Technology, Worldwide Communications, and The Internet

Clark March 17th, 2007

The cruising life has become much easier with the Internet and a few other recent technological innovations.

GPS makes it so any idiot can navigate, and without having to buy the expensive almanacs and tables needed for celestial navigation. Old timers resent how all this riff-raff, of which I’m one, have got into cruising and never had to learn how to use a sextant. Navigation used to require some math, and the ability to do it under fire. OK, I own a sextant and I’ve figured my position a few times, just to prove I can, but the other days of the decade I just push the button on the GPS. Actually, I just look at where the little boat icon is on the electronic chart on the computer screen.

Some purists argue that this is too much dependence on electronic gizmos. To them I say have a spare GPS. GPS will always be more reliable than trying to get a fix on a rocking boat in a storm, socked in by clouds, when you haven’t slept in two days and the numbers are jumping all over the page. If someday the military shuts off the GPS network we’ll all just vaporize and the purists will have the last laugh.

Years ago cruising meant being truly cut off from life at home. In order to manage one’s affairs, voyagers would have to pay for mail forwarding services and run up expensive long distance bills. With the Internet I can handle my entire financial life, as well as most communication, via email and the web. About the only thing I can’t handle are those pesky jury duty notices, which my dear father keeps politely declining on my behalf.

I use E*Trade, who I hate, but changing banks is too much of a hassle at the moment. I can buy and sell securities online and have an ATM card for getting cash in local currency all over the world.

I can do my taxes, in years that I actually have to pay tax, using TurboTax online.

I just paid off my student loans, but those were easily managed online too. Same with health insurance.

Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, and the like are great for email and trips to the Internet café are part of cruising life. Internet cafes are everywhere in the world, but becoming strangely absent in the developed world where everyone, assumedly, has a connection at home.

I have several thumb drives, memory sticks, USB drives—whatever you call them—that I use for ferrying data to and from my computer and the Internet café. Most Internet café computers have a USB drive, if you ask.

Mobile phones are cheap when in port and pre-paid accounts, where you put credit on the phone by buying recharge cards, are the way to go as a visiting foreigner. I own a phone and just get a new SIM card and pre-paid account in each new country. In Buenos Aires I couldn’t do that, so I got a whole new phone, with 30 pesos of credit and 250 text messages for $40! It’s a good Nokia with all the bells and whistles too. Having a mobile phone does wonders for your social life in each new place and allows friends and family to call you from home. Usually it’s pretty expensive to call long distance, so this is better done from a pay phone or phone bank.

All of this is well and good when in port, but we still spend a lot of our time in the hinterlands, away from Internet cafes and out of mobile phone range.

Shipboard communication still presents some challenges. You can have it all, for a price. We had an Iridium phone with plenty of credit, courtesy of a crewmember’s dad, when we were crossing the Atlantic. Amazing. Like talking to someone in the next room, but at a dollar a minute and considerable cost for the hardware, it doesn’t suit a budget cruiser’s wallet. Likewise, the various Inmarsat products for voice and data are quite expensive.

Most of us use Sailmail, a slow, text only email service via high frequency radio. Membership to the Sailmail association is $250 per year, about the same as a regular ISP at home. Sailmail can be less than reliable at times due to bad radio propagation, but it does keep you in touch and can be a lifesaver when you need to convey crucial information. But Sailmail ain’t so cheap either when you consider the cost of equipment. Most sailors will have a high frequency radio and its associated equipment onboard anyway. (We’re talking a couple thousand, at least, for radio, tuner, antenna system, grounding and wiring.) You need a radio modem to interface your laptop and the radio and this is over a thousand for the latest, and you definitely want the latest. I’ve got an old Kantronics Kam+ which is slow compared to the latest Pactor 3 modems. And you need a laptop. Getting three innately buggy devices—the radio, the modem, and the laptop—all to dance together and work properly the first time, is probably good for a weekend of frustration.

This is all for communication to the outside world. For communication among sailors we use the radio as a radio. People keep in touch all over the world and report their positions through various nets. I’m not much of a radio guy, and seem to always get myself in trouble by sleeping in, forgetting to report, and getting some mother hen all angry and worried. The high frequency radio can also receive weather faxes and weather bulletins to a computer, either using the radio modem or just using the computer’s sound card. I use JV Comm to the sound card via the microphone jack and it works great. And the radio can receive all sorts of shortwave broadcasts like the BBC and Voice of America.

A VHF radio (cheap) is used for communications within 20-40 miles.

If you haven’t figured it out, a laptop computer is a key piece of equipment onboard. When you consider that it can replace bundles of expensive and bulky paper charts (I use MaxSea and C-Map and keep basic backup paper charts on hand) and a dedicated weatherfax receiver, and you can do email, it pretty much pays for itself. I keep an old spare laptop, loaded with all the crucial software, onboard as well. You will also be taking lots of digital photos, which can be stored on the laptop, keeping logs, etc…all the things you use a computer for.

For emergencies I currently have a 406Mhtz EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) onboard, but it may be leaving when the crewmember who brought it does. It’s nice to have, but let’s not be unrealistic about the rescue apparatus in most of the world. Better be prepared to save your own skin.

I think the only piece of electronics I have overlooked is the stereo, an AM/FM cassette with a 12-CD stacker, two Bose waterproof box speakers in the cockpit, two 6×9 speakers in the main salon. This is all just automotive equipment. I have over 700 CD’s and about a hundred taped bootlegs of you-know-who. Most of my sailing has a soundtrack.

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