Mercury Marine will offer a joystick control system for its Verado outboard motors in 2013. Mercury gave me quick test-drive opportunity at its Plant 33 engineering center in Oshkosh, Wis., just before the Boston Whaler demo boat was loaded for the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. That boat will be in the water at Fort Lauderdale, but not available to the public. According to Mercury the boat will be slipped off-site for media and boat-builder demos. The Mercury joystick will make its public debut in February, 2013, at the Miami International Boat Show.
The joystick offers fingertip, low-speed control by shifting, throttling, and steering multiple outboards independently, affording maneuverability that’s simply not possible with standard controls. The system will be offered only for the Verdao 250 and Verado 300 models, and is not a retro-fit to existing Verado motors because there are some differences in control software under the cowl, so a boat owner will have to re-power to put the Merc joystick on a boat that’s already in service. The joystick system can be rigged on dual, triple, and quad motor installations, making it an option on big boats where the benefit and cost are most easily justified. Regarding cost, Merc told me that a retail price has not been determined, but will be announced in January.
Mercury has of course already developed a joystick control for its Zeus pod drives and as the Axius option for MerCruiser sterndrives. In fact, the new outboard system is “about 95 percent Axius,” according to lead Mercury technician William Robertson. “We essentially combined the Axius steering actuator with the Verado steering cylinder, and then used the Axius algorithms as the basis for the outboard software.”
The Verado motors are already equipped with a digital helm, digital controls, and hydraulic power steering, and those components are part of the joystick system. One difference is that each motor must have its own power steering pump, because the outboard cannot be linked with tie rods on the joystick system. Each has to be free to turn independently. In a triple-motor system, the port and starboard motors will handle all joystick control chores, but in a quad rig, all four motors will participate. The joystick system integrates with Mercury SmartCraft, and will enable the SmartCraft Sky Hook feature that holds the boat in a fixed position against wind and current. One challenge of applying joystick controls to outboards is that the motors may be mounted much closer to each other than is the case with sterndrives. Standard outboard spacing is 26 inches, compared to 33 inches for small-block sterndrives. The motors need to turn towards each other to complete some joystick functions, and that space is limited when the outboards are close. On the Whaler test boat, however, the twin motors can be spaced more than 30 inches apart, and I think this system will find its way to larger boats with transom space to spread the outboards.
The joystick is always active (although it can be disabled with a button on the helm) and engine speed is limited to about 1600 rpm, enough power to control the Boston Whaler 320 Outrage in a light breeze and river current. I puttered around in the river to get a feel for the control before making a few docking attempts, bow and stern first, and also attempting to snug up abeam to the dock. With a little practice I got a feel for the control action, and in all situations the boat moved exactly as requested. One issue I did have was the location of the joystick on the helm, which was too low and a little uncomfortable for me. I think if joysticks become really popular, boat builders will need to think through the ergonomics and come up with a dedicated mounting location.
Because the Verado motors are “digital” outboards this Mercury joystick system is a much tidier installation than the Teleflex Optimus 360 system, which uses remote actuators to shift and throttle the motors through cables. The Teleflex system can also be rigged only with dual outboards, but of course can be installed on almost any boat, with any brand of motors, as long as they have cable controls. In my short experience with both systems, coming months apart, I’d say they worked equally well. The big question remains price. All Merc is adding to its system is the joystick control and the combination steering actuator and ram, plus the added power steering pumps. The rest is software, and lot of that was on the shelf. But who knows? When the price is announced, we’ll follow up. Mercury says the joystick will be available in the second quarter of 2013.
For information visit Mercury Marine.