Whether it’s a family tinnie or a Titanic-sized superyacht, there are three basic requirements for any boat. It should float, it should move … and you must be able to steer it.
The latter gets short shrift in the attention stakes, surprisingly, whereas it plays a vital role in both safety and satisfaction.
When you’re travelling fast, with a big outboard or sterndrive revving its rings out, you need to be able to maintain precise control. Similarly, try manoeuvring around a crowded mooring area with unresponsive steering and havoc may prevail.
Beyond that, there’s the indescribable pleasure of steering a boat with the kind of lightness that a well-sorted hydraulic steering system can deliver.
When the helm imparts 'feel' through your fingertips without being overloaded, you know you’re driving a great boat. A great boat, however, can be let down by heavy and clunky steering.
For hydraulic steering manufacturer HyDrive, its bread-and-butter market comes from boat owners fed up with their old-fashioned cable systems or forced to replace their worn-out hydraulic units.
There is, as far as we can tell, no better designed or built steering system in the world for boats ranging from 5 metres to over 100 metres.
The company is based in South Australia, a state that seldom resonates on the export stage aside from some crisp Barossa whites. Some 70% of HyDrive’s production is shipped to 75 countries across the globe – not bad at a time when the Aussie dollar is doing no one any favours.
The company has an office in New York and master distributors on every continent. Quality, it seems, is universal.
According to long-standing general manager Graham Anderson, everything is manufactured in-house – the pumps, cylinders, valve units etc – using precise machining and superior materials. The brass that HyDrive uses comes from Germany, and the 316 and 304 stainless steel is also imported from Europe. Bronze is also used.
'We build purely for strength,' Anderson said. 'We believe that we’re the strongest and most powerful hydraulic steering system on the market.'
That claim is tested daily in the harshest waters on the planet. In Iceland the steering gear gets caked with ice in sub-zero temperatures, and the same equipment has to endure the warm, salt-rich waters found on the equator.
Alloy cylinders often fall victim to corrosion and electrolysis, whereas the Hydrive components are engineered to outlast the boat. Only the seals will need replacing from time to time, says Anderson.
He should know, since he started working for the company in 1971.
'It began as a one-man band in 1966. The original owner was named Harry Dutton, and his initials HD eventually formed the name HyDrive,' Anderson explained.
'In 1971 Harry sold out to a company that wanted the manufacturing plant for automotive parts. They saw HyDrive as a sideline.
'I said I’d like a chance to turn it into something more than a hobby. Within a year we’d gone from selling three a month to 30 a month, and the company became fully independent in 1979.'
There’s around 600,000 HyDrive steering units in the field today, with 12,000 being built annually at the current time.
Such is the complexity that only one outboard, Mercury’s Verado, comes with its own integrated power-steering system. All the others rely on systems such as HyDrive.
'It’s a specialty item that has to be correctly installed and serviced. These days we have outboards developing 350 horsepower and multiple installations, right down to the smaller models,' Anderson said.
'We have manual hydraulic units for boats from five metres to 35 metres, and power assisted models for anything to 100 metres.'
Anderson laments the fact that some production boat builders are too dollar-driven to appreciate the advantages of HyDrive’s equipment, preferring to use cheap equipment that will see out the warranty period but not much else.
Others, like Stebercraft and Sunseeker, have no such qualms.
In the outboard sector it offers three after-market systems, with variations thereof to suit different brands. Sidemounts are the cheapest and simplest systems as no bracket is required. The front-mount model is designed to mount to the casting of V6 engines, while the bullhorn design is the most versatile.
There’s a wide range of models for sterndrive and shaft-drive applications as well.
The hydraulic components are relatively conventional and robust, but what’s changed since the 1970s is the electronic control systems. HyDrive now has fly-by-wire helm systems that integrate with autopilots and GPS chartplotters.
On the horizon – with a release tipped for later this year – is a new package that will bring the same level of superyacht electronic steering down to a price point suitable for 30ft-plus production boats.
Graham Anderson, it seems, has HyDrive on the right course, with both hands firmly on the wheel.