The Marine Electronics Industry Has Really Lost The Plot Now

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Longterm readers will know that I’m not exactly a fan of the marine electronics industry, and particularly the recreational branch…Oh, OK…I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, foaming-at-the mouth, raving critic.

Though I have called BS loud and often, I really thought I had seen it all but I just read something that has raised my indignation to new heights.

The National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) have got together to put on a course that will result in successful participants receiving not one, not two, but three certifications:

  • ABYC Electrical,
  • NMEA Marine Electronics Installer,
  • NMEA 2000® Network Installer,

in four days.

Is the whole industry so screwed up that I’m the only one who sees the problem in this? Four days…four days!

As far as I can see, there are no prerequisites…zero…nada. And I took the trouble to go through the registration process, up to paying the money, to check.

But don’t worry about a thing, they’re going to teach the attendees everything they need to know to work on your boat:

Topics include: Ohms law, grounds, battery and battery chargers, DC wiring, EMI, coaxial cables, antennas, AIS, marine VHF radios, transducers, radar, heading sensors and NMEA data interfacing.

Ok, if you’re not an electronics technician as I am, you can be forgiven for not understanding how damming that above quote is. You see, Ohms law is the most basic part of the beginning of the process of understanding electricity. I learnt about Ohms law and how to apply it at school…when I was fourteen.

To quote again from the course description:

…never before could a marine professional attend four days of training and potentially walk away with three certifications….

…the need for highly qualified installation specialists is more important than ever. This new program will go a long way toward ensuring that the technicians working on your boat will have proven expertise with both the electrical power side and electronic side of these complex systems.

I mean, really, in four days they are going from grade nine physics to understanding the intricacies of NMEA 2000 network architecture, boat wiring, and the super-complex software that ties all this lovely whiz-bang crap…err…equipment together?

How would you like it if you found that the mechanic working on your car had four days of training to get a certificate of competency? Not happy, I wager.

I guess this level of training might work if marine electronic and electrical equipment was super-reliable, standardized, and had really great manuals…stop dreaming, John.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge believer in the need to upgrade the training of marine maintenance professionals. And I do understand that many of the attendees will be deeply experienced and just there to get the certificate.

But if they need to explain Ohms law I fear there will be others, perhaps the majority, who will come out of the course as undertrained menaces who will be foisted on the unsuspecting boat owner at vast expense by boatyards because they are “certified”. And this will also tarnish the reputations of the real marine electronics and electrical technicians who have taken years to learn their trade.

Do Better

Come on ABYC and NMEA, you can do better. I suggest:

  1. Acknowledge the problem that many, perhaps most, “marine professionals” are woefully undertrained, particularly in electrical and electronic installation and troubleshooting. Heck, in my experience it’s rare to find a technician in a boatyard who even understands the basics of how to keep a battery healthy. (Freelancers tend to be better, I find.)
  2. Work with community colleges to set up real courses lasting months, not days.
  3. Set up a mentor/work placement system in which candidates work for several months with an experienced technician before being certified.
  4. Think along the lines of a European old-style apprenticeship program, although the traditional five years to reach journeyman is probably not practical.

Do all this and you guys would be doing something meaningful to make things better and make your certifications something that those who earn them can be truly proud of.

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Dear John,

don’t worry too much. With the current state of marine electronics and networking, it really doesn’t matter much if the technician learned only about how to hold a multi-meter and how to check if the plugs and the sockets have the same number of pins. Either something will work by following the installation guide to plug the green plug into the green socket or anything less than a few years of experience debugging electronics won’t help much. I’m certain you saw the same development in the PC business and we all know how much worth was an MCSE (aka Minesweeper Consultant and Solitaire Expert). The same happens in the marine industry now only 20 years later.

And to be fair, the ABYC and NMEA are in a bind too. Whatever reasonable curriculum they propose will be certainly invalidated in a few seasons by the vendors pushing their latest and greatest extensions and alternatives. This seasons special: Everything Wireless but not talking to each other.


And a short note about apprenticeships: Here in Switzerland, the country where apprenticeships have probably the best reputation for professional training, it was very underwhelming with IT.

The domain got so fragmented that it became really hard to create a common curriculum of use to most apprentices. If some finished it successfully, it still was a crap-shot whether his knowledge is of any use to you as an employer.


Oh I agree with you that most marine electricians can be used only to wipe the bits falling off the bus from the floor and shouldn’t be allowed to touch anything involving electricity.

Unfortunately, just like car electronics and computers, things got so complicated recently, that there little chance of finding one who knows at least where his limits are. And then you have those poor guys bombarded from the industry with the latest and greatest and all information the get is just enhanced marketing stuff.

The only solution in sight is what happened in IT and car electronics: Basically the stuff became a black box with no serviceable parts inside and whatever needs to be adapted is doing it automatically.

Unfortunately I don’t see that happen in the Marine Business, where the concept of standardisation seems to be an anathema. Everything needs to be bespoke, designed by blind chicken choosing components or by marketeers. (I prefer the first of the two)

So what is there left for us consumers? Nothing much. Either try to get systems one understands or get systems for users which depend on them like regatta racers or professional fisher and pay for them accordingly.

Patrick Genovese

Hi John,

I feel your pain. When I took over my boat, the previous owner dutifully handed over all the manuals for all the bits of electronics etc and included with the documentation was warranty card for the new autopilot and instruments signed my Mr X. Now Mr X is supposedly a marine electronics guru. Many local electronics vendors use him to install systems they sell. To my dismay I found that the system did not work well at all and the root cause was a brain damaged approach to the various bits were connected. The system (raymarine) has a pretty robust system of connectors and is actually quite simple to wire up. Instead the system was connected using cheap “china connectors” (this sort: ). needless to say there were lots of bad connections and all sorts of erratic behaviors.

The thing that really pissed me off was that after spending some time with the manuals to figure out how it was supposed to be done and about €70 in parts and connectors etc all it took was about 4 hours of work to re-wire the whole system from scratch and get it working flawlessly. Most of the 4 hours was spent figuring out how to get to the instruments and which wires were going where (no Mr X did not label anything). Needless to say he will never get a call from me for any work to be done.

Another case was a friend’s boat he has a set of old but perfectly functioning Raymarine/Autohelm ST50s and a newer C80 plotter. Unbelievably he was told that the newer C80 won’t talk to the ST50s when in fact they both talk “Seatalk 1” the only obstacle was the seatalk connector on the ST50s and the later ST60 and C80 generation of devices are different but the signaling is the same. Raymarine provide the appropriate conversion cable. We dug up the part number, bought a conversion cable off ebay and for the first time since he had his boat his instruments and plotter exchanged data. At least on this install whoever did the the original install of the instruments was diligent enough to provide a schematic of how everything was wired up and all the cables were correctly labelled.

I have a few other similar stories but you have probably heard more than enough of these.



One of my favorite tools for electric installations:

Jeff Bander

Holy cow John. I’m with you. That’s a gut-buster of a 4 day course. When my boat started having electrical issues I took a US Power Squadron course to get up to speed. Over an 8 week period we spent the equivalent of 4 classroom days. I needed all that time for the concepts to sink in.

4 straight days with all that material plus the electronic/installation thrown in, no way. Just degrades meaning of ABYC certification.

Power Squadron does a great job, by the way.


Certificates make great kindling at our full moon parties…

Reuben Mezrich

This approach to training unfortunately follows a long tradition in some aspects of medicine.
I’m a radiologist and it frustrates me no end when I hear about weekend training courses that offer physicians (usually surgeons) weekend courses to learn procedures that take radiologists 4 years to learn. At the end of the weekend they get fancy certificates that attest to their “skill”, which they show to their hospitals and off they go.

Rant on!

Drew Frye

I’ve taken 4-day refresher and 4-day exam prep courses, but each made it clear they were ONLY for people already solid on the topic and were taught that way. The focus was always on detailed regulation and standard changes during the last 4- to 6-year license cycle.

I’m assuming this is for folks that are already experienced, but it sure doesn’t say that. Heck, you can barely learn to make good connections in 4 days.


If that was a refresher, the curriculum would look different.

Marc Dacey

Hell, even the Day Skipper course takes five days…

Marc Dacey

Oh, and John? My 14-year-old son was just last week learning about Ohm’s Law and got into an argument with his mother about whether the best analogy for “current” was the speed of a river of electrons or its volume in terms of depth and width of a river of electrons! I trotted out this link to resolve the dispute:

Marc Dacey

Wow, it’s like you were right there listening to the mother-son argument (she’s pretty sciency in her own right).


Hi John,

First things first: your bullet points:

1. Acknowledge the problem that many, perhaps most, “marine professionals” are woefully undertrained, particularly in electrical and electronic installation and troubleshooting.
– I think they are painfully aware of this. Perhaps eg. Ed Sherman will weigh in on this issue here, someday.

2. Work with community colleges to set up real courses lasting months, not days.
– ABYC does that. Currently there is ten schools in US that are partnered with ABYC to provide up-to-date tuition:

3. Set up a mentor/work placement system in which candidates work for several months with an experienced technician before being certified.
– This would be good. That’s how I came to this line of work, and it was very helpful. Only that this creates a bottleneck. Not all technicians are willing (or suitable) to teach others.
– Certification that they get from ABYC on that 4 day course is “Associate Technician”. That’s entry-level, and it is certain that not all participants pass the exam. Also, they need to have 2 yrs of work experience and pass next exam to receive “ABYC Certified Marine Technician”.
– I think that it could be wise for NMEA to differentiate that “Associate technician” a bit from their main certifications. Perhaps drop the ABYC and technician from title, and name it somehow different. Otherwise it’s quite easy to state that “Yes, i’m ABYC certified technician”, when they’re fresh out from exam that they barely passed.

– What comes to NMEA exams, I did the MEI test on 2010 at IBEX Amsterdam, and I didn’t find it ‘easy’. But my exam could have been a bit different… there was some major oddities on the whole affair. It could be that I was the first indepencent techie that took the exam in europe. Their 230 page 0400 installation standard contains more than a handful of relevant information that is quite hard to find otherwise.

4. Think along the lines of a European old-style apprenticeship program, although the traditional five years to reach journeyman is probably not practical.
– Yes, this would be good also. Only that sometimes when schools are involved they have that infuriating habit to inflate and prolong the curriculum in order to collect more money. And same difficulty to find decent “masters” applies here too.

There’s so much to talk about and around this subject. Like:
A- “How to induce the good guys to this trade, and keep them here”
B- How to explain to customer why this “simple job” took 20 hours when they got the whole engine replaced on their car for the same 20 hours.
C- “How to run a succesful marine electrics service without it becaming a ‘very expensive hobby’ and relentless source of stress”
D- “How the boats should be regulated, designed and built to approach automotive industry’s reliability, serviceability, cost efficiency and efficient fault diagnosis”
– etc…

Cheers… ‘ish… :d


Btw: to point D – Adventure 40 could be THE opportunity to create THAT installation and equipment standard for ocean-crossing sailboats that SETS the bar for everybody else.
Only community that has “done that and been there” has the knowledge to create that.

Eric Klem

Hi JC,

I think that you hit on another part of the problem in your comment. Not only is training too short but we are not adequately testing trainees on whether they are capable of doing a good job. It seems like almost everyone passes all courses which shows that our testing is inadequate. I have never taken any ABYC tests so I can’t speak to them directly but I have taken a number of certification tests and generally been shocked by how easy they are and often how not relevant they are. When taking a pass/fail test, 70% as a passing grade (not sure if this is true for ABYC but it is true for many) suggests that the test either needs to be artificially hard or that the passing grade should be 90% or better.

One good example of a poorly done test for me was the original captain’s license test that I took. The first section was navigation which consisted of 20 questions and we had to complete it in 4 hours. I did all of the questions twice in under half an hour and handed mine in. The proctor encouraged me to spend more time and check my work which shocked me as I think that they should have given us 1 minute per question. In the real world, you are moving as you navigate and taking over 10 minutes to do a simple plotting problem would make your solution invalid and likely end up with disastrous consequences. The worst part is that the navigation section of the test was by far the most practical. To me, the proof that this test is no good is that there are many licensed captains out there who really should not have a license. We have to walk a line between creating too high barriers to entry and allowing people to be certified who are not knowledgeable enough.

For my profession (mechanical engineer), I went to school for 6 years and I still learn new stuff every day. While my schooling wasn’t perfect it was very good and it set me up well in terms of knowing how to approach problems and having the knowledge of the fundamentals that allows me to solve them. I use knowledge gained from almost every course I ever took so I would be hard pressed to try to condense the curriculum down into less years. Once out of school, it still takes a few years of on the job training (sort of like an informal apprenticeship) to actually become someone who can contribute fully without guidance from a senior engineer.


Marc Dacey

To me, the question is WHY such training is no longer available today. To use the analogy from my son’s elementary schooling, perhaps it’s because those tasked to instruct are less expert in their fields than was once the case. But we may be drifting into sociology here…


Hi John,

Speaking specifically to the electronic and not the electrical side of the issue:

I think in today’s pressured world it makes perfect sense to try to offer courses this way. Look at the IT world in general and you will see the same types of packaging for their education, including at my company. Taking working technicians out of the field for extended periods is expensive and impractical in most cases. If training is that long it is the products and not the training that are the problem in my opinion. Products (and their underlying technology) change so quickly that they need to be adopted easily and professionals should not be expected to endure long and ardous training. Extending training to online tutorials, videos, etc. allows a matrixed schedule friendly approach to ongoing education.

Judging by your picture graphic at the beginning of the article, you may have outdated expectations for what marine electronics technicians should be doing. The days of troubleshooting at the component level – and most certainly soldering and component replacement in the field- in almost any industry are very much long gone. It is diagnose, isolate and replace the offending item(s).

That said, I wholly support your underlying contention that the marine electronics communications technology and industry are way off the mark. It is so dizzyingly behind the technology curve, that I dont see any amount of training that can fix that. Using NMEA 2000 derived from 1980s CAN bus protocols is absurd. Ask yourself, who else is still using this? TCP/IP has been the de facto technology communication standard for over 20 years.

Further, today’s tech world is chock full of fantastic comms developments ideal for boats, the foremost of which is wireless comms, available in a variety of formats bluetooth, zigbee, wifi, Near Field Communication (NFC), etc. The notion of snaking copper cable all over your boat today and wiring electronic devices together and THEN trying to get them to work is absurd! Cost, grounding, lightning, compatibility, troubleshooting, all these issues are reduced or helped by wireless comms.

Additionally, there are a wealth of display devices in common use that can be marinized in a number of ways, so much that is there any way that we can we agree that for most instruments, consumer grade at least, that there should be apps that can be used on my $400 iPad instead of spending $1k for a smaller, simple chart display that will be obsolete not long after it is introduced? A few are doing this like some of the new wireless radars, but the adoption rate is far to slow.

For my part, I have stopped by electronics from companies that are not moving toward these types of sensible answers. If I am right, natural selection will hear our rants and do its duty….


John, you hit the nail on the head!!! I looked into the ABYC short courses for certification here in North Carolina. In the end, it is simply a piece of paper to impress customers.
I have spent many years in the Electronics industry. There is nothing better than having a well grounded knowledge of Electrical and Electronic fundamentals in order to even begin to understand any part of a boat system.
An Apprenticeship would be the way to go, I believe. Many European trades have them. Heck, even the Electrical Union in San Diego CA gives a test that covers much of the knowledge found in a 2 year college course.
Now, is it “hole flow”, electron flow, conventional flow from + to -, or is it the other way? LOL


One more thing…

– With boat electrics, let’s don’t get smug with our EE degree.

I have been there… Just as coding java doesn’t make us fit for writing assy to 8051, EE or similar doesn’t teach us anything on salient points of good boat electrics:

– Sensible layout
– Trade knowledge, to select the right components
– Good installation practises

Just like when switching to completely different application environment, we need to do the same drill with boat electrics:

– Get the overview by reading a couple of good books
– Have a look on good examples and how they’re made
– Read the whitepapers and application notes
– Have a look to trade magazines and websites

So, here goes…

The books:

– Boatowners Mechanical and Electrical Manual, Nigel Calder
– Boatowners Illustrated Electrical Handbook, Charlie Wing
– Advanced Marine Electrics and Electronics Troubleshooting, Ed Sherman

Whitepapers, application notes, catalogs:

Bep Catalog

Trade Magazines:

– Professional Boatbuilder
– Marine Electronics Journal


– The site you’re now…

And, if planning to do this for living, certifications set you apart from the lot – that are just too lazy, ignorant, or both.
It is a proof of serious effort, and a factor when owners decide on who to call. The rest of skill comes with your seroius effort on good work and studying the trade.

This is not a response to any particular post here. Just things that I left out from my first post to not flood the thread.


A bit of a soliloquy!

I am not proficient in electronics or electrical work but now appear to get by as my ageing boat demands work on electrics and electronics. I can say with hand on heart that the majority of my issues have boiled down to poor connections.

I now know that creating secure, reliable and efficient connections is in fact a discipline in its own and probably worthy of at least 2 of the 4 days – theory and practical. A local professional has installed a crimped connection with a hand tool and their competitor installed crimped connections with a ratchet tool and heat shrink with glue: one is still in place, the other has failed. That of course is just a simple connection, then there is the VHF, the GPS and Navtex Antennas, Mega Fuse connections and battery terminals, instrument pins and boot laces, all different types all requiring competency to make good connections. The competitor had a dedicated tool box with over 20 devices just for making connections.

I am not so sure what is best to achieve competency as the old apprenticeships produced their fair share of bodgers and charlatans. Definitely word of mouth and reputation goes a long way to help and there are skilled amateurs that can turn a good deed to a high standard in any discipline. Today, most of us will benefit from some distance learning via the internet and can develop an understanding in a discipline that simply was not available 20 years ago except via inside knowledge. I see this being used at a professional level in my own discipline where engineers get to understand quite advanced drilling methods without ever having been on a drilling rig and worked the brake.

I guess the point is that the individual can now exploit modern technology to advance his skills, understanding and to an extent competency which is why we have a modern trend in short courses. My own employer calls this blended learning: distance learning, self study and self research, some specific courses and vendor specialised courses. A far greater breadth of experience is achieved in a short time frame compared to traditional apprenticeships. Maybe this is just a natural evolution that the internet has heralded.

As a by the way, I was reading that it has taken many thousands of skilled people to design and make the modern mobile phone and that the amount of information required to understand how its designed and manufactured and how technical challenges have been overcome is simply impossible for any one human to grasp i.e. the Tony Starks of this world will never exist because it is all based on collaborative work and identifying opportunities that the originators may not have realised. That might appear to be a lot for such a disposable item as a phone but the productivity that sits in a modern phone is truly staggering.

Donald Joyce, Cats Meow


No argument about the sad state of training and experience on just about everything regarding electronics, especially marine related. Just another argument to know what you are doing so you can train the techs working on the boat for you…..someone has to do it. I end up doing it almost every time I have a weak moment and mistakenly hire someone to do a job.

Andrew Litzenberger


First, I am incredibly impressed by the quality of the content you have here. I think it is an awesome resource! Keep it up!

Secondly, I have been trying to find a way to get into marine electrical work. I have seen lots of different schools who have websites but never list what exactly they will be covering or to what standard. It has me very frustrated, and I’m not about to shell out hundreds or thousands to someone just because they say they can teach me what I need to know. I used to work in Aircraft Maintenance and am currently a Master Electrician here in Alberta. I also taught apprentices at SAIT, so I have no need or desire to cover basic electrical theory again! I had begun to suspect the level of training out there was a little below the standard I had expected, and your comments on this “certification” course kind of confirmed it. 🙁

I am looking to move our family out on the water, with any luck in three years, and meet up with an old friend who is currently in Fiji with his family. I have followed his journey from working in Shearwater to setting off and think he had the right idea! We will need to do a lot of training before then, and it is a rather short timeline so I am looking for helpful pointers wherever I can find them. I see no reason to not use my skill set in the new life on the water, and it looks like there is a need for competent people.

I am sure that there are well trained and knowledgeable technicians in the marine industry, but the training and oversight seems haphazard at best, open to abuse and charlatans at the worst. Where would you suggest I go to reference solid materials on marine electrical systems and standards? It is not so much that I seek a piece of paper saying I know what I know. I am more interested in understanding how most systems are set up so I can properly troubleshoot issues. Things like; Is it common to switch the negative on marine DC systems or the positive? What are the differences between North American methods and European? How is electrical bonding handled on boats? What protection is put in place for carbon-fiber/composite masts and panels for lighting protection?

I would appreciate any guidance you could give me. Also, if there is anything I can help you out with please let me know. Thanks.

Max Shaw

Hi Andy, I look forward to John’s insights on this as always but I think you are already so far ahead than the average person who heads out cruising. There are quite a few people that head out with minimal experience sailing and almost no experience fixing. The sailing part, to the level required for cruising in the average cruising grounds (i.e. not the places Morgans Cloud travels to) , is not hard to attain if done sensibly and prudently but the maintenance bit, I believe, is harder for folks coming from the average office job. To make matters worse we have been consistently disappointed by the marine maintenance industry and the worst offenders were in countries with the highest labour rates (like the US) so they cannot be relied on to help. With your AME and electrician background you will have no trouble making the transition to marine maintenance with the help of some the good marine maintenance books out there as well as the incredibly helpful cruising community. You are also well placed to call “BS” on some of the techs in the trade who really have no understanding on what they are doing.


SV Fluenta

Max Shaw

I agree with the other comments and my primary reference when I started was Calder’s main book and his diesel one. I also have his refrigeration book but that because our refrigeration dates back to when th book was written. Don Casey’s books are also good starting points and cover a broader range of topics if in less detail – I have the “Complete Illustrated …” And “This Old Boat” onboard. Websites are great but we spend a lot of time out of Internet range (expect this season in Fiji) so nice to have real books on hand. And of course, not like stuff breaks on passage …


Marc Dacey

I am in the process of rewiring the boat and changing over to a rather intimidating battery bank with multiple charging sources. I found the Calder boat to be great, but I also refer to Charlie Wing’s equally good book here (

Another good resource is the amusing blog here: Lots of confirmation that things involving boats and electrons could be done better.

I would also encourage anyone on this path to acquire top-end tools in terms of crimpers, cutters and so on. I spent what I thought was a lot of cash on the tools recommended at the excellent Compass Marine site, but having done the “field work”, I have confidence in my results and have started to notice when the wiring on other boats is perhaps not up to these standards. In that spirit, be prepared that much of your working life will be undoing the errors of others, rather than working from scratch.

billy crotty

Looking for advice on how best to become a marine technician
Preference is online or short 2-3 days courses
still working full time so cannot attend school on a regular basis

This course looks good to get the certification but agree after 4 days one cannot consider yourself ready.

billy crotty

Thanks John

Sound advice


Plus: consult Not all topics covered, actually a lot less than here, but all with sound advice, and rather strong opinions, but then he tries to prove them to a broad extent.

billy crotty

looked at both.. lots of good material to build from. Thank you..

Plan is forming in my head:
– take Electronic Technician Cert course (1 year)
– take the combined National Marine Electronics Association (NMEA) and the American Boat and Yacht Council (ABYC) class and exams 4 days to again obtain certifications
– read read and read..
– work on my own boat : 34 Catalina

maybe by the end of 12 months i can assist others….

appreciate all of the insights.