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Joystick vs. Joystick

New systems allow joystick control with both straight inboards and pod drives — but which stick is our top pick?

April 10, 2012
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Are you a control freak? We hope so. At least, we hope you are when you’re on your boat, since a lack of control at the helm can lead to all sorts of frightful antics, like smashing pilings and scarring gelcoat. Lucky for you and me, the advent of pod drives has made it much simpler to maneuver boats, thanks in no small part to their easy-to-use joysticks — a form of control we’ve been comfortable with since Pac-Man hit the arcades. Twin Disc, however, has a new Express Joystick System (EJS) that lets you control a straight-shaft inboard boat with the same little stick of joy that works so well with pods.

Can it really be as easy to maneuver a straight inboard boat as it is to maneuver one powered by pod drives? To find out, I located one of the earliest installations of the inboard EJS on a Maritimo M56, which proved to be the perfect test bed. Perfect because, when I arrived to test the boat, it was shoehorned into a cockeyed slip in the crook of an L-shape marina that had just enough room for a 45-footer. Getting out of the slip — much less putting the boat back in after our sea trial — was going to be a serious challenge.

After the lines were cast free, I grasped the knobby little joystick and gave it a gentle push. The boat crept forward surprisingly slowly, but by the time the transom was a mere two inches or so beyond the finger pier, the bow pulpit was getting ready to kiss a piling. A backward tap stopped all motion; a quick turn to the right of the stick’s top knob got the boat spinning to starboard, and then pushing the entire stick to starboard caused the Maritimo to walk sideways into the channel. Piece of cake.

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After an uneventful sea trial in open water, I took a few passes beneath a nearby bridge to experience the EJS in a 2-knot current, just a few feet from solid concrete. Again, its performance held up to the maneuverability and control we’ve come to expect from pod systems. But when it was time to put the boat back into its jail cell of a berth, I’ll admit I was a bit uneasy. After all, threading the eye of a needle with a 56-footer is rife with serious potential for disaster. And, yes, I am disaster-prone. But getting in turned out to be just as easy as getting out, thanks to that fistful of joy.

The bottom line? Operation with the EJS was every bit as easy and intuitive as using a joystick with a pod-equipped boat. And although pod drives enjoy perks like an efficiency gain of 15 to 30 percent compared with straight inboards (thanks to their hydrodynamic design and flat shaft angle), the EJS inboards have a few advantages of their own. Firstly, shifting is buttery smooth because of Twin Disc’s QuickShift system (see below). Secondly, the system costs notably less than pod drives. The exact numbers will change depending on the installation, but in the case of the Maritimo, EJS adds about $40,000 to the boat’s $1.8 million price tag. That’s less than 3 percent, while pods, since they are typically fitted to smaller, less-expensive boats, can add more than 10 or 15 percent to a boat’s cost. Which system is “better”? That depends on your priorities. Any way you cut it, however, running boats with these systems proves one thing: When it comes to maneuvering, it’s a wash — using either type of stick-controlled system is an absolute joy.

Twin Disc’s QuickShift
The absence of a loud “thunk” every time you shift into gear is a true pleasure, and this comes courtesy of an internal clutch-actuating system. The pistons are stepped, and the use of the smaller stepped piston area allows the clutch plates to semi-lock as opposed to going directly into a fully locked state. This cushions the torque as it’s delivered to the prop, thus eliminating that jarring thud that usually accompanies a transition into gear. Added bonus: Extremely low propeller speeds (all the way down to 50 rpm) become possible without causing a stall-out, so in ridiculously tight quarters like those we experienced on the Maritimo M56, you can creep along at extremely slow speeds.

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