There’s no turning back now. Unless you want to, that is, using the joystick to spin the boat on its axis. Following last year’s launch of the Teleflex Optimus 360 system for outboards, Yamaha is introducing its version of integrated boat control. Helm Master makes its debut at the Miami International Boat Show this month. With this news, it’s clear that electronic outboard control is here to stay, which will not only make docking easier but precise trim, speed and steering adjustments easier too.
“Helm Master is much more than a joystick controller,” says Yamaha’s marine-group president Ben Speciale. “It is a fully integrated boat-control system with a new electronic steering system, throttle and shifting controls, electronic key system and a joystick controller. It ultimately provides the boater a simpler and more enjoyable boating experience.”
Helm Master was designed to work with Yamaha’s 4.2-liter V-6 four-strokes (F225, F250 and F300) as well as the 5.3-liter V-8 F350 outboards in twin- or triple-engine configurations. The system was several years in development. Brad Leatherman, Yamaha’s OEM and tournament support manager, conducted endurance tests with it in real-world conditions on the water.
“It’s a pretty eye-opening system,” he says. “It definitely eliminates the apprehension for nonboaters, and turns everyone into a pro.” Leatherman believes current owners of mid-20-foot outboard-powered boats looking to move up or yacht owners downsizing are Helm Master’s primary market. “There are a lot of customers who can afford a bigger boat but are scared to buy it because of their experience level. Helm Master will help reduce that fear factor.”
The total system comprises several key components, starting with the electronic key-switch panel. The functions of on/off, start/stop are set using a radio-frequency key fob similar to a guitar pick. Traditional metal keys are not required to start the engines. Yamaha’s Y-Cop security system is also standard with Helm Master to immobilize the engines to prevent theft.
The ergonomic control box has multiple settings that can be preset or finely tuned based on desired adjustments. With the push of a button, engine rpm can be set for optimal conditions; for safety, manual override returns control to the operator at any time. The new control box can also be operated with a single throttle lever. In this setting, the port control becomes the master. Additional selector buttons let the operator choose to run the center engine only or shifts control to a second station. The trim-adjust function synchronizes the outboard trim to set rpm levels so the engine automatically trims to the optimum running angle while under way. Five preset positions can be designated using the new Command Link Plus 6Y9 gauge, which also displays the system’s overall functions. The operator can use the gauge to select some automatic settings like steering friction (adding more resistance in rough water) or joystick calibration, but more-involved adjustments like the toe-in/out adjust or lock-to-lock can be done only by Yamaha-certified technicians.
On the Stick
Joystick control is the coolest aspect of the system, however. Helm Master’s joystick is the device that gives intuitive throttle, shift and steering control. Since the engine tie bars are eliminated, the engines vector independently to give sideways crab-walking movement along with diagonal, forward or reverse. Rotate the joystick to spin the boat in a circle on its center of gravity. With this ability, docking or maneuvering in tight quarters can be mastered quickly, even by novice boaters. The control’s high-mode option increases engine rpm if more power is needed to compensate for a strong current when backing into a slip. The joystick function will be handy in fishing situations too.
Say you have a hot fish on the line and need to back down quickly or change course to maintain the proper angle on the line. The joystick will let you do that without manually shifting the engines in and out of gear. Precise incremental speed adjustments will help keep the right amount of tension on the line when slow-trolling or live-baiting. During bottomfishing trips, the joystick will allow the helmsman to maintain position over a spot with minimal effort. Helm Master doesn’t include an automatic power-anchor mode, but the engines can be shifted into neutral when a fish is close so there’s less risk of cutoffs.
Helm Master has many advantages besides digital control. The joystick footprint is small, so it won’t take up much room at the helm. The companion digital-steering helm doesn’t require hydraulic hoses (nor does a second station), and it tilts for greater comfort. Wiring harnesses are simplified for easier rigging. The required control units and other components mount in an aft compartment, so the installation is clean and accessible.
Because of detailed adjustments required, Helm Master will be available only through Yamaha’s partner boatbuilders, not directly to consumers. The system will be available starting in March.
“We believe there are going to be 15 to 20 key players for Helm Master in our builder network,” Leatherman explains. The added cost will be determined by each boat company. Joe Neber, president of Contender Boats, estimates an upcharge of $24,000 for a twin-outboard application and $30,000 for triples. Grady-White had not yet determined the added charge for its models as of press time, according to Joey Weller, Grady’s vice president of sales. Regardless, the cost of the system will often be offset by subtracting the bow-thruster option, which isn’t absolutely necessary with the Helm Master’s capability.
Smartphones, tablet computers and other fingertip-activated digital gadgets have forever changed how we communicate and play. With the Helm Master control system, boating has joined the digital age in a very useful way.