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February 26, 2013

Slight of Hand

Three new joystick-steering systems for outboards simplify docking and improve control

Behold the joystick — a boon for deftly maneuvering big boats in tight spots. You can find joysticks on marine power systems such as MerCruiser’s Axius sterndrives and Volvo Penta’s IPS pods. But what about outboard-powered boats?
Until recently, if you wanted to add the benefits of a joystick to an outboard boat, you needed a thruster system. But now, three new outboard joystick systems have emerged that don’t need thrusters.

joystick boat engines
Teleflex’s Optimus 360 adds joystick control to boats with mechanically controlled twin outboards. (Courtesy Teleflex Marine)

Mercury, Teleflex and Yamaha have introduced systems employing a single joystick to control multiple outboards (minimum of two) at low speeds. All are intuitive in nature, meaning that you point or twist the helm-mounted stick in the direction you want to go, and the electronic brains shift, swivel and rev the outboards to get you there. (Check out our Yamaha Helm Master blog, photo gallery and video.)


For skippers who normally dock with wheel and throttle, these systems might seem alien. Joysticks work best if you simply keep your eyes locked on where you want to go as you press the stick toward your target or twist it to pivot the boat on its center point. Avoid looking at the outboards; their independent steering (no tie bar connects the engines) might throw you off, especially as the motors turn in opposite directions. All of the systems allow you to progressively apply more power when needed to overcome strong currents or winds. Releasing the joystick returns the motors to neutral.


Yet, each brand offers more than a joystick. These sophisticated systems feature a wide range of additional functions such as fly-by-wire wheel steering, electronic throttle and shift, digital instrumentation, and push-button speed control. While not cheap, these systems represent the next step in outboard controls. Let’s look more closely at each.


Mercury Joystick Piloting


Mercury gave select boating writers a sneak peek at its Joystick Piloting system for outboards during the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show in October 2012. Amid the peripheral winds and rain of Hurricane Sandy, the system gained an unanticipated trial by fire. A Boston Whaler 320 Outrage with twin Verado 300s performed admirably in the close confines of the SunDance Marina. Mercury drew on five years of experience with its Axius joystick in designing the outboard version. Many of Axius’ components are shared but integrated with the Verado power-steering system.


With availability scheduled for July 2013, the Mercury system works only with new Verado 250 and 300 models, and offered as an original equipment option on new boats, as well as a repower choice with new Verados. It cannot be retrofitted to older Verados.


Merc’s joystick system offers a few advantages over the others. For one, it can handle more outboards — up to four Verados. The other exclusive is Skyhook, which can keep the boat in one spot with the help of a built-in GPS — a benefit to anglers who want to fish a wreck without anchoring. Merc’s system also includes a built-in ­autopilot. No word yet from the company on the retail price of its Joystick Piloting system.


Teleflex Optimus 360


Teleflex Marine, the world leader in marine steering systems, was first to the U.S. market with a joystick for outboards, introducing its system at the 2012 Miami International Boat Show last February. Optimus 360 combines a joystick control and an electro-­mechanical throttle-and-shift converter with Teleflex’s Optimus electro-hydraulic power-steering system.
Unlike the systems from Mercury or Yamaha, you can add Optimus 360 to an existing boat, provided it’s equipped with a pair of mechanically controlled outboards. The system is available as original equipment for a new boat, but a Teleflex-certified technician must install it, new boat or not.


My first outboard-joystick ­experience was with Optimus 360 on a Dusky 33 Open Fisherman and twin Suzuki 250s outside Miami’s Sea Isle Marina last year. I found it marvelously intuitive from the start, allowing me to easily put the big center-console in a tight slip with nary a bump of the fenders. In addition to the joystick, Optimus 360 features speed-sensitive wheel steering, decreasing the turning ratio and increasing wheel resistance as speed increases. Retail cost of the system starts at $17,995, according to Teleflex.