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The New Magically Maneuverable Outboard

Old salts will roll their eyes at the Miami International Boat Show this year (2013) when Mercury Marine and Yamaha debut new outboard control systems with joystick steering that makes it infinitely easier to look like a pro in even the most challenging docking situations. But as with power steering and digital controls, the salts will learn to love the joystick.

Yamaha’s system has no tie-bars

Yamaha’s system has no tie-bars (above), and gives fingertip control, like Mercury’s system (below).

Teleflex debuted an outboard joystick in 2012. Its Optimus 360 is a system for cable-controlled dual outboards that includes an electronic helm and controls plus the joystick. The Mercury joystick and the Yamaha Helm Master systems are dedicated to each brand’s largest, digitally controlled motors, and offer features not available from Teleflex. They will initially be available this spring only through OEMs on new boats. Those OEMs will also determine the retail price of each joystick system.

Mercury’s joystick system

The Mercury and Yamaha systems are similar in basic concept, in that they use a computer to steer and throttle multiple outboards individually to maneuver the boat at low speeds through input from a joystick. Both systems can spin a boat within its own length and cause it to move sideways and snug right up to a dock, without the use of a bow thruster.

The Mercury joystick system will be offered for the Verado 250 and Verado 300 outboards in dual, triple, or quad configurations. These motors already use digital controls. The joystick package adds an electronic helm (and joystick, of course), a power-steering pump for each motor, plus the latest VesselView information display. VesselView incorporates cruise control, plus an autopilot and the Skyhook application that uses GPS to hold the boat in a selected position, features not offered by Yamaha.

The Yamaha Helm Master control system will plug into any Yamaha 4.2-liter V-6 Offshore outboard as well as the F350 V-8 model, in twin and triple rigs. In addition to a joystick, it also includes an electronic helm, a new digital twin-lever control with a cruise-control function, electric power-steering pumps, an electronic key and a new Command Link Plus 6Y9 information screen. Helm Master also incorporates a selectable trim-assist function (okay old salts, roll your eyes again) that automatically trims the motors up or down based on rpm. The Yamaha helm is speed-sensitive (driver effort increases with speed but can be adjusted); the Mercury helm is not adjustable. The Yamaha joystick has two power settings, normal and high-thrust.

I’ve had the opportunity to do short demos with the Yamaha and Mercury products, and both seem to work as advertised, allowing me to gain fine control of an unfamiliar boat with just a little practice. I tried the Yamaha Helm Master on a very windy day in a river current, and the high-thrust mode on the joystick made the boat much more responsive.

My take overall? Joystick steering for outboards makes it possible to execute dockside maneuvers that would be nearly impossible with regular controls alone, and puts docking precision at a captain’s fingertips. A new joystick system will likely be expensive, but if it replaces a bow thruster, some of the cost will be recovered. I believe a joystick will add real value, especially to today’s largest outboard-powered fishing boats. Think of it as a remedy for high blood pressure.

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.