Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that full hydraulic steering is a must for any high-performance boat that can run 70 mph. Cable steering and even partially hydraulic, cable-assisted steering can’t touch full hydraulic systems for reliability and durability, to say nothing of drivability at high speeds.
But sturdy as they are, full hydraulic systems aren’t bulletproof. They have plenty of moving parts, and moving parts—regardless of how well they’re designed, engineered and built—don’t last forever. So routine checks of these systems are, like the systems themselves, essential.
A press release I received from Latham Marine the other day offers several useful inspection tips. If they’re already part of your pre-running routine, you’re ahead of the game. If not, they’re worth a look.
None of this stuff is terribly sexy. But it could save you from a breakdown or, worse, a steering failure while you are underway.
1. Check your system “from the outside” of your boat. At least once a year, that means making sure external hoses are pliable and free from cracks, heavy abrasions and signs of wear. Worn or dry hoses can leak, as well as allow seawater to enter and damage the system, which causes damage. It also means examining system hardware including drive mounts, nuts, bolts and the entire tie-bar assembly.
2. Check for potential steering cylinder trouble while the boat is on the trailer and not running. Check for air in the system by shaking the drive unit—there should be no movement in the cylinder rods. If movement is detected, air must be bled from the system. If fluid is leaking, a cylinder rebuild is likely necessary. Eventually, time and the elements take their toll on O-rings and other seals, which must be replaced in every rebuild.
3. Check from “the inside” of your boat, starting with the steering fluid level. The fluid level in the power steering reservoir should remain constant from a cold engine start to shut down after the engine is well warmed. If the fluid level drops at cold start that indicates that there is air in the system, which needs be bled-off by someone qualified to do the job properly. Also, check the fluid color. Standard automatic transmission fluid, which Latham uses in its systems, is red. If it is dark, thick or sludgy, it needs to be replaced.
4. Check the power steering pump belts for ware, cracking and proper tension.
5. Replace filters regularly. Most need to be replaced every 100 hours of operation. But any time you have your hydraulic steering system serviced you might as well replace the filters. They’re not expensive.