We all love progress don’t we, we love new gadgets, we like the latest phone or option on our vehicles but what about boats? More and more boats are fitted with joystick controls, so what are they – are they a hindrance that limits your ability to handle a boat ‘properly’ or are they a great addition that makes boating easier and therefore more enjoyable?

The ability to control a boat through a joystick type arrangement has been around for a fair while now. Big ships have for many years been fitted with them and for over 10 years they have been an option on many motor cruisers and larger twin engined powerboats. Historically, the cost has been a bit of a challenge but now with more outboards being supplied with electronic steering systems built into the body of the outboard they are becoming more and more common and so the price is starting to come down. In this article we’ll look at the options available, what they can do and how to make the most of a joystick setup.

So what’s a joystick arrangement all about?

Let’s start by looking at a twin outboard arrangement. Newer outboards can have built in steering motors, this allows the outboards to be steered independently electronically. This ‘fly by wire’ arrangement on the outboards has been available for many years on throttles. When you combine ‘fly by wire’ steering and throttles it becomes a logical next step to pull this all together and control the vessel through a joystick. The ‘brain’ built into the joystick installation is programmed to move the orientation of the engines at the same time as applying forward or reverse thrust to each of the engines. The result – aside from seeing the odd look of engines pointing in what seems like strange directions is that the boat can move sideways, can rotate and can move backs wards and forwards – all with just the adjustment of the joystick. Clever!

Joystick set up

The leader in this market at the moment is Yamaha with their ‘HelmMaster’ product. HelmMaster can be fitted to a single engine installation but of course the benefits are most profound when fitted to twin, triple or quad outboard installations.

For those fitting the HelmMaster system there are some other interesting features such as the ability to press a button on the joystick and through the inbuilt GPS the vessel can hold station at a predetermined point or through the link to the autopilot module for the vessel to follow a planned route or follow a pattern such as when fishing or executing a search.

There’s also the ability to integrate a bowthruster into the setup giving even more refinement to the handling of the boat.

So what of other setups and manufacturers?

As I mentioned joystick setups are pretty common already and even larger boats with twin shaft and bowthruster setups can be found with them but it’s the development of inbuilt electronic steering systems that marks a real step forward. Mercury Verados are available with a joystick and Suzuki are coming to the party so there’s plenty of choice out there for you. With Yamaha bringing out their 200Hp outboard with the system expect to see more and more options on smaller engines coming through.

So we’ve got all this technology – how do we handle a vessel fitted with a joystick?

JPO for Single Engine Pontoons Joystick

How to use a joystick varies according to whether you have one engine or two (or more). If we look at those with two or more engines then moving the joystick in the direction you want the vessel move rotates the engines and applies thrust and the vessel moves in that direction. Move the joystick a millimetre or so and it goes slowly, push it more and it moves faster. Rotate the joystick and the boat rotates. Combine the rotation with a push and you get both movements. Smart.

For me the trick with being really good at handling a boat with a joystick is ‘finesse’. If you throw the joystick around in a fairly aggressive or agricultural way then expect the boat to do likewise. Use really fine movements and you’ll be amazed what you can achieve and how smoothly the vessel can be moved.

In years to come we may well have boats in the mainstream world that don’t have a steering wheel and a throttle control and we just use the joystick. For now though we have both so one of the skills to master is being able to move seamlessly between joystick handling and then jumping back on the wheel and throttles. With HelmMaster when you liven up the joystick it locks the steering wheel. To regain use of the wheel there’s a need to go into gear and control goes back to the throttles and wheel. This makes it very quick to move from one system to another as needs be. The challenge though is to make sure that you put the time in on both systems so that you can move from one to the other quickly and your brain copes with the change.

So is it cheating and we should forget a joystick and stick with the wheel and throttles?

In my view it’s simply progress. Like when the first sailboat was fitted with an engine so as to be able to manoeuvre alongside, the salty old sea-dog captain probably said it was cheating and in his day he’d sail onto the berth. Today, the next stage of boating evolution is the use of joysticks with these fly by wire systems. Boating should be fun and as simple as possible as that allows us to spend time doing what we want to when we’re afloat rather than fretting over getting back into the berth. If that means embracing these systems then that in my view is a great development.

Keep safe and have a great time afloat!

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