By Mike Milne

It’s a digital world. During the past decade, recreational marine propulsion systems have improved by leaps and bounds as engine manufacturers harnessed new technology to make boating simpler and more enjoyable.

So, the experienced and knowledgeable boat testers at Boats & Places and PowerBoat TV plan to focus more closely on today’s engines, drives and control systems.

Boat testing has always been a big part of what we do in this magazine and our sister television series, broadcast on Global TV (See our Winter issue or the PowerBoat TV website for a complete schedule). Because engines and controls play a major role in the overall performance of boats, we have not ignored them. As boats and motors continue to adopt more complex propulsion systems, it’s time we paid more attention to the power systems behind pleasure boating.

That’s what PowerLines, a new feature in the magazine and TV show, is all about. Our news features always track new developments. Power Profile on-water tests always look at the overall experience with a given boat, including the way its engine performs. We gauge performance through objective speed and acceleration testing. The powerplant and propulsion systems don’t often get the detailed attention they deserve. PowerLines is out to change that.

PowerLines is out to change that.

The trends and changing approaches to marine power mean there’s plenty to talk about. In recent years, there’s been a swing towards outboards, as automotive fuel economy regulations like Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) conspired to raise the cost of automotive-based I/O powerplants. And, as outboards have been put into service on bigger and bigger boats, manufacturers have built higher-horsepower engines. Sterndrive builders are scrambling to catch up and build more efficient engines.

As today’s inboard, I/O and outboard engines become more powerful, more complex and more efficient – and as propulsion and control systems also add efficiency and capability – they deserve their own regular feature.

The approach will combine research with hands-on testing and experience

That’s where PowerLines comes in. It will look at boats from the perspective of power and propulsion. The approach will combine research with hands-on testing and experience. Given the new developments that have come with digitization of marine engines, we have plenty of material to work with.

Engines themselves have become increasingly more efficient in recent years thanks to electronic fuel injection, oil injection (in the case of two-strokes that also feature direct fuel injection) and increasingly advanced electronic controls. There are also recently developed ideas that are more mechanical in nature, like inboard pod drives that first came on the market eight years ago – including the Volvo Penta IPS with forward-facing dual props and MerCruiser’s aft-facing Zeus drives. Those developments have been accompanied by digitally driven control systems.

The joystick control systems that were first developed along with the pod drive systems were made possible by the digital technology that came along with electronic engine control systems and accompanying drive-by-wire engine and propulsion control systems.

Joystick control systems have now spread beyond the pod drives to sterndrives and outboards. Mercury has its Axius system while Volvo Penta offers Joystick Driving in conjunction with Electronic Vessel Control (EVC) and Yamaha has its Helm Master control system. As those and other manufacturers continue to introduce and fine-tune their systems, PowerLines will check them out in detail.

PowerLines will check them out in detail.

Like all of the new propulsion system developments, they have the potential to make power boating more enjoyable for committed enthusiasts and much more accessible to new boaters. Recreational boating is pleasure boating and the new technology can help remove many possible stress from the boating experience. It is making docking or anchoring easier and making maximizing performance and fuel efficiency almost effortless. PowerLines will keep you up to date on what’s available and how the technology works.

In Power Profiles, boat tests and news features in past issues of Boats & Places and on past seasons of PowerBoat TV, we have looked at many of those developments. We’ll go deeper into what makes advanced engine and drive systems work, while looking more closely at how they perform in conjunction with various boats.

Whenever there’s a new drive system, like Volvo Penta’s new forward-facing I/O, aimed at watersports applications, PowerLines will test it with a focus on how it works in conjunction with a particular boat.

lower emissions and taking better care of the environment have driven developments in engine technology.

We will look more closely in coming issues at last year’s new powerplant developments, some of the engines and related systems that have emerged from trends of higher-horsepower outboards. We will take a more in depth approach to Yamaha’s new V-MAX SHO outboards, for example, and look at how they provide increased performance. We will also look into how an emphasis on lower emissions and taking better care of the environment have driven developments in engine technology.

In addition, we can look at changes to propulsion systems such as recent developments to Yamaha’s jet drives – that combine mechanical and digital developments. We’ll show and talk about how those systems combine, for example, to provide more predictable idle-speeds in No Wake mode and a better neutral gear.

PowerLines can also offer the opportunity to look more closely at how BRP waterjet engines – in Scarab and Glastron boats, for example – provide performance modes, including Ski for maximized towing, Docking mode for easier maneuvering and Eco mode for best fuel efficiency.

Various cruise control systems are also available on specialized towboats as well as all-round recreational craft, so PowerLines will let us take a closer look at how they work with more technical details and on-the-water data.

With all the engines and systems tested, we will explain how and why they contribute to a boat’s performance. A very good example of how digital technology is being used to make pleasure boating easier and more accessible, Mercury’s Active Trim can automate trim settings for a wide range of boats with various Mercury engines. Instead of forcing drivers to evaluate performance and manually adjust outboard, sterndrive or trim settings, Active Trim lets you choose from five trim profiles or even customize settings for your specific boat.

For now, Active Trim is exclusive to Mercury, but like digital controls and joystick systems, automatic trim systems are likely to soon be developed by other engine and system builders.

There’s sure to be plenty more new developments that will come under consideration in upcoming PowerLines features.

Electronic engine controls have brought advanced information systems – that give boaters up-to-the-second reports on performance and efficiency — along with the new high-tech operating and control systems. So expect PowerLines to harness those systems to bring you plenty of data along with on-the-water evaluation and plain-language explanations of how the new technology works.

The many new propulsion systems already on the market and in development are meant to make boating simpler and more pleasurable, but if you are the kind of boater who wants more technical details – or simply wants to be better informed about your engine and the systems that help it work better – join us.

PowerLines will give us a chance to learn together and discover more ways of enjoying time out on the water.

This article was featured in the Fall 2015 edition of Boats&Places.