Outboard-powered boats can be ordered new or retrofitted with joystick control.

Mercury-Joystick_Pirelli_IMG_4272 copy  Safety is the top priority on the water, and that’s what makes joystick control for outboard-powered boats such an important innovation. While many boat operators have the skills to dock any multi-engine boat without joystick control, what happens if a less-skilled operator is required to take the helm and dock the boat? What if there’s wind or a current? What if there are obstructions?

Over the past few years, the ability to build a new outboard-powered boat with a low-speed joystick control system or retrofit to joystick control has become easier and the systems more refined and reliable, and that’s made boating safer and easier for more people.

Not all joystick controls for outboard-powered boats are created equally. While the result may be the same — you push, pull or twist the dashmounted joystick to port or starboard and the boat moves that way — how those hydrodynamic moves are achieved can be drastically different from system to system. That’s because most joystick controls don’t involve the use of a stern or bow thruster, while one company completely depends on thruster power (see sidebar). That’s a major difference and one worth looking into, especially if you are considering adding joystick control to your current boat.

Joystick control came to the recreational market with Volvo Penta’s introduction of the IPS pod-drive system in 2004. On inboard-powered boats, the pods and joystick control work amazingly well and have only improved.

Today, outboard engine manufacturers Mercury and Yamaha offer their own branded joystick control for new builds, while SeaStar Optimus and Yacht Controller offer systems that can be added as a retrofit or built in during construction. Suzuki uses the Optimus system for its Suzuki Precision Maneuvering (SPM) Control System, and Yacht Controller’s Sport package is a joystick system that utilizes bow and stern thrusters.ma_oth_Optimus 360 Joystick copy

You should be aware of 14 critical features and benefits of joystick systems.

Make no mistake, tremendous forces are at work to make a 30-foot boat move sideways, and all that force is applied at the transom. The transoms on today’s center console boats are stronger than ever, due to the increasing weight and horsepower of outboard engines — a single Mercury Verado 400R outboard engine weighs 668 pounds dry. Transom strength, however, has been a constant engineering feature at Scout Boats, which builds 17- to 42-foot boats in Summerville, S.C.

“Our transoms are not built up any more than we would have to for the triple- and quad-engine setups we see today,” said Alan Lang, national/international sales manager for Scout. “Any boat we build has the Strata-Mount system, where the engine bracket is tied into the stringer. It’s all one piece that runs through the entire boat, so it’s already as strong as it can be. These stringers are integrated into the engine mount, which allows the weight and force of the engines to be spread out over a larger area, reducing the stress on any single point.”

Because Yamaha’s Helm Master now works with twin-, triple- and quad-engine setups, the size and type of boats it may be utilized on have greatly increased, which makes new center console boats in the mid-20-foot range that are powered by twin F200s a good fit for Helm Master. Yamaha actually offers more now for both bigger and smaller boats. In 2015, Helm Master for quad applications became available, as did Helm Master control for Yamaha’s new 2.8L in-line four-cylinder F200. The capabilities, benefits and reach of the Helm Master system will only increase.

Staring at the engines on a joystick-control equipped boat backing into a slip may lead the driver to believe the engines are out of alignment. They’re not. Relax and just use the joystick, allowing the onboard computer do the work. That’s the advice new owners get when learning how to use a joystick. While some captains like the old-school behind-the-back throttling technique as they look aft toward the slip, it’s not necessary anymore.SUZUKI SZ_SPM_03 copy

The SeaStar Optimus 360 vessel control system can be installed new or retrofitted to boats with mechanically controlled outboards. The Optimus 360 includes the electronic helm, a dedicated hydraulic pump for each engine, a control module and a display screen that helps drivers operate the smart steering cylinders mounted to each engine.

Tie bars are eliminated, so the engines move independently. The 360 package replaces the conventional outboard controls and cables with fly-by-wire electronics, and the control head provides full engine synchronization with a single hand. As one would expect, trim control is located in the throttle handle.

While the joystick control may be what everyone talks about, there is much more to these systems. For example, Helm Master’s automatic trim assist trims the engines based on throttle settings. To set up the system, users accelerate and determine where they want the engines to be trimmed by degree, and then they program in that setting. They can program how the engines are trimmed all along the power curve, from being barely in gear to wide-open throttle.

Joystick maneuverability has advantages for backing down on a fish or twisting the boat a bit to keep the rod tip pointed toward the fish. While skilled captains can easily operate the throttles behind their back as they look aft toward the action, it’s now possible for less-experienced captains to maintain an even course and speed in reverse. In addition, if lines are twisted or in danger of going under the boat, a quick maneuver may prevent a tangle.

The ability to spin a boat within its own length comes in handy in tight channels and marinas. The computer takes over to steer and throttle multiple outboards individually to maneuver the boat at low speeds through input from a joystick.

The same ability to spin and crabwalk the boat to port or starboard also allows Mercury’s Skyhook system to keep a boat locked onto a latitude-longitude coordinate via the its onboard GPS. The integration with SmartCraft gauges and Mercury’s patented digital anchor technology keeps a boat’s position and heading with the push of a button.

That’s a real advantage in water where it’s too deep to anchor but a captain wants to stay on a spot, or if someone is operating the boat alone and wants to remain stationary for a few minutes to move around the boat.

Using the joystick control to position the boat over an anchoring spot is especially helpful in rough or windy weather. Given the control afforded by a joystick, even a less-experienced operator can use the joystick for a few minutes while the more-experienced captain deploys the anchor or attaches the line to a mooring buoy.

If a boat does have a bow thruster, however, it still can be used in conjunction with joystick control. For example, Helm Master’s capabilities can create sideways (lateral) and diagonal movement of the boat by just using the joystick function, replacing most applications where a bow thruster would normally be used. If desired, however, an additional bow thruster can be utilized independent of the Helm Master system and controlled via a separate input mechanism on the console.

Joystick systems essentially replace the conventional outboard controls and cables with fly-by-wire electronics. A joystick allows the operator to synchronize engines with one hand, and the owner can even adjust the detents and throttle resistance for their personal preferences.yamaha helm master copy

For example, Suzuki Precision Control replaces conventional cable controls with electronic wiring connected to advanced shift and throttle actuators located under the hood. Commands are transmitted from the helm to the engine in real time via the system’s computer-based controls. Suzuki Precision Maneuvering integrates Suzuki’s dedicated throttle-and-shift control system with electronic power steering and joystick control systems developed by SeaStar Solutions. So, when the joystick is moved, what takes place is a combination of shifting, turning and throttle actuation to make the boat respond in the desired direction. When you want to slide sideways to a parallel dock, the operator simply bumps the joystick sideways.That causes the two (or more) engines to thrust and vector to move the boat.

Improved shifting equipment helps reduce wear and tear as the engines go in and out of gear to properly deliver thrust when needed. For example, Mercury’s Flo-Torq SSR HD is a quiet and smooth shifting propeller hub system. When shifting with the joystick, the Flo-Torq SSR HD rotates both port and starboard to eliminate shift clunk and vibration. The hub will engage the propeller’s inner hub when under load and can be used on all high-horsepower applications.

Joystick control is so intuitive that it takes very little practice to become an expert. In my experience, all the joystick controls (with the exception of the Yacht Controller Sport, which I have not used) work about the same.

Precise movements around the dock are performed with ease. You can nudge to port or starboard, or nudge and twist, or just twist. It always helps to have a few hands on board to fend off on your first outing, but soon you’ll be a real pro.02_0KAW_Wiring_triple

In Thrust We Trust

Yacht Controller’s Sport system uses stern and bow thrusters with joystick control to make the boat spin and move sideways with ease, unlike the other systems that utilize two or more outboard engines. In fact, the Sport can be used on single-engine boats.

Yacht Controller builds external and internal thrusters through its Yacht Thruster division. To set up the Sport system, external bow and stern thrusters are mounted to the boat and operated through the Yacht Controller joystick mounted on the dash. The electric thrusters can run for five minutes or more of continuous operation, and the electronic components are in a waterproof housing.

“Our system is old school,” said Gerald Burton, president of Yacht Controller, who reports that he has more than 10,000 Yacht Controller systems in the use, and the Sport is a natural evolution of the product for outboards. “It’s real easy to move a boat around with thrusters on the front and back. You don’t have to deal with those tremendous forces generated by two or more outboards trying to spin a boat from the transom.”

While thruster failure is rare, if a bow or stern thruster does conk out, it’s not going to leave the boat inoperable.

“If the thruster fails when you are in the Bahamas, it’s not a major deal,” Burton said. “But with the other joystick systems, if a hydraulic line or electronic system fails, you could be stranded. It may not be an easy fix if one of the engines cannot be controlled.”

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  1. Not all joystick systems play well together despite the manufacturers claims. I have a Yachtcontroller system on a power catamaran with MAN engines and Twin Disc controls. This should all work flawlessly according to the advertising claims but it doesn’t. The Yachtcontroller cannot command RPM changes with Twin Disc controls thus the joystick is at idle RPM which does not get me off the dock in a 5 knot crosswind with the windage of a catamaran.

    It pays to ask probing questions when sourcing a joystick control system.


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