#14 – Staying in Touch

Waiting to use the phone One of the biggest reservations many women have about going cruising has nothing to do with the sea. It has to do with the worry over being out of touch, primarily with family and friends back home, but also with the kind of help that as residents of the first world we take for granted – for the boat and for ourselves.

Most of my Admirals have, like me, been cruising long enough that, when they started, their onboard options were the same ones that served generations before us. As Jean of Jean Marie says about their first circumnavigation, “We were only able to call home from land once when we were about to depart and once again we’d arrived. For detailed news, we depended totally on snail mail, and when a letter was waiting it was a highlight.” Getting snail mail in far-flung ports required an itinerary that both they and their contacts back home could stick to, and breaking news of, say, a sick parent might reach them weeks late!

Talking on the ham/sideband radio As little as eight years ago, when Don and I set out on our open-ended cruise, our onboard communications options were only one step higher…but it was a big step. Our HF radio transceiver (SSB and Ham) gave us access to the give-and-take of radio nets through which we could talk to other cruisers or get access to help – medical or mechanical – via phone patches to experts. HF radio also brought us voice weather and , with a computer, weatherfax via the easy addition of a software program and a demodulator. We could even receive phone messages and make return phone calls home via the Marine Operator. I couldn’t (and still can’t) imagine cruising without my radio.

Besides being unable to receive calls directly, the big problem with phone calls by radio, besides cost, was that at least one half of the conversation was open to eavesdropping! To make a private phone call, we had to get off the boat, buy a phone card and find a phone booth.

The advent of email began to change things for cruisers. Initially, it was only available ashore in Internet cafes. Fortunately, most of the out-of-the-way places cruisers like to go quickly embraced the Internet café concept, since it was often a huge jump forward in communications for the locals. About the same time, Pocketmail became popular, enabling cruisers to compose short emails on a calculator-sized device and send from anywhere they could get a phone connection. Ironically, one of the biggest stumbling blocks in this new age was persuading family members back home, often older parents, to get computers and get connected.

Internet cafes and Pocketmail still depended on being ashore in a port with at least a phone connection. Everything changed with the introduction of Airmail . This wonderful software program coupled cruisers’ onboard computers via TNC modems to their HF radios and brought email right aboard, whether in port or in the middle of the ocean.

Checking email on board Today, almost every cruiser I know has either a Winlink (Ham version) or Sailmail (commercial Marine version) email address or both. With a General Class Ham license, a cruiser can send up to 30 minutes of email a day through more than a hundred volunteer stations around the world at no charge. Without a ham license, or if needing to do business-related communication, a cruiser can connect to any of Sailmail’s commercial stations around the world 15 minute a day for a reasonable annual fee. With onboard email, not only have cruisers been able to reassure folks back home with regular communiqués and position reports but to stay in touch with each other as well, a revolution in the connectedness of our worldwide floating community. Winlink and Sailmail have also brought us increased access to weather information, downloadable by requesting specific products to be put in your e-mailbox, as well as to remote troubleshooting of onboard equipment malfunctions via email exchanges with manufacturers’ tech reps.

The one thing radio has not been able to bring us is the Internet. Cruisers are heavy users of the Internet. We use it to research passage information and weather (from sources like Jimmy Cornell’s Noonsite and NOAA); share experiences through personal websites; pay bills via online banking; locate spare parts; book air travel home; keep up with the news; and to make international Skype voice calls at a fraction of overseas telephone rates. We can even collect our radio email, Winlink or Sailmail, right online via their built-in Telnet Options.

There are three ways to bring the Internet on board. The simplest is to bring your boat into a harbor or marina that has WiFi, a service which seems to be proliferating everywhere. While the built-in Wifi modems in laptops aren’t designed to work over distances much wider than the inside of a house, the addition of an external WiFi antenna and amplifier can increase reception range up to several miles.

Coastal cruisers in many countries can often get decent cell phone service, and another way to get Internet aboard, is a cellular broadband card. Cell reception can also be enhanced with an external antenna and amplifier; however, it’s good to remember that cell companies have little incentive to aim their towers out to sea. In the US, cellular service contracts are often inflexible annual commitments with one company. In Fiji we are getting Internet on board Tackless II through a cellular card for a reasonable month-by-month charge. In Europe, Mary of Iwanda tells us, cellular is a good option. “Cruisers can purchase an ‘unlocked’ cell phone (or broadband card) into which you insert a SIM card chip for the amount of prepaid service you want, changing the SIM card in each country you visit to minimize long distance charges.”

Last but not least are satellite telephones. Out here in the Pacific, for example, Iridium’s worldwide service with special compression software lets cruisers get email and weather anytime of day in a minute or two download. We can call home from anywhere for special birthdays or a forgotten Mother’s Day, pay credit card bills, argue with insurance companies, even call the Coast Guard if we’re sinking. Being portable, we can take it in our abandon-ship bag, and it’s the perfect backup should a dismasting bring the antenna down with the rig. We can even have Internet access….. if we’re willing to pay the per-minute price.

So, you see, it is really much less a question of whether you can stay in touch than how. Obviously, not every cruiser will have every system. It will largely depend on where you are cruising and how much you want to spend. Most cruisers today are equipped to take advantage of a variety of options in particular situations and to cover different needs. Radio may not be able to give you the Internet, but WiFi, cellular and satphones can’t give you your cruising community.

An unexpected outcome of all this technology is that communication can become a burdensome obligation. Emails need replies, websites have to be updated, and, most importantly, radio skeds – where someone keeps track of your position on passage –must be kept. You may find you are spending more time than you want “online” instead of “out experiencing”.

Plus, there is one more caveat to all this hi-tech stuff; any or all of it can break. “People get used to hearing from you,” says Jane of Cormorant, a Corbin 39 currently heading for Indonesia and Singapore, “and if the communication stops, they panic and think you sank! We sometimes regret the loss of some of the freedom we used to have. There was something quite nice and liberating about really being out of touch.”

Contributing Admirals: Jean Service, Jean Marie; Mary Verlaque, Iwanda; Donna Abbott, Exit Only; Jane Lothrop, Cormorant; Marti Brown, HF Radio for Idiyachts, plus others. (And thanks very much to my webmaster, Sherry McCampbell on Soggy Paws)

This article was published in the September 2007 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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