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Boat Control Systems: Joysticks, Thrusters and More

Improve handling and efficiency with integrated systems and thrusters.

November 17, 2020
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Mercury joystick being used for docking
Joysticks—whether for steering outboards or bow thrusters—put more control into a captain’s hands. Courtesy Mercury

I had almost made it to the dock when the squall blew in, pushing my single-outboard boat away from the pilings. As I circled round, I set my resolve, knowing I’d have to goose my approach, and expertly time my steering and throttle adjustments.

Even if I had a bigger boat with multiple outboards, a proud bow would have swung me to starboard, and I would have redefined the title “throttle jockey.”

Close-quarters maneuvering presents plenty of challenges. So too do precisely anchoring or drifting over or near structure, and other boat-handling chores such as optimizing trim angle and speed. To simplify these tasks, the marine industry has delivered new technologies for even the smallest saltwater boats.

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Tech Options

Boat-control systems such as Mercury’s SmartCraft and Yamaha’s second-generation Helm Master EX (introduced last summer) offer the greatest number of features, including digital electronic steering, autopilot functions, joystick control with station-keeping options, trim control, trolling modes, and even anti-theft devices. Dometic’s Optimus EPS and 360 Joystick deliver power steering and close-quarters joystick operation.

Yamaha Helm Master joystick
Yamaha’s Helm Master EX features a joystick control. Courtesy Yamaha

Simpler and less-expensive control solutions, such as bow and stern thrusters, provide better close-quarters handling and, in some cases, even the station-keeping functions of a virtual anchor.

“There are control options for any boat these days, from the 20-footer to the 80- to 100-footers,” says Chris DeBoy, vice president of sales and marketing for Vetus Maxwell America, which makes thrusters and other technical equipment for inboard- and outboard-powered boats.

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Vetus Bow Pro electric thrusters start as small as a 30-kilogram-force motor with a 4-inch tunnel offering 55 pounds of thrust (12-volt kit costs about $4,000, without installation), and expand to models up to 210 kgf (24 volts) with a 10-inch tunnel. These state-of-the-art thrusters feature smart-charging technology and NMEA 2000 networking. The latter has opened new doors for potentially connecting to third-party technologies such as wireless controls, alternative joystick systems, autopilots, and integrated display options.

Stern Setups

Thrusters mounted aft cost a little less to install but don’t offer as much maneuverability as their forward counterparts, DeBoy says. At the transom, outboard lower units, inboard props and rudders, and even trim tabs and swim platforms can interfere with water flow.

However, one outboard stern thruster introduced by Sideshift about two years ago mounts to an engine’s anti-ventilation plate (on the center engine for multiple-outboard setups), where it’s out of the water when the boat is on plane, and above obstructions when it’s submerged. This aftermarket product comes in a kit that costs $3,000 to $5,000, depending on size and power, and can be installed in four to five hours.

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“You can learn to position the boat in almost any direction just with a stern thruster,” says Rob Griffin, Sideshift CEO. “The extreme aft location of the thruster provides a strong pivot-point advantage for immediate response.”

The Sideshift wireless thruster operates with a joystick, and comes in three power levels: single-prop, 12-volt, 2.5 hp for boats up to 32 feet, and either a 12-volt, 5 hp model or a 24-volt, 7.5 hp dual-prop thruster for larger boats up to 60 feet.

Total Control

Full-featured boat-control systems from Yamaha and Mercury can deliver the functions of a virtual anchor, thruster, trolling motor and autopilot, along with power steering, incremental trolling speeds, and precise trim control for better fuel efficiency.

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Installing a Vetus bow thruster
A skilled technician drills through the bow of a boat to install a Vetus thruster. Courtesy Vetus

When these systems debuted in the early 2010s, they paired with boats powered by multi-outboard setups. Now Yamaha’s second-generation Helm Master EX delivers this broad range of abilities to boats from single- up to quad-outboard installations. Mercury SmartCraft works with anywhere from two to as many as six outboards.

Anglers who don’t want all of these features can buy individual components. For example, the Helm Master EX starts with the digital electronic control unit ($1,146.85 for a single outboard). Add the digital, electric-steering tilt helm ($925) and bolt-on steering cylinder kit ($3,019.21, not required for 425 XTO outboards). If you want the autopilot, that’s $2,879.37; the joystick costs $4,193.35.

Purchased as a kit, the EX costs $12,356.95 for a single-outboard boat, and includes a keyless-ignition system and some of the required harnesses. Installation costs vary.

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