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Outboard Joystick Steering

Boatsmanship turns the corner with joystick steering outboards.

Port engine hard over in forward gear, center and starboard engines in reverse- parallel parking, courtesy of Yamaha Helm Master.

Today, docking a 12,000-pound, quarter-million-dollar rig may be as precise and simple as pushing a little joystick in the direction you want to go. A kid can do it, maybe even better than you.

The secret is independent, automated steering of the drive units, providing vectored,

oppositional thrust. It's revolutionary, and it's increasingly available in the outboard market.

With the Yamaha Helm Master system, which I tested recently on a 35 Everglades and 34 Regulator, you push the joystick to starboard, for instance, and the boat goes that way. It just does. The engines steer and shift and throttle entirely at the instruction of computer processors. Twist the joystick counterclockwise, say, while pushing to starboard, and there's a subsequent adjustment in throttle as you pivot the bow—while the boat continues moving starboard. How about moving diagonally? Push the joystick that way—watch what happens. It's amazing and a little bewildering at the same time.

The brains, if you will, are Yamaha—the Powertrain Control Units, the Steering Control Units. The guts—pumps, cylinders and such—are Teleflex, built to Yamaha specifications.

Teleflex, of course, introduced its own joystick steering package last year: The Optimus 360. Inboard power has had this technology for a few years now: Volvo-Penta IPS and Cummins/Mercury Zeus pod drives, as well as the Mercruiser Axius stern drive. Outboards had this potential all along, but implementation of independent steering came late to the game.

Yamaha two years ago teamed up with Volvo and Teleflex to begin working on the Helm Master system. It's currently available for new Digital Electronic Control (DEC) engines in Yamaha's F350B and 4.2 liter models (a key difference from Optimus 360, which is for mechanical shift-and-throttle engines only). Helm Master is not something you can simply retrofit to your existing boat/power plant package, nor is it strictly joystick steering. Yamaha has built a whole new suite of vessel control features into it (see www.yamahaoutboards. com). Yamaha custom configures the Helm Master kit for particular boats, working both at the manufacturer and dealer levels. At the manufacturer, Yamaha

techs first confirm that the system will work with a particular boat, to the builder's satisfaction. Yamaha techs then customize the settings. A boat dealer may install a second (tower) station, through the DEC network.

Among Helm Master trained boat builders are Grady White, Pursuit, Jupiter, Regulator, Intrepid, Everglades, Edgewater, HydraSports, World Cat, Sea Vee, Invincible, Parker, Scout, Southport, Wellcraft, Zodiac, Contender, Hewescraft, Renaissance Marine, Buddy Davis and Nor-Tech.

From what David Meeler of Yamaha tells me, so far there haven't been any major impediments to installing Helm Master on hulls of varying weight, draft and length. The system, as already mentioned, can be calibrated to compensate for different performance characteristics. Ultimately, though, Meeler said it's up the discretion of the boat builder as to whether Helm Master will be offered.

Almost goes without saying, but the Helm Master is fly-by-wire—meaning no mechanical cables. The only hydraulic lines are between the pumps and the cylinders.

Another difference between Helm Master and Optimus is the ability to utilize triple engines. In this case, Helm Master automatically syncs the center outboard— steering, shift, throttle—with the other engine that is in reverse.

The obvious question is, what's this going to cost? Meeler and other Yamaha spokespersons were deliberately, and justifiably, vague on this score. Reason one: Given that any new boat is going to incorporate the cost of various component systems—steering being one of them—it would be hard to put a figure on the difference between a boat with Helm Master and a traditional steering kit. Number two, Meeler said it appears likely many builders will offer Helm Master as a standard feature on certain boats within their lineup—especially boats that would've been equipped with a bow-thruster. That removes not only the cost of the thruster ($2,000 or more), but also the fiberglass work, rigging and labor. That adds economic value to practical value, making Helm Master, or comparable Optimus 360 or pod drives, a feature definitely worth investigating.

List price for the Optimus 360 system, available at authorized dealers for aftermarket

installation, starts at $17,995. That includes the Teleflex Optimus electrical power steering kit. According to Teleflex Product Manager Shane DeWitt, Optimus 360 is compatible with mechanically controlled Mercury, BRP, Suzuki, and Yamaha outboards, in twin configurations only.

Also, DeWitt said Teleflex has partnered with Garmin and Raymarine to enable plug-and-play addition of autopilot to the Optimus power steering system.

Which leads many of us to wonder, will these outboard joystick systems one day enable an autopilot to hold the boat in one position, a GPS anchor? Those Cummins/Mercruiser drives already have this technology, in the form of SkyHook.

You think boating life gets easier when you can parallel park with a joystick—imagine pushing a button and anchoring without ever touching a line.

Louis Miller, Director of Controls and Rigging for Mercury Outboards said that Joystick Piloting will be introduced this spring for 250- and 300-hp Verado engines, along with an integrated autopilot and GPS antenna. “It will have SkyHook functionality,” he said, “using a GPS location, almost as if you're holding it in one location with the joystick, but hands-free.”

Docking, anchoring... as I said, kids' stuff.- FS

Outboard Joystick Control Options

New Boat (check with builder)

Yamaha Helm Master – F350 and 4.2-liter

(all DEC models), twin or triple

Mercury Joystick Control – 250- and 300-hp Verado, twin, trip, quad

Teleflex Optimus 360 – Many options, mechanical control, twin only


Teleflex Optimus 360 – Many options, mechanical control, twin only

Mercury Joystick Control – Cannot add to current Verado package, but may as upgrade if doing full boat repower.

First Published Florida Sportsman Feb. 2013

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