Published on Mar 22, 2010
Let’s take a look at your boat’s control system, and some aftermarket solutions to outdated control units.
There are basically two types of controls: single-lever, dual-function control (one handle incorporating both throttle and shift functions), and twin-lever, single-function control (one lever for throttle and one lever for shifting
Most boats use cables to transmit the boat driver’s control inputs (throttle position, shifter position) to the engine and gearcase (outboard and stern drive boats) or transmission (inboard boats).
The single-lever, dual function control is the most popular, because you can manipulate the engine and gearcase/transmission with one hand, and keep the other hand on the steering wheel.
Side-mount controls, as the name implies, are typically located on the starboard (right) side of the boat. Top-mount controls sit on top of a dashboard or console.
With a little care and regular maintenance, your boat’s controls should last many years. But like everything else, these components eventually wear out—and when they do, it’s upgrade time.
Out With the Old
Controls of yore are often angular, clunky-looking affairs with little eye appeal, engineered for pure functionality over aesthetics. Replacing a boxy, battle-weary control unit with a sleek, ergonomically correct throttle and shift module doesn’t necessarily have to be expensive, and like adding new window treatments to a house, the change can be dramatic.
In With the New
So, once you’ve made the choice to update the controls, now you need to decide whether to go with a shiny finish or a more traditional matte black. There are other considerations, such as do you want to keep the same style controls or do you want to make a major change such as replacing a single-lever, dual-function unit with a retro-looking two-lever, single-function control—or vice-versa.
If you’re going to swap out the controls, now’s a great time to replace those old control cables, too. Remember, those cables are as tired as the control unit is, so go ahead and update the whole system.
Although control cables work behind the scenes, so to speak, they’ve also benefited from hi-tech improvements in construction, ease of operation, and extended service life.
If your refurbishing project has a fairly liberal budget, you should check out the most recent developments in electronic control systems. This is really cool—a digitized control unit sends throttle and shift commands to the back of the boat via a wiring harness (similar to a computer’s network)—making mechanical controls instant dinosaurs, and oh-so-quaint.
Can I Do It?
The short answer is maybe—lots of folks who have older boats do much of the maintenance work themselves. If you’re one of those who’s mechanically-minded and not intimidated by figuring things out, you can probably replace the controls and cables yourself—it isn’t technically complex, just a bit time-consuming.
However, if your skills lie somewhere outside of the realm of wrenchdom, we encourage you to enlist the talents of your local marine dealer in bringing your boat into the current century.