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Joystick controls and innovative propulsion are changing the way boats are operated — not to mention making your life easier

Joystick controls and innovative propulsion are changing the way boats are operated — not to mention making your life easier


It took a couple of F-16s buzzing the beach to steal, just briefly, the thunder from Lazzara Yachts’ new LSX Quad. The 75-foot luxury express cruiser spun in place like a pinwheel and performed other feats of magic as company president Dick Lazzara ran her through her paces without bow or stern thrusters, and with fingertip control.

Grab the joystick — it’s about the size of a fat tube of lipstick — and rotate the boat, maneuver it sideways, forward, back astern, diagonally, even sideways while spinning. Back the big boat around corners. Nudge it into a tight slip. Leave the carping naysayers on the dock slack-jawed.

“She’ll never get it into that slip.” Yes, she will.

The LSX Quad’s joystick docking controls, along with four of Volvo Penta’s new Inboard Performance System 600 engines, deliver such precise handling that Lazzara — demonstrating the boat in the yacht harbor at St. Petersburg, Fla., during the October air show — says it’s like docking a boat half its size. The IPS “quads” work in tandem twos; the starboard drives can be pushing one direction while the port drives push another, which enables the boat to perform these maneuvers.

Lazzara, ubiquitous cigar in one hand, used the other to dock the LSX, with very little forward thinking required. He didn’t have to constantly work the shift levers and throttles to move about in tight quarters. A computer — the electronic vessel control — orchestrated the engines’ thrust and direction as he pushed and pulled and twisted the joystick. Joysticks are intuitive: The boat moves the way the stick moves. It’s that simple.

“If you have a kid who plays PlayStation, he can dock this boat,” says Fabrizio Loi, LSX’s chief designer. And that’s not just hyperbole. Tiara Yachts vice president of sales and marketing Nick Bischoff, whose company was among the builders that introduced IPS to the U.S. market, has a video of a 10-year-old boy docking a Tiara 43 Sovran powered by twin IPS 500s.

“You get incredible maneuvering with the joystick,” Bischoff says.

The $3.6 million LSX Quad is Lazzara’s first foray into the express cruiser market and the first yacht of its size that engine manufacturer Volvo Penta has equipped with IPS, its new diesel inboard system with counter-rotating, forward-facing props and drive pods that drop out of the bottom of the boat, eliminating the conventional straight shaft and strut.

Lazzara and Volvo Penta characterize this marriage of boat and drive as revolutionary. Certainly it is remarkable, a step forward that its innovators predict will set a future course for boating the same way sterndrives did almost 50 years ago.

IPS and others of its ilk, most notably Cummins MerCruiser’s Zeus, take yacht propulsion technology to a new level, and unlike some new-fangled stuff that just complicates life, IPS is designed to make driving and docking boats easier — especially big ones. It also offers benefits in performance, efficiency, weight- and space-saving capabilities, quiet operation, and time needed to install or repair drives.

Volvo president and CEO Clint Moore expects IPS to render traditional straight shaft and strut installations obsolete in many applications. “The lightning has struck,” he says. “You just haven’t heard the thunder yet.”

“In planing boats, this is the way to go,” agrees Lennart Arvidsson, Volvo Penta’s chief engineer on IPS. Introduced in October 2004, IPS already powers 1,000 boats — 110 models and 75 boat brands, says Moore. Available now with 4-cylinder 350-hp and 6-cylinder 400-, 500- and 600-hp engines, IPS makes sense for vessels as small as 30 feet, Moore says. The 80,000-pound Lazzara tops out at around 35 knots with its four 600s, and Moore says the same package would work fine on yachts larger than 75 feet if an owner were willing to settle for a top speed of 27 or 28 knots.

Volvo Penta is mum on future plans for IPS, but look for even bigger IPS packages powering even bigger yachts in multiple configurations. Lazzara says you also can expect to see IPS linked by computer to GPS so it can automatically hold boats on station in winds and currents.

“We’re going to have that soon,” he says.

The user-friendliness of IPS is a plus not just to owners but to builders as well, says John Melton, a Lazzara designer. If the IPS-powered LSX handles like a boat half its size, that translates into a larger market for the 75-footer, he says. “We’re trying to tap people who are coming up from a Sea Ray, a 65-foot Sea Ray,” Melton says. “They want to captain their own boat, but this size can be very intimidating to handle if you have a standard prop system.”

Volvo expects IPS to attract existing big-boat owners who will see it as a “better mousetrap than the traditional shaft and strut,” says Moore. “We also believe we can grow the market. People have the financial means and desire to move into boats in the IPS range, but they are afraid of docking and handling the boat.” IPS enables them to consider owning a 75-footer without having to hire a captain.

“Women will love this,” Lazzara predicts. “They won’t need a captain anymore.”

Tiara, the Holland, Mich., cruising yacht builder, powers its 43-foot Sovran with IPS, introduced a 39 Sovran with twin 400- or 500-hp IPS at the October Fort Lauderdale boat show, and expects to introduce a 58-footer with a triple 600-hp IPS package in late spring. Bischoff of Tiara concurs with Lazzara in thinking IPS will “revolutionize” the power cruiser market. For example, IPS takes up less room than a traditional straight-shaft installation. Tiara fit a second stateroom in its 43 Sovran, which Bischoff says it couldn’t have done without IPS. And the LSX has 10 more feet of living space aft because of that.

“[LSX] has five staterooms. That’s more than a [$5 million] 83- or 84-foot express boat,” says Lazzara.

Mercury Marine and Cummins MerCruiser Diesel are poised to introduce its Zeus pod drive system to the public at the Miami International Boat Show in February. (Press and select OEMs got to see an early version of Zeus at last year’s Miami Boat Show.) Zeus links 330- to 550-hp inboards to pod drives with conventional rear-facing, counter-rotating props recessed in tunnels to protect the drives.

The fact that two of the industry’s major players — Cummins MerCruiser and Volvo Penta — are coming out now with similar technology may convince boaters that it is “for real.”

“That legitimizes it,” says Chris Wachowski, systems integration director at MotoTron, which helped develop Zeus. (MotoTron is a subsidiary of the Brunswick Corp., which also owns Mercury Marine.)

Development of the drives has required a Manhattan Project kind of effort that has been both costly and time-consuming. Wachowski estimates that just the computer-based systems integration, drives and controls for Zeus cost more than $20 million to develop. “It has been a huge investment for this market,” he says.

“The times they are a-changing,” says Lazzara, marveling at the Volvo IPS technology. He’s riding the wave; others may be crushed by it. “It’s the fast companies that are going to eat the slow companies,” he predicts.