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Voyager reports GPS and e-mail now widely used

Jan 1, 2003

Kathy and I are living aboard and voyaging in a vintage 1972 Tartan 34 staysail, centerboard sloop Endeavour. We bought the boat in 1983 and have resisted the temptation to buy a bigger boat for many reasons, not the least of which are cost, functionality, and seaworthiness. Endeavour has taken us safely across the Atlantic twice and up and down the Atlantic seaboard, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico. By way of introduction, Kathy and I are not spring chickens; we are older than most of the other voyagers we meet and are thought to be salty old hands. We are commodores in the Seven Seas Cruising Association, and I hold a USCG master license for auxiliary sail. We continue to make discoveries about voyaging and the liveaboard life as we move from place to place. We would like to share our experiences with others who are either planning to do extended voyaging in small boats or are getting underway.

The consensus among voyagers is that the two most significant developments in the past few years that have improved the liveaboard voyaging life are GPS and e-mail. These developments may appear self-evident to those of us who have watched GPS and e-mail emerge, but a simple survey among voyagers at anchor and passing through marinas in the Caribbean and Bahamas highlights just how important they are. The good U.S. economy is, of course, the principal reason for the greater number of new and expensive powerboats and sailboats. New boaters seem to prefer marina-based powerboats, which means that remote anchorages still have room and are mainly frequented by liveaboards on sailboats. It's likely that the number of voyagers has also grown because of GPS and e-mail. The hundreds of wrecks strewn all along Caribbean island beaches are testimony to poor, or non-existent, weather forecasts, and poor navigation. GPS and NOAA weather broadcasts have changed all that.

Like many others, we have two identical GPS units on board that we test and compare regularly. With GPS there is much less chart work, and many voyagers rely totally on GPS to get them from place to place. It's not uncommon for two or more boats running'under GPS-directed autopilot to converge upon the same GPS waypoint at the same time, each reluctant to unplug the autopilot and steer manually.

When we explore an unfamiliar area in the Caribbean, we double-check the cruising guide waypoint coordinates against the government chart with courses plotted on the chart. We don't trust GPS waypoints exclusively. We tend to rely more on voyaging guides than on government charts since the authors did recent surveys, using GPS, while many government charts are based on 19th century (or earlier) surveys.

I'm still having trouble reconciling computerized digital charts for small-boat navigation. Of course, voyagers can have both paper charts and digital charts, but cost and reliability become important at some point. For these reasons few voyagers we have met are using digital charts. The author and publisher of the most accurate and detailed charts and cruising guides become quickly known among the fleet. The more details and GPS coordinates, the better.

I am, of course, saddened by the gradual loss of traditional navigation skills, but safety at sea must take precedence. While trying to remain current with traditional navigational skills, we use the latest, most detailed GPS-based charts and cruising guides available. As a result, we have explored many gunkholes and anchorages we previously believed couldn't handle our five-foot draft. The entire evolution of GPS and GPS-based charts has changed voyaging forever and will continue to change it.

Next to GPS, e-mail is the most important recent improvement to the voyaging life. A survey of voyagers at anchor in Bahamas and the Western Caribbean shows that nearly all send and receive Internet e-mail regularly. The Internet has the remarkable property of being able to store your messages until they are called up; no more answering machines. Some voyagers are using $100 Pocketmail or frequenting the local Internet cafés. Those with Pocketmail tend to go ashore to a local telephone every two days or so. Using local phone cards, most can send and receive Pocketmail e-mail messages in a few seconds, keeping the telephone costs very low compared with conventional telephone calls. In popular ports Internet cafés are becoming widely available. These establishments allow voyagers to access their e-mail for about $1 to $2 for 10 minutes on the Internet.

WinLink 2000 ham e-mail has evolved over the past year to a seamless network of more than 20 shore-side ham stations ready and able to handle Internet e-mail traffic. Ham e-mail even provides selected weather bulletins. We use our HF SSB air time for ham e-mail, so for weather bulletins, we use daily fax weather broadcasts. HF e-mail is relatively slow, so we regularly advise friends and family ashore to keep messages short: no attachments, no jokes, and don't copy our message in their reply. I'm convinced HF SSB e-mail has produced more new hams than any other single development I can recall in 45 years as a ham radio operator. In the anchorage we even take turns contacting WinLink stations on shore so we don't interfere with each other! We ask that HF radio e-mail users listen to be certain the frequency is clear before transmitting.

The non-profit SailMail service is used by some non-ham voyagers, but there is only one East Coast and one West Coast shore station compared with 20 ham e-mail stations. The greater the number of shore stations, the easier it is to connect. Added to this is the fact that ham licenses are easier to get with Morse code speeds reduced to five words per minute. No wonder ham radio e-mail is gaining popularity.

HF e-mail is new, and it takes time to get it working properly. I can recall working the anchorage in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, helping new hams get their e-mail working. Some were discouraged and ready to sell their equipment.

We're not certain what's coming next to the voyaging community. Certainly faster HF radio modem rates. Right now, some HF radio modems can operate at speeds up to 1,000 bps, compared to 56,000 using a landline modem.

We also see better charts and cruising guides emerging for most islands in the Caribbean. These materials, along with GPS, will allow us to explore places we were reluctant to go before. Voyaging is a great life and getting better.


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