Steering Cable Repair

August 7, 2007 we were on holidays aboard Buster for a one-week tour of the Rideau Canal.  We had stayed overnight at the top of Edmonds Lock and and were planning to make our way back to the Big Rideau.  We pulled away from the lock station and just as we were exiting the narrow water I felt something not quite right in the steering.  I could turn the wheel to the right, but when I tried to turn left it would go about a half turn past center and hit a stop.  I wiggle the wheel back and forth a few times and shouted to Bonnie to do a visual of the legs to see if there was anything caught up preventing them from steering left.  I turned the wheel hard right, which seemed to work, but as soon as I turned the wheel left, it spun free.

I knew immediately what had happened.  The steering cable had broken.  I was already in neutral at this point and we were just drifting slowly.  If it had been anything other than the dead calm of early morning, the outcome might have been a little different.  As it was, I had time to walk back to the end of the boat to investigate the position of the legs and figure out how to steer.  The legs were hard-right, so going in circles would be easy.  I lifted the engine hatch and looked for a way to move the legs over.  It was not going to happen.  When I did the re-power and put in SX legs with power steering, I lost the center steering yolk and tie-rod assembly.  My steering cable goes into the starboard leg and there is a single tie-rod joining the legs together.  I could not put enough force on the tie bar to get it to even budge.

I thought about my options and decided to try driving the boat with throttles.  I put the right leg into forward gear and the left leg into reverse to counter the strong thrust steering force.  I then fiddled with throttle position until I had the boat traveling in a straight line back towards the lock station at somewhat less than dead-slow..  I steered by minor adjustments in the throttles and managed to get the boat safely tied up.  As I indicated above, if there had been any wind at all, I would probably have had a very different outcome.

I pulled apart the console and verified that about 16″ of the inner cable had broken off in the steering unit.  I wandered up to the lock master to indicate our problem and that I would probably need a few hours on his blue line to effect repairs.  He was most accommodating and even offered to drive me to a nearby store if I needed any parts.  I thanked him for his offer and went back to assess my options.

The repair

I called my mechanic and asked if he could get me a new cable (I was hoping that he might have remembered the details).  I said “No problem, just get me the part number”.  I knew he was going to ask that, but I had already hunted around for a part number and could not find it.  If I could not get the part number, I was going to have to take the cable out and measure it.  That was a much bigger job than I was ready to undertake.

I had a little fact in my head that I knew was going to work to help me.  When I did the re-power, as indicated above, the steering cable was re-routed to the Starboard leg instead of the Center yolk.  This meant that the steering cable had to take a slightly funny curve as it was now effectively too long.  This meant that I could shorten the outer sleeve of the cable and still have enough length.  I had another little fact in my head.  That was the knowledge that my father (of Quadrium) had also repaired his steering cable after a similar break.  It was around 8:30AM Ontario time, so calling him at 5:30AM BC time would have been a little rude.  So, I decided to come up with my own solution.

Ultimately, the best repair would be if I could remove the ferrule at the steering head end and replace it after removing a length of out sleeve similar to the length of inner cable that had broken off.  However, I assessed my tool kit on the boat and determined that I would probably not be able to remove the ferrule intact.  I decided I would attempt to cut away a piece close to the ferrule but leaving the ferrule attached to around 8″ of sleeve.  I started the process of hack-sawing my way through the outer sleeve.  The outer sleeve is made up of a plastic coating around a tube of steel wires.  The steel wires were probably hardened, because they were the toughest thing to get through.  The first cut probably took me 45 minutes.  I measured off the amount that had broken off and started in on the second cut.  The second cut probably took longer than the first as my hack-saw blade was suffering from not being that much harder than the stuff I was cutting.  I eventually had about a 16″ section of sleeve removed and about the right amount of core sticking out.

All I had to do now was find a way of joining it back together.  I enlisted Bonnie’s help to hunt through the boat looking for some sort of tubular material that I could clamp around the outer sleeve to join it back together.  I eventually discovered that our closest fit was the shaft of one of those cheep umbrellas.  Given they cost $5 to $10, I decided the sacrifice was in order.  I cut off about 12″ of umbrella shaft and then cut a slit down the length to allow it to clamp down on the cable.  It was a little harder than I expected as the tube was a little large in diameter and I ended needing to cut about 1/4″ out to allow it to clamp down on the sleeve.  I then found every spare hose clamp in the boat and cranked them down to hold it all together.

It took a couple of tries to get everything clamped tight enough to prevent the cable from sliding.  In retrospect, the repair was flawed.  I really should have tried to remove the ferrule and re-clamp it properly to the cable.  However, the repair lasted the rest of our vacation and the following week, but could easily have let go if conditions got bad and I started placing a heavy load on the cable.

I asked my father to send a picture of his own repair.  You can see how the heavier materials and better approach will make a difference to the longevity of the repair.

I eventually found the part number of the cable and ordered one up from my friendly mechanic.  I requested a cable a foot shorter than stock in confidence that I would not need to worry about it for another 36 years