Mechanical or hydraulic steering: how they work, differences, pros and cons


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Mechanical wheelhouse or hydraulic wheelhouse? We discuss this with Massimiliano Turelli, technical director of Riviera Genova Srl, a company in the Ligurian capital that specializes in the design and manufacture of nautical accessories such as wheelhouses, steering wheels, compasses and waterproof speakers.

What we will talk about in this article

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How mechanical steering works

Riviera mechanical steering gears are designed using the single-gear operating principle or, for models reserved for higher horsepower engines, planetary gearing. On this type of steering gear, force is transmitted from the steering wheel (via one or more gears) to a cable connected directly to the engine’s rudder. By turning the steering wheel, the transformation of motion is transmitted to the rudder via a “coiled” cable.

Planetary gear wheelhouses are equipped with three satellites that make a rotation around their own axis and simultaneously implement a rotation around the central axis. The system makes it possible to distribute the driving effort over three teeth of the central gear by dividing and balancing the stresses experienced by the apparatus. This results in more durable systems, greater efficiency than single-gear steering gears, and reduced backlash caused by excessive component wear. They are also equipped with an adjustable clutch via an external knob.

They are constructed entirely of materials that allow for high mechanical, wear and weather resistance, the components of the mechanical wheelhouses are made partly from metal and partly through the use of a “special” mixture of plastic materials that as of this year allows the warranty to be extended to 5 years on construction defects.

Riviera mechanical steering systems are usually used on hulls that do not exceed 10 meters and 100 hp of power, and is adjustable to 8 different positions to allow the cable to exit in the most convenient direction.

For inboard engines, the company produces in-house equipment for boats up to 12 meters while it is assisted by an Italian partner for the production of equipment aimed at larger hulls and workboats.

How hydraulic steering works

The Riviera hydraulic wheelhouse consists of a pump, operated from the steering wheel, and a hydraulic cylinder connected directly to the engine rudder. The force is transmitted from the steering wheel to the pump, which, by pressurizing the circuit oil, transfers the latter from one chamber of the cylinder to the other, thus transforming the motion from rotary to linear.

Pump and cylinder components are made from the highest quality materials whose characteristics best suit the function of each component. The shaft is made of AISI 316 stainless steel, and the seven-piston rotor is made of steel. All pumps are equipped with a check valve whose function prevents the rudder from generating return forces on the steering wheel. Such a valve also allows the installation of systems with multiple control stations. The system is also equipped with dust seal and different types of O-RINGS placed in three different positions to give more prevention to the risk of leakage of the hydraulic circuit.

Depending on the model of hydraulic pump installed will affect the ability to de-multiply the strain on the steering wheel: the larger the pump the fewer turns of the steering wheel will be required for its stroke but the greater the strain to be exerted on the steering wheel itself and vice versa.

Hydraulic steering systems are made in kits for both inboard and outboard engines up to 350 hp.

Riviera outboard kit for engines from 250 to 300 horsepower

The advantages of hydraulic steering

The main advantage of a hydraulic wheelhouse is definitely safety since the dangerous blockages or breakages in navigation that can occur with a mechanical wheelhouse, for example, due to a break in the cable or gears of the wheelhouse itself, are almost completely eliminated. Hydraulic steering is smoother, more precise, and greatly eases the strain one must exert on the steering wheel in an emergency.

It also requires less maintenance. Apart from periodically checking the oil level, there is no need to grease and oil the parts.
A hydraulic steering system, once installed, has virtually unlimited durability, whereas on a mechanical one, at least the cable must be replaced every 2 to 3 years due to wear and tear. The hydraulic steering is undoubtedly softer; the feeling on the helm is comparable to that on contemporary cars now all equipped with power steering.

The advantages of mechanical steering

Lower initial cost and easier installation are the two main strengths of a mechanical wheelhouse compared with a hydraulic wheelhouse. In fact, the latter requires skilled professionals on this type of product for quality installation. Mechanics from the point of view of feeling on the rudder is definitely more “direct” than hydraulic steering


About Riviera Genova

The Riviera Genova company is historically known for its compasses, which are one of the brand’s workhorses. Among the many activities is the design and manufacture of nautical accessories from high-quality plastic, a material that if treated in the right way can give excellent results.

Riviera’s plastic products are designed and manufactured through an in-house office with 3D CAD stations to design molds directly on 3D models. The company has a mold shop with machining centers, EDMs, grinding machines, lathes and milling machines and a molding department with 24 CNC presses from 35 to 300 tons. As well as a metrology laboratory.


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