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Learning to Use Marine Electronics

Masters Degree

Ben Ellison at the helm of Gizmo

Senior Managing Editor Daniel Harding Jr. joins electronics guru Ben Ellison on a delivery from Essex, Connecticut to Camden, Maine, to learn the finer points of navigation. but he walked away with something even better.

The sound of waves crashing on the jetty wafts through the saloon, while Senior Electronics Editor Ben Ellison—illuminated by a single red LED overhead, pecks at his keyboard. He’s toggling between plotting the next day’s course on Rose Point’s Coastal Explorer and answering questions posted on his electronics blog,

New England Coast Map

“This guy is asking a question about the very thing we’re doing right at this moment,” Ellison says as he continues to type, his eyes glued to his oversized monitor. “Wi-Fi out on the water can be complicated.”

It’s 10:00 p.m. after a whirlwind day. Ellison spent the morning teaching an intensive “Soup to Nuts Navigation” class at the International Cruising Boat Expo in Essex, Connecticut, (produced by our sister magazines Sail and PassageMaker) a course where he takes boaters through the finer points of course plotting. At the conclusion of the course he leads small groups to his floating electronics laboratory—his 37-foot Duffy, aptly named Gizmo—to share some insights on equipping a helm.

“You’ll never see another boat like this,” laughs Ellison, while his students stare in shock at his MFD-laden helm, connected to four (yes, the man has four) radars. He walks through his various MFDs and explains the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Class Dismissed

Ellison scurries about his boat, tidying up and preparing to shove off. The water tank is filled; lines and fenders neatly stowed.

Once away from the dock, Ellison leans forward in the helm seat on the centerline of his flying bridge and begins doing what he does best, fidgeting with electronics. He taps, zooms, and swipes as Gizmo meanders down the Connecticut River into Long Island Sound. After months cruising the East Coast, testing electronics and teaching courses, he is finally returning home to Camden, Maine.

I’d joined Ellison at the very last second under the guise of helping him with the delivery; the truth was I fully expected to get more out of the trip than he would. My personal electronic-navigation arsenal consists of a 5-inch Garmin GPS and Navionics on my girlfriend’s pink iPad; surely a trip with the guru of marine electronics aboard a boat with, again, four freakin’ radars, would afford me an education not offered in any class.

So with light winds and calm seas, we logged 46 miles on our first evening from Essex to Point Judith’s Harbor of Refuge. My first experience taking the wheel with MFDs from Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno, and Simrad staring up at me created a bit of information overload.

Gizmo at mooring in Plymouth

Rude Awakening

A 3-foot chop on our beam wasn’t the best way to start the next morning’s stint of cruising, but the weather wasn’t the only thing not cooperating; we were dealing with electronic difficulties as well. Our Raymarine compass had apparently become detached from its mount, causing our heading info to go haywire. The good news was that Gizmo boasts multiple redundancies for every system and our Simrad plotter (running off a separate electronic compass) was picking up our heading just fine. There is a lesson here: Even on a floating laboratory like Gizmo, things happen and backups need to be ready to be called into the game.

Like the eye of a storm, the Cape Cod Canal provided a calm and peaceful middle of our day. Navigating from the flying bridge, I sat with the warm sun on my face as bridges, fishermen, and other boats passed by. Intent on making lunch, Ben stepped away from the helm to go below and suggested I plot the next leg of our course from the canal mouth to Scituate, Massachusetts.

“I didn’t plot that part yet, but it’s super simple,” said Ellison as he retreated from the bridge.

“Plot the course, OK, got it,” I responded, as the fleet of MFDs looked up at me. I started with the Furuno MFD at the far left, quickly grew discouraged, and moved on to the Raymarine display. I got closer that time but couldn’t immediately locate Scituate. This game continued until I got to the Garmin MFD to the far right. Garmin is the brand I use on my boat.

“Come on ol’ buddy, don’t let me down now,” I whispered, hoping that a little importuning would help. It didn’t. This brings me to lesson number two of the trip: The best marine electronic units that money can buy are only as helpful as your working knowledge of each unit. After a few minutes I did get the Garmin course set and shortly after, successfully set a course on the Furuno display. I promised myself I’d spend more time with the other MFDs when conditions improved.

After leaving the canal, we began dealing with steep following seas and wind gusts of 34 knots that had us surfing and swerving our way up the Massachusetts coast. After a few hours of rocking and rolling Ellison made the (smart) decision to grab a mooring at the Plymouth Yacht Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the night. The timing was right; after we got settled within the protected confines of the harbor we witnessed wind gusts well over 45 knots.

A short walk from the marina took us past the fabled Plymouth Rock (the alleged location of the pilgrims’ landing in America). Tourists poured out of coach buses to bear witness to the overhyped stone. We quickly made our way past the selfie-snapping tourists in search of dinner and a cold drink.

We found both at the Cabby Shack. Plymouth is a nice town to walk around and explore, which is good, because stiff winds kept us kicking around there for another day, which ended up being a a blessing in disguise. I was able to go ashore and reconnect with my land-based responsibilities while Ben took to cleaning and prepping Gizmo for the next leg.

We reconvened ashore for dinner. We settled upon KKatie’s Burger Bar, just a short walk from the boat and we both agreed it was the home of the best burgers we’ve ever had. If you’re cruising in the area, take note!

Easy Seas Again

Cruising conditions on day four stood in stark contrast to the previous two days; after a few hours of easy cruising across flat seas we made it to Gloucester, Massachusetts, an iconic fishing town that was cast into the spotlight by the book and the film entitled  The Perfect Storm. It was there that Ellison—who suffers from a condition known as “being a sailor”—set out to find the “most affordable” fuel in New England. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scratching my head as Gizmo, a pristine yacht, wound up being squeezed into a tiny space between a sunken schooner and a fuel barge named Capt. Dan all in the name of saving a few cents per gallon. Ellison got the last laugh, though, as we ended up paying $2.36 (without tax) per gallon of diesel. This was down from the $3.36 they were charging in Plymouth.

With Ellison now wearing an I-told-you-so grin, we continued on through the Annisquam Canal to the Gulf of Maine. From there I got a decent stretch of time at the helm, which I used in part to play with all the electronics. As I had hoped, I began to become familiar with the once-dizzying array, to the point where I found a particular setup that I preferred.

As swells started to build, we sought shelter in the lee of a group of islands off the New Hampshire coast called Isles of Shoals. Owned by a private religious organization, Star Island gave off a strange vibe (for movie buffs, it looked just like the island in the Leonardo DiCaprio film Shutter Island). As Ellison and I settled into a nice little spot there, a small ferry departed. A group that had gathered to see the passengers off began to sing/chant in unison, “You will come back, you will come back, you will come back!

My eyebrows rose and my jaw dropped in alarm; and my first instinct was to find a sharp knife, cut the mooring line and head straight for the mainland before being force-fed Kool-Aid.

Ultimately our curiosity surpassed our fear and we rowed ashore to explore the rocky little island. It would prove to be a fascinating place with a chapel, old homes, and a massive hotel that all date back hundreds of years. The only sign of modern technology was an expansive fleet of solar panels; it was a strange juxtaposition to see it next to such a raw, jagged, and rocky coast. We were both glad to have visited the island, however, sans Kool-Aid.

Gizmo bow

● Keep it simple: Gizmo has dozens of screens across her expansive helms. Information overload is a very real thing, unless you’re electronics guru Ben Ellison. Having forward-looking and side-scanning sonar systems, fishfinders, instrumentation, charts, numerous split-screen radars, etc., can easily distract you from the basics of boating, like staying in between the buoys. Just because you have insane functionality doesn’t mean you have to use it.

Four Lessons in Using Modern Marine Electronics

● Auto-Routing has a long way to go: A function I got to test on multiple manufacturers’ MFDs was the auto-routing function. Now, to be fair, each system warns users that auto-routing is not a replacement for proper course plotting and that’s a good thing. Most auto-routing had us running on the wrong side of buoys, over shallow shoals, and getting too close to shore. This function is best used to create a quick and dirty route that you then change and tweak to ensure safe cruising.

● No search function that I could find: Most new MFDs lack a search function that helps you locate a particular marina quickly. This would have been extremely helpful when I was trying to locate Scituate after exiting the Cape Cod Canal. When getting bounced in choppy seas is not the time to be scrolling along the coast in search of a port you’ve never visited before.

● Hard-key autopilot controls are king in rough conditions: Ben had his upper helm equipped with a hard-key autopilot control, which was easy to use even in rough seas. The MFD touchscreen control was much more difficult (for me) to use when things got lumpy. 

Home Stretch

Our final morning aboard Gizmo began with a heightened sense of urgency. Roughly 106 miles, lots of 4- to 6-footers, and 20 knots of wind stood between us and Camden, but we were determined, come hell or following seas, to get there. The hatches were battened down, and loose cameras and other assorted gear were stowed and secured.

Leaving Isles of Shoals in sloppy conditions, it was immediately apparent that we were in for a long day (cruising speed was an average of 9 knots). Our Duffy 37 slipped and slid down the backs of waves; the autopilot was frequently turned to standby as we slalomed through patches of lobster traps. After an hour of standing wide-legged and braced at the helm, fatigue began to creep in. So the casual watch schedule that Ellison and I had been keeping was replaced by a strict hour-on, hour-off schedule. The watch changes allowed the helmsman to be as fresh as possible, and we kept at it for most of the day.

Like many things in life, the challenging conditions we faced made our long-awaited approach to Camden that much sweeter. Conifer-covered mountains protruded from the sea in front of our bow; Ellison’s smile grew as friends threw him waves in the inner harbor. “Man I really love it here,” said Ellison as he exhaled a deep breath of crisp, clean air.

Home, Sweet Home

In short order we tied Gizmo to her floating dock in the harbor, then made our way to the Ellison estate, which Ben himself built in the 70s. After a couple of much-needed showers, and even-more-needed glasses of wine, we found ourselves, and Ben’s lovely wife Andrea, sitting on their porch in the shade of Camden’s Mt. Battie.

We began the time-honored tradition of recounting tales from our five-day adventure. “You wouldn’t believe this burger joint we went to in Plymouth,” Ben would say. “Oh, tell Andrea about pulling into Isles of Shoals, this is a good one.”…“Yeah, then this group on the dock started chanting in unison.” Story swapping would continue until two bottles of vino—and our remaining energy—had been polished off.

I had joined this delivery to increase my marine electronics knowledge, which I did in spades. But the more important takeaway for me was how time on the water can form the most unlikely of friendships. Before pulling away from Essex, Ellison and I were professional acquaintances whose only shared experiences were a couple dozen e-mails.

And aside from a similar profession we’re almost as different as they come. Where he enjoys listening to countless hours (and I do mean countless) of talk radio and spending time with his grandchildren, I prefer country music and often have a friend from college crashing in my cramped apartment. We have very different opinions on the meaning of “optimum cruising speed,” too, and our preferred bedtime differed by a good four hours.

But shared experiences and a common goal at sea have a funny way of erasing those land-based differences and forming what I hope to be a long-lasting friendship.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.