An Ellis 28 Story from a Boater’s Perspective


Today I’m going to begin a post on how we chose a boat to buy, our credentials to write what we feel is accurate information, the upgrades to take a Maine built lobster boat from a gentleman’s day boat into a serious small coastal cruiser, what items we chose for the upgrades and what vendors we used.  This will be a multi-part posting to keep the information from becoming overwhelming.

Credentials.  I spent my entire working career in the boat business including an 8 year period as co-owner of a boat building company that over those years built 250 highly technical small fishing boats.  We retired early and spent the next 14 years as full time live-aboards in a 46’ Nordhavn single engine trawler, coastal cruised in the beginning, crossed the Atlantic, then ultimately completed a high latitudes circumnavigation.  Upon returning to the U.S. from Italy in late 2011, we ran north and south from South Florida to Newfoundland twice including the last major voyage to Iceland via Labrador and Greenland, returning the same route the following year (2014).  As you can imagine we have become somewhat opinionated, however those opinions are based on many years’ vocation and nautical miles.

After selling the trawler in 2015 and a year living once again as dirt dwellers we became restless and began our search for a perfect boat to coastal cruise a few months at a time during the optimal time of year.

I’ve always been a fan of Maine built lobster boats for their looks and efficiency.  My wife and I wanted a simple, economical drip-dry boat with a diesel inboard and straight drive.  We cruised in Maine twice before so we were familiar with the larger builders and so began our search.  It’s a long story but we found a boat in Portland, Maine, however on arrival it was badly miss-represented and we asked for out deposit back.   A few days later walking the docks in Southwest Harbor (Maine) we found the perfect boat for us and a short time later it was ours, all 28′ of custom build.

Now let’s get to the technical part of the story.  Boats kept in Maine by summer residents since new are hardly used.  Typically they are in the water for 4 months or so a year and the balance of the time they are on the hard or in a shed, which is this boat’s case.  It had two owners, neither of which used it much and the original builder performed all the maintenance once it was hauled and put away for the winter.  Boats kept in Maine also have two big advantages over boats kept even a little farther south.  There is little sun degradation and the seawater has very low salinity*. 

*Low salinity – this is true on both ends of the earth, the equator being ground zero for high salinity and the poles have little or none.

Typical Maine lobster boats have morphed in some cases from a working tool into day boats for summer residents.  That is the case here.  Our criteria was a small, almost smaller the better, boat in perfect condition with specific must-haves.  As I mentioned before it had to have a diesel engine capable of a reasonable cruising speed and a straight drive.  It must be a good design and be well built.  I should mention we didn’t even look at typical production boats that are usually built to a price and have little resale on the back end.  Custom boats cost more up front but once the initial depreciation is over, it’s like storing money, not getting killed on resale.

Other than a diesel engine and straight drive our must have’s were: good visibility thru glass (not plexiglass), plenty of storage, a real head and shower (not your typical cheapie joe turd chaser head) a comfortable V berth (this one had never been slept in), hydraulic steering, full length keel and a protected wheel, access to everything, quality electrical system, upgraded electronics, holding tank with macerator,  a hot water heater, quality windlass and a solid glass hull.   This is a lot to ask in an older boat but this one had everything including a bow thruster, a swim platform and an additional 4D battery for the house bank.

First lets look at the engine.  Diesel engine hours don’t mean much to me, particularly if they are a wet-sleeve engine.  We put 16,000 hours on the Nordhavn’s Deere based engine and it never missed a beat in around 80,000 nautical miles.  In the end it flew thru survey.  I did an internet check on this boat’s engine, a Volvo TMAD41 and came up with nothing but positive reviews.  The most encouraging was a pair of the same engines used by a municipally in England that were replaced at 15,000 hours, put into another boat and the pair are running some years later.  This engine only had 551 hours over 18 years of ownership, however it was used every year then pickled until the following season.  So the engine passed my judgment and it was followed up by an engine and gear survey that came back thumbs up.

The hull needed to be solid glass and it was.  As an additional bonus it was built in a 2-piece mold, which means when the two halves are married the centerline is super thick.  Older cored boats, particularly with any type of wood coring are a hit or miss basis.  Some older wood cored hulls still have their integrity, many do not and as a result, resale is poor.

Protecting the prop with a full-length keel was essential as was a skeg hung rudder.  Our cruising grounds were to be the U.S. East Coast, Nova Scotia and Bahamas.  Many places in the Intracoastal Waterway have gotten shallow, the Florida Keys are shallow everywhere and we are looking forward to cruising the Bahamas in out of the way places we couldn’t get to during the two winters spent there in the Nordhavn.  With a 3’ draft we can go anywhere.

Good electrical is hyper important.  There is nothing worse than chasing down an electrical issue when you did something else for a vocation.  I have a pretty good mechanical background thru various hobbies and boating over the years………..not electrical.  This boat has a good electrical system, the bonding is high quality with oversize bonding cable.

A major biggie in real life comfortable – multi month cruising is not camping out.  Salt-water showers with a spritzer rinse are camping out, fine for a weekend, however……..  Hot water was high on our priorities and it is difficult to retrofit in a small boat.   We were thrilled when this boat had a hot water heater with a hot water loop off the engine as well as a shore power based heating element.

The boat has 50 gallons of water in two 25-gallon tanks, quite a lot for a small boat which with miserly use lasts quite a long time.

Access to the systems are thru a cabin centerline hatch with two full length hatches outboard of that.  The centerline hatch over the engine is on gas struts and the two outboard hatches are removable.  There is a cockpit, full length centerline hatch on gas struts giving access to the running gear and rudder post.

The electronics were upgraded with a 2 year old Garmin unit and an additional digital repeater unit.  Both are NEMA 2000 spec so adding anything else would be easy.  The radar was an older Furuno unit but it worked well.  It has a Guest remote spotlight, electric horns, 3 windshield wipers, an ICOM VHF, and a bow thruster control at the helm as well as deck buttons. 

Steering is a Wagner commercial grade, hydraulic 2-hose system.  The skeg hung rudder is stainless steel with a heavy bronze rudder arm.  The shaft log is bronze, a unique design I hadn’t seen before.  It has a locknut as well as the usual gland nut.  The outsides of both have raised knobs to loosen or tighten with a block of wood and a small hammer.  There is no way to get a wrench in the space between the hull halves.

The bow thruster is Vetus and the windlass is a stainless steel chain/rode model from Lewmar.

Simply said, the boat was more ‘big boatish’ than expected when we first looked at it.  We couldn’t believe our good luck.

There are significant differences between a day boat verses a boat used as a home for perhaps months at a time. Day boats are used in good weather for short runs to a favorite restaurant, local sightseeing or something of the like. Cruising boats in some locations like the Bahamas for example, may not go to a dock except for an occasional fuel stop. Our priorities were livability on a monthly basis instead of fair weather – day use. The core boat was excellent for what it was designed, however not for our intended use.

The previous owner chose to install an electric stovetop and a microwave like in a home. That’s fine if you have a generator but not using battery power through an inverter to power the two units. However the owner was persistent and using lay thinking added a larger alternator and a 3d 4D battery to help things along. All it resulted in was smoking belts on the engine when the stovetop was turned on. The batteries and alternator simply couldn’t hold up to the load. However that was good for us, an unhappy owner and an extra battery and wiring, plus an upgraded alternator (Balmar).

We bought the boat in Maine as we said. It was hauled and kept ashore until we had it shipped by truck to North Carolina for the upgrades. During that time we had the builder remove the electric stovetop and the microwave leaving two large holes, one in the countertop and one in the cabinet face, not a problem after we added a freezer and a propane cooktop. Also while the boat was in Maine, we had the builder* add a Y valve to the head with one leg going to the holding tank and the other overboard thru a seacox. We could have left the macerator attached to the holding tank and pumped out in open ocean but macerators eventually fail and when they do it’s a bucket for a head until you get it repaired or replaced. There was a short survey list we agreed to pay as part of the negotiations so those items were repaired.

*Ellis Boat Company, Southwest Harbor, Maine

We’ll address the upgrades in order of their importance. The first items (freezer – cooktop –storage – solar) are all essential so they could be in any order.

The first item Jim’s workers* installed was an Iso Therm Cruise 200, 12V – 115V freezer**. We had the same freezer aboard our last boat. It was very efficient and never failed. The freezer will hold more than a month’s worth of meat, particularly if you vacuum pack or as we later evolved to – Press n’ Seal from Glad.

*Jim Gardiner, my ex-boat building partner and owner of Compmillennia in Washington, North Carolina.

**We retained the factory installed Norcold fridge.

Next was a propane cooktop – we chose a Dickinson 2 burner model that was installed using a teak riser above the freezer. I added 3 different vents to vent the heat from the small Danfoss compressor on top of the freezer. In the cockpit outside the cabin we had a custom propane locker built that houses two – 11lb Trident fiberglass propane bottles with extra heavy duty hose, regulator and so on. The propane locker also doubles as a boarding step on the starboard side.

We’re big fans of solar power, on the last boat we had 4 – 120 watt Kyocera panels that never failed and provided a ton of additional amps. For this boat we went overkill and added 2 -150 watt Kyocera panels and a multi-charge digital solar regulator. This boat has two 4D batteries in the house bank and a third 4D as engine start. During the day we switch the battery switch to ALL and by 3:00 in the afternoon, even on cloudy days the batteries are in float mode. At night we switch the batteries to the house bank leaving the engine start battery fully charged. With this setup we found we could anchor out indefinitely without starting the engine for battery charging. The boat is waiting for our return running on solar only even though shore power is available.

Our son, his wife and son were to be visiting for a month and for two weeks of that time the five of us would live aboard. So, we needed a place for everyone to sleep. Jim designed, and his guys made a super trick, folding settee/double berth vacuum infusing foam core skinned with carbon fiber. It weighs nothing and you could drive trucks over it. Below the settee we have additional food storage for canned and dry goods. We had the settee seat and back made with 4” foam, covered in a white durable material.

The original helm seats were 1960ish, so those had to go even though they were in perfect condition. We replaced them with Todd Cape Cod models and a removable Garelick pedestal on the port side.

We fought batteries for 8 years in the old boat, it’s a long, expensive story but in the end we finally met someone who Really Knew what to do, and its simple. Simply add a Balmar Smart Regulator to the alternator and have a reporting system; amps in – amps out. Its like money in a bank; to keep the same balance you may withdraw money then you must put it back……….and not guess. The multi stage solar regulator in this boat’s case has a reporting system and we added a Balmar Smart Regulator to the Volvo’s Balmar alternator.

The original Garmin plotter has a digital repeater instrument mounted above it. Let me back up a minute. We bought the boat from our own inspection, a short sea trial and a professional survey. I was looking over the broker’s shoulder while he ran the boat and didn’t pay any attention to the electronics except to notice the Garmin was in chart mode and the digital repeater recorded the depth. Digital depth is generally useless for how we intended to use the boat. Bottom trends are imperative, particularly when fishing or in shallow water. Anyhow, we bought a small Garmin plotter/fishfinder/depthsounder with an additional bonus, preinstalled Bahamas charting. Only when the boat was in the water did we know the large Garmin plotter had a depthfinder that repeated digitally to the repeater unit. So now we run the large Garmin on Navigation Chart mode and the smaller Garmin unit on Combinations – split screen zoomed down charts and depth finder.

As far as running ease, the biggest single thing we did was add the latest Simrad autopilot. It is MAGIC! The interface is NEMA 2000 linked to the larger Garmin plotter. The menu is intuitive and it has a feature that is priceless, called No Drift. In No Drift mode you simply turn the knob and point the bow where you want to go and that’s it. Period. No Drift is just that, it calculates set and drift without setting a waypoint. This is a priceless feature. We ran the boat from North Carolina to South Florida steering with 3 fingers on the knob, only using the steering wheel when docking. We mounted the autopilot head on a RAM Mount within finger reach of the helm chair’s right armrest. With your arm on the armrest you simply raise your right wrist and turn the knob. Setting waypoints and running courses is the same as any Garmin plotter linked to an autopilot. Fortunately for us, the Wagner hydraulic helm is a 2 hose system that already had tee’s installed before the steering ram so installation was simply a matter of hooking up the autopilot pump with short hoses to the tees and wiring the autopilot pump to the panel. The rudder feedback unit was also easy to install to the rudder arm.

We added a small Katadyn, 1.5gph 12V watermaker for use in the Bahamas. On the U.S. East Coast you don’t need a watermaker, but in the Bahamas water is expensive and it’s nice not to be dependent on anyone for anything except occasional fuel. Plumbing was simple; we added a pipe cross to the sea water head intake seacox. The two additional ports were used for the watermaker and the next item, a salt water washdown.

The boat didn’t have a saltwater washdown for the anchor chain and rode. This is a must to keep the anchor locker clean and not smelling like seaweed. I didn’t think the anchor had been used in the previous 18 years because the sticker was still on the anchor but I did find a little silt in the anchor locker while I was cleaning from bow to stern. We added a Johnson 5gpm pump and plumbed the hose forward with ¾” white toilet hose to a 316L hose bib on the foredeck. We used oversize hose so there wouldn’t be any water velocity loss to friction. We keep a 10’ washdown hose coiled on the foredeck.

The chain/rode Lewmar windlass came with 20’ of 5/16” BBB chain and 200’ of ½” 3-lay nylon for the anchor rode. We added an additional 20’ of 5/16” BBB chain to the original.

The original anchor was a 20lb CQR we took off the first day. We replaced it with a great design, a 33lb Rocna Vulcan, a copy of the French designed Spade Anchor. It works great, even in grass.

After our first trip using the 7 ½’ Avon rib dinghy that came with the boat we found it was super wet. A dinghy in Bahamas or Keys cruising is used most every day for hours at a time. It’s no fun getting wet constantly in a small dink, particularly in a chop. We gave that dink away and replaced it with a 9’ Zodiac dinghy with an inflatable keel and floor. The Zodiac has oversize tubes for a small dinghy so its super dry and light. For power we used a 3hp Yamaha 2 stroke we bought in New Zealand during our time there. The other advantage to a non-RIB is we can deflate it and roll it up for storage in the cabin while we are away.

The 4 blade prop had a slight vibration when we bought the boat so we hauled in Florida to have it reconditioned but in the end we replaced it.

There were various small items we added to make it a more comfortable and capable cruising boat. A 12V fan was installed in the cabin as well as the V berth area. Also added were rod racks above the V berth that hold 7 spin/baitcasting rods. Below in the V Berth storage we carry 3 fly rods and 2 – 60lb trolling rods. We added 2 cast stainless steel rod holders in the cockpit as well as storage bins under the cockpit hatch. Storage is a premium on a small boat as you know. One way to add additional storage is with a dock box in the cockpit but they are expensive and heavy. We chose to add a 150 quart Igloo cooler that these days has a 5 gallon pail of oil inside, cleaning materials and more fishing gear. We bought a few spares specific to the boat such as, belts, filters, raw water pump impellers and carry enough fluids to replace any in case of a leak.

After launching the boat in North Carolina and sea trials adjusting the autopilot, we headed for South Florida. The boat is amazing. It burns so little fuel. It’s a treat adding 30 gallons at a time instead of 500 or more. One thing we found early on is the two fuel tank gauges were a fairy tale. We were so paranoid one time we added only 12 gallons of fuel to the stbd tank because it was reading ¼. Once we arrived in Florida, the fuel senders and the anchor were the early changes.

We ran the boat at 8 knots for the run to Florida making about 86 nautical miles per short winter day (103 statute miles). We anchored along the way with no thought to anchoring until shortly before dark. Anchoring required no forethought because the boat only draws 3’. We just pull over, drop the hook and that’s it. After arriving in Florida and cruising the Florida Keys, we throttled back to 6-7 knots burning almost no fuel while sightseeing or fishing.

The story goes on of course, our son and family arrived on schedule and we ultimately spent two weeks aboard……….all 5 of us. It was cramped but we still had a great time.

However, here the story takes a twist. Once underway we realized how much we missed cruising. We also realized just how much we missed cruising in high latitudes. Our last big trip was to Iceland via Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland. Once you have been in Big Ice you want more. This boat isn’t for that. It’s what we built her for; Nova Scotia, U.S. East Coast, and the Bahamas. So after all that work, she is for sale.

What we’ve told you here doesn’t just apply to this boat. The principals apply to almost any small boat built to coastal cruise more than a few days at a time. If you take away anything, the Balmar smart regulator is imperative in any inboard boat. It will save you battery headaches and money. Solar is important in a cruising boat, even if you have a generator. On our last boat, I calculated the solar paid for itself after three years. On this boat the savings is almost immediate because of the simple installation. Running an engine at no load/idle to charge batteries takes its toll.

Iso Therm Cruise 200 Freezer
Johnson Salt Water Washdown
Anchor chain & miscellaneous parts
Dickinson Propane Cooktop
Kyocera solar panels and regulator
Katadyn 1.5gph watermaker (removed from the boat since this story)
Helm chairs, Balmar Smart Regulator, Trident propane bottles
Rocna Vulcan Anchor
Zodiac inflatable

It took about 5 man-weeks of Compmillennia’s labor to make the changes plus my own. We used an outside electrical technician to complete the wiring on the solar panels and regulator, Garmin unit plus the autopilot. He also set the autopilot parameters during sea trials.

Now you know what we bought and why, and what it took to turn a gentleman’s day-boat into a real, multi-month cruiser.