You’re at the helm when you suffer steering failure. Will you ricochet around the ocean or simply come to a stop? And what can you do to restore control? Chris Beeson finds out

Chris Beeson

Chris Beeson

Wheel steering systems are fundamentally simple and fail so rarely that we tend to take them for granted. However, this also means they often don’t get the maintenance they need. When a steering system does fail – usually due to impact damage or problems caused by a lack of maintenance – you will end up with no control of your vessel whatsoever.

In fact, steering failure can be worse than losing your rudder. With no rudder, you’ll still have a range of methods to help restore steerage: balancing sails, trimming the boat using crew weight, using a pole and board to make a jury rudder, or using a bridled drogue. We looked at these in our Summer 2010 issue, and, to some extent, they all give you some control of your direction. But if your rudder is jammed off-centre, your options will be severely limited.

What can go wrong?

Steering Failure

Modern steering systems are generally so reliable that we tend to take them for granted, so much so that maintenance can get overlooked

The usual cause of failure is a lack of maintenance. Steering cables rarely break but they can become slack or stretched and may eventually drop off a quadrant or sheave. Another possibility, linked to too much tension in the system or poor scantlings, would be a turning block in the steering system detaching from a bulkhead, dropping the tension out of the system and letting the cables fall off the quadrant.

What happened when we lost steerage?

When our boat lost steering control she rounded up and turned 360° as we tried to tack the foresail to ‘follow’ her, in an attempt to re-establish control

To find out what a loss of steering would feel like, we decided to lever the cables off the quadrant of our test boat, Fizzical, a Jeanneau Sun Fizz 40, while under sail. With a Force 4 setting in from south-southeast, we had no idea what would happen, so we sought shelter and sea-room in Osborne Bay, a weather shore.

Would we career around the bay or would we be pinned to the deck as the boom slammed from side to side above our ducked heads and the rudder crashed from stop to stop? The reality was a bit different.

Our experiment ended when the yacht, left to her own devices, circled one last time then stabilised in a hove-to forereach as the rudder feathered off

Once the steering cables were off, the quadrant barely moved. Having borne away to ease tension and release the leeward cable, the yacht continued her gentle downward, clockwise arc, slowly easing through a gybe before setting off on a vaguely hove-to forereach on starboard with the genoa backed.

It was the foresail that eventually helped to stabilise our direction and the quadrant ticked very slowly towards midships as the water flow feathered the rudder.

We repeated the exercise to see if our experience was reliable. This time we had a little less speed and found ourselves pirouetting gently a couple of times, tacking and gybing without touching the sails, before heading off on the same leisurely starboard fore-reach with the genoa backed.

What should you do?

There are a number of actions you can take to regain steerage, or make the best of your situtation

Engage the autopilot

Steering Failure

Use the autopilot: it’s connected directly to the stock with no load on the cables or quadrant

If you have a ram attached directly to your rudder stock, it will give you control in any scenario barring a bent rudder stock, seized bearings or loss of the rudder itself. You will also have control of the quadrant, so refitting and tightening the cables is fairly straightforward, depending on quadrant access.

Find and use the emergency tiller

Steering Failure

With no autopilot, get out your emergency tiller. Hopefully it will fit onto the stock and its securing bolt won’t be rusted solid

If you don’t have an autopilot, fish out your emergency tiller. It will only take a couple of minutes to bolt on and will restore steerage. Even in sheltered water, there will still be a fair bit of weight in the tiller, which will make it, and the boat, less manageable. Tack and gybe a few times to ensure you have complete control.

It’s very important that you dig out your emergency tiller and practice using it before you need it for real. Check it regularly for corrosion, too. On some centre cockpit yachts, the emergency tiller is in the aft cabin, which makes it hard to hold a straight course. On some aft cockpit yachts it extends aft, complicating its use.

Tiller-steered boats aren’t immune from steering loss, so have a sturdy spare

Owners of tiller-steered yachts might be feeling smug at this point, but the same fate can befall them, too. The tiller can split, bolts can shear or rattle undone, the stainless steel plates can buckle if not up to the job. You need a spare tiller. YM’s photographer Graham Snook has a solid wooden table leg, planed to fit the stainless steel bracket at the rudder head and drilled to accept bolts to hold it all together. Laminated wood, usually ash and mahogany, is stronger.

Drop anchor

Steering Failure

If you’re in coastal waters but out of shipping channels, why not stop the clock and anchor?

If you’re unable to employ any of the above, and you’re in water shallow enough to set ground tackle, do so. This will keep you off a lee shore and buy you enough time to examine and maybe resolve the problem. If not, call for assistance.

Remove the rudder

If you’ve tried your autopilot or emergency tiller and still can’t move the rudder, then you have a real challenge. It’s a problem that affects only spade-ruddered yachts, due to seized bearings or a bent stock. Keel or skeg-hung rudders have less complicated bearings as the skeg or keel bears the rudder’s load (assuming the fixings are strong enough not to shear off the hull forward, which could allow the rudder to punch through the hull aft). If the rudder is jammed only slightly off the centreline, then an offset drogue may straighten your course and give you some steerage. If it’s jammed hard over, the best option is to knock out the rudder completely. It seems drastic but there are many ways to steer a yacht without a rudder. There’s no way to steer a yacht with the rudder jammed hard over.

Tighten the steering cables

If the cables have slipped off due to lack of tension, it’s probably be much easier to tighten the cables’ securing nuts a couple of turns while using the emergency tiller, before slipping them back onto the quadrant’s sheave. The one slight problem you may face is if the tiller rides directly above the space in which you’re trying to work – so it’s advisable to heave-to, if you can do so safely, while adjusting tension.

Re-fit the steering cables

Steering Failure

With the emergency tiller keeping the helm hard to starboard, the shorter starboard cable can be levered on fairly easily. Once in place, put the helm hard to port and lever on the shorter port cable

It’s easiest if you still have control of the quadrant, by using the emergency tiller or autopilot. The first cable will slip on easily but to lever the second back onto the quadrant’s sheave, replacing the system’s tension, you will need the quadrant on the opposing lock.

Once the cables are back on the quadrant, check the wheel to make sure you have full steering control. In most non-hydraulic wheel steering systems, the cables are joined by a length of chain that runs over a sprocket driven by the steering wheel’s axle. If this has jumped off the sprocket, you need to remove the compass on top of the steering pedestal to replace the chain. Remember also that the cables cross at some point, either in the pedestal or under the helm position.

How to maintain steering cables

Twice a season check the entire system, lubricating the steering cables and sheaves

Twice a season, lubricate the sheaves and the full length of the cable with engine oil. If you find any broken strands, the cable needs replacing. If there aren’t many, keep the old cables as spares.

Steering Failure

Steering cables shouldn’t deflect more than one inch per foot of cable between sheaves

Check cable tension. Using finger pressure, the cable shouldn’t deflect more than an inch per foot of cable run between sheaves. More than this and steering will feel sloppy and the cables could fall out of the sheaves or quadrant. Less than this and steering will feel stiff, plus your cables will wear quicker. Adjust cables at the quadrant – this is not always as easy as it sounds.



Jury Steering

Jury Steering

How would you get back to safety if your rudder was carried away? Chris Beeson tests three jury steering techniques…