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Simple approach to e-mail underway gets complex

Jan 1, 2003
From Ocean Navigator #107
July/August 2000
We promised friends and family that we would stay in touch during our 10-week cruise in Maine and Nova Scotia this summer. Family was worried, friends were jealous, and all were just plain curious. After all, it was our first extended cruise on Kotchka, our 1969 Hinckley 38. The trip was our way of acknowledging Kotchka's 30th year, and gaining experience toward our ultimate goal to become full-fledged liveaboards.

While coastal voyaging aboard their Hinckley 38, Kotchka, the authors did considerable running around to find a suitable e-mail connection.
   Image Credit: Courtesy Marci Kolb

Since I work for a computer company, it was my job to put together the communications tools for the trip. I wanted to keep it simple. I wanted to send and receive e-mail at portnot underwayand to access online services. And, of course, I wanted to keep the cost to a minimum.

I had an adequate laptop computer for the task at hand. What I needed was a new Internet service provider (ISP) and a dial-up capability that didn't rely on availability of modular phone jacks. To meet my "keep it simple" objective, I wanted the following: ·

An ISP that provides local access numbers in our intended cruising grounds.·

Toll-free dial-up accessfrom both in the U.S. and Canadaas a back-up.·

Minimal ISP surcharges. Many ISPs charge extra for toll-free access and for "roaming" from your home calling area.·

A modern-day equivalent for acoustic coupler technologyan intermediary device that was once state of the art for connecting a modem to a telephone.

I selected IBM.net as our ISP. (IBM.net is now owned and operated by AT&T WorldNet.) Many ISPs met the criteria for local access in Maine and 1-800 number access. All ISPs researched imposed a surcharge for using their toll-free number. Differentiation was in availability of local access numbers for Nova Scotia and surcharge-free roaming.

I was pleasantly surprised when I dived into the acoustic coupler issue. Thinking I would have to find and dust off an old museum piece, I was shocked to find that voyagers have a lot in common with today's "road warriors" of the high-tech business community. Not only are acoustic couplers still available, they are slim, slick and turbo-charged for the mobile Internet-dependent workforce. I purchased my Telecoupler from online Connect Globally Inc. at www.LaptopProducts.com.

I've been asked, "Why not just connect your laptop up to a cell phone? Wouldn't that have been simpler?" While a cell connection may have been a viable solution, it would have violated the low-cost objective. For a voyager, even a "local" call means roaming charges. These charges are sneakyyou don't really know how bad it is until the bill from your cellular phone company shows up. This approach was far too financially unpredictable.

J, my husband, and I confidently set sail. Armed with a distribution list of 40-plus e-mail pals, we felt ready to send periodic accounts of our adventure and to receive news from the real world that we were leaving behind. Easier said than done!

Our first attempt, Travel Log no. 1, took hours to send. The so-called local access number cost $1.10 to dial from the pay phone. The line dropped. The screen glare turned cursor movement into blind guesswork. The line speed was 1,200 bps. Well-intending friends sent huge file attachmentsjokes and photographsthat would take hours to download. Argh!

Travel Log no. 2 didn't start off well either. A few unsuccessful attempts using the pay phone were followed by a visit to the town library ("Yes, we have Internet access. Sorry, you can't plug in your own PC or dial your own ISP"), and the local mailbox/fax service provider ("I guess you can use our fax line, but I'll have to charge you"). I paid $2.50 to use their fax/phone line to dial in. It took less than five minutes from when I walked into their shop. Travel Log no. 3 was going to be a piece of cake. Wayfarer Marine of Camden, Maine, provides phone jacks precisely for Internet access for transients. Alas, I hadn't anticipated needing my own cord. I falsely presumed that if I happened upon a direct connection, a cord would somehow be part of the find. A short walk into town and a quick purchase solved the problem.Although these attempts were painful, the learning was valuable. I was beginning to get it figured out.

First lesson: If we were at a marina or town landing, I learned to ask for help. While Wayfarer was the only marina to openly offer Internet connectivity, I found that marina operators and tourist information centers were often happy to let me use their phone lines. Assuring them of local or toll-free dialing was key to overcoming any hesitancy on their part. I made an effort to be quick, so as not to tie up their line unnecessarily.

Second lesson: In port, I learned to keep an eye out for ISPs and storefronts where fax service is offered. Although often asked to pay for the privilege, I could count on these businesses for a good connection without having to rush. This was the best way of dealing with online services, such as reviewing our monthly credit card bill and authorizing payment.

Third lesson: When using an acoustic coupler, set the dial-up program on the computer for manual dial. Don't try to use a pay phone to do the dialing. Set the e-mail program to ignore attachments, or to prompt you before downloading. At slow speeds, attachments can wreak havoc on your connection time and your patience! Go indoors. Using a pay phone in a hotel, shopping mall or bus station eliminates the screen glare obstacle. Bring the basicsdon't be caught without an extra battery or phone cord.

Be patient. Connection speeds over a pay phone are slow when using the acoustic coupler. The maximum speed supported by the Telecoupler is 28,800 bps. My typical connection speeds were only 1,200 to 2,400 bps.

Finally, remember to be friendly. On more than one occasion, a resident of Nova Scotia actually invited us into their home to use their phone line.

Ten weeks later, by the time I hit the send button on Travel Log no. 14, I had the process mastered. I became very savvy and creative at finding an access line. I could dial up an Internet connection, download e-mail and be offline in a matter of minutes.

Too bad our cruise was ending, but I'm sure the knowledge gained on this trip will be valuable when we shove off for our next adventure.

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