Joystick maneuverability has been the domain of boats with multiple engines, jet drives or bow and stern thrusters. Not anymore. After three years of research and development, Yamaha has unveiled its single-outboard Helm Master EX joystick system that can reportedly do nearly anything its multi-engine counterparts can manage.
“I was astounded by its level of control and functionality. It far exceeded my expectations,” says David Meeler, Yamaha’s new product introduction manager. “I think most people will be especially surprised by its SetPoint features.”
SetPoint is Yamaha’s collective term for position-hold features like FishPoint, used as a virtual anchor to keep a boat in one place. Such features can’t maintain a precise heading while at anchor, but skippers can choose whether to orient the bow or stern into the prevailing wind and current. “FishPoint stern will be especially useful for those who toss cast nets to catch live bait,” Meeler says.
Repositioning in all SetPoint modes — FishPoint, DriftPoint (which maintains heading but allows a drift via current or wind) and DriftPoint Track (same as DriftPoint, but via waypoints) — is done by joystick in intervals. One short twist equals 1 degree of heading, while 5 degrees of heading is executed with a long joystick twist. A hold and twist of the joystick gives heading repositions in 5-degree intervals up to a total of 50 degrees.
Early joystick systems tended to clunk the boat in and out of gear frequently and use abrupt blasts of power. Yamaha developed the Shift Dampener System for this reason, utilizing a rubber damper to cushion the engagement. And because FishPoint doesn’t attempt to keep the boat pointed exactly in the same direction, there’s less shifting needed.
Helm Master EX also has Yamaha’s Pattern Shift, which can be programmed to shift the outboard in and out of gear automatically, to allow a boat to troll as slow as ½ mph (ideal for trolling with live bait). Combined with Pattern Steer, Pattern Shift will be useful for navigating the boat in an expanding circle or a zigzag pattern without the use of autopilot.
While the single-engine EX version of Helm Master has the same joystick control as the quad-engine installations, there are a few things the EX version can’t do, such as moving the boat directly sideways (twin engines are needed to create opposing thrust). StayPoint is also unavailable, even though that button is on the EX system.
At $12,300, the Helm Master EX might seem like a sizable investment for a single-engine boater, but it includes a fully independent autopilot system that can be linked to a Raymarine or Garmin multifunction display through an interface box ($1,942 and 1,458, respectively). The Helm Master EX also has a control panel with single-touch buttons to activate features and make heading adjustments. And, a new binnacle design makes conventional shifting easier.
The Helm Master EX also includes Yamaha’s new Digital Electric Steering (DES) system, which is derived from the power steering system on the flagship 425-hp XTO Offshore outboard. This steering system eliminates the need for hydraulic pumps and lines, making the final installation simple and clean. In addition to providing smooth, programmable steering, DES only draws power from an electrical system when the wheel turns, unlike with hydraulic pumps that constantly draw amperage. There’s also no annoying whooshing sound every time a skipper turns the wheel. The DES system can be installed on any Digital Electronic Controlled Yamaha outboard, starting with the 2.8-liter F150.
Yamaha’s Helm Master EX DEC controls has a separate ECU that mounts remotely from the control box under the console. This unit and the Boat Control Unit — required on autopilot- and joystick-equipped boats — contain the system software.
“Everything about the Helm Master EX joystick itself is new, both internally and externally,” Meeler says. “New software means smooth, easy shifting, a new spring rate, and ergonomics mean a super-premium feel with no dead spots, and individual buttons for each SetPoint mode make it very easy and quick to operate.”
While old-school salts might question the need for a joystick on a single-outboard-powered boat, the EX’s usefulness for docking and maneuvering when fishing is undeniable. Anglers can use it in the FishPoint modes for fast changes to a boat’s position in 5-, 10- and 20-foot increments, or for heading alterations of as little as 1 degree in SetPoint modes. When a fish is hooked, the ability to make quick, accurate course corrections could mean the difference between landing the big one or getting cut off when a fish changes direction. And in autopilot mode, skippers can change course, scoot the course parallel to port or starboard, or change speed by bumping or twisting the joystick.
Docking is made simpler with a joystick too, especially in tight quarters or when there’s wind or tide that requires quick corrections. With a conventional steering system, shifting the binnacle and then spinning the wheel takes more time than working a joystick. The engine’s maximum thrust can be selected from levels one to five to reduce the chance of accidentally adding too much power, which is the cause of many dockside mishaps.
“You’re going to see the single-engine Helm Master EX full maneuverability system on big bay boats, small to midsize center consoles, and pontoon boats,” Meeler says. “This system is designed to give drivers more control over their boats than ever before. It will make most anyone a better, more confident pilot.”
This article was originally published in the July 2020 issue.