Most seafloor hydrothermal circulation occurs far from the magmatic influence of mid-ocean ridges, driving large flows of water, heat and solutes through volcanic rock outcrops on ridge flanks. Here we create three-dimensional simulations of ridge–flank hydrothermal circulation, flowing between and through seamounts, to determine what controls hydrogeological sustainability, flow rate and preferred flow direction in these systems. We find that sustaining flow between outcrops that penetrate less-permeable sediment depends on a contrast in transmittance (the product of outcrop permeability and the area of outcrop exposure) between recharging and discharging sites, with discharge favoured through less-transmissive outcrops. Many simulations include local discharge through outcrops at the recharge end of an outcrop-to-outcrop system. Both of these characteristics are observed in the field. In addition, smaller discharging outcrops sustain higher flow rates than larger outcrops, which may help to explain how so much lithospheric heat is extracted globally by this process.