As with most power vehicles you can operate these days, when you turn the steering control on a PWC or other jet drive vessels to the right, it makes the vehicle go right. But, since there are no wheels or propellers or any other traditional moving parts on the outside of the craft, the technical way that your PWC steering works may not be as intuitively obvious as it is for other vehicles or even other boats. Suffice it to say that your steering control is linked directly to the jet nozzle at the rear of the craft and that allows an operator to steer.

Main Control of Your Personal Watercraft

Unlike a traditional boat which may use a steering wheel if it’s large enough, or even a joystick control, or a rudder control right at the outboard motor, a PWC uses handlebars. Jet skis and similar craft are very much modeled after the idea of motorcycles you can use on the water. That’s half the fun. So the controls are also similar, with two handlebars on either side of a steering control column at the front of the vessel. Your ability to accelerate, stop and reverse is all controlled by these handlebars and the buttons located on them. 

While a jet ski has no propeller, the internal jet propulsion engine, a kind of inboard motor, does have an impeller. The drive shaft inside the engine rotates the impeller while the engine is running, similar to most other combustion engines that we’re used to in boats or even cars. While the drive shaft in a car transfers motion from the engine to the axles to turn wheels, the driveshaft in your PWC spins the impeller.

Water is pulled into the bottom of the jet ski through an intake grate thanks to the water jet pump. The spinning of the impeller pulls the water up and the jet propulsion engine does what jet propulsion engines do. The water pulled in is then forced back out again at a high velocity through the jet nozzle at the rear of the craft. 

The force of the water being pushed out creates thrust that moves the jet ski forward. It’s taking advantage of Newtonian physics, so the more powerful the jet blast is, the faster the jet ski will move forward. And while that’s how the jet ski actually moves, the steering controls have to add another mechanical piece to the puzzle as this set up with just the jet drive running would only succeed in moving your forward. PWC operators need to adjust the steering column to the same direction they wish to turn in order for changes in direction to occur.

What Moves the Jet Nozzle?

The main control of your PWC connects to the jet nozzle to allow for steering by way of steering cables. The cable linkage system works by pulling the nozzle in the opposite direction you’re trying to turn. So, when your right hand pulls the handlebar to the right to make a turn in that direction, that pulls the steering cables. 

The movement pulls the cable which forces the end of the nozzle to point to the left. With the jet of water being forced out in that direction, it pushes the PWC to the right. The sharper the turn, the further the nozzle turns until it reaches as far as it can go in that direction. Keep it pointed in that direction and you’ll perform clockwise circles.

What Are Steering Cables?

Steering cables are plastic-sheathed, lubricated stainless steel cables that connect the nozzle to the steering mechanism. In a rudimentary way it’s like a pulley system. Over time, however, these cables can and do wear out. Though most are made of stainless steel and are strong, they can stretch, warp and even break over time, making them useless or unreliable.

Not all steering cables are universal as lengths, sizes and connectors can change from model to model. Remember, there are a number of companies that produce personal watercraft and they tend to use different assemblies and set ups. There will be some crossover, but it’s best to get the exact measurements for your specific model if you need replacement cables.

Part of the maintenance of your PWC should involve giving your cables an inspection at least once a year. If the sheathing is damaged, if they are worn out, corroded or stretched, look into getting new cables. 

Can You Maintain Control With Damaged Steering Cables?

If you have damaged steering cables then you may not get the reaction you’re looking for when you turn your steering control to the right. A snapped cable will totally sever the linkage between steering and nozzle. If that occurs, then the nozzle will not turn and you will be totally unable to move to the right as you lose control. 

Since cables tend to snap under stress, this can be a dangerous circumstance. If the cable snaps mid-turn, you will be stuck with the nozzle in the position it was in when the cable broke, which could leave you turning in circles. If this is the case you’ll need to shut off the engine just for the sake of your own safety and the safety of those who may be around you. 

Although stretched cables may not be as problematic as broken cables, they can still be a real hassle to deal with. If your steering cable has been stretched too far, then your PWC will lose a lot of the precision that you rely on for steering. You’ll likely find yourself having to turn the handlebars much harder and much more acutely just to get a mild change of direction. Making hard turns may be impossible. This can also be dangerous, especially if you need to react quickly to something on the water. If you find your steering control non-responsive or only giving you a fraction of the steering you’re expecting, it’s a good idea to reduce to idle speed or, if you still have some low speed operations, and head back to shore to have the PWC looked at. You may just need a steering cable replacement to get things working properly again. 

The Bottom Line

When you turn the controls of your PWC to the right, the steering assembly pulls on the steering cables which connect to the steering nozzle at the rear of your craft. The cables will adjust your nozzle, directing the jet of the water to the left which in turn forces your craft to the right since it’s the force of the escaping water jet pushing the PWC forward that allows you to move. 

Broken or stretched steering cables can lead to PWCs that don’t steer as you may intend as a result of the damage they’ve suffered. If you find yourself having trouble steering, especially if the steering is sluggish or unresponsive, it’s a good idea to get the whole PWC checked out for problems but especially check the steering cable itself in case it’s not able to function the way it was intended.