Advancement for All

Joystick systems have done more to change boating in a decade than pretty much any other innovation. Here are 10 reasons why.

  If there is a single thing that has impacted the world of boating in the past decade, it must be the joystick. From being a videogame tool to becoming the most popular accessory on a yacht, the joystick has literally revolutionized the industry.

First developed to help skippers control notably squirrely waterjet-powered boats, joysticks are now de rigueur as either standard or optional equipment on large and small yachts with inboards, sterndrives, pod drives and, now, outboards. So why exactly are joysticks replacing the steering wheel, which has been in use for centuries? We can think of 10 reasons — and some may be surprising.

1. They Improve Boat Handling
Driving a powerboat, especially in tight situations such as docking, raises the heartbeat of even experienced skippers. Wind, current and piers with sharp edges all add spice (and worry) to tight-quarters maneuvers. So much, in fact, that the legendary Chapman Piloting & Seamanship textbook devotes no fewer than 175 pages to mastering the maneuvers that modern skippers now handle effortlessly with two fingers on a joystick.

Joysticks also take away the former dockside spectator sport of watching skippers botch even the simplest maneuvers. Having a railing lined with onlookers — or, even worse, a waterfront restaurant filled with diners — waiting for some crunching noises can unnerve even experienced skippers. As they grow more experienced with a joystick, skippers may find themselves putting one hand in a pocket to show their total relaxation and lack of concern about the difficulty of the maneuver.

2. They Encourage Firsttime Boat Buyers
Newbie boat buyers recognize the complexities of handling a boat, and this has been cited as one of the reasons for delaying a purchase until they gain experience with friends. Joysticks, on the other hand, encourage novices to buy boats, because after a short introduction and some practice, they can easily learn to handle the basic maneuvers.

Of course, it will take years to fully polish the skills, but being able to slide a boat sideways into a narrow dock space or back in between two piers gives tyro skippers a vast edge over learning to juggle steering, throttles, shifters and thrusters.

3. They Enable Shorthanded Boating
There is a growing trend toward shorthanded boating, as couples with larger boats become empty-nesters and decide to continue their boating lifestyle without a crew of family members.

Joysticks allow greater control over the boat, which means less running around with fenders and docklines. Being able to turn a boat, even in a slip, means one person can take care of the docklines one at a time while the skipper places the boat to make it easy.

Some joystick systems even include a “hold” feature that allows the driver to literally pin the boat against the dock in one position while he takes care of docklines, even if there is wind or current. And with handheld wireless joysticks such as the Yacht Controller Joystick Transmitter, a skipper can walk anywhere on the boat — or off it — to help with lines or fenders, while still remaining in full control. During anchoring, a skipper can move to the foredeck with a handheld joystick, to accurately place the yacht for dropping or retrieving the anchor.

4. They Facilitate Additional Helm Stations
Once the basic joystick system is in place, it’s easy to add additional stations, so skippers aren’t stuck controlling the boat from the flybridge or an inside helm where access to the deck is difficult. Joysticks are being cleverly concealed in fold-out panels at deck level in the cockpit, to put the skipper in the center of the action. Joysticks can be added to both sides of the flybridge on wide yachts, allowing the skipper to look down on the dock and sidedecks.

5. They Deliver No-pain Waiting
While boating is about freedom, boaters often find themselves waiting: for a bridge to open, for a space at the fuel dock, for someone to leave a slip at a waterfront restaurant. In pre-joystick days, skippers had to remain alert, juggling shifters and steering to maintain position in wind and current. It was never much fun.

Whether it’s called dynamic positioning, station-holding or one of the many trade names from Skyhook to Set Point, today’s joysticks use a link to the boat’s GPS to hold the yacht’s position within a few feet. Just stop in an appropriate spot to wait for the bridge to open, punch a button and relax. The joystick will hold the boat right there. The crew has to remain vigilant for other boats, of course, but no one has to perform the constant actions required to hold position.

6. They Encourage Owning a Larger Boat
“There’s no question about joysticks,” said Tom Slikkers, CEO of the Tiara and Pursuit boat brands. “We’re very dialed in to what our customers want, and the joystick is clearly a must-have for today’s buyer. In the process of tracking industry trends, we’ve discovered two things about joysticks. First, the majority of our buyers specifically want them, and second, having a joystick encourages them to buy a larger boat.”

Slikkers knows, as do other boat builders, that buyers may increase the size of their boat by as much as 10 feet, since the joystick allows them to comfortably handle the larger boat. It’s obviously good for the industry, which is always delighted to sell larger boats. But it’s even better for boat buyers, who can get more space, more accommodations and more amenities while still knowing they can handle the larger boat easily, thanks to the joystick.

For Don McNamara, an airline pilot based in Seattle, the joystick was one of three critical must-haves when he bought his Carver 54. “First, I had to have a big master stateroom, since I spend too much time in hotels. Second, it had to have an easily enclosed bridge, because, hey, this is Seattle. And third, it had to have a joystick. I’m single and I can take this out by myself or with a few inexperienced friends. I turned down more than a few otherwise good boats just because they didn’t have a joystick.”

With the introduction of joysticks to outboard-powered boats, joysticks are no longer the sole province of large yachts. Center consoles in the 20-foot range with twin or triple outboards are now candidates for joystick controls, gaining all the advantages for docking and maneuvering, as well as for fishing.

And joysticks are soon going to revolutionize wakeboarding and wakesurfing. Expect to see joystick piloting on new single-engine towboats, since Mercury Marine has introduced Joystick Piloting for Inboards, which will begin appearing on towsports boats this fall.

The system, according to David Foulkes, Mercury’s vice president of product development, “will disrupt a segment of the market that has never seen this technology before.” Requiring either Vetus or Side Power bow thrusters, the system will provide enhanced controls for towing, such as precision “power turns” to retrieve a fallen rider as well as a more confident boating experience for all users.

Mercury has also updated its Smart Tow feature to accommodate the lower speeds required by wakesurfers, and skippers can choose a preset “launch” profile and cruise speed to provide consistent and repeatable tows for ’boarders.

This list includes joystick system manufacturers for inboard, outboard and sterndrive, and includes proprietary manufacturers and those that can match their system to various engine brands. (Optimus360)


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