Here’s how well the new Yamaha Helm Master digital control system works: On a blustery day, in the Tennessee River current, Yamaha put me at the controls of a 35-foot Contender 35 ST with triple F300 outboards, which is worth more than my house and with which I have no experience, and suggested that I dock it. "The joystick is right here. Have a ball."

I nailed it. First try. And I bet you could, too.

Helm Master leaving dock

Yamaha Helm Master joystick control enables almost unlimited boat control.

As I explained in a preview blog post, Helm Master is a complete digital control system Yamaha will offer for its F350 V8 outboard and all of its 4.2-liter V-6 Offshore models (that’s the F225, F250, and F300), in twin or triple-engine rigs.  It will be available only for OEM installation on new boats beginning in March, and will make its public debut in February on demo boats at the Miami International Boat Show. Helm Master has been in development for about four years, in collaboration with Volvo Penta and Teleflex. It offers joystick steering for low-speed operation, but also integrates a number of other features, including a speed-control function and automatic trim control.

According to Yamaha Marine Vice President Dean Burnett, Yamaha intends to be selective about the application of its new system. “We need to be clear that Helm Master is not a system for every boat,” Burnett said. “For example, it does not work well on boats that ride bow-high at rest, because it needs to have more hull in the water. There’s optimal engine spacing to consider. And we have not even tried Helm Master on a catamaran yet. It all really boils down to center of gravity.”

Helm Master motors

This is how it works. By independently shifting, throttling, and steering each motor the Helm Master system responds to joystick inputs. The center motor is almost always in reverse.

Yamaha intends to sort of let builders “nominate” a boat model for Helm Master, and then will send an applications engineer to the builder with a Helm Master kit that will be installed and set up for that boat. If Yamaha likes the way it works, it will train the builder’s staff and certify that boat for Helm Master.

“I will say that Helm Master works especially well with our V8 outboard,” said Burnett, “because it has those big props [15.5-inch diameter] and can make a lot of thrust in reverse. A triple V8 might be the optimal set-up.”

Helm Master is comprised of a number of components, including a digital helm, a new digital twin-lever control, a joystick for low-speed maneuvering, an electronic key switch, power steering pumps and steering cylinders, separate powertrain and steering control units, and a new Command Link Plus 6Y9 LCD gauge. The Helm Master components will only be sold together. You will not be able, for example, to install just the digital power steering, and the many functions of the new twin-lever control are specific to Helm Master. Yamaha did say that the outboard motors are not specific to Helm Master – these are already digital-control motors, and Helm Master simply plugs into the existing harness.

Let’s take a quick tour of the features of the Helm Master components.

Digital Helm

The digital helm is speed-sensitive (effort increases with boat speed) and adjustable for both steering ratio and lock-to-lock range. The boat owner will be able to adjust steering effort through the 6Y9 gauge. Two wiring harnesses connect the helm to the joystick and to the steering control units (SCU). The SCU sends a steering input signal to Teleflex power steering pumps, which have an integral shuttle valve. Hoses then feed steering rams made for Yamaha by Teleflex that have a magnetic sensor to monitor the steering angle of the motor. There’s a bypass valve between each pump and its motor that will allow hydraulic pressure to be relieved so the motor’s steering angle can be set by hand, either for service or if the system fails, in which case you’d point the motor forward to limp home.

Digital Remote Control

An all-new digital control can throttle and shift up to three engines with a single lever. Six buttons on the control base enable various functions, including single-lever operation with auto sync, activation of a remote helm station, and activation of shift and throttle to only the center engine of a triple-rig set, which you might use for slow trolling, plus speed control and auto trim.

The speed control function holds engine rpm at whatever speed you select simply by moving the throttle lever. The rpm can be micro-adjusted by toggling the center trim button, which is on the forward face of the control base. From the initial throttle setting, speed can be adjusted 15 percent up, or 10 percent down. I see this function as useful mostly for trolling.

Digital control and joystick.2

The position of function buttons on the new Helm Master remote control makes them hard to see when the control is mounted at an angle. The joystick can be seen above the controls.

Trim assist is also rpm-based and set up by the boat builder, but is adjustable later by the dealer or the owner to accommodate changes in weight distribution, for example if you add a coffin cooler forward the center console. There are five pre-set trim positions, full-down and maximum, plus three between. Typically the program would be set to begin trimming out at 4000 rpm, under the assumption that the boat is on plane, and then best trim for top speed would be the max setting. When throttled back from full, then, the motors may trim down a setting or two. And when the boat is throttled off plane the motors will trim fully down. The control still has a single trim button on the left lever and individual trim buttons for each motor.

Digital Joystick

The joystick is switchable, and all outboards must be in neutral to activate the stick. Move the throttles or the wheel, and the joystick instantly deactivates. A second button engages high mode, which bumps up the available power for better control in wind or current situations. The amount of thrust available is determined for each application by the boat builder. On one demo boat I observed about 1600 max rpm in standard mode, and about 2500 rpm in high mode. The joystick works like any other you’ve seen. Tip it off center in any direction to steer the boat, and rotate it to spin the boat on its axis, or do this in combination. The motors are steered, shifted, and throttled independently to move the boat at your direction. In a triple rig, all three motors are active, and I was told the center motor is usually in reverse. The real limit of the joystick control is the amount of reverse thrust that’s available before the propeller cavitates. There’s a lot less blade area to work with on these outboards compared to a counter-rotating, dual-propeller pod drive or stern-drive joystick system. So spreading the reverse load over two motors makes sense.

Electronic Key Switch

In place of a traditional key, the Helm Master system uses a small fob with RFID (radio frequency identification) to activate or disable the main switch panel. This is not a proximity system; you have to physically touch the fob to a spot on the switch panel and enable push-button engine starting. To immobilize the system, simply touch the panel with the key fob.

triple motor switch panel

A digital “key” locks and unlocks this switch panel. Pushing a single button will start or stop all three outboards in a triple installation.

Command Link Plus 6Y9 Gauge

This new gauge is the gateway to the Helm Master system. It has a five-inch color screen that monitors all aspects of engine status, plus fuel flow and boat speed, and can be customized to present that information in a variety of views. The boat owner can also use the gauge to adjust trim assist settings, steering friction, the switch panel “off” timer, and joystick calibration. Other functions can only be accessed by an authorized technician. Yamaha told me that they did not want a boat builder or dealer to have to plug a computer into Helm Master to set it up.

The New Standard?

One question remains: What will Helm Master cost? Because it’s an OEM product, the boat builder will influence the ultimate price. At the media intro, I happened to be seated next to a rep for a key Yamaha boat builder partner, and I asked him if it was safe to assume that Helm Master would simply be standard equipment on its larger boats. He wasn’t sure yet because they had yet to work out the cost. He pointed out that many of their current outboard-powered models are equipped with a bow thruster, so Helm Master would replace the thruster and also eliminate the cost of its installation. Other Helm Master components replace items that would be on the boat anyway, such as a helm, the control, and the 6Y9 gauge screen, and in some cases Helm Master components may be easier to rig. When does the price of an option with as many features as Helm Master become really significant on a $350,000 boat? I’m not sure.

I noted two issues during my Helm Master trial. First, the power steering pumps seem rather noisy. One of the demo boats had the pumps located in the helm seat console, which the builder will want to insulate if that’s going to be a production location. In this system, the pumps are only “on” when some steering input is required, and are constantly cycling when the joystick in active. At low speed there’s not much other sound to drown out the pump noise, and as you maneuver the pumps are all you hear. I suppose that boat builders can work on ways to mitigate the pump noise. I was also bugged a little by the location of the function switches on the digital remote control. If its mounting surface is less than horizontal (angled toward the operator) it’s hard to really seen the buttons without bending over. Maybe after some time an owner just learns which button is which, and perhaps a boat builder that’s dedicated to Helm Master will create a horizontal mounting surface. But on a system this well engineered, even a minor design flaw is glaring.

My 30-minute trial on two Helm Master-equipped boats does not make for a thorough evaluation. I was aboard one boat with triple outboards, and another with twin motors, and in those circumstances it did seem that the system was more responsive and easier to control with triple motors. I also watched Yamaha’s Dean Burnett use the joystick to back the Contender 35 into a slip perhaps eight inches wider than the boat’s beam, in a stiff wind and current, making moves that would be very challenging, if not impossible, without such a system. Instead of thrashing at the wheel and throttles, Dean was able to guide the boat with one hand and never touch the dock. That aspect of the system seems to work very well. The other features Yamaha has built into Helm Master, notably the speed control and trim assist, are gravy.

Note that Helm Master will not appear on the Yamaha Outboards website until February, 2013.

- Charles Plueddeman

Written by: Charles Plueddeman
Charles Plueddeman is's outboard, trailer, and PWC expert. He is a former editor at Boating Magazine and contributor to many national publications since 1986.