Sleight of Hand
A look at what Mercury Marine has come up with for effortless control over outboard engine boats.
By Capt. Ken Kreisler
“Think of it this way: It’s as if you could take your palm, place it on top of your boat and be able to move it in any direction you want,” said Chris Chapman, Mercury Marine’s Application Development Engineer and joystick whiz for the company’s new outboard engine control system.
By now, since the introduction of the various joystick control systems over the years, we’ve become quite used to, and somewhat comfortable, with the concept. A twist here. A push there. Dial it around. A short learning curve for newbies and a definite game changer in significantly lowering the pucker factor while in close quarters docking situations or maneuvering. But to have this technology available for use with a pair of outboard engines? Still dubious? Try triple and quad applications as well.
Yes, joystick control has come to outboard engines and when the opportunity to test
Mercury Marine’s revolutionary system came up aboard a 39-foot Sea Vee center console equipped with triple 300-hp, four stroke Verado engines came my way, I jumped in with, well, both feet and one hand.
“Our system takes the joystick technology and passes it through the propulsion system,” Chapman said as he and I sat at the helm of the Sea Vee test boat. “We have dual and triple applications right now with quads and multiple stations coming by year’s end.”
With a smaller Boston Whaler 320 Outrage quietly hovering right outside the dock next to ours, the pair of 300-hp Verado’s going through their paces while on another demo ride, Chapman led me through the technology and practical applications of the system.
Taking its cues from the advanced and proven systems already in use for larger, diesel powered, pod, and stern driven boats, Mercury has been able to not only make inroads but come up with far-reaching designs in this technology as well. In short, the company has taken the ease of those systems, and especially with the simplicity of docking, and given them to outboard engines.
Once the domain of hard-core, offshore fishermen, in recent years the ccenter console design has become more popular with families. With Mercury’s joystick system you can, with proper instruction and practice, have multiple captains aboard, such as your wife and kids, who, with a much shorter learning curve than that with traditional controls dealing with wind and current, are not only capable of getting the boat back to the dock, but will be confident and comfortable with the skill set as well. “And our engineers have fine tuned and calibrated the fully integrated system—everything is manufactured by us in one location, from the engines, to the wiring harnesses and rigging, to the controls and autopilot—to a point where we can match the technology to the specific application necessary as pertains to the weight of a certain model of boat where the amount of thrust may not be needed,” Chapman said. In other words, heavy boats more and lighter boats less.
In developing its outboard joystick controls, Mercury took its cues from both its own internal pulse and that of the consumer. Noting the uptick rate in its successful Axius System, the engineers set their sights on moving the technology across all of the company’s product lines.
The sophisticated system has three control modules per engine; an engine control module that manages all of the core engine functions; a thrust vector module, responsible for all the steering functions; and lastly, a helm command and control module. When in operation, the system takes all its commands from the helm and transfers them for seamless and instantaneous response, telling the engine where it needs to steer and where it needs to be throttling and shifting.
Engaging the joystick control, you can completely and proportionally adjust to any point in between; if you want to go to starboard, merely press slightly in that direction and that engine will shift in reverse with the port going in forward as both splay out. In that way, the direction of the thrust will be directed under the center of gravity beneath the boat. If you need to add a little forward movement, merely push the joystick in that direction. The same goes for reverse, as there is no need at any time to come back to center. It’s that easy to continue adding those partial movements to keep things very fluid and maintain control over the boat’s momentum so as not to have to regain any motion as the boat moves into the dock.
With the triple engine application, as on my test boat, the center engine will follow
whichever engine is in reverse. So for a starboard movement, for example, where the starboard outside engine is in reverse, the center one will swing over and maintain the same angle and assist in reverse. And regardless of dual or triple engines, should the wind get your bow and momentarily put the boat out of shape, a mere twist of the control in the opposite direction will get things back on an even keel very quickly.
That hand-on-the-top-of-your-boat analogy of Chapman’s rings true when trying it out for the first time. The initial reaction is how immediate the response is to the command and how, when you first get your hand on the joystick, there is a tendency to twist too much and push too far. Looking aft and seeing those three, 300-hp Verado engines hanging off the transom can be a bit intimidating. But very quickly, and with a bit of practice, the ‘feel’ for things settles in and quite soon after that, your confidence and proficiency with the system will astound you.
As we discussed the experience, Chapman backed up my reaction. “This is a real, intuitive way to move around the dock. With traditional ‘stick’ operation, there is usually a lot of movement to jockey into the correct position. With this system, all that is eliminated. For a non-boater, someone unfamiliar with bringing a boat back-in to a dock, we can usually have them comfortable after and hour or so of instruction and practice.”
The system also includes an auto trim feature. When coming down off plane from running, you usually tuck the drives back down to minimize the bow rise. What the joystick does is, as soon as it is touched, is take that fully tucked trim position and trims the engines back out to a factory preset point so that they are mostly level with the bottom of the boat.
Furthering the joystick experience, there are several high-tech options available including a fully integrated Mercury autopilot with waypoint sequencing so you can easily chart your course. Other premium features include a control pad for activating any of the joystick features and Skyhook®, Mercury’s patented ‘hovering’ system. Activating it will keep your boat in place against wind and current or while waiting for a spot to open at the fuel dock. It can also be used to get yourself together while shaping up for docking manuevers and is a real advantage to offshore fishermen as well with no need to try and anchor in deep water or move off a wreck site where the bite is on. Vesselview allows accessing and monitoring of all your boat’s systems as well as being able to set the cruise control. And finally there is Auto Heading, which links its electronic compass onto the boat’s heading, keeping it on course with a one degree adjustments available from the joystick and 10 degree tuning from the control panel.
One bit of redundancy that is built into the system covers a rather familiar scenario and one that none of us want to deal with while away from the dock. Given the amount of electronics we have become used to using all the time—chartplotter, radar, sounder, radio, entertainment center, baitwell pump, lights and lots of other electric gear—a situation might arise where there is a depletion of your cranking batteries’ power. If the Mercury system identifies this is happening, it will automatically raise the idle rate of the engines and bring the charge current up. Other features include one power steering pump and one steering cylinder per engine just in case there is a problem with any other engine. There is also a guardian mode that will kick in so as not allow the engine to operate outside of accepted parameters. And there are anti-collision cables between all multiple engine applications.
Mercury Marine’s R&D was as focused and determined with this technology as it has been in the past when bringing other new advances forward. “We’ve had multiple validation cycles and tests, punishing the product way before bringing it to the consumer level,” Chapman said. With everything I’ve seen and experienced, the company has done its homework. The result is a user-friendly system that brings a new level of comfort to the outboard sector and one that just might get those on the fence about handling a boat down off it and onto the deck and at the helm. Mercury Marine. (920) 929-5892. http://www.mercurymarine.com