Joystick Systems: What’s New and What’s Hot

Joystick controls on boats continue to evolve at a rapid pace. 

When joystick systems on boats were first introduced many old salts quickly decided to love to hate them, reigniting the digital control debate and claiming that they’d rather run a boat the old-fashioned way: with a wheel, throttles, and cables. But before long manufacturers began arming those joysticks and their digitized brains with control features that more traditional systems simply couldn’t provide. GPS virtual anchoring, drift orientation abilities, and positional micro-adjustments were in the mix, just to name a few. And as more and more boat manufacturers stacked more and more outboards on the transoms of larger and larger center consoles, opposing engines gave way to twisting the joystick — a control system by then so advanced that it could manipulate multiple outboards individually, cocking them at absurd angles to one another and applying power in such a way that it became possible to stand at the helm of a 45-footer with quadruple outboards and slide the boat sideways with ease. 

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Slowly, the haters became believers. Well, most of them, anyway. And as Mercury Marine’s VP of product and engineering tells it, the shift to using joysticks for dockside control was one of the most significant changes in outboard-powered boats in decades. “They enable normal people to captain bigger boats,” he said in an interview with BoatU.S. “Outboard boats have gotten bigger and bigger and we’ve chased them with more and more horsepower, but joystick controls have really made it possible because now people can be comfortable operating them.” 

But like any new tech, joysticks didn’t just pop up in their final form and claim victory at the helm. They’ve evolved, and continue to evolve today. So, what are the coolest new features of the latest joystick systems? 

Mercury Joystick Piloting 

The knob of a joystick system

A twist of the joystick is all it takes to get your boat spinning in a 360.

For many years joysticks controlled the outboards, but bow thrusters used to provide a helping hand where and when necessary were activated via a separate control. Last year, Mercury introduced the first system tying a thruster (from Sleipner or Vetus) in with the outboards, in its Joystick Piloting for Outboards (JPO) with Bow Thruster. A separate controller is no longer needed, and the system simply incorporates the thruster’s function into the nudges and twists of the joystick. The system also now features one-button autopilot functionality, and can match up with twin-triple-and quadruple-engine Verado installations. Visit Mercury to learn more. 

Yamaha Helm Master 

Joystick system on a bass boat

With features like Helm Master EX’s “Fishpoint,” you can keep your boat in the ideal casting position at the press of a button.

The latest incarnation of Yamaha’s Helm Master EX system, introduced in early 2023, also incorporates bow thrusters into the algorithm. It can be paired up with twin-, triple-, quadruple-, and quintuple-engine rigs, and now even single-engine boats can enjoy some of the benefits delivered by Helm Master EX as well. The control features utilized by anglers, like DriftPoint (maintaining heading as you drift) and FishPoint (virtual anchoring) no longer require having multiple outboards. And while dockside handling can’t be enhanced in quite the same way as it is with multi-engine rigs, it still gets a boost because Helm Master EX and its savvy little joystick can turn an outboard far faster than you or I can using a wheel. Visit Yamaha to learn more. 

Optimus 360 

joystick system being used

The Optimus system is designed to be nondenominational, and will work with systems of any brands. 

While Mercury and Yamaha have focused on joysticks that integrate seamlessly with the power systems of their own making, Dometic’s Optimus 360 system is designed to be compatible with just about any powerplants including when retrofitting existing systems. It communicates with the rest of the boat via NMEA2000 so it isn’t brand-specific, and can tie in with Dometic’s Electronic Power Steering (EPS). Introduced in 2020, EPS incorporates a brushless DC electric motor “e-actuator” and does away with the hydraulics used with older electrically-assisted systems. This allows for programmable steering settings, simplified installation via CAN bus connections, and more precise control. Added bonus: no more pesky hydraulic leaks. Optimus 360 is available for twin, triple, and quadruple engine applications, and is also compatible with third-party autopilot systems. Visit Dometic to learn more. 

So, are all of you throttle-jockeys ready to step away from the wheel? Maybe, and maybe not. But one thing is for sure: Today’s joysticks for boats have come so far that old-school systems simply can’t match up when it comes to precision control. And if history is any indication, they’ll keep evolving and improving year after year. 

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