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A voyaging mailbox

Jan 1, 2003

Voyagers who have moved aboard their boats and plan to go an extended trip have to determine what they will use as an address and how they will get their mail while voyaging. Rather than establish local connections every time I move with my boat or relinquish my slip and go on an extensive cruise, I use a mail-forwarding service.

I chose St. Brendan's Isle, Inc., in Florida to establish my address. (There are many such services advertised in cruising and mobile home magazines.) For a nomadic life it serves as a permanent address that has a normal name and street address format.

I have not tested the legality of using the service as a "legal address." For example, am I entitled to the low automobile insurance rates of the mail-forwarder's address, when, in fact, I am residing in an area with higher rates? The same question applies to medical insurance premiums. I did recently learn that a mail-forwarder is a business and therefore not a legal residence for voter registration, at least not in Florida. Laws on voter registration are different from state to state. In Florida, for example, a 1996 regulation established: "For voting purposes, a person's legal residence is determined by a physical presence in the county coupled with intent of permanent residency. Evidence of legal residence could be a driver's license, tax receipts, receipt of mail, carrying on of activities normally indicative of home life, etc." Outside the U.S. it is always possible to get a form for an absentee ballot at an American embassy or consulate. However, these forms must be mailed back to your "local" voting place, a bit of a Catch-22.

Just prior to the last presidential election, the New York Times reported that an astronaut on a four-month space mission asked if he could cast his ballot by encrypted e-mail since he left the planet before his Texas absentee ballot arrived. In true bureaucratic form, the Texas Administrator of Elections said "No." He went on to explain: "There is no provision in the Texas state law to vote by e-mail or from outer space." (About a year later, and too late for the astronaut, the Texas statute was changed to accommodate e-mail from outer space.)

I don't know how the astronaut solved his problem, but I had help from the friendly, liberal-minded commonwealth of Massachusetts. I explained my problem to the Boston voter registration official while on a brief visit to my brother. He asked, "Are you a veteran?"

I said, "No."

"Too bad, you could have registered at the veterans' homeless center next door." He thought for a while and asked, "Where are you staying tonight?"

"At my brother's place."

"Good enough," he said, shaking my hand. "For today you're a Bostonian. Sign here."

He also gave me several absentee ballot request forms to have ballots forwarded through my mail-forwarder in Florida. That was a measure of Boston's sometimes infamous can-do politics.

(The ACLU in Miami briefly considered challenging the Florida regulation against using a mail-forwarding business as a voter registration address. Several people were interviewed for a test case. Since each of us had shown initiative in finally getting to vote, we were technically not denied our right to vote, and, therefore, not good candidates for a test case.)

Apart from the voting hassle, the mail-forwarding service offers several other benefits. It eliminates my junk mail by only forwarding first- and second-class mail. It offers to accept faxes in my name, which are then forwarded to me when I request my mail. Similarly, it accepts short telephone messages addressed to me that are transcribed and included in my mail. The forwarder also offers additional services, especially useful to world voyagers, like bill payments and catalog orders for boat parts.

Request mail via phone

I can easily request my mail with a simple toll-free call or an e-mail message. Charges for such services are modest and easily paid for with automatic credit card charges. Most important, the service is quite experienced with foreign addresses and seeks the best and most economical way (Postal Service, UPS, FedEx, DHL, Airborne, Emery) to ship me my mail. In a newsletter to his clients, the owner once quipped, "Beware of mail service in countries with a President-for-life."

Many voyagers use family members or friends as a mail-forwarding service and a legal address. This undoubtedly saves money, but it places a burden and a responsibility on friends or family members and may even pose a legal liability for them.

A few amusing incidents have occurred with using a mail-forwarding service address. When applying for automobile insurance, the agent filled out the form on a computer that must have been directly connected to a national address file. He casually asked how many other people will be driving the car. I said only one person, me.

Looking up from his screen he said, "Are you sure? I see on my computer that many people live at this address."

When I passed my address along to a friend he said, "That's funny. I have several other friends at this address. Is this some kind of retirement home for old salts?"

The health insurance agent complimented me on my home address, saying that the insurance rates were cheaper there than in other parts of the state. "It must be a healthy place to live," he said.

Several people to whom I've given the address, who must have come from the area, asked what high school I went to and did I know so and so? Others wanted to know what the weather is like in the summer.

Having a phone number is closely associated with having an address, although it is less fraught with legal implications and more easily established with modern computer technology. Many marinas now routinely offer telephone connections along with other utilities at each slip. There is also the growing use of cellular phones, which provide more mobility all along the U.S. and many foreign coasts but at a relatively steep price. For those voyaging farther offshore and willing to pay an even heavier cost, there are high-seas operators and world satellite telephones.

My choices are a Compuserve e-mail address and AT&T's TeleTravel service. TeleTravel is a voice mail service with an 800 number. Friends and family members can call me free of charge while I retrieve their recorded messages for a modest per-minute fee. This service allows me to retain the same number no matter where my travels take me. I can contact my voice mail box from anywhere in the U.S. and overseas, and from some countries, without being charged for an overseas call.

E-mail has been a real benefit in this tumbleweed lifestyle. It is a very inexpensive way to stay in touch from anywhere in the world with both short all's-well-wish-you-were-here messages and lengthy travelogue narratives. Recent advances in technology even promise to marry the popular GPS and E-mail transmitter/receiver into one small handheld device.

With the ephemeral status of a boating transient, I sometimes kiddingly refer to myself as "homeless with an (800) number." I wonder how, or if, I'll be counted in the turn-of-the-century 2000 census?


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