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Voyaging communications report: Big Sky

Oct 21, 2011

My husband Con and I purchased Big Sky, a 1999 Nauticat 515 with all the bells and whistles, including a large 24-inch satellite phone dish mounted on top of the pilot house, in the fall of 2006. Using the satellite phone to stay in touch with family, handle business communications, keep abreast of world news, and get detailed weather information was too expensive, so we had it removed.

In the spring of 2007, we started our Big Sky journey in Finland and like kids in a candy store, made our cell phone selection — a Finnish-made unlocked Nokia (unlocked phones will recognize and operate with subscriber identification module (SIM) cards from any service provider) — our lifeline to the world. It was a slow 56K modem and expensive to use. It didn’t allow attachments, pictures, Skype or webcam. It served us well through the Baltic and North Sea leaving us with a collection of SIM cards from Finland, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium.

Wherever possible we’d “scoop” free Wi-Fi, which in the ex-communist countries, was easy to get and good quality. However, the farther south and into the Mediterranean we sailed, the harder it was to “scoop.” Often we’d lug our two eight-pound laptops through all kinds of weather, either on foot or bike to get a signal. It was a small price to pay to connect and have webcam sessions with our kids. In Africa, desperate to connect with his office, Con had to balance high on a concrete pillar at the edge of the water to snag a signal. I stood at his side with one hand holding an umbrella high over his head and my other holding a super-sized Wi-Fi antenna.

Faster networks
In 2009, our Nokia died somewhere along the French Riviera. France, however, was not the place to make our new purchase — too expensive and not a lot of choices. In Italy, we discovered that cell phones had hit a new era; not only state-of-the-art but faster networks. At last, we had Skype, webcam, weather reports, forecasts, and sea conditions 10 miles offshore and even at anchor. What a luxury! Lo and behold, evolution arrived yet again, this time called Joiko, an inexpensive applet that turned our cell phone into a Wi-Fi router. Big Sky was wired!

In this living-aboard vagabond lifestyle, annual contracts were not possible. In each new country, our routine was like clockwork: tie up, check in, and pull out our laptops to check for an open Wi-Fi. If we couldn’t find one, we’d pop in and out of the cell phone companies comparing rates and data connections.

Our 2010 monthly Internet/phone costs varied from Canadian $60 for a 24/7 unlimited connection, and about $35 a month for a 4-GB 30-day connection. Cell phone calling costs have become a mute point, as we can call anywhere, anytime and even have clear two-way video using Skype, MSN, and FaceTime. During our five years living aboard, three of our four daughters have had babies. The pain of separation has lessened with technology, as the kids sail with us and we visit in their homes — via video Internet.  

Less VHF radio use
The Internet hasn’t taken over cell phone needs completely, but close. Marinas and port officials prefer reservations and arrival information relayed via cell phone. And, curiously, cell phones are becoming the new identification as contracts are filed by your phone number. The VHF radio use has been reduced to emergencies. This summer, sailing in the Black Sea, our VHF calls almost always remained unanswered. However, when authorities wanted our route and destination information, our VHF came to life.

In 2011, we added an iPad to our arsenal of electronic devices — its main purpose, to give inexpensive but detailed charts for the Black Sea. It’s so much more: an excellent tool for navigation; Internet; to-the-minute weather and sea conditions; international news; reading e-books. As more tablet devices come to market, and more applications are written, iPads will no doubt be found on most boats.

We’ll leave the Mediterranean soon, sailing to further destinations and a long-distance communication tool will be a must. Our single sideband receiver is stored on our boat, but was never installed — quite likely it never will be. Currently, purchasing a handheld satellite phone will run you anywhere from $500 to $1,500 and more; phone/data time about a dollar per minute on a prepaid or postpaid plan. These costs will only get better as new satellites are being launched and new and improved systems and packages become available.

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Barb’s book Sailing Through Life can be found on Amazon.com. For a preview, visit www.sailbigsky.com.  She is a freelance writer and retired founder and national executive director of the Kids Up Front Foundation of Canada. Barb and Con have been sailing in and out of 37 countries…so far.

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