Yamaha Releases Helm Master EX

Despite pandemic, innovation powers on

June 2020 News Brady L. Kay

Normally when a new outboard or a game-changing system is released, engine manufacturers host a testing event and provide marine journalists an opportunity to get a feel for the new product, prior to its official release. It helps create a little momentum as well as an industry buzz to get consumers excited and, of course, as media we love to get our hands-on new products.

I’m sure Yamaha Marine was originally planning a big media event when news first leaked that its new Helm Master EX was set to be released this year, but then everyone’s plans were hijacked by COVID-19. Not being able to physically meet for on-water testing, however, didn’t keep Yamaha from moving forward with the official release and it’s easy to see why. This really is a big deal.

News about the EX version has me excited because I can recall being at the original media event Helm Master was first introduced back in October 2012. In BridgeportAla., home of the Yamaha testing facility, I first learned about the innovative joystick system that provides ultimate control to outboard powered boats.

That fall, Yamaha had anchored a couple of buoys in the middle of the Tennessee River just in front of its facility so members of the media could take turns maneuvering the boat and getting a feel for Helm Master. Of course some idiot got too close that day and ran over the two buoys. I know I won’t ever forget that guy, because that idiot was me. While piloting a 33-foot Grady-White Freedom 335 off-shore boat, I perfectly guided it to the buoys on my first attempt without a single problem. But once I got there I wasn’t sure what to do; it’s not like there was an actual dock to stop and tie off to. I ended up pulling forward after exiting the joystick mode, but as I pulled forward the current caught my bow and I lost sight of the buoys. I panicked and killed the engines, but it was too late. I was already caught up on the rope.

Joystick steering was such a foreign concept to me back then, yet Helm Master opened my eyes to just how easy it can be to operate such a large boat. I remember being overly impressed, but as cool as it was, I thought it was unrealistic that we’d see this technology on a pontoon boat anytime soon. Looking back now I couldn’t have been more wrong. Twin outboard setups on pontoons were about to really take off back in 2013, and within a year of this Yamaha event I was testing its Helm Master on a high-end twin engine pontoon.

Moving Forward

Today, twin engine pontoons don’t get much of a double take as we’re all used to seeing them. But what makes the new Helm Master EX so impressive is it’s actually for single outboard applications too. The next generation of Yamaha’s integrated boat control system offers boaters customizable, integrated boat control with more ease and convenience than ever before. Available for single through quad applications, Helm Master EX brings ultimate boat control and fishability to a wider variety of boaters including pontoon owners. Note, I’m not saying it won’t happen, but I’ve yet to see four outboards hanging off the back of a pontoon. Just saying.

Perfect for the pontoon market, this new joystick option, which is the same as the one used on multi-outboard systems, allows boaters with single-outboard power to enjoy the vast majority of the long list of benefits associated with multi-outboard Helm Master EX applications. The latest joystick system has been re-designed with new smooth-shifting software and control capabilities, along with effortless autopilot that can be adjusted with the joystick. The precise digital electric steering can be added to any DEC-capable Yamaha outboard (except for the 3.3liter F250 and F350A models) and includes a new digital electronic control box.

Aftermarket Upgrade?

The best part about the system might just be the fact that Helm Master EX (or its properly configured system components) can be installed by the boat builder at the factory or by dealers when re-powering customer boats at the dealership. This allows boaters flexibility in tailoring their Helm Master EX system to their specific desires. Plus, those in love with their current boat who thought a system like this was only available direct from the factory now have options.

The Joystick

Completely new with modern styling, premium feel and ergonomics, the Yamaha Helm Master EX system for single-outboard applications features an all-new joystick with new software especially designed for use on single-engine boats. It offers smoother shifting and single-function buttons for easy operator understanding.

It also allows fine-tuning of autopilot (both speed and direction) and positioning adjustments within SetPoint, without leaving the individual mode. By simultaneously controlling shift, throttle and steering in one easy-to-use joystick, Helm Master EX for single engines provides advanced low-speed maneuverability, as well as a host of SetPoint modes useful for fishing or general boating enjoyment.

Digital Electronic Control

The all-new Helm Master EX DEC control boxes have also been redesigned with a sleek new look, greater ergonomic comfort and new capabilities. The user can access the features with individual buttons. In addition to its great feel and precision, the EX control is available to boaters who may not want the full Helm Master EX suite of capabilities.

The new DEC controls are available in single-handle, or twin-handle for twin-through quad-engine installations. In both instances, the base of the control is the same. New, single-function buttons are back-lit, easy-to-read in either day or night conditions and truly simplify operation.

Yamaha’s Digital Electric Steering (DES)--similar to that built in to every XTO Offshore--can now be added to any current Yamaha DEC-controlled outboard for single installations. Since there are no conventional steering pumps, hoses, or wiring, Yamaha DES offers a clean, more spacious bilge. There are also no valves, hoses, or control units, and no need for fluid filling, purging, bleeding, or cleanup resulting from these. Plus, the smooth, precise action is something we can all appreciate.


An important part of this new system is Yamaha’s all-new autopilot system. Its autopilot function offers a host of customer amenities and benefits, and is a required installation for the full Helm Master EX single joystick system. It includes a small panel on the console, a heading sensor under the console, an antenna above the boat, and a control unit. Yamaha autopilot provides many convenient features for boat control and operation, and serves as the gateway to new features and benefits.

With a single touch, you have access to convenience features such as heading hold, course hold, pattern steer and heading/course adjustability. With heading hold it automatically maintains a set compass heading, but allows for drift. It can also be used in reverse pattern shift as necessary for back-trolling at slower-than-idle speeds.

For course hold it keeps to the course; even under current and/or wind and in pattern steer it allows boaters to select one of two pre-set steering patterns (zigzag or expanding circle) without having to set waypoints. Speed control and pattern shift (for very slow trolling) are available to use while in the pattern steer mode. You can see why those who love to fish are so excited about this.

Track Point pilots automatically along an operator-input set of waypoints or route. It has an easy manual override for operator-commanded change of direction as well as seamless integration with speed control, trim assist, and other Helm Master EX functions/modes.

Also worth noting is the waypoint arrival that provides automatic deceleration when approaching the final waypoint or route and automatically puts the outboards into neutral upon arrival. It would be easy to feel spoiled with this system. Helm Master EX can also engage one of the pre-selected SetPoint functions at the place where the operator returns the controls to the neutral position, if selected.

New Display Options

An all-new, thin Yamaha CL5 touchscreen is small in size but big on information and ability. Its sophisticated, modern design features intuitive operation and matches the latest boat console trends, while its compact size leaves more room on the console for other equipment. Plus, it’s fully compatible with all previous DEC applications and Command Link-compatible mechanical control outboards (F20 and up).

Like the all-new CL5, the CL7 automatically displays Yamaha autopilot as well as other outboard and boat information based on the system configuration at the time of power-up. However, the Yamaha CL7 is a compact, fully functional MFD with many additional features and capabilities well beyond the operation and monitoring of Helm Master EX.

And the MFD Interface (MFDI) allows direct connection and display of system information and use of touchscreen capabilities on a wide selection of Garmin MFD models as well as Raymarine AXIOM XL MFDs using a remote.

Key Fob & Keyless Ignition

Finally, a buoyant wireless fob (push-button) allows use of the keyless start/stop push-button ignition panel. It also serves as the on/off device for Y-COP functionality (anti-theft), enabling ignition and the fuel-injection system of the Yamaha outboard. An under-dash mounted wireless receiver automatically connects with the fob to allow one-touch starting while at the helm (maximum distance approximately 32 inches–less with an aluminum console).

The fob can manually unlock/lock ignition from up to 15 feet away. If necessary, such as in the case of loss, the operator can unlock the system using a four-digit code assigned at the factory or one chosen by the operator. Additionally, the battery-operated fob self-monitors its battery level and audibly alerts the operator when the battery is low. It floats and is water-resistant for immersion for five minutes at a depth of approximately four inches.

Two fobs are provided with each Electronic Key Switch (EKS) kit, and up to four more can be programmed into the system. Note, Y-COP, as a separate function, can be installed on any Yamaha mechanical and Command Link compatible outboard down to the F20, and single-engine DEC-only installations using a conventional key switch. In single applications using the new Helm Master EX DEC control with a current 6X6 key switch, the push-button ignition function is not available.

Final Thoughts

Clearly something as big and as exciting as Yamaha’s Helm Master EX couldn’t wait and needed to be released sooner than later. While pontoons with twin outboards are becoming more and more common, the majority of pontoons are still single-outboard models. Joystick control with all the benefits and features is now available to all boaters regardless of the number of outboards on the back and it’s exciting to see how far Yamaha has come with its Helm Master technology in a short amount of time. Kind of makes you curious what we might see from them next, right?

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