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Engineering a boat to run like a car

Engine makers Volvo Penta and Mercury plan to roll out new technology this spring


Boat and engine companies will continue to add components, technologies and devices that nose today’s power craft closer to a car-like experience behind the wheel.

Two of the major engine manufacturers this spring were gearing up for the introduction of substantial product offerings and technological advances. Volvo Penta and Mercury Marine remained tight-lipped about news they planned to break at their respective press introductions.

Volvo Penta in June is hosting a press event at its headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. The company plans to debut new helm technologies, displays and electronic control systems, according to the manufacturer. “The main thrust here is we are trying to achieve a more integrated package from helm to stern — all the electronics, the engines, the trim systems, the displays and helm systems working better together in an easier format,” says Marcia Kull, vice president of marine sales.

The integration will envelop Volvo Penta’s IPS, diesel inboards and sterndrive packages. “We’re really moving more toward a car-like experience,” Volvo Penta product manager Jens Bering says. “That’s what you will see when you go to Sweden. It’s the next step to make all parts of our package more user-friendly.”

An example of easy-to-use product recently introduced is Volvo Penta’s Joystick Driving technology (introduced last year) that allows the skipper to use the joystick at high speeds. “You don’t have to have a steering wheel,” Kull said at a Volvo Penta press outing last fall. “The whole idea is to incorporate the joystick into the arm of the helm seat to allow the operator to sit back in comfort. It’s ideal for long-distance boating and works with the autopilot.”

Joystick Driving steers the boat but does not function as a throttle to control forward and reverse propulsion. I tried the system on a 36-foot aluminum pilothouse boat at the press event. It was a bit tricky at first because small nudges to port and starboard turn the boat significantly — and quickly. Rotating the joystick to fine-tune the heading on the autopilot should be of great value for long-distance cruising.

At its May 21-22 event in New Orleans, Mercury planned to have a dozen boats from 17 to 29 feet rigged with its engines and technology ready for testing. Mercury offered no specifics, but Tom Mielke, an adviser with the company’s communications department, did say that “many of the new products and new boat and engine combinations have never been previously seen or tested.”


Mercury last introduced an outboard — the 150 FourStroke — at the 2012 Miami International Boat Show. A few months later, MerCruiser unveiled an 8.2-liter gasoline engine. At the IBEX show last fall, Mercury debuted its Joystick Piloting for Outboards.

At a press event last September, Volvo Penta rolled out two new gasoline sterndrive engines — the V8-380 and V8-320. The variable valve timing technology of these engines pumps up midrange acceleration and improves fuel-burn efficiency.

Joystick systems

Joystick technology has dominated the news in the propulsion world, especially in the past 18 months as the economy sputtered toward a healthier state. In March, Suzuki Marine became the fourth major outboard manufacturer to offer joystick helm control. It will be available with the DF250AP and DF300AP 4-strokes and its drive-by-wire system (Suzuki Precision Control). The company showed a prototype and concept drawings at the Japan boat show. Suzuki this summer will have more information about the joystick system.

At this year’s Miami boat show in February, Volvo Penta, Mercury, Yamaha and Teleflex (now SeaStar Solutions) showcased their systems on boats in the water. In addition to Volvo’s V8-320 and V8-380 with joystick helm control, I have tested a trio of new joystick systems for outboards: Yamaha’s Helm Master, Teleflex’s Optimus 360 by SeaStar and Mercury’s Joystick Piloting.

Yamaha’s Helm Master teams with the engine maker’s V-6 F225, F250 and F300 4-strokes, as well as the V-8 F350. The Optimus 360 system uses Evinrude’s high-horsepower E-TEC outboards. State-of-the-art steering systems and new features, such as steering friction control, bolster the user-friendliness of these two joystick systems. “It’s not just about the joystick,” says Yamaha product design manager David Meeler.


I tested Helm Master on the new Pursuit SC 365i Sport Coupe with twin Yamaha F350s and the Optimus 360 on an Andros Offshore 32 center console with a pair of 250-hp Evinrude E-TECs. The Pursuit 365i is an innovative boat that conceals its outboards in a stern compartment that separates the cockpit and the swim platform. Of all the innovations, I like the Yamaha Helm Master’s friction control. You can set the number of wheel turns it takes to get from lock to lock, as well as the required steering effort, or “friction.”

SeaStar Solutions marries the Optimus 360 to Evinrude’s ICON electronic shift and throttle. It works with 300- and 250-hp E-TEC outboards.

Innovative outboards

Introductions of outboards have waned a bit as companies focus on complementing their power packages, but Yamaha did come out with 4-cylinder 150- and 200-hp 4-strokes. I have run the F200 on a Sportsman 229 center console. The 487-pound F200 packs a lightning-quick jab, thanks to its variable camshaft timing. The boat accelerated from 20 to 30 mph in about 4 seconds and saw 43 mph (WOT) in another 3-1/2 seconds.

The engine weighs 119 pounds less than Yamaha’s V-6 F200 and 14 pounds more than its 2-stroke Z200 HPDI outboard. It’s built around a 2.8-liter, 16-valve dual overhead camshaft powerhead.


Honda also joins the mix with a new 2.3-hp portable that’s 15 percent more powerful than its predecessor, the BF2. The BF2.3’s centrifugal clutch makes for smooth idling and automatically engages the prop above idle speed, according to the company. The engine weighs 29.5 pounds.


Technology came in the form of green packages, too. Torqeedo introduced its 80-hp Deep Blue electric outboard. A new engine from Lehr is also green, but it’s only 9.9 hp and powered with propane. Early last year, Lehr introduced its first propane outboards: 2.5- and 5-hp engines.

BRP’s new 135-hp, high-output 2-stroke — the Evinrude E-TEC 135 H.O. — will be a good fit in single applications for small center consoles (under 22 feet or so), flats boats and bowriders, among others, the company says.

Mercury Racing unveiled a new 1,650-hp engine that’s state of the art all the way. The 9.0-liter quad-cam 4-valve (QC4v) cylinder block and head design work with Mercury’s SmartCraft Digital Throttle & Shift to deliver “big power with luxury-car-like drivability,” according to the engine manufacturer.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue.



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