I showed 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 hand-bearing 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 37-foot 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, Joe McCarty.
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 Joe 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.
Correction: Ben Ellison originally owned Alice with a good friend Joe McCarty, not Bruce Ray. Also the photo on deck of Alice was on a solo watch not a solo cruise.