Electronic Throttle and Gear Shifters

Written by Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell

Welcome to the new world of electronics. While electronics themselves are far from a new concept, new features and designs of propulsion engines and reduction gears continue to be introduced to the pleasure boating market. Everyone can now enjoy easy to move electronic throttles and shifters, even if you own a vintage model boat! Those of us who cruise with an older push-pull cable design of throttle and shifters may know the stiff resistance involved in moving the levers. The physical prowess needed to shift these old gals from neutral to forward and quickly back to neutral then reverse can really take the joy out of docking….Enter the age of “fly by wire” first used in aircraft, automobiles and now pleasure boats.

You can simply convert your traditional push-pull cable throttles and shifters to an all electronic design. Because this technology is not restricted by the length or curve radius of the cables, control station use and location is a snap to create. Now you can have up to 4 command stations on the boat with fly by wire controls. Be creative and think…hmmm… I’d like a station in the pilot house, flybridge, aft deck, starboard and port bridge wing and let’s put one on the tuna tower! While all those locations may be a little overkill it is all quite possible. Because of the easy to run electronic wiring the control station can be anywhere. The traditional push-pull cable design only allows the control station to be located where the cables could be installed, keeping in mind extreme lengths and radius curves were limiting factors.

I would like to add a few words of caution. Because the electronic levers are so easy to move, when you make the transition from old to new  be careful not to push too hard or you may accelerate the engine RPMs too quickly. When using the new control system I suggest resting the heel of your hand on the shifter “box”, and use only your fingers to move the shifter or throttle levers. This gives you better and smoother control of the levers and the boat.

If you advance the throttle too quickly, the boat could jump and leap forward because you accelerated RPMs too rapidly. This is comparable to pushing the throttle of the traditional mechanical controls to WOT (wide open throttle).  A little practice can correct this issue.

The better more recent design electronic diesels have the throttles under control and do NOT jump if you advance the throttle too quickly. This feature may confuse you at first when you want the engine to respond quickly and it doesn’t. You may notice this when you are trying to wrestle the boat around a dock in bad weather. Be aware, nothing is wrong with your engine, this is the design.  Learn to outsmart it. And, some engines have a docking mode on the electronic shifters so be aware of which mode your controls are set to.

There are now two type of Diesel engines used in the pleasure boat marine market. The mechanical diesel with traditional lever controls on the engine connecting to the control levers has been the world standard since power boating started. This engine can be retrofitted with an aftermarket electronic control system giving you an easy to use control system. A converter box will be installed near the engine and takes electronic input from the control station and converts that to the traditional push pull cable system to operate the engine and gear (transmission).

Newer diesel engines are now totally electronic controlled and use pure fly by wire electronics to control throttle and gear shifters, no converter box required!

Next time aboard a friend’s boat or visiting a boat show be sure to check out the control system and see how easy the levers are to use!

Captains Chris & Alyse Caldwell are USCG 100 ton Masters and Cruising Coaches who offer Personal Boat Training Online or Onboard your boat anywhere! The Caldwell’s help build your cruising confidence with hands-on training and with their AskCaptainChris.com training videos filled with tons of tips for the boater who loves learning. If you have additional questions for Captain Chris or Captain Alyse, please email them at [email protected]