Joystick Boat Controls

Thanks to the advent of joystick controls, learning how to drive a boat in modern times is a completely different experience than it was in decades past. With the advent of Volvo Penta’s IPS system almost 20 years ago, which was quickly followed by joystick systems from industry powerhouses like Mercury Marine and Yamaha Outboards, stick-steering systems have become more and more common and today can be found on everything from 21’ center console boats to 70’ trawlers. And while historically joysticks were limited to boats with multiple powerplants, today they’ve even found a home on single-engine boats. Is a joystick control system something you’d benefit from? Consider:

How Joystick Control Systems Work

joystick control on a tiara 38 ls
The joystick at the helm of this Tiara 38 LS gives you fingertip control of the boat. Photo via Hampton Watercraft and Marine.

Upon first glance joysticks on boats work exactly as one would expect: you can twist them to spin a boat, nudge them in any direction to push the boat in that direction, and increase power by pushing harder or decrease power by easing off. But there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye. The joystick system needs to steer, shift, and throttle each powerplant individually, often while also incorporating GPS position data, as well as interpret input from the joystick itself at the same time. Every boat may require different software and algorithms to get the desired results, and the same boat with alternate power systems (such as a model offered with twins and a bow thruster versus the same model with triple engines and no bow thruster) may require different algorithms. And all of that programming, naturally, requires some potent computing power. So while joystick systems seem simple from the user’s standpoint, they’re actually quite complex.

Benefits of Joystick Controls on Boats

The main benefit of a joystick is that it makes controlling the boat more intuitive to new or inexperienced boaters, particularly at slow speeds in close-quarters maneuvering situations. Skilled actions like opposing the powerplants or pre-steering before applying power to get a desired result are no longer necessary, since the computer brain does all the adjusting for you. Additionally, very complex maneuvers like “walking” a boat sideways – with or without the benefit of a bow thruster – can be easily accomplished with a joystick system that’s steering the drive units independently, as compared to a captain who’s forced to steer multiple powerplants in tandem.

grady-white controlled with joystick
Joysticks allow for precision control as they steer, shift, and throttle the engines independently, on boats like this Grady-White Canyon 376. Photo via Grady-White Boats.

Another advantage joystick systems enjoy is the ability to integrate GPS for functions like virtual anchoring. Press a button on the joystick, and you can hover the boat in place despite high currents or winds as you wait for a bridge to open or a channel to clear.

boat going sideways with joystick
You’d like to walk the boat sideways? That’s not a problem if you have joystick controls. Photo via American Yacht Group.

Downsides to Joystick Controls on Boats

The main downside to rigging any boat with joystick controls is cost. Depending on the size and complexity of the boat and its systems, it may add several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of the boat. And whenever you add complexity to a boat’s systems, you also add the potential for systems failure. Finally, it should also be noted that some experienced, long-time boaters who are used to controlling their boat manually may not want to make the transition away from traditional controls.

Joystick System Uses on Fishing Boats

Fishing boats in particular enjoy a few additional advantages from joystick controls. Virtual anchoring not only allows an angler to hover over a wreck or reef with precision, but also allows for making small incremental adjustments in position so you can work over a hotspot from one end to the other. And additional features are built into many joystick systems with fishing-specific functions that allow a captain to maintain the boat’s orientation while adrift, or adjust heading by as little as one degree at a time.

triggerfish caught using joystick control on a boat
The captain used joystick control to put Shelley’s baits in the prime position. Photo by Lenny Rudow.

Multiple Engine Joysticks Versus Single Engine Joysticks

Most of the joystick systems out there on the water today incorporate multiple engines and/or additional power like bow or stern thrusters, however, single engine applications can also enjoy some of the benefits of joysticks. While maneuvers like spinning the boat in place or walking it sideways aren’t possible, a joystick integrated with an electric steering system can turn an outboard lock-to-lock in less than two seconds — twice as fast as you can with a wheel and a traditional hydraulic steering system. Even more maneuvering time is saved since you don’t have to also shift and throttle. And aside from the maneuvering benefits, single engine joystick rigs can also enjoy virtual anchoring and the control it delivers when bottom or drift fishing.

Should you make sure you get a joystick system on your next boat? That’s a question only you can answer. For many people, however, the intuitive maneuvering, increased control, and virtual anchoring abilities will make that joystick a must-have feature.

Written by: Lenny Rudow

With over two decades of experience in marine journalism, Lenny Rudow has contributed to publications including YachtWorld, boats.com, Boating Magazine, Marlin Magazine, Boating World, Saltwater Sportsman, Texas Fish & Game, and many others. Lenny is a graduate of the Westlawn School of Yacht Design, and he has won numerous BWI and OWAA writing awards.

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