Keeping In-Touch and getting weather
Keeping in touch with family and friends has been an important part of our cruising plans. Getting weather forecasts is of prime importance to be able to make long distance voyages as comfortable as possible without putting undue stress to yourself, the rig and other equipment. It is also more bearable and fun when you do not have to deal with heavy weather. I do not believe anyone wants to be out there when the bad stuff comes at you. If it does come when you are away from any safe harbor, you will have to deal with the situation as we had to on several occasions.
We have been cruising on and off since 1999 covering over 25000nm of blue water. That first year we left from Toronto Canada to the Mediterranean via Bermuda and a winter in the Caribbean. At the time our only communication was via email with our HF radio and Pactor II demodulator using Winlink and Airmail software, as we are both licensed Ham operators. Occasionally we also carried the computer to shore to send and receive emails at Internet cafés, this is the hardest part, as you usually do not want to carry the laptop around with you while trying to enjoy the scene, therefore is required a trip back to the boat which entails walking from the wifi hotspot or the internet café to the dingy, unlock the dingy drive or row to the mother boat unlock the mother boat take the computer down below, lock the mother boat and head back to shore tie and lock the dingy and start your sightseeing. By now you are tired and sweaty and probably you do not feel like doing anything else for the rest of the day. Therefore we have been working very hard to try and eliminate some of the hassle.
In 2007 we retraced our previous voyage but with more high-tech equipment, we had an Iridium satellite phone, an unlocked quad cell phone, the HF radio as before and a BGAN satellite data trans receiver by which we could browse the internet, a reliable voice, data, and fax communications from virtually anywhere on the planet all in a compact, light-weight multimedia satellite terminals. We also added an external wifi antenna and a signal booster. More on these later.
Last year we added a 10.1” laptop to our inventory, this made it very convenient to take to shore and visit the Internet café or even open wifi when available on the boat. This year we added an IPod Touch® to the arsenal.
I will explain one by one the results of all the equipment that has been mentioned above.
1) HF radio: we still use this equipment, we listen to weather reports talk to the weather forecasters, talk to other cruisers at anchor or during long distance passages.
We also download weather charts and Grib files with our HAM license via Winlink, if you do not have a HAM license you can subscribe with Sailmail and do the same thing within SSB frequencies.
2) The 15” Laptop: we still use this we are now on our third laptop not including the 10.1”. Our first laptop died 2 years after we did two transatlantic crossings; the second one is stored on the boat with just navigation software on it ready as a backup. And our last one a 15” Dell Latitude 110L, we’ve had this since 2006, used it for three winters in the Caribbean and one transatlantic passage. We do not use the laptop for navigation when we cross-big bodies of water, there really is no point as we plot all our fixes on paper charts with data from a GPS. During long passages the laptop is only turned on for downloading emails and weather forecasts via the HF radio.
3) The unlocked quad cell phone: We buy SIM cards from every country we make landfall and expect to be at for more than a week. The SIM cards are cheap and most of the time they include a fair amount of minutes. Most of the countries we have been to, you only pay for outgoing calls. All incoming calls are free unless you are roaming then it could get very expensive. So it is always better to get the appropriate SIM card for the country you are visiting. In some islands of the eastern Caribbean like Martinique and Guadalupe one SIM works for both islands without roaming, but you will need a separate one for both the French and Dutch St Martin sides. Another example of convenience in the Eastern Caribbean is that one SIM card covers Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines.
4) BGAN: we started out with this tool but found that unless we are either tied up to a slip or at a quay it is nor very good as you have to keep it aimed within a certain angle towards the SE, depends very much on your location. When at anchor it would disconnect as soon as the boat swings from side to side. We cancelled the expensive subscription for this service, but we still have the unit in storage.
5) WiFi: This is the best though not always reliable. We added a 1000mw Alfa Network® USB antenna booster, which is hooked up to an external antenna located high above the solar panel. The convenience of downloading your emails and weather while at anchor make things a lot easier.
6) Iridium. My son would send me a text message of the weather for the next 24 hours, that he gathers from Grib or other weather info. It is free for me to receive and free for anyone with an Internet connection to send a text message of no more than 130 characters. It only costs us 99 cents to send out a text message. So this was also great to stay in touch with family and send them a daily position report while crossing the Atlantic.
7) I-Pod Touch: This tool is revolutionerizing the concept of communication, with this I can be ashore near a wifi hotspot or even at an internet café send a request to Saildocs for weather charts and even grib files, wait a few minutes to receive them, while waiting you can send and receive emails, talk on Skype, chat online and browse the internet. Then at your leisure when you get back to the boat after a day touring the island, hook the I-Pod to the laptop that was left on the boat all day and upload the grib files and weather charts to your lap top for viewing.
With all these toys there is no way you could miss a call or a weather forecast even if you are a long way from shore. During the past 11 years of cruising we only had to deal with heavy weather conditions on 4 occasions and we where forewarned, so we where prepared to deal with it. The maximum winds we have ever encountered was on our first ocean passage from New York to Bermuda in November 1999 when we got 45 knots of sustained wind and gusts to 55 knots for 13 hrs.
Update March 14th 2011: USB Modems
In the past few years we have been seeing more and more cell/ mobile phone providers offering USB internet modems, it is a small item slightly bigger than a USB memory key (flash card) but with the difference that it is actually a cell mobile antenna that is used to browse download and upload mail from your computer while onboard your boat, using the cell service network of antennas same as a cell phone.
Now we are seeing manufacturers like Sony, Zoom and many others offering unlocked modems that you can take around the world, changing a SIM card in the countries you need it without roaming charges.
We just bought a Zoom 4595 from the USA for a cost including shipping of $90 (including shipping and taxes)
How it works:
First you buy an Mobile Internet SIM card from one of the country’s service providers, insert the Internet SIM card, plug it into one of the USB ports of your computer on board your boat, install the software, and follow the directions. You can choose a contract but for us that move around from country to country it is more worth it to buy a monthly top-up card that you will be able to top-up online.
You can use it to browse the internet while cruising within range of cell coverage just like a cell phone, the speed is a little less than the ADSL at home but still very practical. You can also turn on your Google Earth and zoom in at the location of your boat if you want to look for a safe harbor or anchorage when bad weather may be approaching.
In my opinion this is the ultimate way to browse and download or upload the emails without getting off the boat.