Overview. Joystick functionality is not a new concept, but the applications do keep getting better and better. Once we saw the advantages of using a joystick when pods came out, the world was hooked. The only way to compete with a pod-designed boat was to offer a joystick with different propulsion systems.
First, Sterndrives. First to follow the pod’s lead was sterndrives. Attaching a new steering computer allowed control of the outdrives independently, and since we already had digital throttle control, adding engine control to the independent steering was relatively easy. Suddenly the average boater was docking larger boats with extreme precision.
Inboards. Next in line were inboards. This time around the joystick controlled the engines along with either a bow, or a bow and stern, thruster. Now the same controllability was available without the expensive pod hardware.
Finally, outboards jumped onboard the joystick wagon. They function the same as the outdrives, with independent steering and power. They took a little longer to come to fruition because steering was a function of the boat, rather than the engine. But come they did, and yet again they were met with open arms.
The i-Dock system from Evinrude not only allows for controlling the outboards, from both a steering and power perspective, but also adds user-defined parameter changes to the steering feedback and turn ratios. It’s another leap forward in this ever-changing and highly competitive arena, and we recently got a chance to give the Evinrude iDock system a hands-on test.
Joystick Steering, not Joystick Driving
i-Dock is an Electric Over Hydraulic Steering System. It starts with an electronic helm, providing a steering input to the PCM – Pump Control Modual. The PCM controls a pair of hydraulic power steering pumps connected by hydraulic hoses to the engines. Each engine is allowed to steer independently to respond to the joystick commands. The engines include a steering position sensor so the PCM knows where the engines are at all times, including their alignment.
Furthermore, the user is able to tweak the steering system for feedback and number of turns, lock-to-lock, at both high and low speeds. This is why the system is called the “Joystick Steering System”. Do not confuse it with joystick driving. While we did drive the boat around the marina with the joystick, it’s still more appropriate to “drive” in the traditional manner.
The latest generation of Evinrude outboards, the Evinrude E-TEC G2, comes with steering integral to the engine housing that makes it perfectly suited to interfacing with not only digital steering driven by a helm’s wheel, but a joystick as well. The external steering pumps can be mounted anywhere in the boat.
First generation Evinrude E-TECs being adapted to the i-Dock will benefit from the power steering that the i-dock system includes, that they did not have previously. Certainly this makes another strong argument for the inclusion of this system in a previously built boat.
The system starts with the user interface that basically consists of the joystick. The integration between the joystick and the outboards is computer controlled and occurs automatically, with no need for interaction between the user and the equipment.
There are four buttons on the base of the joystick, TAKE COMMAND, BOOST, A and C. The operator uses only the first two. The A and C buttons are used only for dialing in the system, at installation, to the specific boat. Once a model of boat is tweaked for maximum performance, those parameters then become the template applied to the same models down the line.
The Can Trac Display
The i-Dock system includes a small Can Trac color gauge to monitor the actions and health of the system. The Can Trac color gauge shows the engine rpm, gearshift positions and steering angle of the engines. It is not something that needs to be looked at frequently, but a glance at the screen tells in an instant the health and status of the system as a whole.
The Can Trac display shows us the status of the boat’s systems. Here, both engines are in neutral, the rpms are at 0, the port engine is angled at 3-degrees left, the starboard is 6-degrees right.
Before we start using the system, we first activate it. This eliminates the chance of anyone accidentally bumping the joystick and altering the course of the boat inadvertently. Move the engine controls (throttles) to the neutral position and, if desired, verify that the two “Neutral” lights come on, or “N” is highlighted in the Can Trac display. Normally, the neutral position is intuitively reached by feeling the levers move through the detents, making the lights and display redundant.
Once the engines are in neutral, a press of the TAKE COMMAND button activates the joystick, and the light illuminating on the joystick reinforces this.
What if nothing happens and all we see is a blinking light? That is simply the system’s way of announcing that the control handles are not in neutral. The system is “smart” and will not let the joystick engage unless the engines are in a safe condition.
Boosting the System
Should wind or current become more problematic, then more power may be needed to properly maneuver the boat. The BOOST button solves that problem with just a touch. It adds additional power to the joystick movements to counter the negative effects of the wind and tide.
There is one thing to note in this startup of the joystick. It will activate in whatever mode it was left in when it was last deactivated. In other words, if BOOST was used last, when the system restarts it will do so in boost mode. If it was last used in NORMAL mode, then it will restart in that mode. Pressing BOOST will activate, and deactivate this feature.
The Basics of Operation
We start out with just the simple tasks first…. Maneuvering. As expected, the joystick operation is intuitive, no instructions are needed. Moving the stick forward will move the boat forward. If winds or current begin to affect the stick can be rotated to move the bow back on course. Move the stick back to reverse the engines and stop the boat, and of course to back the boat into a slip. Releasing the stick springs it back to its neutral position.
Also, and as expected, moving the stick to the side, will cause the boat to slide sideways, and the same goes for the 45s. Basically, the boat will follow the hand of the operator, regardless of which direction it is moved to. Rotating the stick will add a pivot to the movements.
The joystick is also progressive in that the further the stick is moved, the more power is added to the engines and the faster the boat moves. However, Evinrude correctly limits the available power, so as to limit the speed at which a boat is approaching the dock. If more is needed to combat heavy winds or current, press BOOST for additional power.
Now just as we wouldn’t take the engine controls and continually slam them back and forth from forward to reverse, so should we not do so with the joystick. It is controlling mechanical components, including transmissions, and a gentle touch is key to both longevity and controllability. We have found that we don’t need to move the stick far beyond the neutral position. Small movements, and then patience waiting for the boat to respond, are what it takes to maintain safe operation. As always, whether using the joystick or not, keep the thought process ahead of the boat.
Here we can see the engines operating at different angles and power, completely independent of one another.
We used the system for both side-to docking and backing into a slip, both with precision.
To go back to having the throttles control the engine, simply press the RPM Tune PLUS button. Then the throttles can control the engines in the normal mode. We’d like to see the joystick be deactivated by simply moving the throttles, allowing the transfer to be instantaneous, but pressing another button is certainly not problematic. The throttle movement would just be another step towards keeping the system intuitive. Pressing “+” would not be the first instinct.
Not only do we have full controllability with this system, but we also have the ability to tweak the handling to suit individual desire. The CanTrac display is also a key tool in setting up the i-Dock system and making steering adjustments set to one’s desire.
To make our adjustments, we access the menu, then the steering menu and scroll through to set the desired parameters.
Progressive steering is a feature that we’ve long appreciated in pod systems and it’s built into the i-Dock system. It keeps steering docile at high speeds and wider ranging at low speeds. By default, the steering ratio at slow speeds is 3.5 turns making the steering response fast and the boat much more maneuverable. But as the engine speed increases the steering ratio increases in a progressive manner reaching a 7 turns ratio at wide open. This ratio slows down steering response to avoid over correction at high speed. This makes the boat a real pleasure to drive and much more comfortable for the guests onboard. This progressive ratio can be tweaked as desired to get just the right feel, an especially attractive feature in varying sea conditions.
Steering resistance is another feature that is generally fixed, especially with hydraulic steering. Effort to turn the wheel at low speeds is not usually bad but still requires a bit more force as the hydraulic pressure is reduced. With i-Dock the steering resistance can be adjusted to provide a light to almost no-effort feel when at low speeds to a custom resistance at high speed for easier drivability.
During our tests we were able to operate with complete precision with both a 10’ (3.05 m) wide luxury pontoon boat and an offshore center console. Both performed flawlessly. Aside from the precision, it’s impressive that we can also control the steering parameters as well as utilize the system on both repower and new builds. Competing models are only applicable to new builds.