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Joysticks everywhere

They’re at the core of a propulsion revolution, bringing fingertip control to a fast-growing range of boats

Innovation continues to drive all facets of the propulsion field today, with major introductions over the past 12 months in joystick systems, diesel and gas inboards, and sterndrives, as well as the continued advancement of 4-stroke outboards and pod drives.

Mercury Marine's Joystick Piloting for outboards is a helm control system.

The growing number of boats that offer joystick helm control is the big news. You can now find joysticks with a variety of power options, from outboards and sterndrives to pod drives and straight-shaft setups.

The Hinckley Co. was one of the first boatbuilders to develop and incorporate joystick control with its JetStick and waterjet drives. The company continues to improve the system and showed the next generation of the JetStick on its Picnic Boat MKIII at the Fort Lauderdale show in October ( The builder also is unveiling a wireless remote joystick called the PalmStick. “This is a fully functioning mini-stick the size of your palm that you walk around with and control the boat,” says Michael Arieta, Hinckley’s executive vice president and general manager in charge of design and operations. “It will be available in all Hinckley waterjet boats.”

The history of Hinckley and the joystick goes back to 1982, when then company owner Shepard McKenney realized a joystick might work well on the waterjet-powered Picnic Boat. “The first Picnic Boat, without a joystick and just the waterjet and steering wheel, was really quite hard to control,” says McKenney, now CEO of Seakeeper, the Solomons, Md., company he founded that offers gyro stabilizers for boats. “With the bucket control and Hamilton jet, you have 360 degrees of infinitely variable thrust.

Today's propulsion technologies have taken boat operation to new levels.

“That’s enormous control authority, and harnessing that authority was a challenge,” he says. “I decided we needed some kind of joystick to make the authority of that waterjet usable.” Today, the JetStick is standard equipment on all of Hinckley’s waterjet boats.

The Intrepid 400 twin-diesel I/O center console uses the Volvo Penta sterndrive joystick married to a pair of 370-hp 6-cylinder diesel engines. “The owner of this boat liked it so much he ordered another one,” says Intrepid Boats president Ken Clinton.

Volvo Penta’s IPS pod drives ( aren’t the best option for Intrepid because the boats are known for their shallow-water capabilities, and pods add more draft than outboards or sterndrives, Clinton says. “But this propulsion package allows us to take advantage of the aspect of Volvo IPS that we do find very useful: the joystick,” he says.

Mercury Marine in October announced its Joystick Piloting for outboards — a helm control system for its 250- and 300-hp Verado 4-strokes in twin, triple and quad installations. “We are very excited because we are bringing our joystick technology that we’ve had for pods and sterndrives to the world of outboards,” says Louis Miller, Mercury’s product manager of digital rigging and the precision rigging group.

Mercury Marine has Joystick Piloting for its 250- and 300-hp Verado 4-strokes in twin, triple and quad installations.

Joystick Piloting operates without bow or stern thrusters and can installed on boats with new Verados or those being repowered. Joystick Piloting will be available next spring (

Yamaha and Volvo Penta recently showcased their collaboration that brings joystick control to Yamaha-powered boats. “We’ve been working with Volvo Penta on a system that will really integrate the steering system, the throttle, the shifting, engine information and the overall piloting of the boat,” says Yamaha Marine president Ben Speciale. “It will give twin-engine boats and triple-engine boats better docking capabilities, like you see with some of the other joystick products with pods.”

Volvo Penta kick-started the propulsion revolution with its IPS pod drive and joystick system.

Boatbuilders expect great things from Yamaha ( “They really dot their i’s and cross their t’s before they come out with a new product,” Clinton says, adding that Intrepid approached Yamaha a few years ago about developing a joystick for outboard boats. “As soon as Yamaha is ready, Intrepid will prepare a boat for the joystick technology — a prototype that will be owned by a customer.”

Inboard joysticks

Joystick technology has also been developed for boats with conventional shaft-drive inboards. Caterpillar this year introduced the 360 Precision Control System ( “It’s essentially a joystick system and all of the integrated components and controls that would be necessary in a yachting application — the joystick, throttle controls, harnesses and hydraulic thrusters,” says Bruce Strupp, manager of propulsion solutions for Caterpillar Marine Power Systems. “We supply all the hydraulics, the manifold, the tank, the heat exchangers, basically the entire package. Our goal is to eventually take over the engine room and the propulsion plant of vessels. The other benefit is consumers can go to a Caterpillar dealer and get the entire system serviced.”

The 360 Precision Control System is designed for boats from about 55 feet up with twin engines packing 1,000 hp or more, says Strupp. “Engines that are 1,000 hp and lower are going to go with the pod solution,” he says. The engines would start with the Caterpillar C18 and get larger as needed, he says.

The system is currently being installed in a Spencer convertible and two others in the Outer Banks area of North Carolina. “And a few other projects elsewhere around the world,” says Strupp.

What about repowering with 360 Precision Control? It can be done, says Strupp, but would require installing bow and stern thrusters.

The Xenta Vessel Maneuvering Assistant Plus relies on a wired joystick and uses a bow thruster to deliver pod-type maneuverability to inboard boats ( And Yacht Controller’s wireless remote control, though not a joystick, gives the skipper precise low-speed maneuverability from anywhere on the boat. The system electronically interfaces with the engines, transmissions, thrusters and anchor windlass (

Mercury also uses a joystick with its Axius system for twin-sterndrive boats. ZF Marine’s Joystick Maneuvering System can be used with sterndrives as well as conventional inboards ( Yanmar America Corp. debuted a joystick for its sterndrive propulsion system this year. Yanmar’s Easy Operation System consists of a joystick helm control, new V-8 diesels and twin sterndrives with counter-rotating props (

ZF introduced its JMS to the market on a 63 Bertram with conventional inboard shaft drives at the 2009 Fort Lauderdale show. “People really saw there are no boundaries [with joystick applications] if you use the right components and a smart electronic brain,” says Wolfgang Schmid, ZF Marine’s president and general manager. “You can maneuver a boat of this size in ways not thought possible. You get the same maneuverability of a pod system for a fraction of the price. That, to me, is a piece of equipment where I say, ‘This is great.’ ”

Joysticks at speed

Joystick controls have opened the door to larger boats for many people.

At a press event for its V8-380 gasoline engine, Volvo Penta announced a new feature called Joystick Driving, which allows the skipper to use the joystick at high speeds. “You don’t have to have a steering wheel,” says vice president of marine sales Marcia Kull. “The whole idea is to incorporate the joystick into the arm of the helm seat to allow the operator to sit back in comfort. It is ideal for long-distance boating and works with the autopilot.”

Joystick Driving steers the boat but does not function like a throttle to control forward and reverse propulsion. I tried the system on a 36-foot aluminum pilothouse boat at the press event. It was a bit tricky at first; small nudges to port and starboard turn the boat significantly — and quickly. Rotating the joystick to fine-tune the heading on the autopilot should be of great value for long-distance cruising. Joystick Driving is expected be available in 2013.

Pod drives and joysticks

Pod drives and joysticks go hand in hand, and they burst onto the boating scene as a team in 2005, when Volvo Penta’s IPS hit the market. Mercury’s Zeus pod system also incorporates a joystick, and ZF Marine links its pods to its JMS.

Walking the docks at boat shows not long ago, you’d see a few yachts powered with pod drives, and a prominent sign at the slip would let show-goers know it. “At that time, the pod builders were doing the most advertising,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing for Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts. “They were trying to convince the public that pods were good so that they would ask their boatbuilders to use them. We needed new technologies to keep people interested in buying new boats, and pods have been the best technology we’ve had.”

The Sabre lineup comprises boats from 38 to 54 feet, and every model in the range is available with pods, Collins says.

Pod drives bring many pluses to the boating experience. They help make operation easier and less stressful, especially around the dock. Their low-speed maneuverability hinges on the ability of the pods to operate independently of one another. Linked to a joystick, the drives push the boat fore and aft, port and starboard, diagonally or rotationally. Pod boats also run more efficiently than most straight-shaft setups.

Pod manufacturers have added features to their systems, such as Volvo Penta’s Sportfish Mode. It directs the drives outboard to their maximum for rapid response when maneuvering the stern to fight a fish. “It’s just phenomenal the way you can operate the boat, fighting a fish in a tournament,” says Robbie Buckley, who fishes his 2010 SeaVee 390 with twin IPS600s in Florida sailfish tournaments. “It’s all about time and speed. In a matter of a second and a half, I can have the bow back to where the stern just was. It’s that quick. It’s almost like a carnival ride.”

As an offshore fisherman, Buckley also appreciates the fuel economy of the pods and diesels. Cruising at about 37 mph, his 390 gets 1.5 mpg. “It’s great,” says Buckley, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. “From my house to Bimini, I burn about 48 gallons of fuel, and that’s running almost 40 mph. It is about 62 miles.”

Pods excel on boats from about 35 to 55 feet. Go larger, and the benefits diminish somewhat because bigger boats require more horsepower to hit the speeds where pods’ fuel efficiency shines. They also require larger pods that create greater drag and add weight to the boat.

Teleflex's Optimus 360 is a joystick and power steering system for mechanically controlled outboards.

Semidisplacement and displacement boats are generally better suited — at least for now — to conventional shaft drives, boatbuilders say. Of course, that doesn’t mean engine companies have been avoiding the bigger-boat market. In fact, Mercury is looking to expand in the 50- to 70-foot segment with planing boats powered with triple pods.

Designing and installing a single pod in a smaller boat is no problem from an engineering standpoint. Just look at SeaVee’s 39-footer with a single ZF pod. The setup, however, requires a bow thruster and additional engineering to make it all work, and that adds to the cost of the boat. The 39-foot SeaVee with twin IPS600s is about $60,000 more than the same boat with three 350-hp Yamaha outboards, says SeaVee president Ariel Pared.

From a financial standpoint, repowering with pods makes little sense. Also, there’s a need for more technicians capable of working on pod drives, some boatbuilders say. Boaters and builders also worry about the drives’ susceptibility to strikes with submerged objects, so the pluses must be weighed against the minuses before you decide whether a pod boat is for you.

Consumers cite ease of use as the No. 1 benefit of a pod boat. “It all has to do with making boating easier. The ability to move a boat sideways, to spin it on its axis — these are things people have wanted for a long time,” says Martin Meissner, ZF Marine’s marketing manager. “So I don’t think it is surprising to see how quickly people have gravitated to [pod technology].”

See related article:

- Giant strides in inboards and I/Os

December 2012 issue