Pods, joysticks doing their part to grow boating

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

Joystick systems controlling pods, straight shafts, sterndrives and even outboards have become more and more a part of the mainstream. Not only are these new technologies often more efficient from a propulsion standpoint, as is the case with pod drives, but they also are allowing people to move more easily into larger boats by reducing docking jitters, especially when the wind is blowing or a current is running.

Numbers are difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that these close-quarters maneuvering systems are not only bringing new people into boating, but in some cases are keeping boaters in the sport by reducing stressful docking incidents. Too many 21st century Capt. Blighs yelling at beleaguered crewmembers as they ricochet off pilings is not a part of the Grow Boating formula.

Pod propulsion with joystick technology is not new, but the recession undoubtedly slowed its adoption when it slammed the brakes on new-boat production three years ago. Volvo Penta introduced its Inboard Propulsion System in 2005 and Cummins MerCruiser followed with Zeus two years later.

Volvo Penta, MerCruiser and, most recently, Yanmar America Corp. (see Page 29) produce joystick systems for their sterndrives. ZF Marine, which builds pods, and Twin Disc have docking control systems for straight shafts using thrusters. (ZF Marine also did the first outboard joystick.) And Teleflex Marine recently introduced a joystick for twin-outboard installations (Page 29).

“For anybody building a boat 30 feet and larger today, if they haven’t looked at a joystick system, they’re behind the curve,” says Martin Meissner, marketing manager for ZF Marine. “Early adopters were paramount in this three or four years ago. Now it’s gone mainstream. We’re past the early adopter stage.”

Seventy percent of traditional powerboats sold in the United States are under 21 feet, so these technologies won’t affect most boats. But they are having an increasingly larger effect in terms of dollar volume because they are being installed on boats in the upper-20-foot range and larger.

CMD Zeus product manager Rob Mirman told Soundings recently, “I think we are past the point of convincing the boating public that pods are a worthy form of propulsion. All the big boatbuilders are offering pod options in the boats where they make sense.”

More than 125 boatbuilders worldwide, including about 50 in this country, use Volvo’s IPS in about 275 models; roughly 45 builders use CMD Zeus in about 68 models. And the numbers are growing.

There are myriad benefits to pods and joystick control systems, from efficiency to noise reduction to slow-speed maneuvering, but it is the latter that seems to have the most resonance with consumers. “It’s allows people to enter the game with the boat they really want … and not settle for something smaller because they’re intimidated by the bigger boat,” says Tad Whitten, who is starting his fourth year running the Zeus and Axius Experience Tour, which has given thousands of consumers across the country their first experience with these systems. “They all struggle with getting the boat in on a windy day. This takes all that away. With joystick control, they can finally buy the boat they want.”

The “warm and fuzzy” for the consumer is the joystick, Meissner says. “Make my boat go sideways. That’s what people key in on — ease of use.”

He continues: “It just takes all the stress out of bringing a boat into the dock. That’s the biggest hurdle to a lot of people moving to that next size boat.”

As an industry, Bentley Collins of Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts believes we continue to underestimate the anxiety associated with docking a relatively large boat, which in turn has kept some boaters from moving up in size. “Yelling ruins relationships, and heaven knows there have been too many Capt. Blighs doing their share of that,” says Collins, vice president of sales and marketing for the Maine-based builder. “One of our 54 Salon Express couples makes me laugh. They wear the headset communicators, and when they docked their boat one day with huge smiles on their faces I asked if they were always this confident. She replied, ‘I may have been smiling, but you couldn’t hear what I was actually saying.’ They manage their 54 with IPS drives with no issues whatsoever.”

And here’s a figure to keep top of mind: Of the 65 Sabres sold in the last two years, Collins says, only two have been without pod propulsion.

At sea level, it’s about pods and sterndrives that turn independently of one another, and joysticks; at a more pulled-back perspective, it’s about technology. Cool tech. “We all love technology,” Collins says. “Look at what sales of the [new] iPad did this week. They are sold out and taking a backlog despite the fact that plenty of us already have earlier versions. Technology sells.”

Whitten sees the same pure pull of new technology as he travels the country giving Zeus and Axius demonstrations. “For some,” says Whitten, who runs Motorsports Management in Peoria, Ill., “forget the joystick. Skyhook is the bomb. … It’s big,” he says, referring to the GPS-enabled station-keeping feature available with pod systems. “I don’t care who you are; it fits somewhere in your boating lifestyle. There’s dozens of different applications where this technology is changing boating.”

The electronics that connect these various drive units and steering systems are graphic examples of the software innovation taking hold in our industry. “You’re talking about moving to an entire fly-by-wire system,” Meissner says. “There is no hard-wire connector between the steering system and the pod and the joystick. It’s a rolling evolution of technology in pleasure craft.”

Of course, there are other benefits to pods beyond close-quarters maneuvering. “I rate docking and quiet running tops, but many owners will state fuel efficiency as their primary reason for buying it,” Collins says. “Being a good citizen and burning less fuel is a big deal to their friends and associates.”

“You can run a smaller engine that burns less fuel, but you’re not sacrificing performance,” Meissner adds. “Pods are just a more efficient propulsion. But at the end of the day, what matters to the customer is the maneuverability of the boat.”

The future of this technology? Collins sees pods dominating the market from 35 to 50 feet. Above that, acceptance will follow as larger pods are developed. Below that size, Collins sees market share being taken by sterndrive and outboard joystick systems.

“It will continue its march,” Meissner says. “It’s a natural progression.”

And that, you can count on.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.

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