Viking ships used to be steered with a large oar that was lashed to the right side of the vessel. We can even trace the word “starboard” back to the Norse phrase for this simple steering system. Since then, the methods to control the direction of a boat have grown more sophisticated and less labor-intensive. They don’t require you to possess the strength of a Viking warrior.
The biggest player in the steering-system marketplace is Teleflex, which began by building “push-pull” cable steering systems for Spitfire airplanes in 1935. This expertise translated well to boats, and Teleflex Marine was established in 1944. After acquiring Morse in 2001, Teleflex firmly established itself as the industry’s largest provider of steering systems. The other main supplier is Uflex (aka Ultraflex), which has been building steering systems since 1935.
Modern steering systems fall into two main categories: mechanical and hydraulic. Mechanical systems, which feature cables, are relatively inexpensive and very reliable. If you have a boat that goes faster than 50 mph, it’s recommended that you use a dual-cable system for safety. Most cable systems can be manual, which is the most common arrangement on smaller outboards, or power-assisted, which is the norm for sterndrives.
The most common steering mechanism is the rotary system and is favored because of its compact size (the other is rack-and-pinion). Teleflex’s Big-T retails for $358 (All prices are MSRP; street prices are considerably lower) and is the company’s original steering system, which came out in 1963 and is still available today, attesting to its successful design. Uflex’s most basic steering system is the Rotech model ($180). Teleflex’s entry-level rotary system is the HPS ($160), which replaces the older Safe-T system without modification.
Because unassisted mechanical systems transmit prop torque to the steering wheel, the driver must use some muscle to keep the boat tracking straight, which can be tiring on long cruises. There are several systems that mitigate prop torque. The most popular is Teleflex’s 4.2 No FeedBack system ($224), which uses a clutch to hold your heading steady with no prop torque transmitted to the wheel. When you turn, the clutch disengages and torque is felt again — but once the desired heading is reached, the clutch re-engages and the torque won’t be felt. Uflex’s Accura ($216) uses a spring clutch to hold position without torque until a course change is made. Both of these systems are recommended for engines up to 150 hp, but I prefer them only on outboards up to 115 hp, unless I’m looking for a Nautilus-like workout.
Hydraulic systems don’t use cables and are the preferred rig for big outboards and boats with multiple driving stations. Teleflex offers a lower-cost alternative called BayStar ($649) for engines up to 150 hp on boats that experience moderate prop torque. Although this system also experiences prop torque, it features No FeedBack valves that nullify torque when maintaining a steady heading. It is not designed for high-performance applications such as bass boats or flats boats, however. For larger outboards up to 350 hp (or 700 hp twin) or boats that travel at higher speeds, the SeaStar system ($989) and SeaStar Pro ($999) are Teleflex’s best bets. To counter prop torque, it has also has No FeedBack valves. SilverSteer ($1,214) is Uflex’s premium hydraulic system for larger outboards or high-performance boats.