For those of us who grew up playing Space Invaders, then a few decades later entered middle-age running boats with pod drives, joystick controls on boats have been a thrilling development. Yes, thrilling—because they take the terror out of docking, and turn close-quarters maneuvers into a yummy piece of boating cake. But, what about those of us who run outboard boats? Shouldn’t we be treated to the same kind of boat-handling ease?

In February of 2013, outboard engine manufacturers answered this question with a resounding “yes” when they showcased a slew of new outboard joystick control systems at the Miami International Boat Show. Yamaha entered the fray with Helm Master, Mercury rolled out Verado Joystick Control, and SeaStar showed off Optimus 360. And after more than a year of experience with these systems, using them on different boats in different configurations, we're ready to make some judgement calls about them.

pod drives

If you've operated a pod drive boat, you probably loved being able to move sideways. Now that's an option with outboards, as well.

As anyone who’s dropped quarters into both Space Invaders and Pac Man can tell you, all joysticks are not created equal. Does this form of control system work as well on an outboard boat as it does with pod drives? Is it worth the expense to do a retro-controller refit on an existing power system? And, how does each system compare to one another? Finally, we can tell you if it’s worth your while to grab some dollar bills, and head for the change machine.

Breaking out of the Pod

One of the limiting factors when maneuvering with outboards is a lack of propeller blade area. Smaller blades and the lack of a contra-rotating propeller on the same shaft (which pod drives have) mean each engine gets less bite in the water than it would with pods, especially when in reverse. That translates into less torque. Another issue is engine placement. On pod drive boats the engines are forward of the transom, offering a better pivot-point. And since they’re spaced far apart, opposing the drives has a dramatic effect. Outboards, of course, are mounted all the way aft and usually quite close together.

Anyone who’s operated traditional inboards or pods as well as outboards will have noticed how radically different the types of boats react when the engines are opposed. Inboards can spin on a dime with minimal power, while a similar response from an outboard boat takes a significant amount of power and often, additional time. This is the result of those same characteristics, which need to be overcome in order for an outboard boat to move sideways, spin in place, and turn incrementally as it makes these maneuvers—all of which are a must, for effective joystick control.

The application of additional power is the most obvious way to make up for maneuverability deficits, and you can see it in action when you dock with one of these systems. Actually, you hear it. The outboards work quite a bit, applying more and more power, shifting often, and canting in or out as you twist, turn, and push the joystick. Gloriously, however, the boat responds.

Master Switch

The Helm Master, by Yamaha, is offered for twin- and triple-engine configurations for F350 and 4.2L V6 Offshore power packages. We've now tested three boats running Helm Master, including: a Contender 35 with triple F300s, a Jupiter 38 also with triple F300 outboards, and an Edgewater 318 CC with twin F300s. The Helm Master system includes a digital helm, remote throttle and shift with micro-adjustable RPM, a five-inch Command Link Plus 6Y9 gauge, and, of course, the digital joystick. Before you can take control with the stick, the throttles must be in neutral. If you shift or move the steering wheel while docking, the joystick automatically disengages.

yamaha helm master

There are several pieces to the Yamaha Helm Master systems. The most important to us is, of course, the joystick.

As a result of those outboard maneuvering challenges discussed earlier, the Helm Master system isn't suitable for all makes and models of boats. According to Yamaha Marine VP Dean Burnett, variables including bow level, engine spacing, and the boat’s center of gravity all come into play. Triple-engine applications are a bit more adaptable since the center engine remains active, usually in reverse, providing some extra oomph.

In all of the test-cases, our editors agreed that the Helm Master system made docking and close-quarters maneuvering significantly easier than the usual throttle-jockeying. On at least one of the boats the system seemed a bit overly loud, possibly because a steering pump was located in an un-insulated helm seat console. But this was a prototype rig, and volume should be less of an issue on production boats since each system is more or less designed for the specific model. Which brings us to the next issue: it’s impossible to nail down a specific price tag for the Helm Master system, since it will vary from model to model and builder to builder. That said, we can use an example for a bench-mark: on a Grady-White 335 Freedom with twin F300s, Helm Master is considered a $23,000 option.

Mercury Rising

Our editors have also run three Mercury Joystick Control boats, including a quad-engine Sea Vee 390 boasting 1,200 total horsepower, a Chris-Craft Catalina 29 with twin 300s, and a Boston Whaler 320 Outrage with twin 300s. Mercury is the first manufacturer to include quad-engine capability, and it does so by keeping both center motors fixed in place while in joystick mode. Yet these powerplants don’t entirely exit the picture. They still shift and throttle up, providing what Mercury Application Engineer Chris Chapman calls “reverse authority”. Chapman also stresses the importance of matching the system with the specific model of boat. And like Yamaha, Mercury hedges its bets when they talk pricing. However, there was banter on the docks in Miami of a cost in the neighborhood of $20,000.

Verado engines already feature digital controls and Mercury has had extensive experience with joysticks thanks to its earlier development of the Zeus pod drive and Axius systems (for MerCruiser stern drives). So they were in an advanced position to take the technology to outboards. In fact, Mercury Lead Technician William Robinson said “we essentially combined the Axius steering actuator with the Verado steering cylinder, then used the Axius algorithms as the basis for the outboard software.” Another advantage this gives the Mercury system is its integration with SmartCraft, which enables the “Sky Hook” feature, allowing you to press a button and let the engines hold your boat on-station via GPS.

Again, all of our editors who used the Mercury Joystick Control felt that it greatly enhanced ease of docking and tight maneuvering. In fact, when I tried this system I found the biggest challenge was simply reminding myself to keep my hands off the throttles and focus on the joystick. As long as I did so, turning the boat in a cramped channel and then backing it into the slip was a breeze—see for yourself just how well the Chris-Craft 29 Catalina maneuvers with the Mercury Joystick Control, by watching this video of the boat docking.

Seeing Stars

The SeaStar Optimus 360 system, (originally introduced as a Teleflex product) allows significantly more latitude in its applications. This system can be installed as a retrofit on existing twin-engine cable-controlled systems, or in an adapted version, as a factory-installed option on new boats powered by twin Evinrude V-6 outboards with digital controls. The Optimus boats we've tested include an Andros Offshore 32 powered by E-TEC 250s, a 32 Sea Craft with twin 225 Mercury Optimax outboards, and a Dorado 30 with twin 175 Suzukis.

optimus 360

Optimus 360 is the only existing outboard joystick control system that can be retrofitted to older cable-controlled outboards.

The system consists of electronic power steering, in concert with a digital helm with joystick and throttle/shift. The helm talks with an ECM via CAN Bus, to operate individual electro-hydraulic steering cylinders while magnetic sensors monitor motor position. Though that sounds awful expensive, the Optimus 360 system is priced close to its competitors, with an MSRP just under $18,000 (excluding installation). Also like its competitors, our editors agreed that the system gets its job done, and does it well.

Stick With It

One more outboard joystick control system some boaters will be interested in is Suzuki Precision Maneuvering (SPM), which is just now coming onto the market. We don’t have enough hands-on time with the system yet to make any judgment calls, however, it’s worth noting that Suzuki didn't follow the lead of some of its competitors, and focus solely on the high end of the power range. SPM is expected to be available for motors ranging from 150 HP and up, on models with Suzuki’s electronic throttle and shift Precision Control. We’ll tell you more about this system as we gain experience with it.

Although all of our editors felt that these outboard joystick systems vastly improved the docking experience, and more or less equally, they aren't quite the ultimate panacea one might wish for when parking alongside the pier. First off, getting that little joystick on your helm will cost you almost as much as one of your outboards. Secondly, between the repeated revving, shifting, and turning they make quite a bit of noise. And finally, when wind or current catches the boat, particularly at the bow, the outboards have to fight a little harder and a little longer than pod drives would, to make the boat turn. On at least one occasion I was unable to get a boat to spin into the wind with a 20 to 25 knot breeze on the bow, and had to crank the wheel hard-over, initiate a traditional turn, then revert back to the joystick to maintain control. On the other hand, outboard boats have always been a bit tougher to maneuver at dock-side than their inboard counterparts, and all of us have experienced difficulty getting a boat to do what we want in 20-plus knots of wind. So, perhaps these imperfections should be expected.

After multiple boat tests and handling these outboard joystick rigs in many different conditions, it’s clear that running an outboard with joystick control has some significant advantages and does make docking easier. But the final question remains: is outfitting your outboard-powered boat with a joystick worth the expense? The answer depends on just how stressed you get every time you try to pull into the slip—and on just how carefully you horde your quarters.

For more information on Helm Master, visit Yamaha Marine. For more information on Mercury Joystick Control, visit Mercury Marine. And for more information on Optimus 360, visit SeaStar Solutions or check it out in action by watching video of a Dorado crab sideways right up to the dock.