Joystick maneuvering systems are now available for every type of marine propulsion, whether your boat is powered by inboards, outboards, sterndrives, pod drives or water jets. Leveraging powerful software and independent steering, joystick systems provide confidence around the dock for less-experienced boaters and provide all skippers the ability to make the boat do things — like moving sideways — that may just be impossible with conventional engine and gear controls. For all that, joysticks still present a learning curve — albeit a shallow one. Use these tips en route to becoming a joystick pro.
Joysticks can be quite sensitive, responding to the simple weight of your hand. Learn the feel of neutral for your system and consider removing your hand from the stick when stopped. Mercury Marine’s Joystick Piloting now incorporates a color LED ring to indicate operation mode, which is helpful for this very reason.
It’s common for outboard boaters to reference the attitude of their engine cowling to help with steering. But with a joystick system, there is no tie rod and the engines (or drives or pods) steer independent of each other. Check out the splayed engines in the picture. Look where you want to go, not at your engine cowlings.
Stationkeeping is the generic term for the ability to push a button and allow a joystick system, when interfaced to GPS, to hold a boat in place without operator input. This is not your cue to leave the helm. For one thing, if an electronic glitch occurs, safety would be compromised. Also, the props are still turning in this mode, so take care with fishing line and watch for stray lines and hoses around the dock.
A rocking moment can be induced when moving sideways. For instance, as you make the boat move to starboard, a bit of list to port can occur. (This is more prevalent aboard higher-profile cruisers than center consoles.) When you come off the stick, the boat can then rock back to starboard and potentially rock right into the dock or bulkhead. Be attentive to this possibility.
Just like when operating a boat using conventional controls, it’s often best to use bursts of power, returning often to neutral, when maneuvering in the confines of a marina or around other boats or structures. The boat will continue to move once the stick is returned to neutral, so learning how much “way” your boat carries — and how long it will carry that way for — still ranks as important to successful docking.