gear with teeth that fit together with the cable’s teeth. The cable is fed into the helm. It makes a “U” shape and wraps around the gear or wheel inside the helm.

Hydraulic Steering System

Hydraulic steering makes handling high-torque engines and high-speed boats easy and safe. This type of system is designed for boats with single motors. Feedback is eliminated, holding a steady course while steering is simplified because no steering effort is required until you turn the engine or rudder. 

Hydraulic steering systems use a lightweight hydraulic hose to control the steering. This offers larger or high-powered vessels a smooth, lightweight feel when turning the steering wheel. With fewer metal parts than a mechanical system, hydraulic steering has the benefit of being more resistant to corrosion. Hydraulic systems can also handle torque conditions and may only require fingertip effort.   

Manual Steering

Manual boat steering systems work entirely by hand. Hydraulic steering systems depend on the force and the steering wheel’s movement to push the hydraulic oil to the steering cylinder and direct the vessel. Manual hydraulic steering systems produce a smooth and easy method to steer a boat, and they are reliable systems. They are also quite simple and inexpensive to install.

Power-Assisted Steering

Power-assisted steering uses an electronically controlled hydraulic pump to provide power to your hydraulic steering system. The system consists of two circuits: a hand-operated manual system, which is the control element, and a hydraulic power pump, which is the working element.

The manual system consists of a helm pump with internal relief and check valves, as well as a built-in reservoir. Two steering lines and a compensating line run through the system, while a steering cylinder moves the steering device from side to side. The power system is an electronically controlled hydraulic pump that boosts the fluid being sent from the helm pump to the steering cylinder.

What Are the Main Differences Between Hydraulic and Mechanical Steering Systems?

Which steering system you choose depends on your boat requirements, including size, engine trim and propeller.   

Boat Size

A hydraulic steering system is recommended for larger boats with single motors ranging from below 150 up to 350 horsepower and those moving at high speeds. The torque of a large outboard motor means it can be difficult to bring out of a turn or veer sharply from heading straight with mechanical steering.

A mechanical steering system is suitable for small boats up 35 feet with motors under 150 horsepower. Mechanical steering shouldn’t be used on boats that have engines fitted that exceed the boat’s recommended maximum horsepower.

Cost of Steering Systems

Mechanical systems are cheaper, but recently, hydraulic systems suitable for smaller boats have become less expensive. More owners are upgrading their boats with a hydraulic steering system. This trend is expected to continue, and it will be more common for boats with outboard motors of 50 horsepower or less to use hydraulic steering in the future.


All steering systems require inspection and maintenance. However, there is less maintenance required for a hydraulic steering system over a mechanical one. Despite being more reliable, a hydraulic system still requires regular maintenance. Contact your local maintenance crew for tips on how to maintain a hydraulic steering system.

Boat Motor Mounting

Whichever steering you use, ensure your boat’s motor is mounted correctly according to the boat and engine manufacturer instructions. The position of the motor can affect steering load and boat handling.  

Contact Pensacola Shipyard Today

Pensacola Shipyard is the Emerald Coast’s premier shipyard. Whether you need ongoing boat maintenance, 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.