By Mike Gridley

One of the biggest challenges in boating for both experienced boaters and novices is docking. Manoeuvring in tight spaces with the added challenge of wind and current conditions can make things a bit tense.

Everyone always looks to the guy down the dock with the newer boat who docks like a pro. His secret comes in the form of pods or a joystick system that controls sterndrives or outboards.

Advancements in electronics and networking systems makes this level of control a reality. It is also bringing a world of improvements to a wide range of marine products. This ranges from navigational equipment, sonar, radar and of course engine management and control.

At the heart of this new wave of systems is the CANbus network protocol. Developed by Bosch in 1986 for automotive applications, CANbus is simply a Control Area Network designed to allow communications between various components electronically without employing a main or central computer system. CANbus interconnects electronic control units, microprocessors, sensors, actuators and more.

If your multi-engine sterndrive or outboard powered boat is not equipped with joystick control, but does have digital throttle and shift, the benefits of joystick control are available to you. SeaStar Solutions has developed Optimus 360, an aftermarket control system that can be dealer installed.

Utilizing CANbus protocol SeaStar has developed a system to give your boat precise fingertip control for slow speed manoeuvring that is intuitive and customizable. Depending on your boat’s current systems the installation of Optimus 360 Joystick Control requires both the removal and replacement of components and the addition of new components and systems.

Your boat’s compatible digital throttle and shift (DTS) unit can remain as can any installed autopilot system. However, if the boat employs hydraulic steering this will have to be removed entirely and replaced with an Optimus electronic power steering (EPS) helm.

While researching the Optimus 360 joystick, I found myself at Central Marine in Midland, Ontario where the service team had just finished retrofitting a World Cat 320 with an Optimus control system for the twin Yamaha F300s.

At the helm, the changes were certainly not obvious at first glance. The compatible Yamaha DTS controls remained, but the World Cat’s hydraulic steering was upgraded to an Optimus EPS helm. This also entailed removing all the hydraulic lines and steering cylinder from the helm to the outboards.

The joystick control and Optimus 360 display was added to the dash. The upgrades and additions inside the helm were only noticeable if you knew what to look for. The most obvious change was the steering. Replacing the pump and hydraulic hoses was a clean unit with plug and play networking connections.

The EPS helm can be front or back mounted and offers tilt options. The unit is also fully programmable for speed sensitive turns to lock-to-lock and steering resistance. The unit is plug and play autopilot compatible and has dual redundancy with standard fault-tolerant CANbus output.

The Optimus 360 gateway that connects the Yamaha DTS to the CANbus network was mounted on the back of the helm. The EPS steering, Optimus 360 joystick, colour CANtrack display and autopilot were all interconnected.

From the helm, the network consisting of CAN1 and CAN2 for the individual motors, was routed to the transom where significant changes had been made to allow the motors to be steered independently. Several components had been installed in a locker at the transom. The main component was the pump control module (PCM) that receives the data over the CAN1 and CAN2 networks and controls the on demand 12-volt hydraulic pumps for each motor. The unit also provides feedback to the helm controls and display. Fused power was connected to the PCM to power the system and pumps.

At the outboards, the standard hydraulic steering cylinder and lines were removed. If the boat was a traditional V-bottom with the outboards mounted close together, the tie bar wouldn’t have been removed, but because the outboards were mounted far apart on this World Cat, the hydraulic tie bar was removed to allow the engines to move independently. Replacing these were individual Optimus Smart Cylinders on each outboard, with independent hydraulic lines running to the respective steering pump. The last items added were the steering position feedback connections from the smart cylinders to the PCM.

The CANtrak display is utilized to first initialize the EPS and Optimus 360 joystick. From there a host of preferences are set to match the system to the power and boat. Finally the display allows the operator to customize a host of parameters form steering lock-to-lock, sensitivity, maximum rpm and more as well as monitoring the system.

Spending some time at the helm operating the Optimus joystick docking control system just proved technology makes boating easier. The World Cat was docked in a narrow slipway and the winds were steady with strong gusts—every boater’s favourite combination. With a light touch on the joystick, I was able to depart the slip, rotate the boat and re-dock several times with ease. Switching between joystick control, shifters and steering was seamless, making this wide World Cat manageable in all situations. It is something to marvel at, watching two (or more) outboards independently turning, shifting and throttling to walk a boat sideways.

This project was featured in the 2017 Summer issue of Boats&Places and the 2017 season of PowerBoat Television.

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Mike Gridley is a Producer and Host of PowerBoat Television and contributor to Boats&Places Magazine, and A lifelong boater, Mike started on the water with a 12-foot Peterborough cedar strip. Graduating to fibreglass, he has owned a series of boats from cuddy cabins to cruisers. He has come full circle back to wood with the purchase of a 1964 Greavette. After graduating from Ryerson University, Mike joined Molson Breweries where he spent 17 years in a variety of sales, marketing and promotions positions. He went on to hone his marketing communications, creative and advertising skills as a Senior Account Director with several national advertising agencies for clients including Bank of Montreal, Petro-Canada, Canadian Tire and Polaroid. In pursuit of his love of all things boating, Mike joined Lifestyle Integrated in 2004 and assumed the role of Producer in 2006.