Tad Whitten may have more experience operating joystick-controlled boats than anyone in the country. Mercury Marine two years ago hired Whitten’s company, Motorsports Management Inc. in Peoria, Ill., to demonstrate two propulsion systems that use joysticks — Cummins MerCruiser Diesel’s Zeus pod drive system and MerCruiser’s Axius stern drive system.
Whitten, 48, heads up the Zeus and Axius Tour, which puts people interested in joystick control at the helm of Zeus- and Axius-powered boats from about 30 to 55 feet. In the last two years, he has done scores of demonstrations from Boston to Florida, Texas to Minnesota.
Whitten grew up near Champaign, Ill., working on the family farm fixing tractors and other machinery. His company joined with Mercury about 15 years ago, managing racing events. Whitten and his wife, Paige, live on a sixth-generation family farm in Carlock, Ill., with their son, Tanner, and daughter, Sydney.
Q: Describe the Zeus and Axius demonstrations you have been giving for the past two years.
A: We’re trying to get people to get to the helm of the boat and experience what joystick really means. It’s not a video game. Once they get their hands on it and have someone help them understand the functioning, it makes a big difference. We need to give them a good reason to buy a new boat. This is probably one of the most revolutionary things that will hit the marine industry in my lifetime. Barring fiberglass, I’m not sure what else would compare to it. …Ease of operation for the consumer is really important. With this, my 8-year-old daughter can dock a 40-footer with ease. It takes away the anxiety. They want to make sure that when they pull into the marina, all their neighbors aren’t heading for the hills because Mr. Smith is going to smash his boat into another boat.
Q: What are you trying to accomplish with your presentations and demonstrations?
A: I want to get the woman, who traditionally has been the first mate or the second mate on the boat, to step to the helm. I want the husband to be there, too, but I want to give her a chance to drive. I have a rule: Mrs. Smith or Mrs. Davis drives the boat before her husband does on a demo. I have had women hug me after operating the boat. I have had women look at me with tears in their eyes and say we’ve been boating for 25 years and I have never operated a boat before, so thank you. I’ve had men call their best friends on their cell phones and say, “You won’t believe it —Sue just docked this 50-footer into a spot where I would be afraid to put it.” For a couple whose kids are off to college and they want to go boating, now they can handle the boat themselves.
Q: How do you convince seasoned boaters that joystick technology isn’t just a marketing gimmick?
A: Think of Zeus and Axius as three-dimensional. Think of the steering wheel and your throttle controls as one-dimensional, be-cause with the steering wheel and throttles you’re limited to doing one thing at a time. The best captain in the world can walk a boat sideways with sticks and throttles, but while he’s walking it sideways he can’t move forward or backward or manipulate the bow or stern, the pitch and yaw control, because of the wind or current. He can’t do that with the traditional sticks and throttle and wheel. But with a joystick, you can do three things at the same time. You can be walking sideways and move it fore and aft and rotate the knob and control the pitch and yaw all at the same time. If you’re a seasoned boater, you may be thinking in that one-dimensional world. This gives you three dimensions. We’re putting people into a scenario and giving that seasoned captain or that first-time boater a scenario, a chance to show them that they can now do what they could not do before. When they realize this, that really just turns the floodlights on.
Q: How long does it take to get the hang of maneuvering a Zeus- or Axius-powered boat?
A: Everyone’s skill level is going to be based on one thing: how smooth they are with their hand movement. You need to give it 10 minutes. The first thing we ask is whether they’ve operated a bow thruster on their boat. If they’ve never boated before, that person is most likely going to have a shorter learning time. Those with a bow thruster [on their boat] are used to just jerking that thing and giving it bursts of power. The joystick doesn’t work that way. It’s like flying a helicopter — the smoother you are with it, the better. In five minutes you can really start feeling the groove. In 15 to 20 minutes you’re almost there. I tell everybody that in one hour you are as good as you’re going to get. I have literally 1,500 to 2,000 hours operating a joystick, and I’m probably not much better today than I was after my first hour. I’ve not had anybody who in 15 to 20 minutes I can’t get comfortable with the joystick.
Q: With Zeus and Axius, what’s the hardest concept for people to grasp and the hardest part of working the joystick?
A: With Zeus and Axius — and Volvo Penta’s IPS— they really function somewhat the same. The Zeus is going to be on much larger boats than Axius. But the hardest part is that you can do multiple things with that boat. It’s all ingrained in our brain— one-dimensional versus three-dimensional. Give them 10 or 15 minutes with no pressure, and all the rest of it will come to them.
Q: I’ve heard that children learn the fastest —is that true?
A: In a sense it is true. I say that kind of jokingly, but kids know joysticks better than they know steering wheels, due to Xbox and all the video games. I remember PacMan — and that’s showing my age —but I guess this generation didn’t operate joysticks like kids today do. I’ve found that kids that play racing games are much smoother than kids who play fighting games. I tell parents … the biggest fight is going to be whose turn it is to dock the boat when they pull into the marina. But even a 60- to 70-year-old man who has never operated a joystick is going to feel comfortable with this.
Q: You grew up on a farm and continue to live on one, so how did you end up teaching people how to drive boats?
A: It’s a funny story. We started in the festival- and event-management business and about 15 years ago we came in and took over a lot of the American PowerBoat Association’s hydroplane racing series and also running the watercraft racing program. Through that, we got involved with Mercury when they launched the little jetboats back in ’94 and’95. And it went from jetboats to performance boats and now the sport yachts. We’re just hardworking farm boys who love big machines and big equipment.
Q: Are you a boater?
A: I would consider myself a boater. I boat two days every week and I get to go to some of the most beautiful locations in the country. My kids, like most kids in boating families, like to wakeboard and tube. We have a bass boat in our shop. I am not a bass fisherman, but I love to go fast. It’s an adrenaline rush running 90 or 100 mph across the water.
Q: What are some of your favorite types of boats?
A: Of all the boats, my favorite is a Baja .38 Special. I also love the new 300 Select Sea Ray, which is the smallest boat that Axius comes in. It’s the coolest boat. The new [Sea Ray] 540 — if I can scrape my nickels and dimes together I’d love to have a 540, which is totally designed around joystick control. And also a TR-21 Triton with the biggest Mercury outboard I can get the guys from Mercury Racing to let me use. I’m a typical boater. I want multiple types of boats.
Q: Your parents were teachers. How did your upbringing influence your career?
A: My father has a double master’s in agriculture mechanics, which is basically hydraulics, diesel and also electrical. He taught college agriculture for 32 years. Education and being around mechanical things and getting people’s hands on things comes very natural to me. My brother and I learned that when we tore up a piece of farm equipment, whether we were driving it too fast or using it the way it wasn’t intended, if we got it fixed before Dad got home and told him how we re-engineered it so it wouldn’t break the next time, we didn’t get in trouble. [Consumers] don’t need to know everything about how, mechanically, it all works. And today a lot of the stuff is computer-controlled. That spins a lot of people’s heads. But my mechanical background has given me a huge foundation to better explain the new technology — that’s what our company does. We help people launch new products and educate people on how to operate new products.
Q: What type of boaters are drawn to joy-stick-operated vessels?
A: We’re seeing a variety of people, from someone who has never boated to people who have 26- to 28-foot single-engine boats who’ve been intimidated by a 30-foot twin. Dealers are saying this couple just bought a 43 as their first boat. Or this couple went from a 26 to a 33 with Axius, and six months later they’ve traded that 33 in for a 445. People have been intimidated by the docking scenarios they’ve encountered and struggled with. People are saying ‘Let’s go get a bigger boat and spend more time together, because we don’t have this anxiety anymore.’
Q: How long do you think it will take joystick and pod technology to become mainstream?
A: I believe anything takes a lot longer than anyone believes it should. I’m out 365 [days] a year and on the road with this project for two years, seeing people every weekend. And we’ve still only reached, I think, 2 or 3 percent of boaters. I think it takes five, six, seven, eight years to become mainstream, even when it’s the best mousetrap in the world. People come up to us at an event and say, ‘I’ve heard of [joystick control and pod drives] or I read about this,’ — and that’s about the extent of their knowledge of this technology.
Q: Of all the features joystick technology offers, both Axius and Zeus, which one really blows you away?
A: Skyhook. People can’t believe you can do this. You have a virtual anchor. You just push a button and the boat stays in that position. The computer finds the GPS location of your boat and [the engines and drives] literally hold your boat at that location regardless of wind, current or whatever. It’s like it’s sending information to the drives, to the throttles, to the gears. It tells the computers to manipulate this drive at this rpm and the other drive at this rpm to maintain the location. So if you’re pulling into a fuel dock or waiting for a drawbridge or you want to stop to see the fireworks and you’re in 250 feet of water, you just punch that button.
Q: What actually takes place in your demonstrations?
A: As we untie the dock lines, I begin telling people what I’m doing with the joystick. I am moving my bow, I’m walking it over and now I’m going to pull the boat out. And I’m telling people what I am doing with my hand. We’ll take the boat out and I normally hit Skyhook to show them physics-wise how this all works. It’s all done by vector points and cross thrusts. So we’re using those independent drives to create cross thrusts under the boat. I’ll find an empty slip and let Mrs. Jones dock the boat. And if there is a couple on board, I’ll let Mrs. Smith drive next. And then the husbands. All the while I am explaining things and everyone is having a good time.
Q: What are some of the demo boats you use?
A: We’re in everything from the 30-footer with an open bow all the way up to the new Sea Ray 540. We always have both Axius and Zeus-powered boats at the event. We’ll definitely have one of each and have had as many as five or six.
Q: How many locations have you visited and in which parts of the country?
A: I’m not a rock star by any means, but this past year we were at 35 or 36 locations with our big mobile marketing truck. We’ve been everywhere from Boston to Miami to Corpus Christi, Texas, to Minneapolis, to the Great Lakes to the Lake of the Ozarks (Mo.). We haven’t gone to the West Coast. We are just one team with one truck. We’d love to have a second truck, and I guess we could have 10 trucks and still not see as many people as we want to. We pretty much canvassed from Texas up to Minnesota to the East Coast.
Q: Could joystick technology be engineered for small boats?
A: Physics-wise, you could take it down to an 18-or 20-footer, I guess. If you put a pair of 4-cylinder engines on a 20-footer, though, do those numbers make sense? Are people going to pay for that? Could joystick control go on outboard-powered boats? That is a big question that’s asked every weekend. I don’t know why it couldn’t. I am not privy to know what’s going on in the engineering department. Us guys in marketing have been known to talk too much. That would be a pretty neat boat— if you had a pair of outboards and it could be controlled by a joystick.
Chris Landry is a staff writer for Soundings Magazine. This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.