Steering a car is one thing, but steering a boat is an entirely different matter—which is why we made a video about steering a new boat. But all the piloting abilities in the world won’t help, if your boat’s steering system fails. This isn’t as uncommon as one might think, and often leads to a call for help. So when it came to determining how you can prevent this problem, we went directly to the experts: Captain Joseph Frohnhoefer III and Operations Administrator Glenn Goldsmith, of Sea Tow.

insert caption

Sure, learning how to steer a boat is a new experience for many—but learning how to deal with system failures is yet another experience that even the most seasoned boaters sometimes face.


Yes, of course Sea Tow wants to help if you have a break-down – but they’d rather your boat didn’t break down in the first place. According to Frohnhoefer and Goldsmith, keeping tabs on your steering system and constantly looking for signs that there may be an issue developing is the key to preventing failure. And when it comes to steering, the signs you need to keep an eye out for depend on what type of steering system you have. In the case of cable steering, look for:

  • Very tight steering

  • Limited range of motion

  • Visible damage to the steering cable and connections

The end result of all these indications can be a complete break of the cable or connections, which will result in a total loss of steering.

In the case of hydraulic steering, be wary if you notice:

  • Play in the steering

  • Visible fluid leaks

  • Reduced response as you operate the wheel

For an in-depth look at how a hydraulic steering system works, see Tips on Hydraulic Steering for Outboards.

Newer fly-by-wire systems are a completely different beast. These utilize a digital system to transfer a signal from the helm to the engine, outdrive, or rudder(s). For these types of systems be aware of:

  • A diagnostic warning code appearing on the engine’s monitoring system, which is likely to be the first indication of any problem

  • Erratic or delayed responses from the system

In either case, you’ll need to contact a certified repair facility.

What should you do when a sudden steering problem catches you off-guard, and you don’t have the option of getting it fixed before a full-blown failure? In that case, dear boater, we’re afraid you’ll have to make that call for help. You can hail Sea Tow on VHF channel 16, call 1-800-4-SEA TOW, or if you have the (free) Sea Tow app on your phone, request assistance with the app and Sea Tow will get your GPS coordinates along with the call.

Steering failures are, of course, just one of the many issues you may need to deal with when boating. That’s why we teamed up with the experts at Sea Tow to bring you solid advice on a number of topics including:

Editor's Note: Promotional consideration for this article was paid by Sea Tow.