New outboard joystick controls from Mercury Marine and Yamaha Outboards promise to relieve the fear of docking, which marketing research reveals is the chief anxiety of many boaters. As with inboards and sterndrives, a digital joystick manages the independent shifting, steering and throttle of multiple motors to achieve fingertip, low-speed control beyond the imagination of most weekend captains. The technology isn’t cheap, but neither is therapy.
Yamaha’s Helm Master and Mercury’s Joystick Piloting are similar in concept. Each combines a digital helm, digital throttle-and-shift, power steering and a joystick in a single computer-controlled system that manages input to multiple outboards. Both systems debut this spring. Helm Master is available through installation by the manufacturer on new boats. Mercury Joystick Piloting is available on new boats and will be available for repower if you buy a new 250 hp or 300 hp Verado fitted for the system beginning Oct. 1, 2013. Each is designed to work only with that brand’s engines, which happen to dominate the market. There’s also the Teleflex Optimus 360, a digital joystick system that works with any brand of cable-controlled outboards in a dual installation, and a new adaptation of the Teleflex system by BRP/Evinrude.
The Mercury joystick is based on the software designed for the MerCruiser Axius sterndrive joystick system and will be offered for the Verado 250 and Verado 300 outboards in dual, triple or quad configurations. It integrates with the Mercury SmartCraft suite of electronics and includes a digital helm, power steering for each motor, and a new VesselView information display with cruise control.
Yamaha Helm Master was developed in conjunction with Volvo Penta and Teleflex, and mates to any Yamaha 4.2-liter V-6 Offshore outboard and the V-8 F350, in twin and triple installations but not quads. In addition to a joystick, Helm Master includes an electronic helm, a new digital control that can throttle and shift up to three engines with a single lever, an electric power-steering pump for each motor, an electronic key and a new Command Link Plus 6Y9 information screen. Helm Master has a cruise-control function and also automatically trims the motors up or down based on rpm and preset limits.
There are some significant feature differences between the two systems. The Yamaha joystick has two power settings, with the “high mode” available for better control in challenging wind or current — I observed about 1,600 max rpm in standard mode and about 2,500 rpm in high mode on one demo boat, although available power is specific to the boat model as determined by the builder. Mercury Joystick Piloting allows full use of power without having to switch modes. The Yamaha helm — wheel steering — is speed-sensitive (driver effort increases with speed and is user-adjustable); the Mercury system’s wheel pressure is a fixed range and is not adjustable. Yamaha has the trim feature, which is set up by the builder but can be adjusted by the owner or turned off. Mercury VesselView incorporates an autopilot and the Skyhook station-keeping application that uses GPS to hold the boat in a selected position. Yamaha does not offer or recommend a specific autopilot for use with the Helm Master.
I’ve had short demo opportunities with the Yamaha and Mercury joysticks, each in some wind and current and on unfamiliar boats. Both were intuitive to use and worked as advertised — each will spin a boat in place and can crab the boat sideways to snug right up to a dock. I’ve also talked to some key boatbuilder contacts who will debut these systems, and they made similar observations — that the main applications for the joystick systems will be on boats longer than 30 feet because of cost and the space required for the pumps and computers; that the cost of the joystick will be mitigated somewhat by eliminating a bow thruster that’s often installed on these boats; and that going forward builders will optimize boat design to accommodate joystick controls by adjusting the center of gravity and even details like an ergonomic mounting pad for the joystick itself. As I write this, no builder has announced a retail price for the Yamaha or Merc joystick as optional equipment.