Joy to the World

As the driver of the Sea Craft center console approaches the dock at the Miami International Boat Show, the current is ripping and there’s a bit of a crosswind, but he’s in total control. Using a joystick, he is able to make unusual maneuvers such as moving sideways to pick up a dockline off one piling and then the other. So what’s different between this boat and other boats with a joystick docking system? Here’s a clue: The Sea Craft 32 only comes equipped with outboards.

Joystick docking has been the hot thing for several years now and has given even less-gifted dockers the ability to make larger boats do their bidding in tight quarters. The downside is that these advanced systems are attached to new, high-end boats built especially to accommodate them … until now. The Mercury Zeus and Volvo Penta IPS systems use diesel engines with pod drives that have twin counter-rotating props — and yes, they are expensive and can’t be retrofitted. But Teleflex, a world leader in steering systems, found a way to bring joystick docking to the masses with the Optimus 360 by SeaStar, the world’s first joystick system designed for outboards.

One of the plusses of the Optimus 360 system is that it is non-proprietary. It can be used with any brand of outboard as long as it is mechanically controlled, such as the twin 2005 Mercury OptiMax 225s on our test Sea Craft. The outboards have to be mechanically controlled, because engine manufacturers use proprietary systems for their drive-by-wire outboards and haven’t shared that programming information with Teleflex … yet. But with the success of this system, look for that to change. It can also be retrofitted to any boat that uses ABYC standards for outboard engine mounting: 26 to 32 inches of engine spacing from the center of each motor. In the case of our Sea Craft, the original motor mounting was fine.

But joystick docking is just part of the Optimus 360 system. It all starts with Teleflex’s Electronic Power Steering system (EPS), which replaces the existing hydraulic system. The Optimus Electronic Helm gives the driver the ability to adjust the resistance and steering response to his preferred setting, even when running, using the Optimus CANtrac LCD display mounted at the helm. The display graphically shows what direction the outboards are pointing and what gear they are in. The wheel is speed sensitive, so it turns easier at the start and gains resistance as you crank the wheel hard over, which enhances safety by reminding drivers they’re doing an extreme maneuver that could be dangerous. You can even change how many turns of the wheel you want between port and starboard stops, which allows the steering system setup to match the vessel it’s installed on. Even the amount of detent for neutral can be adjusted.

To make a boat go any direction — including diagonally, sideways or spinning on its axis in a current — each outboard must be able to articulate independently of the other, but what’s amazing about the Optimus 360 system is that each motor only needs to turn a maximum of 17 degrees to accomplish this. Using a combination of forward, reverse and neutral with different throttle settings, the Pump Control Module’s computerized brain translates input from the driver via the unusually angular joystick (most are round) into whatever movement the driver wants. I’ve tested every joystick docking system, and this one stacks up well against the competition. About the only difference I could detect was that the Optimus 360 wasn’t as responsive as the other systems, but that may be due to the single props on the Mercury OptiMax outboards in contrast with the twin counter-rotating props used with other joystick systems. But to help out, you can magnify the amount of “giddy-up” by selecting the boost button, which is useful when trying to overcome heavy current or wind.

Along with the joystick control, Optimus 360 includes the i6800 Electronic Control Head, which turns your mechanical shift system into a hybrid drive-by-wire that electronically actuates a shift cable. One advantage of this system is that in the event of a system failure, cable backups for the throttle and shift are in place. Ergonomically, these control levers feel as good in my hand as any other controls I’ve ever tried. They are engineered to sync the engines, and both outboards can be controlled with one lever at the push of a button. Engine trim is controlled by rocker switches on the outer sides of the levers.

Teleflex doesn’t reinvent the wheel and uses its proven SeaStar cylinder design for its SmartCylinder, which, in conjunction with the hydraulic steering pumps powering the i6800 Control Actuators, physically rotates the outboard. The advanced actuators also prevent the driver from starting an engine while it’s in gear. Because Optimus 360 is NMEA 2000 compliant, you can use it with any brand of autopilot, although the only ones I’ve seen so far built especially for it are by Garmin and Raymarine, but expect more in the future. One plus is that because the actuator pump is already in place, you won’t have to add one to have an autopilot, which you normally would.

The state-of-the-art steering system by itself runs $6,250 and is a worthy upgrade on its own. The entire system costs $17,995, plus installation, which, while expensive, is still far less than pod systems. Because it isn’t integrated with a specific engine make or horsepower, the system’s computer must be custom programmed to account for the many variables, such as boat size and type, outboard power, prop size, gear ratio and engine spacing. Optimus 360 represents a major breakthrough in joystick technology, and the fact that it can be used to retrofit older boats only enhances its usefulness.

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