Who is Ben El­li­son

Passage Maker - - Troubleshooter - By Brian K. Lind

Ishowed up late at Ben El­li­son’s house. It was mid-June and al­ready dark. I could tell Ben was up past his usual bed­time con­sid­er­ing the day we had ahead of us. The coast of Maine was as long as I re­mem­bered as a kid. Turns out, all that ask­ing my par­ents if we “were there yet?” wasn’t just child im­pa­tience, but an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Maine’s long, rugged, beau­ti­ful shore­line.

Ben and his wife, ever-gra­cious hosts, poured me a glass of wine and made me feel im­me­di­ately at home despite the hour. I had met Ben ear­lier this year at an elec­tron­ics event in the Florida Keys and have cor­re­sponded with him many times since he serves as our Se­nior Elec­tron­ics Editor.

I came to Cam­den to join him for a lit­tle overnight cruise aboard his boat, Gizmo, the most fa­mous elec­tron­ics field-test­ing boat in Amer­ica. That day Ben was tak­ing stu­dents out on the wa­ter for a nav­i­ga­tion course of­fered through the famed Wood­enBoat School. Af­ter a week of learn­ing to nav­i­gate on paper charts with hand­bear­ing com­passes, stu­dents were now get­ting a day aboard Gizmo to ex­pe­ri­ence the “good life” of elec­tronic nav­i­ga­tion.

We’d awo­ken early enough to beat his stu­dents to Gizmo. Since this was Ben’s first big cruise of the sea­son, he had spent the day be­fore go­ing through the boat’s “honey-do” list which in­cluded get­ting elec­tron­ics up and run­ning, trou­bleshoot­ing er­ror mes­sages, and in­stalling last minute gad­gets. The morn­ing list in­volved clean­ing and lots of dou­ble-check­ing. Gizmo, a 37foot Duffy “lob­ster yacht,” is re­ally a work of art as a plat­form for test­ing ma­rine elec­tron­ics, and she’s a com­fort­able cruiser, to boot. As we cleaned and pre­pared for the class, Ben’s celebrity showed as sev­eral peo­ple popped by to ask him ques­tions.

Ben’s af­fil­i­a­tion with the Wood­enBoat School goes back decades to when he spent five years in the 80s as the school’s Di­rec­tor. The Wood­enBoat School, I would learn later, is a spe­cial place to Ben, and he is clearly a spe­cial alum­nus to them. When the stu­dents ar­rived, they all knew of Ben El­li­son, and were clearly soak­ing up the op­por­tu­nity to cruise with him, learn from him.

I had come to Maine specif­i­cally to get to know this man be­hind Panbo, the ar­bi­tra­tor of ma­rine elec­tron­ics. At first, I had some trep­i­da­tion about join­ing his cruise with the Wood­enBoat

School as I re­ally wanted to get to know Ben. But as we set out from Cam­den Har­bor up the coast to the Wood­enBoat School in Brook­lin, I soon re­al­ize this is the per­fect en­vi­ron­ment to un­der­stand what makes him such a master of his do­main.

BEN’S PATH in the mar­itime world started like many of ours—ac­ci­den­tally—as a pas­sion de­vel­oped into a ca­reer. His se­nior the­sis at Yale fo­cused on small boat voy­ag­ing and upon grad­u­a­tion Ben set out to pur­sue his own cruis­ing dreams. He would buy a project boat with his girl­friend, another cou­ple, and a mu­tual friend, Bruce Ray.

The 1946 plank-on-frame sloop was in a se­ri­ous state of de­cay, so the group bought her at a steep dis­count. The jalopy would be­come Alice, and Alice needed work: her ma­hogany ex­te­rior woodwork had been coated in a thick coat of white la­tex paint, and the gaso­line en­gine needed re­place­ment as it had frozen af­ter sink­ing in the har­bor the pre­vi­ous win­ter. But a sur­vey had proven that she could be a diamond in the rough, with the proper love and at­ten­tion.

With no real boat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the new own­ers set about putting the ragged sloop back to­gether for a life of cruis­ing and care­free liv­ing, like true post-col­le­giate wan­der­lusts. The woodwork was stripped and bright­ened and the en­gine was re­placed as they dili­gently pre­pared to pur­sue their cruis­ing dreams.

They spent most of the sum­mer of 1971 in Maine putting the boat back into work­ing con­di­tion be­fore sail­ing into the sun­set. They made it as far as Long Is­land Sound be­fore the dream hit a bump in the road. The cou­ple quit and sold their share. The idea of around-the-world cruis­ing were gone, but Ben and Bruce both loved Alice and be­gan to di­vide their time aboard her.

Ben spent his time off the boat do­ing de­liv­er­ies, work­ing on oil boats off the coast of Louisiana, try­ing his hand at com­mer­cial fish­ing, and work­ing as a re­lief first mate and then as a re­lief cap­tain on the 144-foot barken­tine, Regina Maris. Ben was

chas­ing a dream and devel­op­ing a pas­sion for be­ing on the wa­ter.

Ben set­tled down shore­side for sev­eral years, al­though he con­tin­ued to man­age and de­liver boats and be­gan teach­ing boat­ing re­lated classes through sev­eral mar­itime schools in Maine, in­clud­ing the Wood­enBoat School. When Ben was asked to be the Di­rec­tor he jumped at the op­por­tu­nity. He would move to Brook­lin to help trans­form the school from an in­spir­ing con­cept into an in­sti­tu­tion.

Af­ter leav­ing his post in Brook­lin five years later, Ben started down the path that would lead him to to­day. In the early 90s he be­gan work­ing for a com­pany that was devel­op­ing tide pre­dic­tion soft­ware. Af­ter that he spent some time as the editor of Reed’s Nau­ti­cal Al­manacs where he tran­si­tioned to writ­ing about ma­rine elec­tron­ics for var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions like Ocean Nav­i­ga­tor, Power & Mo­to­ry­acht, and Sail. In 1999, he served as the Se­nior Elec­tron­ics Editor at Bon­nier Ma­rine Group be­fore he joined Ac­tive In­ter­est Me­dia ( Pas­sage­Maker’s par­ent com­pany).

But where did Panbo come from, the blog that has made him fa­mous? Panbo was orig­i­nally started by a Dutch web de­signer named Yme Bosma in 2004. Bosma had a se­ri­ous in­ter­est in ma­rine tech­nol­ogy and was en­am­ored with the con­cept of blog­ging. By the end of that year Bosma re­al­ized he was too busy with life and his full-time job to re­ally com­mit to the site. But Panbo had al­ready de­vel­oped a cult fol­low­ing, so Ben de­cided to take it over in 2005.

At first, he didn’t in­tend for Panbo to be­come much more than a way to ex­per­i­ment with blog­ging, hop­ing that it would im­prove his writ­ing speed as a full time ma­rine jour­nal­ist. But as ma­rine elec­tron­ics took off, boaters were look­ing for some­one with author­ity on the sub­ject to help them nav­i­gate the con­fus­ing mar­ket. Panbo pro­vided the venue and Ben El­li­son be­came the author­ity.

BACK ABOARD GIZMO it doesn’t take me long to re­al­ize there is much more to Ben El­li­son than elec­tron­ics. He en­gages with his stu­dents, gets them driv­ing, shows them how the var­i­ous dis­plays work, he over­lays radar, and re­lates the elec­tron­ics to what they have been study­ing in their nav­i­ga­tion course. It is clear that Ben is a nat­u­ral teacher and truly en­joys it. When we ar­rive in Brook­lin we grab a moor­ing in a moor­ing field full of wooden boats, built dur­ing classes at the school. Ben ex­plains that if it weren’t so foggy, on sum­mer evenings such as these, most of the stu­dents would be out sail­ing these boats.

A launch comes to ferry the stu­dents back to the dock while Ben and I tidy up the boat and launch the dinghy. Ben is ex­cited to be back at the Wood­enBoat School. He rows us to the dock and we head up to meet the stu­dents and staff for a tra­di­tional end-of-week lob­ster feast.

The 60-acre cam­pus of the School was orig­i­nally called the Porter Es­tate. Now it is home to not only the school but, first and fore­most, Wood­enBoat Magazine and Pro­fes­sional Boat­builder. While the magazines are housed in the es­tate home, the Wood­enBoat School sprawls across the rest of the cam­pus. As we head to join the stu­dents for our lob­ster feast, Ben prom­ises me a full tour the next day.

The next morn­ing, we re­turn to the school’s cam­pus, blan­keted by a thick, wooly fog. We head to the barn which has

been con­verted into sev­eral wood shops and class­rooms. Two classes are go­ing on, build­ing two dif­fer­ent styles of small craft. The stu­dents have been here through­out the week as they busily work to­gether fit­ting boards to frames, their in­struc­tors keep­ing a watch­ful eye from the cor­ner, an­swer­ing ques­tions as needed, cups of cof­fee in hand.

Ben tours me through the var­i­ous class­rooms, we ven­ture into the hay loft, which was once a sail loft, and now serves as a draft­ing and de­sign class­room. Here he gives me the his­tory of the orig­i­nal Porter Es­tate while also ex­plain­ing the his­tory of the Wood­enBoat School.

As we walked, Ben was an­i­mated and re­laxed, clearly at home here. It re­minded me of my own ex­pe­ri­ence at a YMCA sum­mer camp on Lake Ge­orge where I had first learned and de­vel­oped my pas­sion for boat­ing.

The fog had lifted con­sid­er­ably as we left the Wood­enBoat School. It was a quiet de­par­ture at first and it felt like Ben was mak­ing a tran­si­tion out of nos­tal­gia and back into the present. But it didn’t take long be­fore we were talk­ing as we drove through the cool fog, mind­ing the radar, as we headed back to Cam­den. Ben told me the story of his life, in and out of boat­ing, and we dis­cussed more than just elec­tron­ics.

We’d spent less than 48 hours to­gether, but I’d gained a deeper ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Ben El­li­son and an un­der­stand­ing of what makes him such an ex­pert in his field. It is not just his knowl­edge of ma­rine elec­tron­ics, nor is it sim­ply his abil­ity to get into the tech­ni­cal minu­tia: Ben has a pas­sion for it and an ea­ger­ness to teach any­one who wants to learn. Panbo isn’t just a ma­rine elec­tron­ics blog, it is also Ben El­li­son’s vir­tual class­room. It is not just a place where he re­views elec­tron­ics and tears into tech­ni­cal data, it is a place where he en­gages with other in­ter­ested mariners, helps them through their boat­ing strug­gles, and shares in their pas­sion. Ben El­li­son is a true mariner with a long re­sume, and while he plies his daily pas­sion to un­der­stand and teach the word of ma­rine elec­tron­ics, his skills and charisma tran­scend the class­room.


Left: Gizmo is full of elec­tron­ics be­ing tested for Panbo. Right: Stu­dents work to­gether as­sem­bling a small craft in the barn that has been con­verted to work­shops and class­rooms.

Left: In one class­room, where the pop­u­lar Fun­de­men­tals of Boat­build­ing class is taught, stu­dents work off of lofted draw­ings to build this small craft.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.