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How to Unfreeze a Boat Steering Cable and Prevent It From Happening Again

Fact checked by William Hart

how to unfreeze a boat steering cable

It’s normal for any boat owner to wake up one day and realize the steering system doesn’t work anymore. Don’t freak out! There are steps you can take to fix it yourself and avoid several hundred dollar bills. The boat steering cable can get stuck for multiple reasons. Most commonly, it is due to the accumulation of oil, grease, and rust on the tilt tube or cable.

To unfreeze the cable, you will need to unfreeze the steering cable using a vice grip. If there is a grime issue, clean the cable thoroughly and lubricate the tube before putting it back. But if you see a problem beyond repairs, such as a severe rust issue, a complete replacement of the cable and tube is required.

In this article, besides providing a step-by-step guide on how to unfreeze a boat steering cable, we will discuss some common reasons for boat steering cable stiffness and preventive approaches you can take.

Table of Contents

What You Will Need


With proper techniques, unfreezing the cable doesn’t require a lot of tools. Quickly gather the following.

1. A vice grip

A vice grip or lock pliers are pliers that can be firmly locked into position. You need one to twist the end of the cable (near the outboard motor) until it sets free. Don’t strike it with a hammer. A hammer can break the connector unit at the cable end. It can even hit your boat, damaging the paint and leaving dents if you are not careful enough.

2. Carburetor cleaner

A carburetor cleaner is formulated to dissolve stubborn oil and carbon contaminants. Hence, it is the greatest option when cleaning the steering cable. If you have one that is made for marine conditions like the CRC Marine CARB & Choke cleaner, that’s even better, but not necessary. The detergents you use for your car carburetor can get the job done.

3. Lubricant

For boat cables and tubes, we recommend lithium grease. These are heavy-duty lubricants that can be used on metal. Spraying a thin layer of lubricant onto the cable and tilt tube after cleaning will stop them from seizing up again.

4. A wire brush, clean cloth, and razor blade

Last but not least, grab a wire brush and clean cloth to wash the rod. In some cases, when the grime sticks too hard, you might need a razor blade or something sharp to scrape it off.

Steps to Unfreeze a Boat Steering Cable


Step 1: Take the cable out

There are many reasons for cable stiffness:

  • Improper placement: The cable might be wrapped too tightly or loosely.
  • The rods are bent or damaged.
  • There is grease accumulation in the tilt tube.

Dismantle the system and you will see the problem clearly. This step varies depending on your vessel model and the steering cable system. Read the manual instructions for specific guidance. On some systems, you may have to dismantle the motor. Do it by:

  • Removing the engine cover by releasing its latch, lifting it off, and putting it aside.
  • On top of the motor, there is usually a lifting ring. Slip the motor hook into it to lift the engine. You don’t need to move the motor out of the boat.
  • Remove the nuts and bolts that connect the steering cable using a wrench. If the nuts are difficult to turn, try kerosene or lubricant to loosen them up.

However, with a hydraulic steering system, which is popular on modern outboard vessels, you don’t need to lift the engine. There is an L-shaped arm that is atop the tilt tube. It connects the steering cable to the motor. Nearby, you can find one end of the cable (the upper letter P on the diagram).

That is where you place the vice grip, lock it in place, and twist it back and forth. The twisting motions will break the rust, grime, or dirt causing the boat steering cable to get stuck up.

Keep twisting until the cable is set free. Sometimes this step can take up to an hour. Once it is released, put the nuts back on, and run the steering arm all the way out. The cable can now be seen.

Step 2: Diagnose the problem

With the cable out in front, you can tell why it seized up and didn’t turn. You should turn the steering wheel in and out a few times. If it can turn freely, the problem is almost solved. All you need to do is clean the rod and put it back in. But if the helm gets stuck or doesn’t turn smoothly, there might be a more serious rust problem. You should ask for help from boat steering cable repair services.

Step 3: Clean the steering cable

Firstly, remove the nuts and pull the cable out of the tilt tube for optimal cleaning. Then, spray the carburetor cleaner onto the rod. Focus on where the grease is dry and hardened. Wait for ten to fifteen minutes for the grime to dissolve and use a wire brush to scrub it off. Use the help of a razor blade if you need to, be careful not to damage the cable. Finally, wipe it off with a clean cloth.

Step 4: Clean the tilt tube

Don’t forget the tilt tube. Spray a decent amount of carburetor cleaner into the tube. Wait for about ten minutes. After that, roll a small cloth and squeeze it into the tube. Pull it out at the other side and most dirt should come out on the cloth. Repeat several times to make sure all the greases are removed. Also, quickly wipe the outside of the tube.

Step 5: Lubricate the rod and put it back

Wait for the cable to air dry completely and spray its entire length with a lithium grease lubricant. Spray the inside and outside of the tilt tube as well.

All the hard work is done; you can reinsert the cable into the tube, put the nuts back on, and try turning the helm in and out. It should turn easily and smoothly. If the steering wheel seems difficult to turn at any point, you should ask for professional help. Never risk going on a fishing trip with an improper steering system.

In case you have to replace the cable, prevent this from happening again by:

  • Using high-quality stainless tilt tubes.
  • Cleaning the cable and tube regularly.


We hope you’ve gathered enough information on how to unfreeze a boat steering cable. Due to the harsh marine conditions, seized-up cable can happen to anyone. You might have to deal with it more than once. So, remember to be patient.

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