Joystick Boat Handling Shootout

Can a kid with a joystick beat a pro with experience?

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
A father and daughter compete against each other in a joystick docking competition. Who wins?Garrett Cortese

Thanks for the help! Galati Yacht Sales offered us the use of a 46 Prestige Yacht, and the use of their St. Petersburg, Florida, facility so that we could produce this article for you. We are especially grateful to the help provided by Galati's Alex Kramer. --ed.

Barely 13 years old and just weeks removed from earning her ­boating-safety certificate, she’s taken control of a twin-engine ­46-foot Prestige with the carefree attitude of a kid who actually thinks docking a near-$1 million boat is child’s play. Of course, in this case, it is. Kind of.

For the kid, docking this beauty hasn't required hours of learning to work twin engines by finessing the sticks (throttle and shift levers). Heck, in the few minutes she's been aboard, she hasn't even touched them. All she's required is about 10 minutes of instruction and that singular control unit all too familiar to many a teen — the joystick.

Still, docking a boat is no video game, and I'm about to prove it. Welcome to Boating's Joystick Challenge, a head-to-head matchup of seasoned skipper versus rank novice. The contestants? The kid, aka Riley Hemmel, a pint-size powerhouse who grew up around boats but has never actually captained anything bigger than an 18-foot runabout. And me, her dad, a guy who has worked for this magazine testing boats for nearly 25 years but, truth be told, typically specializes in boats half this size and with a single outboard or sterndrive on the transom.

Oh, I should still win. Extensive twin-engine experience or not, I’ve docked ­plenty of boats, and I’ve got the obvious edge when it comes to judging wind and current. Plus, I’m a cool, level-headed adult. The kid? She’s a teenager, an ­irrational life form subject to impulsive action and wild mood swings. (Wait, this might be one of my stories she actually reads. Let’s make that “a life form who, while certainly delightful, lacks the judgment and patience required to carry out such a difficult task.”) Still, I’m not taking any chances. As she settles into the helm for our first challenge, I wish her luck — then subtly shift the Bimini so that the full-fledged assault of Florida’s brutal August sun finds its way onto her face. Hey kid, I love you, but if you can’t take the heat, get off the flybridge.

Daddy’s not playin’.

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
Joysticks can take some of the stress out of docking from a flying bridge.Garrett Cortese

Control Freaks
Though this may be the kid's first exposure to joystick control, the system in question — Volvo Penta's Inboard Performance System (IPS) — has actually been around since 2005, the year the engine manufacturer first introduced pod-based drives with forward-facing, twin contra-rotating props. Testing quickly proved the marketing hype was well-deserved. Because pods sat directly below the engines, boatbuilders regained valuable real estate on board. Noise and vibration were also reduced, while efficiency increased as much as 35 percent at higher speeds, thanks in part to the props operating in undisturbed water. Lower horsepower engines were also able to do the work of the higher horsepower engine alternatives.

One of the greatest practical advantages of IPS, however, is in terms of low-speed, close-quarters handling. With the pods able to move independently of one another through a roughly 30-degree arc and effectively provide thrust in almost any direction, Volvo Penta is able to offer outstanding maneuverability. With IPS, the captain can direct the joystick in the direction he wants the boat to move, and the IPS drives (and some cleverly written software) do the rest. Boats can spin within their own length, pivot to any heading, and even move directly sideways into an open slot at a crowded dock. In short, handling a large, multiengine boat is, dare I say it, almost simple.

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
Volvo’s joystick system allows for more intuitive docking; with a little practice, most people can master it fairly quickly.Garrett Cortese

As you might expect, the kid took to it immediately. Full disclosure? Unless you count the occasional Wii session, she hasn’t grown up with video games (not sure how we achieved that miracle). But the ridiculously short learning curve and intuitive way in which input at the joystick moves the boat through the water was tailor-made for the novice boater. Within minutes, our ­instructor, Alex Kramer from St. Petersburg’s Galati Yacht Sales, had her moving the boat through a narrow channel, spinning a 180 for the return trip, slipping the hull sideways through the water, and backing down like a seasoned pro. Yes, I got the same crash course (don’t tell the kid, but I actually have some previous experience with joystick systems), but I knew I was in for a battle almost from the start. Like I said, she’s good — and despite my best efforts with that Bimini, for some reason still not sweating. She has ice­water in her veins.

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
We agreed upon a target, a sign posted on one of the dock pilings, to judge our results. Slide over so that the sign was opposite the helm and you won. Miss it and you lose.Garrett Cortese

Let the Games Begin
Our first challenge, navigating the no-wake channel off the Galati docks, was simple. Pushing the joystick forward propelled us through the water; pushing it farther increased our speed. When we wanted to slow down and stop, we simply let the stick return to the neutral position before pulling it back to give a little bump in reverse and cease our momentum. Spinning the boat through a 180-degree turn was also pretty much a draw. A simple twist of the joystick resulted in the boat spinning within its own length. We both also steered the boat through a turn with a combination of forward push and subtle twist before doing likewise in reverse. Each time, the IPS pods adjusted their thrust and direction to transfer our input into intuitive movement. We both even held the boat in position despite wind and current using Volvo Penta's Dynamic Positioning System (DPS). We simply pushed a button. The pod drives and linked GPS did the rest, keeping us within feet of our mark. Open water, however, was tailor-made for the kid. The scenarios ahead would put us in close proximity to Galati's floating concrete docks. I nonchalantly asked Kramer the price of the Prestige, then made a few subtle comments about the sickening sound of crunching fiberglass before finally turning over the helm.

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
Smoothness comes from keeping your fingers on the joystick and making subtle motions.Garrett Cortese

The next challenge, slipping the boat directly sideways to pull up to a parallel dock, would require a little more finesse — and coolness under pressure. We agreed upon a target, a sign posted on one of the dock pilings, to judge our results. Slide over so that the sign was opposite the helm and you won. Miss it and you lose, not to mention crunch the theoretical mega-yachts waiting fore and aft. Long story short, we both pulled it off, coming to rest inches off the dock. Again, IPS made it simple. Pushing the joystick sideways toward the dock slid the boat in the intended direction. Pushing the stick farther increased the power and thus the rate of travel. When the wind kicked the bow at an angle, a gentle rotation of the joystick brought the boat back to parallel. Moving ahead of or behind our mark was quickly corrected with gentle pressure on the stick forward or back.

Kramer’s best advice? Keep your fingers on the joystick and make subtle motions rather than make a movement and release. The kid got the hang of that idea better, and her smoothness was notable. She nudged the joystick over to slide the boat sideways, released the tension to let the drift settle, then bumped it again until she had the boat in perfect position. I, on the other hand, was a little more heavy-handed. I pushed the stick harder, powering the boat more rapidly toward the dock, then occasionally had to correct with thrust in the opposite direction to slow my approach. I may have occasionally fared better against the clock, but in terms of precision, she was winning the war, even when we repositioned and approached the dock to the starboard-side, negating the sight advantage that came with the Prestige’s portside helm. Long story short, the kid has pretty good depth perception. And increasingly, a rather smug smile. Time to up the ante.

Joystick Boat Handling Shootout
A 13-year-old kid slipped a nearly $1 million boat into a claustrophobic slip without even breaking a sweat.Garrett Cortese

Don't Call It a Comeback
I'll admit the final challenge — backing into a slip — is the one where I thought I would, well, smoke the little punk. With ease. My ­confidence grew once I saw the setup. We wouldn't be simply backing the 46-foot Prestige into a slip, we'd first be pivoting it around a 45-degree corner in reverse before backing into a narrow slip with an unforgiving dock to port and intimidating pilings to starboard. My cockiness would have grown unchecked save for one thing — I was semiconvinced the kid, my kid, was about to tear up some very pricey fiberglass. And let's just say my checkbook isn't quite up to that ­challenge.

As the more experienced captain, I went first, trying to remember my rule about never approaching a dock faster than you’re willing to hit it. I gauged how far to reverse before beginning my turn into the slip, pivoted the boat deftly around the intimidating corner of the slip, and then began ­backing down toward the seawall. My momentum, however, pushed me a little close to the piling, and I responded with one of my classic bursts of power. I recovered quickly, but as some guy named Newton once said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and I once again found myself correcting my heavy hand with another subtle correction. To the crowd on the dock, it was probably little more than a blip in my performance, but like a kid taking their first driving test, I could feel the judge in the next seat deducting points off my performance. I had just left the door to victory open — and that darn kid was ­chomping at the bit to walk triumphantly through.

I tried my best to distract. I commented on the oppressive heat, asked about the boys at school, even went all-out Caddyshack on her ("M-m-m, miss it Noonan! Miss!"), but alas, it wasn't meant to be. A 13-year-old kid slipped a nearly $1 million boat into a claustrophobic slip without even breaking a sweat. I was bitterly defeated and yet simultaneously proud. My kid just did that. And if she can do it, so can you — even if you are an old salt with a fondness for the sticks.