Three joystick steering systems for outboard motors made a public debut at the Miami International Boat Show. From media intros held months ago, we’ve previously reported on the Yamaha Helm Master and Mercury Verado joystick controls, and a collaboration between SeaStar (formerly Teleflex) and BRP/Evinrude was news that broke just before the show. In the short time that we are allowed to spend with these steering systems it’s really impossible to determine how each will work in the variety of situations an owner may encounter, but so far I have yet to pilot a joystick-equipped boat that just didn’t respond to input.
One fact that everyone needs to keep in mind is that the ultimate performance of the joystick control is very much dependent on the boat – the hull shape and weight, the location of the center of gravity, the spacing of the outboards, how it’s propped, and how many outboards are on the transom. These systems need to be dialed in for each boat. And at the Yamaha Helm Master intro I was told point-blank that its joystick control may not be a good match for every boat. When Yamaha does not feel the Helm Master will work well on a certain hull, it won’t permit the builder to install it. If joysticks for outboards become popular, expect to see builders designing new boats specifically to work well in joystick mode, by optimizing the boat’s center of gravity and by spreading the motors as far as possible on the transom. Both are key to joystick performance. Also look for builders to design the helm area to include a dedicated mounting location that puts the joystick in a good ergonomic position.
I went to Miami hoping to finally find out how much the new joystick systems will cost. This is a tricky question, because only the SeaStar Optimus 360 system, which arrived last year, is available as a retail kit for repower, priced at about $18,000. Yamaha, Mercury, and BRP are for now only offering joystick steering as a builder-installed option, which means the boat builder sets the ultimate price at retail. I spoke to several builders who said they were still trying to figure out the pricing. They have to calculate labour time for installation, for example, and where components like steering pumps can be installed, which dictates the length of expensive hydraulic hoses. And there’s even more to the equation. Many of the boats that will be joystick candidates – realistically fishing boats over 30 feet in length – may already be priced with digital controls and power steering as standard equipment, so when a joystick kit is installed it’s replacing those components, but not adding any cost. In many cases the joystick control will also replace a bow thruster that is either standard or optional equipment, and can cost from $5,000 to $10,000.
That said, here’s what I did learn when I asked about joystick pricing. Yamaha had a Grady-White 335 Freedom at the docks with twin F350 outboards, and the Grady spokesperson on board told me Helm Master will be a $23,000 option for that boat. A Mercury spokesperson tells me that the builders who have put together a bill of materials for the Verado joystick for twins will offer it for about $20,000. Mercury will not begin delivering the Verado joystick system for twins and triples until June, and the quad-engine system will be available in September. At Evinrude I was told the Optimus 360 kit would be priced to sell for $12,900 to $13,900 at retail, but again many of those boats are being rigged with SeaStar power steering and an Evinrude ICON digital control, in which case the upgrade to the joystick could be as little as $1,400.
I think the engine manufacturers are going to be pretty vigilant in placing joystick controls on boats where they work well. Experienced owners may figure they don’t need a joystick, and that may be true, but once you’re spending $200,000 for a fishing boat, why not add this feature? Passing on the joystick is kind of like trying to order a new car without power steering and a manual transmission (that used to be possible) – you could drive it, but why suffer? People at Mercury tell me that customers are ready to order the Verado joystick for the Skyhook and autopilot features bundled with it in the new SmartCraft VesselView display. In a conversation last month, Jeff Vaughn of Boston Whaler pointed out to me that a joystick control can make the boat more accessible to the entire family, maybe the owner’s wife, children, or grandchildren who hesitate to use the boat because they are anxious about docking it. And trust me, the grandchildren with know how to use a joystick.