Joystick maneuvering and the unceasing march of technology

I always look forward to reading my copy of Soundings when it arrives. To me it has the look and feel and reads like something behind which pulses the heart of boaters sharing their passion with other boaters and would-be boaters. The last cover had the tagline “You won’t believe what’s happening with joysticks”. Here’s the link to Soundings Online

As I read the article I began thinking about how technology has advanced the world of boating. I also thought of some potential downsides to these rapid advances and ended up taking a trip down memory lane.

But first, it’s important to acknowledge that the leading edge of technology doesn’t come cheap. Indeed, one of the boats referenced in the article was quoted as being $60k more expensive than the non-joystick equipped model. Joystick maneuvering takes the stress out of close quarters maneuvering. You don’t have to think about how you’re going to adjusts throttles and gears and thrusters to make the boat go where you want it to go. You just simply and intuitively nudge or twist the stick in the direction you want to move and presto, the boat does just that. Welcome to the world of fly-by-wire boating. Fly-by-wire has been around in aviation applications for many years much to the benefit of commercial and military use. Instead of cables and other mechanical linkages, when you move that stick an electronic signal is created that when processed by computer creates the signal to your engines and thrusters needed to maneuver the boat.

“Back in the day” we non-technologically advanced savages had to rely on proficiency on moving the sticks around that made the differential thrust do what we wanted to do in order to maneuver our twin screw boat around. Some of us even had to learn how to maneuver in a single screw inboard. (gasp!) In reality, it wasn’t that difficult, but then again nothing is that hard to do once you know how. But in the back of my mind is the thought of of someone new to boating walking the docks at a show thinking ‘wow I really need that joystick deal’. Then he sees the price tag of such an equipped vessel. Fear not, Sir or Ma’am, there was a day when we didn’t have these things and were able to maneuver our boats just fine. All you need is a little guidance from someone who knows what they’re doing to show you how.

The trip down memory lane was triggered by the question, ‘does it matter that the user doesn’t know how something works as long as it does what it’s supposed to do?’ In other words, if technology can make our life easier then shouldn’t we embrace it?

I began musing about some examples in my lifetime of old vs new, manual vs automatic.

Back in my flying days when I first started flying helicopters in the Marines, we didn’t have GPS. We had to navigate with a paper map, associating the terrain we were seeing outside with the contour lines and features indicated on the map. This was a difficult skill and it took quite a bit of practice to get proficient at it. Then when GPS came along the new guys coming up never knew a time without it. We still taught manual navigation because we thought it a necessary skill. We bemoaned the ‘GPS cripple’ who couldn’t navigate without it. Today, the thought of getting in an aircraft and navigating without GPS is almost laughable. Paper charts aren’t even carried in many instances these days. You can fit just about every chart you would ever need on an iPad.

Then I began thinking about my Westlawn studies and how the school made us do drawings by hand before we could use CAD. Drawing by hand is an enormously time consuming task. Drawing a set of lines and making them ‘fair’ could easily consume a few hundred hours. Here’s an example of preliminary drawings of a deckplan and accommodation plan  for a 42′ ketch I was designing. It doesn’t look like much but there’s a hundred or so hours in these two drawings

by hand, just like Olin Stephens did it
42′ ketch frozen in time on my drawing board

The benefit of all this toil was being able to think in three dimensions on a two dimensional surface. Nowadays all this design work is done in CAD which is much faster. I still believe learning the manual way was beneficial but CAD’s the only way to go now. Once again, technology wins over laborious manual methods. And it’s for the better, even if in the back of my mind there’s a flickering glow of admiration for a boat well drawn by hand.

Coming back to this joystick business, then, I suppose the real estimation of its worth comes in the eye of the beholder.  My frame of reference is rooted in bringing boating to as many people as may want to experience the magic of it. If that desire is enhanced by the unceasing advance of technology, then I’m for it, traditionalist or no.

But I’m still bringing paper charts with me…


  • Knowing the price of the dynamic positioning system installed on the offshore supply vessel that I run, I think anywhere in the 30-60k range is pretty reasonable for a similar system on a recreational vessel. What worries me (as someone who teaches new owners boat handling at a local marina) is that people will never actually learn how to handle their vessel. No one will ask themselves the question, “what if the computer/bow tunnel/etc fails”.
    I see this with co workers and in the industry at times as well, the absolute faith in your electronics. While it will open up boating the the few who have the dollars to afford it, it will also bring in those with out the skill and mindset to do it safety. Regardless of the situation.

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