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Sailboat Steering: I Turn The Wheel And ... Nothing Happens!

Spring is the perfect time to dive into the belly of your boat to inspect your sailboat's steering system. Is it good for another season?

Sailing away

Photo: Mark Corke

The majority of sailboat steering systems rely on a chain and rope arrangement. A short length of chain runs over a sprocket inside the steering pedestal, which is moved by the steering wheel. The ends of the chain are spliced to stainless steel wire that usually runs around several sheaves before it terminates on the steering quadrant atop the rudder post. All of these contact points are potential areas of chafe and general wear and tear. Even with careful maintenance there eventually comes a time that the cable will need to be replaced.

The results of neglecting the steering system was bought home to me several years ago. I was sailing along on a beam reach on a perfect day; the seas were calm and all was right with the world. Then for some inexplicable reason, the boat rounded up and headed into the wind, sails flapping. On investigation, I found that one of the steering cables had parted, rendering the steering wheel useless. Thankfully, we had an emergency tiller aboard and were soon on our way again. Although the boat had been kept in good condition, the steering gear had seen little to no maintenance. This was definitely a case of out of sight, out of mind. I suspect that the cable had slowly worn until it eventually gave way, something a yearly routine inspection would have caught.

Replacing a steering cable is never a pleasant task, often due to tight and awkward working conditions, but this video from our friends at Edson explains this essential process.

Replacing Chain and Wire

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Mark Corke

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

A marine surveyor and holder of RYA Yachtmaster Ocean certification, BoatUS Magazine contributing editor Mark Corke is one of our DIY gurus, creating easy-to-follow how-to articles and videos. Mark has built five boats himself (both power and sail), has been an experienced editor at several top boating magazines (including former associate editor of BoatUS Magazine), worked for the BBC, written four DIY books, skippered two round-the-world yachts, and holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest there-and-back crossing of the English Channel — in a kayak! He and his wife have a Grand Banks 32.