Sorry Steering

Keeping a steady hand on the stick can be harder than it seems.

TT Drawing
Courtesy Steve Haefele

I noticed her as I approached a bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway. She was a 60-foot, Euro-style express outfitted with all the trimmings. I was confused — not by her 1970s earth-tone finish or picture windows, but by her skipper jockeying about. I thought she was waiting for a bridge opening until she began wafting sideways toward a marina. Was she a NUC?

NUC, or “not under command” in the language of the lubberly, is a vessel unable to maneuver as required because of exceptional circumstances. I could see tidal wavelike pulses washing from the boat’s propellers and thrusters. She had plenty of power.

Yup, she was a NUC alright, but only because new technology was in command — or not!

The yacht’s skipper made several passes at the fuel dock, attempting to land. He gesticulated commands, and his first mate slumped over the bow rail with a dock line, shaking her head in disgust. The dock-master paced, jabbering into his VHF radio (no doubt calling for reinforcements). Thanks to the miracle of technology known as a joystick, the skipper was able to move ahead, astern and sideways, all effortlessly. The problem was that he couldn’t seem to get the boat and dock in the same place.

It seems the joystick is the tool of choice for a generation weaned on video games like Flight Simulator. The device made perfect sense for the application; aircraft-control systems have been manipulated by stick since Wilbur and Orville Wright took off in the early 1900s. Sticks or tillers were popular on boats and cars until race-car driver Alfred Vacheron navigated the 1894 Paris–Rouen race with a “tiller” shaped like a tire. The steering wheel became the go-to technology on powerboats for generations.

The problem was that he couldn't seem to get the boat and dock in the same place.

As the skipper pirouetted about the fairway, I spotted the fresh paint slathered on his new ride’s hind end. Her home port was a dusty, salt-free state boasting waterfront that was little more than a puddle.

Poor fellow. After handling a car’s steering wheel all his life, he was struggling to park a boat with a 4-inch, cigar-shaped piece of plastic. If only he’d realized that with two engines, plenty of horsepower and a bit of practice, he could bring his boat to the dock with her throttles alone.

I reported my sighting of the landsman fumbling with the joystick to a tech-savvy marine industry pal. “Coyle,” he said, “you need to get with the times. Today’s buyers insist on high-tech solutions to boating’s challenges.”

“Yes, but driving a boat is a worthy challenge,” I said. “Hell, it’s a pleasure.”

“It’s not just driving,” he said. “Your GPS can talk to your engines and thrusters and keep the boat in position.”

“So you can do what, then?” I asked. “Crochet the dock lines or take a nap at virtual anchor?”

That wasn’t the point, he said. “The bottom line, Coyle: Joystick systems sell boats. They’re good for boating.”

“So what’s next?” I grumbled. “Steering with an iPad?”

“Old news, my old-fashioned friend,” he said.

“If newer skippers can’t drive,” I said, “a NUC’s exceptional circumstances won’t be so exceptional. How will folks like this fellow make it back to the dock?”

My pal smiled.

“Tractor beam,” he said. “It’s the next big thing!”