First, there’s the new joystick. This is a new integrated stick with all the features built into the joystick and its base. It does all of the things joysticks have done the last 10 years or so, but does them far better.
Second, the namesake feature -- the “Skyhook” -- holds the boat in a stationary position as the unit takes GPS inputs and translates them into commands for the boat’s engines in order to keep the boat in a stationary, geographic position and heading.
Third, there are four additional functions that make Mercury Marine’s new “Skyhook” a state-of-the-art digital steering and positioning product. Those functions are—
When the vessel’s throttles are moved into neutral, the joystick ring lights up to show it’s active and there’s an LED indicator on top. To engage the “Skyhook” function, the operator simply pushes the Skyhook button, the ring turns blue, and the system is engaged.
When Skyhook is engaged, the boat holds both position and heading. Further, the system has adjustable sensitivity. This is an important feature because it allows the operator to take into account the strength of the wind or current to hold the boat precisely in position. Or, if the boat need not stay in a precise position -- only a general one will do -- that can also be accomplished easily. This has the added benefit of reducing the work load on the engines significantly.
When a “tight” position must be maintained, the operator simply pushes the “Adjust” button, and the indicator light will flash faster and the boat will be held to as close to a position as the GPS can manage. This might be necessary when the wind or current is strong and the boat must be held in a relatively small geographic area. Waiting among a long string of boats for a drawbridge to open comes to mind.
In situations when only a “loose” or general position can be maintained, press the “Adjust” button again. The dual lights above “+” and “-” become just one light above the “-”, and sensitivity is reduced. Now the boat is allowed to move a bit more, but still stay in the relative area. The engines are also working a lot less to keep the boat in this relative position. Think of these buttons as keeping the boat in a small or larger circle.
The lighted LED ring around the base of the joystick flashes faster or slower depending on the degree of sensitivity asked for by the operator by pushing the “Adjust” button. In this way, the captain can glance at the unit and know what degree of sensitivity has been programmed in.
The Heading adjust feature is activated with a button to the left side of the joystick while the boat is driving along, and it holds the boat’s heading. When driving, and a change of course is desired, simply bump the stick for a 1-degree adjustment, or twist the stick for a 10-degree change.
Now, these heading changes are relatively minor and not exactly instantaneous, so this feature cannot be used for dodging something like pot buoys, but it is convenient when cruising in open water. In that situation, the heading adjust feature essentially plays the role of an autopilot.
Wheel Steering Override. At any time, the boat’s steering wheel can be used, and when it is turned, the joystick is automatically disengaged. This is a good safety feature, as it is intuitive to grab the steering wheel when an obstruction is seen.
“Route” steering works much the same way as Heading Adjust, but follows a series of waypoints on the GPS -- any brand of GPS. The steering system is Mercury Marine’s, but it will communicate with any GPS on the market. Incremental adjustments are made to Route the same way that they are made to Heading Adjust. The course followed by the system is the one that has been plugged into the GPS with waypoints.
Again, the new Skyhook system performs the function of an autopilot.
With electronic steering, we tend to lose the “feel” of the water, and that takes away from handling the boat properly. Mercury puts that feeling back in with a sensitivity feature that automatically adds resistance as the boat goes faster, just like with mechanical steering. This brings back the true feel of a boat going through water, even if it is fabricated.
This will also keep newbies from flicking the wheel at 50 knots and sending the boat into a sharp turn at speed.
We have tested the new Skyhook system, and it works. We think that each individual operator will find features that are useful, as well as ones that may not be used in certain applications. And that is the beauty of the system -- there is something “extra” for everyone. And, everyone will use the joystick.
We particularly like the light ring, which at first may seem like a gimmick -- but it is not. Our test captain reports that he was amazed how many times he glanced at the ring to verify the inputs.
We also think the “autopilot” feature on a single heading is important, as it goes a long way toward reducing operator fatigue on long hauls. The ability to have the unit obey a series of waypoints plugged into the GPS is certainly a sophisticated autopilot feature. Obviously, this feature must be used with care.