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Steering mechanism maintenance

In our latest maintenance article, the experts at River Canal Rescue tell us how to deal with problems coming from your steering mechanism.

Narrowboat rudder

The steering mechanism on a narrowboat is very simple; a tiller connected to a curved ‘s' shaped steel bar, known as a swan neck, that fits into a flat rudder protruding out the back of the boat. To stop the tiller wobbling, there's a top bearing at the base of the swan neck where it joins the protruding rudder.

What can go wrong?

Catching the rudder

One of the more common and frustrating issues for boaters today is catching the rudder which in turn, often results in the vessel becoming difficult to steer. At River Canal Rescue, we call this ‘popping out of the cup' as it refers to the rudder lifting out of its locating joint.

While such lifting out is rarely damaging, it can be difficult to re-insert the rudder once dislocated. If damage does occur it usually affects either the skeg (the support beam extending from the bottom of the boat), or the top bearing (responsible for ensuring your steering has a smooth operation).

Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do to avoid damaging the skeg, apart from being diligent and ensuring you position your vessel correctly in the lock.

Rudder shaft

Rudder and propeller

The shaft in particular can wear out if it's a split shaft design. A split shaft design has two sections - a hollow square profile tube fixed to the bottom half and a solid square profile shaft fixed to the top half. If you experience lots of play in the steering (having to move the tiller before it moves the rudder), the shaft may be worn and need replacing/repairing.


This may wobble or vibrate when cruising, indicating the top bearing is worn and needs replacing.

Swan neck

This may become loose from the rudder assembly, meaning that when it moves, the rudder doesn't. To put right, locate the central bolt at the base of the swan neck (this bolt pinches the swan neck into a tapered shaft), centralise the swan neck to where the rudder's pointing and tighten down the bolt. Don't over-tighten as if the bolt shears, the cost to repair can be extensive.

In general, if there's an issue with steering, it's either a replacement job or the boat needs to come out of the water for further investigation.

Thanks again to River Canal Rescue for sharing their expertise.

Last Edited: 11 February 2019

photo of a location on the canals
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