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August 09, 2012

Joystick Control

The Optimus 360 system simplifies the handling of twin-outboard boats.

In terms of stress for novice boaters, docking nearly always tops the list. That’s not surprising. Even seasoned skippers suffer occasional bouts of anxiety when variables like strong currents, wind and boat traffic come into play during close maneuvers. Volvo Penta and Cummins MerCruiser Diesel shortened the learning curve for inboard owners when they introduced the IPS (Inboard Performance System) and Zeus pod drives, respectively, a few years back. Now that same fingertip digital control for outboards is coming soon to a dealer near you.

“The SeaStar Optimus 360 system allows the operator to have complete control of a twin-outboard-powered boat,” explains Shane DeWitt, product manager for Teleflex Marine. “The joystick is intuitive even for novice operators. With it you can maneuver sideways, backward or forward or rotate the boat on its axis without fear of banging into things. The system also gives carlike power-steering response on the water, with customized preferences.” 

DeWitt says the Optimus 360 was developed with the retrofit market in mind. With many owners holding on to their boats longer, it’s convenient to add the Teleflex system when repowering with new outboards or installing a new autopilot.

Basic Requirements

In development for more than a decade, the technology starts with the required Teleflex electronic power-steering subsystem. It includes the electronic helm, hydraulic pumps, control module and display to operate the smart steering cylinders mounted to each engine. Tie bars are eliminated, so the engines move independently. The electronic helm can be adjusted for a customized feel. Owners can dial in the speed sensitivity during turns, wheel effort, steering response and number of turns lock to lock. The helm is equipped with dual independent sensors for redundancy. And because the hydraulic and rudder feedback units are not required, which simplifies installation and dependability. DeWitt says the system is equipped with a simplified auto-purge mode, which allows the user to purge the system with existing components, thereby eliminating the need for a purger. 

Joystick Upgrade

The 360 package adds electronic shift and throttle, plus the joystick control to complete the system for mechanically controlled twin outboards. Basically, it replaces the conventional outboard controls and cables with fly-by-wire electronics. The i6800 control head allows full engine synchronization with one hand. Integrated trim control is located in the throttle control handle. Owners can set the level of throttle resistance and detent to match personal preferences. The CANtrak display, which shows the system status, can be customized as well. 

When you move the three-axis joystick (in combination with the necessary shift and throttle actuators and pump control module), the boat responds in the desired direction. Need to parallel-dock in a crowded marina? Bump the joystick sideways, and the engines vector and thrust accordingly to slide the boat into position. Standard speed with the joystick is a moderate idle. If extra thrust is needed in a stronger current or wind, the Boost mode revs the engines to a fast idle. The actual revolutions per minute varies based on the hull dynamics, engines and propellers. To reduce wear and tear on the gear case, Teleflex developed special smart-shifting software for smoother gear changes.

But easy docking isn’t the only advantage of the Optimus 360 system. Anglers will appreciate the responsive handling performance in the heat of battle, DeWitt says.

“The 360 system will certainly be useful whenever a fish is on,” he explains. “Normal scenarios like backing down, rotating to keep the desired orientation toward the fish, and maneuvering to keep lines from crossing or going under the boat will all be easier with the intuitive Optimus capability.”

Tough Build

Physical shock and saltwater corrosion are hard on electronics, so the Optimus system was designed with plenty of redundancy. It utilizes redundant CAN bus networks, and in an emergency, one engine can be disabled so you can limp home safely. Wiring harnesses include locking snap connections, and many of the components are totally sealed to prevent leaks or corrosion. The system exceeds the rigorous American Boat and Yacht Council and European ISO quality-assurance standards, DeWitt says.

Only Teleflex dealers will be allowed to install Optimus systems. Those in South Florida and the Northeast will be factory-trained by late summer or early fall. The network will then expand across the rest of the country. For a current list of participating dealers, check the company website (

The suggested price for the Optimus Electronic Power Steering is $7,495. That includes all the components, wiring harnesses and fluid. The complete Optimus 360 package, which adds the electronic throttle and shift and the joystick control, lists at $17,995.

Old salts will likely grouse about the increasing swing toward electronic boating and how that trend reflects declining seafaring skills. That may be true, but think about this: Those same skippers will likely be talking to one another on cellular phones at the helm while looking for fish using GPS and digital fish finders. Fly-by-wire boating and joystick control are here to stay, and I’m all for it.