Steering Cable Inspection
Does your boat have cable steering? If so when was the last time you inspected the cables or replaced them?
If you lay your boat up for the winter and only sail in summer your steering cables need to be inspected before the beginning of each season. If you are coastal cruising year round inspecting them a couple of times a year is in order. If you are making long off-shore passages inspecting them before each passage would be in order.
This winter Ed in our service department has inspected the steering systems on over a dozen boats, of the 10 sailboats he inspected with cable steering he has failed 8. All 8 had cables with broken strands.
According to Edson, a well known manufacturer of steering systems, your steering cables have a life expectancy of only 5 years! Having worked as a rigger for many years I can tell you few boats ever inspect, let alone replace their steering cables until they have a problem.
The hardest part of inspecting your steering cables and the turning sheaves under the deck is access, otherwise the process is pretty straight forward and simple.
Once you have gained access to your steering cables run a piece of tissue paper, wadded up in your hand, or a rag or your hand in a leather glove, along the cable and feel for “fishhooks” or broken strands such as the ones I have marked in the photo to the right. DO NOT RUN YOUR BARE HAND ALONG THE WIRE, FINDING A BROKEN STRAND WITH AN UNPROTECTED HAND WILL HURT!
The cable shown here is an extreme example, usually you won’t find as many broken strands as shown in this photo but finding even one indicates your cable needs replacing!
The strands on the cable break because they work harden where they constantly pass over the sheaves and steering quadrant when you turn the wheel.
Also take a look at the sheaves, the bronze wheels that control the cables direction from the steering pedestal to the quadrant. They should be turning freely and the wire should be running fair as it enters and exits the sheave. If one side of the sheave is worn it indicates a misaligned sheave that needs fixing.
The sheave axle pin should be lubed with a light machine oil, not grease. The cable itself does not require lubrication.
Steering system failure due to a broken cable is not fun. Steering with an emergency tiller is usually difficult at best. I highly recommend everyone try installing their emergency tiller and steering with it. You will likely find that some modifications are needed to use it effectively.
For those with an auto-pilot that has a direct connection to the rudder shaft, keep in mind you can use it to steer should your cables break. You may not be able to dock the boat with it but it will get you back to port without too much trouble. At the very least it will save you a long distance tow.
Also, regardless of the type of steering system you have, if your primary steering system breaks and you are steering with auto-pilot or emergency tiller you are now “Not Under Command (NUC)” and as such move to the top of the list of who has to give way to whom.
Should you lose your steering system, first, gain control of your boat by rigging your emergency tiller or activating your auto-pilot. Next, make a “Securite” call on VHF 16 to inform everyone you are NUC and why. More than likely the Coast Guard will contact you to ask if you need assistance.
The one time I was a NUC, I was 20 miles off Miami, at night in rough seas, when we declared we were a NUC we were immediately contacted by Miami Coast Guard and by several ships in our immediate vicinity. Most of the shipping told us they were altering course to stand clear of us. One ship took charge, asked if we needed assistance and told us he would inform all shipping approaching us of our position and to stand clear. One tug inshore of us told us we would have to slow down or alter course to pass behind him and his barge as he was as close to shore as he was allowed with a cargo of fuel. For him to alter course to pass behind us was not an option as we were already to close for that to safely happen. We trimmed sail to slow down and he passed safely in front of us. All in all I was impressed with the reaction I got from commercial shipping that night, ships continued to contact us as they approached, not only to tell us they were altering course to pass behind but to offer assistance if it was needed.
Inspect your system, if doesn’t take long and will save you a lot of grief and money in the long run.