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The Cruising Joys of Joystick Manuverability

Joystick controls have had a large impact on the decision making of many would-be boat owners. To them the fact that the vessel was ill suited for their needs in a multitude of ways was secondary to the value of the ease of maneuverability.
Volvo Penta IPS joystick and hand

“We really like this boat.”

“What do you like about it?”

“We feel very comfortable running it and maneuvering it because it has a joystick.”

That exchange, which occurred recently with boat-buying clients of mine, exemplifies the impact joystick controls have had on the decision making of many would-be boat owners. To them the fact that the vessel was ill suited for their needs in a multitude of ways was secondary to the value of the ease of maneuverability, along with the increased enjoyment and diminished anxiety that goes along with it.

It’s a little known fact that the popularization of joystick control systems can be credited to The Hinckley Company of Southwest Harbor, Maine. Shepard “Shep” McKenney is a man unique among men and especially among those in the marine manufacturing industry. The mere fact that very few readers will have heard of him is one testament to his unusual character.

It’s unlikely, on the other hand, that many readers will not have heard of the Hinckley Picnic Boat, but few know this immensely successful, some would say industry-altering concept, is McKenney’s creation. Despite a chorus of dissenters, McKenney believed in its design, consulted with a naval architect, built the prototype and stayed the course.


McKenney then went on to address what he perceived as an inherent weakness of the Picnic Boat, and most jet boat designs-comfortable maneuverability at low speed. Operating a vessel that uses waterjet propulsion, particularly in close quarters, has been likened to riding a unicycle while juggling; the boat is in a constant state of disequilibrium. (I’ve piloted early Picnic boats that were not equipped with the joystick and can attest to this challenge.)

The Godfather, Shepard M.

The Godfather, Shepard McKenney.

McKenney recognized this flaw and brought together the necessary experts to implement his innovative joystick control, which is now a standard feature of Hinckley Picnic boats and many other vessels as well. The “JetStick” was introduced in 1998. “I was just as interested in taming the perverse handling characteristics of mechanical jet controls as I was adding capability. Fortunately, the JetStick did both,” McKenney says.

When I chatted with McKenney he described the Picnic Boat and the joystick control concepts as pivotal, life-defining moments (along with meeting his wife and purchasing his farm in Maryland). McKenney stressed that he believes the joysticks, and other successful ideas, were successful because they are counterintuitive and had nothing to do with focus groups or with what potential customers thought they wanted.

McKenney is an odd mix of pragmatism and romanticism; he’s a die-hard Patrick O’Brian fan and a voracious reader of historical texts. He believes in the notion of “falling in love with an idea and then allowing things to fall into place to make it happen.” Although that sounds overly romantic and un-businesslike, McKenney has proved that it can be a successful business model.

McKenney doesn’t get the credit he deserves for introducing joystick controls to the recreational marine market, and I suspect he’s fine with that. He’s moved on to other challenges and is fulfilling other needs in the marine industry. For example,the Seakeeper Gyro system, is another innovation Mckenney has helped popularize with boat owners. The boating community surely owes him a debt of gratitude for his innovations.

The Hinckley Company’s success with the joystick proved to the marine industry that joysticks are embraced by boat owners, and the vessel need not be driven by pod drives for it to work well. In fact, The Hinckley Company’s joystick predated the pod as we know it by well over a decade. Joystick controls are most commonly associated with pods, and interestingly not their progenitor, the jet drive.


For the past three or four years, we have been able to use the joystick with almost any conventional shaft line propulsion system (a common propeller and shaft) with one proviso: Shift and throttle controls must be electronic, rather than mechanically linked with traditional cables, and any thrusters that are interfaced with the joystick control must possess adequate power and endurance in order to derive the greatest benefit from joystick control. While joystick-controlled, conventional shaft line drives cannot articulate independently like pods and lack the extreme maneuverability associated with pods, they are nevertheless able to approximate pod-like control.

Joystick controls can be, and often are, installed in places other than the helm station to allow the captain to control his cruiser for teh best location possible.

Joystick controls can be, and often are, installed in places other than the helm station to allow the captain to control his cruiser for teh best location possible.

Features that you may have believed were only available on pod drives are available with any of the popular joystick control systems. These include the ability to move laterally, which is ideal when pulling away from a crowded fuel dock; 360-degree rotation; holding a vessel’s heading; and holding a vessel’s position, a feature that’s available when interfaced with a GPS. Additionally, because joysticks rely entirely on an electronic interface, multiple units can be installed in various locations around the vessel.

Thus, while pods have many advantages and features to recommend them, including extreme maneuverability, buyers need not select a pod-driven vessel simply for its ability to turn on a dime and nearly effortlessly in tight quarters. If the boat also happens to have electronically controlled shift and throttle systems, there is a potential benefit from retrofitting joystick controls.

At the moment, the two most popular marine diesel engine transmission manufacturers, ZF and Twin Disc, each offer a joystick control system. The former’s is called JMS or Joystick Maneuvering System, and is used with the company’s SmartCommand electronic controls, the latter’s is called EJS or Express Joystick System; it’s used with their QuickShift transmissions (these offer rapid shifting ability without the traditional jolt) and EC300 series electronic controls. The ZF product can be retrofitted to existing systems, while Twin Disc prefers that their product be installed on new builds.

One other manufacturer, Glendinning Products, the well-known manufacturer of electronic controls and shorepower cable reel systems, is planning on introducing a joystick control system before the end of the year that will interface with any of its shift and throttle systems. This new system will lend itself very well to retrofitting as well as new installations.

Knowing the wide range of vessels that can benefit from joystick controls, boat buyers will be in a position to cast a much broader net, which includes both pod and conventional driveline vessels, not to mention the potential for refits and repowering.