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Communications aboard Nine of Cups

Feb 27, 2015
David Lynn trying to get an Internet connection offshore.

David Lynn trying to get an Internet connection offshore.

Marcie Lynn

In the 15 years since we have been cruising, we have seen some vastly significant improvements in communications, both at sea and in port. Truth be told, we’re usually way behind the times. We still do not use a satellite phone, primarily because  the technology is still slow and monthly costs incurred are too painful for our budget. While costs are coming down and the technology continues to advance, cruising friends have reported that it still costs them between $500 to $1,000 per year for limited email and weather forecasts.
 
We still rely on our trusty ICOM HF SSB radio in conjunction with SailMail for emails at sea and downloading GRIB and other weather files. The SailMail “Shadowmail” function allows us to monitor our incoming Yahoo land emails and selectively download them. It’s slow, but affordable and mostly reliable. We also use our SSB for participating in cruiser nets during passages, something we would not be able to do with a satphone.

We seem to use our VHF less and less. Interestingly, outside of the U.S., we’ve found that many marinas do not use VHF communication at all. They expect an email or a call prior to arrival, which is a challenge when we’re just arriving in a new country and have no mobile phone available. VHF at sea is used exclusively for emergency and ship-to-ship contact. Once in port, VHF use is totally dependent on the area. In Opua, New Zealand, for instance, there was a local daily net on VHF and cruisers contacted each other on VHF constantly, making the radio traffic quite bothersome at times. In other ports, VHF is used for contacting authorities (i.e., Port Captain) for arriving or reporting boat movement, but we rarely hear a cruiser hail. Instead, mobile (cell) phone communication is the norm between cruisers nowadays.

Skype on the iPad.

David Lynn

Mobile phones ashore
We originally had two-way radios to communicate with each other when we went ashore. We gave those up years ago and instead invested in a couple of unlocked, generic mobile phones. The purchase of inexpensive SIM cards on arrival in a new country is usually one of our first orders of business. The process of setting up service in the new country, however, is sometimes convoluted and time-consuming and the documentation requirements vary. We usually choose a pay-as-you-go plan which allows us to buy more time via the Internet or at local shops. We tend to text each other, rather than calling because it is more economical.

We’ve also purchased Internet dongles when available, which affords us the luxury of having internet aboard. Frequently, there are introductory offers that include the dongle purchase as well as a certain amount of data bytes at a bargain price. This worked especially well in many parts of the South Pacific and Australia when we had Internet on board all the time while in port or at anchor, and up to 10 miles offshore for most of our coastal passages. Sometimes it took some acrobatics to obtain a good signal. We usually have to pay for data by the kilobyte, thus we rarely do video streaming, large downloads or Internet surfing because of the cost. 

In our early days of cruising, we found Internet kiosks ashore and used their house computers for emails, but we were always justifiably paranoid when we wanted to do any banking transactions or parts purchasing which required credit card numbers. We rarely need to use Internet kiosks any longer.

Sitting on a hill on Erith Island in Bass Strait sending emails.

Marcie Lynn

Wi-Fi antenna
Many marinas worldwide now offer free Internet, but the signals never seem to be all that strong. We graduated to an antenna aboard in 2007, which was reliable within a half-mile. It had its limitations, but it was a step up from using the kiosks, for sure. When Internet was not available in an area, we lugged the laptop to a  free hot spot ashore each day (or several times a day) to connect. We recently upgraded to a high-powered Wi-Fi antenna and receiver along with a mini-router which we now rely upon heavily for the convenience of Internet on the boat. Its maximum range is reportedly seven miles and we reliably pick up signals at least a couple of miles away. Apart from marinas, it is rare that we find an unsecured, free Wi-Fi hot spot from the boat, but we don’t mind paying for access. Otherwise, we carry our tablets to shore and find a local coffee shop for our Internet fix.

Calling home has changed dramatically over the years as well. We have the Skype app for both our laptops and the tablets, and have encouraged friends and family around the world to use Skype as well. Calls home are frequent and free.
    
David and Marcie Lynn have lived aboard Nine of Cups, a Liberty 458 cutter since 2000 and have sailed nearly 80,000 nm on their slow circumnavigation. Their websites: www.justalittlefurther.com and www.nineofcups.com.

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