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Handy liveaboard finds no need to retire

By all accounts, Bill Berliner is a happy man. “I’ve gone from big boy toys to little ones, and back to big ones,” he reflects.

By all accounts, Bill Berliner is a happy man. “I’ve gone from big boy toys to little ones, and back to big ones,” he reflects. And that about sums up this career engineer’s professional life, which started with jet engines, moved to real toys — when he worked at companies like Hasbro and Kenner — and back to the big kind. The latter is his current occupation, and lifetime passion: working on recreational boats. “[I specialize] in marine integrated navigation, communication and electrical systems.”

He runs Berliner Technical Services out of his home, a 50-foot trawler berthed at Essex Island Marina in Essex, Conn. “I always knew this is what I wanted to do full time; I just didn’t know exactly when or where it would come together,” Berliner, 82, says.

It came together after the mechanical engineer’s Hartford employer, Coleco Industries, went belly up in 1988. In the years since, Berliner has established himself in the boating community as an expert in electrical and electronic installation, analysis and problem solving. His “word of mouth” reputation has spread among boatyards, brokers, boat owners and insurance companies. “I get customers through a lot of different scenarios,” Berliner points out. “There are so many [recreational] boats, and a lot of them have problems I can help with: inboards, outboards, sailboats, all sizes, all kinds.”

Berliner has also added training to his list of accomplishments. Starting with a single course in boat electrical systems that he developed and taught with a business acquaintance about 10 years ago, his most recent efforts reflect his position as a “recognized expert” in the field. During 2000 and 2001 he worked with staff from the American Boat and Yacht Council, putting together and running a nine-session electrical course for the Connecticut Marine Trade Association. In fact, looking back, Berliner speculates he probably should have trained as an electrical engineer right from the beginning, instead of specializing in mechanical engineering.

So when exactly did boating enter the picture? “A friend’s father had a yacht we used to go out on when we were kids in New York City,” he reminisces. Following those boyhood adventures, he lived with a family on the shores of Cayuga Lake while a college student at Cornell in the late ’40s. “They showed me where a boat went down in the lake and said I should bring it up … so I did.” It took the engineering student over a year to salvage and overhaul his sunken treasure, a 26-foot cabin cruiser. “It kept me out of trouble,” Berliner admits.

After graduation the newly minted engineer was hired by General Electric in Cincinnati to work in their large jet engine division, a job that turned into a 23-year stint. It was during the next phase of his career — when his “real job” was an engineer with two of General Mills’ toy divisions — that Berliner made his first foray into the marine electronics and electrical engineering business.

In 1976 he started River Boat Electronics as a side business, he says. While initially the company sold, installed and maintained electronic equipment on commercial boats such as the towboats working up and down the Ohio River, it soon expanded to include recreational vessels as well. His first non-commercial customer was Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s fast food chain. “He wanted all kinds of electronic equipment on his houseboat,” Berliner remembers. He also recalls how different the industry was back then. “When someone wanted a VHF radio on their boat, it wasn’t readymade. For every channel, a crystal had to be added. We had to be FCC licensed to do the work.”

Berliner continued to nurse his own passion for boats. He bought a 40-foot Owens to use first on the Ohio River and then up on the Great Lakes after his job with General Mills took him to Michigan. There, the Owens was replaced by one of the first Mainship yachts, and he and wife Marilyn also invested in an antique Chris-Craft. Berliner left the marine electronics company he founded when he moved to New Jersey in 1981 to take a position with the Knickerbocker Toy Company.

From there, making the move from landlubber to full-time marine living was relatively easy, Berliner recalls. His position with the toy company meant regular trips to Asia, and he remembers getting a monthly magazine from Taiwan. “One time the cover photo was this great-looking boat. My wife and I decided to look into it,” he says. “I actually went to the boatyard in Taiwan.” Better yet, it turned out the worldwide distributor was just two towns away in Toms River, N.J. Next thing he knew, they were the proud owners of a 50-foot Marine Trader trawler, which they christened Xanadu.

“The rest was easy,” says Berliner. “We really couldn’t swing both the boat and the house, so we chose the boat.” After selling their furniture (Getting rid of the pinball machine was the toughest, he admits), they loaded their belongings, and then 6-year-old son David, on their new three-stateroom, three-head floating home — complete with carved teak paneling — and never looked back.

Wintering on the boat, first in New Jersey and then in Connecticut when Berliner took the job with Coleco in 1983, was a challenge. But a combination of technology, engineering savvy, common sense and a bit of Yankee ingenuity made the key elements come together. Take, for example, the “storm windows” fashioned out of plexiglass by Berliner and sized to fit the portholes with a simple eyehook, wire and wood system to hold them in place. He and his wife designed the winter cover themselves and sewed it on their own sewing machine. A professional company installed the winter heating system.

After 20 years — longer than many people live in one house — Berliner has everything down to a pretty tried and true system. Kitty doors for their cats Jasmin and Jasper, and wireless keyboards and mice for the networked computer system in the retrofitted V-berth office and the helm. He even has the perfect decorative touches in their nautical nest, some of the prototype toys, such as a Cabbage Patch Kid, which he helped create during his toy engineering days.

It’s not all work either, Berliner is quick to point out. He and Marilyn spend about three weeks a year cruising, with the Maine coast one of their favorite destinations. “Our boat automatically takes a left at the mouth of the [Connecticut] river,” he jokes, noting that, other than one trip down to Mamaroneck, N.Y., Xanadu has never ventured south since her original trek up from New Jersey. “We just like the Northeast and the New England coast,” concedes Berliner.

But do they ever get off their boat? “Well, we never drive for a vacation,” he insists. Berliner’s wife, a Ph.D. engineer with Naval Warfare Systems out of Newport, R.I., travels with her job. And the couple does find time to fly to Virginia to visit their son and his family. As perhaps befits the boy who grew up on a boat, David graduated from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy and is now a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard.

When asked about retirement and perhaps venturing south, Berliner counters, “Not yet!”

“I have the best of both worlds — I’m doing what I love to do, and I’m living in the best place to do it.”

Berliner Technical Services: (860) 767-1977;