Categories: Boating

Fly By Wire, or Mechanical Boat Controls?

I recently got into a back-and-forth with another boating writer about the virtues of today’s fly-by-wire controls, versus the traditional shifters and cables we used to have on our boats. Then, of course, the conversation turned to the latest boat control development: joysticks, which we’re now seeing on everything from twin-engine center consoles to pod-drive cruisers. Next in the progression was computer-controlled EFI and DFI powerplants. All the while, I was arguing for the benefits of technology, while the other guy argued for traditional systems. The discussion went something like this:

Me: Modern fly-by-wire controls shift smoother, they allow for far more nuanced RPM settings, the throttles don’t fall back when you hit a wave, their tension can be adjusted to your liking (and stays that way), and since there isn’t a cable with sensitive connections, fly-by-wire systems fail less often.

Him: But they cost more, and if something stops working, I can’t fix it myself. (I agree).

Me: Joystick controls are great, since they allow new boaters to jump aboard and intuitively control the boat. Docking becomes far less stressful, and with many of the newer systems, you also get GPS “anchoring” (where they system integrates the engines with GPS and keep your boat in the exact same spot).

Him: Those joystick systems cost a lot of money, and if something goes wrong, I can’t fix it. Besides, maybe those new boaters should just learn how to steer a boat. (I agree on the cost and fixing, but disagree on new boaters).

Me: Modern outboards and their built-in “brains” are the best thing to happen to boaters since fiberglass was invented. They burn less fuel, make less of a racket, and break downs happen far less often.

Him: They cost more than carbureted two-strokes did, and when they do break down, I can’t fix them. (I agree on both counts).

So, what does this discussion boil down to? In case you hadn’t noticed, this guy was a serous curmudgeon. And in all three cases, the basis of his argument – which I agreed with – was that cost has gone up, and the user’s ability to work on the gear has gone down. Never mind that the cost of just about anything goes up as it’s refined and developed. Ignore the fact that you may be worried about fixing something yourself as a result of growing used to break-downs… because you haven’t experience the vastly more reliable nature of more modern engineering. When it comes to boat controls and powerplants, if you’re living in the past, you’re living in the bad old days – the good old days are happening right here, right now.

This engine and its control systems are being tested by the service shop, prior to returning it to the owner – and in the vast majority of the cases, it won’t come back to the shop for a long, long time.



Lenny Rudow:
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