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Goodbye Split Controls...And Good Riddance

Boat HelmSo let’s go totally retro for a sec. Let’s say it’s 1988 and I’m just making what I remember as a fairly ragged transition from commercial seafaring to the recreational realm, or to be more technically accurate, to the realm of marine magazines. And let’s totally acknowledge one pertinent detail—when it comes to twin-engine boats of the era, I am very used to (and I mean VERY used to) what most knowledgeable folks today call “single-lever” engine controls, with one lever (on the starboard side of the steering console or binnacle) serving as both gear shift and throttle for the starboard engine and one lever (on the port side of the steering console) serving as both gear shift and throttle for the port engine. After all, oil-field boats, whether big or small, are outfitted this way. And most tugs, whether big or small, are too.

So hey! How come all these twin-engine recreational watercraft I’m now test driving have what most knowledgeable folks today call “split” engine controls, meaning both gears shifts are on one side of the steering console (sometimes to port, sometimes to starboard) and both throttles are on the other side? And how come the only way to tell the difference amongst this fantasia of four (as opposed to just two) levers is the color of the knob on top?

From the very first, I was a little grumpy about it all. Then ultimately, as the ol’ boat-testing career began taking off, I got seriously frustrated and opinionated concerning the popularity of such a goofy, complicated, levers-all-over-the-place system. Not only was it fundamentally illogical, it was also personally problematic due to a mental condition I’ve struggled with since I was knee-high to a bollard: a mild sort of befuddlement that descends whenever I’m faced with a multitude of simple decisions that need to be made in split-second fashion. Let’s consider, as an example, my occasional trouble with speedily telling right from left under pressure and the low-tech solution I was forced to adopt way back when.

During the late 70’s, I spent a good while as a cub pilot on the Great Lakes, a job that occasionally entailed standing on a ship’s bridge giving steering commands like “start her right” and “start her left” to a helmsman who stood behind me, often rather pensively I must admit.

Now yeah, piloting a ship can be nerve-wracking for all concerned but it was especially nerve-wracking for me due to the ol’ is-it-right-or-is-it-left issue. How did I deal with the problem?

Always, just prior to uttering a steering command, I would squeeze my hands in my pockets, the right one for a right turn and the left one for a left turn, to double-check my brain before putting my mouth in gear. The necessity for such an exercise, I’d say, gives you a good sense of why the whole split-control thing (with both ‘right’ and ‘left’ throttles confusingly installed on one side of the steering console and ‘right’ and ‘left’ gears on the other) was such a big deal to me.  

“Why?” I remember asking manufacturers of recreational powerboats during my first couple of years at Power & Motoryacht, “Why four levers when you only need two? And why both throttles on one side? And both gears on the other? It’s blowin’ my mind.”

Of course, seafaring, whether done for fun or profit, is for many reasons a rather conservative affair. And the answers I got back from the manufacturers, as I recall, went something like: “Well, Bill, we’ve been doin’ it this way for a long time and guess what? We are going to keep right on doin’ it, no matter what. Oil-field boats! Tugboats! Who cares?”

Funny the way things work out, though. My recent sea trial of Knit Wits, the first-ever Hatteras (designed in 1959 by Jack Hargrave and launched in 1960), brought the whole split-versus-single-lever-control miasma back to me with a vengeance because, as you can see from the photo above, the fabled old beauty’s helm stations were outfitted with those awful split controls.

How did these babies affect my close-quarters maneuvering? Well, for the whole unexpurgated tale, you’ll have to check out the upcoming July issue of Power & Motoryacht. But, in the interests of giving you a hint (and making a long, sad story short), let’s just say I much (and I mean MUCH) prefer the scenario shown below, which I encountered onboard a brand new Hatteras 60 GT, the modern-day battlewagon I sea trialed right alongside Knit Wits, for trusty comparison’s sake.

GT’s two, beefy, single-lever Palm-Beach-style engine controls

So take a minute. Look at the GT’s two, beefy, single-lever Palm-Beach-style engine controls shown above. Then tell me it doesn’t make eminent sense to blend throttle and gear functions into one, solitary lever on, say, the starboard (or right) side of the steering console. Especially if it just happens to govern everything that happens propulsion-wise on the starboard (or right) side of the boat. And tell me it doesn’t make sense to do the same darn thing on the port side of the steering console.

No doubt about it. I loved a lotta things about Knit Wits. Who wouldn’t? But, on the other hand, I am so!!!!!!!!!! glad that the tide has finally turned on her crazy old split sticks. Here’s to the glorious fact that virtually all recreational-boat manufacturers today go instead with intuitively arranged, easy-to-figure-out-and-deal-with engine controls of the single-lever variety. 

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