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Troubled Waters

Why not forget about that joystick occasionally? Even on joystick-equipped craft, it’s wise to keep those old-school boat-handling techniques close at hand.

Several years ago, I was delivering a 48-foot express cruiser along the Gulf Coast when an unusual and unexpected glitch meddled with my mellifluous state of mind. While easing slowly into a marina for an overnight stay, the boat’s joystick control began to misbehave. More to the point, when I bumped the stick from side-to-side or dead ahead to maintain a slow but steady course while scouting for my designated slip, the effects were sporadic, unpredictable. Sometimes I got a response from the boat’s pod drives, sometimes I didn’t. And this hit-or-miss failure to communicate with the propulsion machinery under my deck shoes continued as I began rotating for a backdown.


I had another problem to contend with. Because good ol’ Lady Luck had seemingly turned a tad sour and uncooperative, there was a sporty crosswind blowing at the same time my joystick was flubbing up, thereby complicating the backdown even further. Yeah, I know—I shouldn’t have pushed the envelope on this one, but I did. And eventually, via a sweaty joystick, I got the cruiser backed into her slip that evening, although there was a price to pay. For starters, the paint on one of her brand-new quarterguards got scratched. And then, the stress involved in dealing with two failed (and rather uproarious) backdown attempts prior to my -final, frenzied, frazzled success, was so intense that I was literally shaking like a leaf when all was said and done.

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But if fate were to grant me a second shot at docking that particular boat on that particular evening, I’d have gone with an entirely different approach. Rather than sticking with a reliable and perhaps overly familiar technology that was royally screwing up, I’d have tapped the OFF switch on the joystick, thereby causing control of the boat’s pod drives to revert to her steering wheel and throttles. Then I’d have either kept on keepin’ on with my backdown using old-fashioned twin-screw technique or, given the oomph of the crosswind, maybe I’d have simply spun the boat around and slid her into the slip bow-first. Such thoughtful measures would have resulted in lots less stress and, most likely, no damage at all.

I admit, however, that there’s a faint whiff of presumption hanging over my fond imaginings here. Let’s face it—if a skipper needs to switch from his joystick to so-called manual control for some reason, it’s absolutely necessary that he be at least semi-familiar with operating his boat with two sticks and a steering wheel. Other-wise, it’s very likely that he’ll get himself into way more trouble than the trouble he may have been headed for in the first place.

So, here’s a pint-sized, albeit experience-based, suggestion expressly designed to head worst-case scenarios off at the pass. If you own a pod-propelled boat with a joystick, leave it off occasionally as you approach or exit your berth and then, for a few minutes, in an uncongested spot, practice doing the traditional, old-school, twin-screw thing. Just to keep your hand in. And if, for some reason, you’ve somehow bypassed twin-screw boat handling skills on your way to joystick proficiency, get somebody to show you the ropes. It ain’t rocket science.

I’m not trying to be an alarmist here. Modern joystick-controlled propulsion systems are exceptionally reliable. Since their introduction well over a dozen years ago, I’ve lost track of how many of these vessels I’ve maneuvered and docked under all kinds of conditions around the world. And, believe it or not, that memorable little glitch on the Gulf Coast years ago represents the only joystick system that’s failed to perform the way I thought it should have.

But the bottom line is still obdurate. All joysticks, no matter how well they are engineered and installed, rely on complex, computerized electronics, and there’s no denying that the marine environment remains decidedly unfriendly to such highly sophisticated, fly-by-wire, electrically energized technologies. This may not be pretty, that’s for sure. But hey, that’s just the way it is.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.