Upgrade To Hydraulic Steering

Story And Photos By Dan Armitage

Switching to hydraulic steering can reduce both maintenance and steering effort.

If it's time to replace your outboard-powered boat's mechanical steering system, consider an upgrade to hydraulic. The systems are simple, consisting of three components: an integral hydraulic-fluid reservoir with a pump at the helm, a cylinder with steering ram at the outboard, and the hydraulic lines that push the fluid between the two. The simplicity of the system reduces maintenance; the hydraulics all but eliminate steering effort. And if you're using two hands on the wheel to steer the boat, upgrading to hydraulic steering will make it fun to drive again.

SeaStar Solutions' BayStar kit is a popular option for boaters considering a change from mechanical to hydraulic steering. This DIY project can be accomplished by a handy boater and a friend in an afternoon; or, if you decide to hire a pro to do it, just knowing how it's done will make you a smarter boat owner. This system is designed for use with outboards up to 135 horsepower. We installed a BayStar system on a 20-foot center-console boat powered by a 115-hp outboard, replacing the boat's original mechanical steering system that had been used in saltwater, then sat unused for several years. The effort required to turn the wheel and steer the boat was increasing with use, which a change to a hydraulic system would alleviate.

With fewer moving mechanical parts, the hydraulic system requires only periodic checks and the topping off of fluid levels, both of which are performed via an easy-access port at the helm, and annual (or every 200 hours of use) cleaning and regreasing of select cylinder and helm components. An additional benefit of moving to a hydraulic system: It gives you the option for more easily adding an autopilot. Follow these steps to make the switch to hydraulic steering.

Getting Started

Review the instructions before installation to make sure you have the parts, tools, and the confidence required to tackle this project. The kit includes cylinder, helm, tubing, hardware, and fluid. Basic hand tools and power tools are required.

  • Photo of removing steering wheel
    Photo of removing wheel hub mounting base

1. Remove the wheel, which may or may not be easy, depending on how firmly it's locked on the existing hub. In our case, a gear puller was required to help free the wheel.

2. Remove the original wheel-hub mounting base. We had to cut the rust-locked bolts to free them.

  • Photo of separating steering cable from drum
    Photo of taping the hydraulic hoses

3. Separate the steering cable from the drum and remove the latter from the dash. Separate the steering cable from the engine.

4. Tape the two hydraulic hoses to the steering cable and use the cable to messenger the hoses from the transom up to the helm.

  • Photo of using a template to mark new hole
    Photo of cutting new hole for helm unit

5. Use the paper template provided, (or the new helm bezel as a template) to mark the three-inch-diameter hole required for accepting the helm unit. We used masking tape to reduce gelcoat flaking and to protect the dash surface from the jigsaw.

6. Cut the new hole to fit the helm unit. SeaStar offers kits for adapting oversized holes to accept the BayStar helm. With the drill in reverse to avoid chipping the gelcoat, drill bolt holes for mounting the helm.

  • Photo of attaching hydraulic hoses to helm
    Photo of putting helm into position from behind dashboard

7. Attach the hydraulic hoses running from the transom to the helm unit.

8. Put the helm into position from behind the dash panel and secure the mounting bolts. Be sure the viewing/filling port is at the top, facing up. Reinstall the steering wheel.

  • Photo of mounting cylinder assembly to outboard steering bracket
    Photo of lubricating tilt tube

9. Familiarize yourself with the cylinder-mounting procedure at the motor, noting where to attach each steering hose to synch the direction of the wheel swing with the proper deflection of the outboard. Have a helper ready for the mounting of the cylinder and for filling the system with hydraulic fluid. Mount the cylinder assembly to the outboard steering bracket using the stainless-steel bolt and locknut provided.

10. Lubricate the tilt tube, support rods, and mounting nut, and slip the rods into the tilt tube. Attach the fluid hoses to the cylinder assembly.

  • Photo of attaching bleeder hose to overflow container
    Photo of filling with hydraulic fluid

11. Attach the bleeder hose provided, and direct it to an overflow container at the transom.

12. Remove the filler plug from the top of the helm. Fill, using the hose and fluid provided in the kits, while you swing the wheel to starboard and to port to fill and bleed the lines on each side, as your helper handles the opening and closing of the respective ports back at the cylinder. Perform a system check by turning the wheel hard over to hard over to confirm hose clearance and unrestricted movement at each level of tilt.

You're done! Get out on the water, perform a sea trial, and enjoy your new hydraulic steering system. 

Dan Armitage is a syndicated radio show host (buckeyesportsman.net) and outdoor writer who leads seminars on boating and fishing.

— Published: August/September 2015


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