Integrating Electronics (with Internet dependencies) Into Our Cruising Lives.

It’s amazing how dependent our society is on staying connected via the internet. No doubt, it is the most valuable tool society leverages to reach out beyond face to face engagement. A cruising lifestyle means we consider how we will communicate and operate with those that can help us or folks following our adventure. We carefully include access to the internet (when possible) in our routing as well as stationing plans (anchoring or marina).

The internet is our primary weather, navigation, entertainment and social data resource. Reaching the Internet can consume some people – especially when free access is difficult, but there have been many creative (low cost) techniques devised to reach it that we capitalize on.

We are guilty of having the wireless habit but we aren’t internet junkies and we can live without it – but it’s damned inconvenient! Kimberly and I each have post-retirement consulting roles that permit us to work from SV Take Me There. The internet is our most efficient means of communication. We maintain a website to detail our adventures afloat and we have electronic navigation systems that occasionally require software updates to function effectively. We make marina reservations, shop and get destination ideas from the web. We keep in touch with family, friends and cruising followers during our adventure and have a couple of options to do so. So, how do we stay connected and afford it…and how do we get along without cellular signal to reach the internet?

When cellular signal is available, we use it. Our Sprint plan (described below) is flexible and works well for us. We’ve never exceeded our plan limits. When cellular is not an option, we have backups.

Other than cellular, we have 9 other systems that bring electronic information to our floating home: WiFi, SSB, Inmarsat, VHF, DirectTV, Sirius Satellite Weather, Garmin SPOT, radar and sonar. Not all of them need to reach the Internet for more than a firmware update, but half of them do interact or depend upon the connection. The first 5 (including cellular) permit 2-way communication and all are described in some detail below.

– Cellular: We have a Sprint cellular wireless business voice & data plan costing us about $280 per month. This is a business plan that gives us four devices, unlimited talk & text plus 40GB of data. We carry an IPhone 6S, a Galaxy Note 6 (android), a ZTE Pocket WiFi unit and an IPad-2. Our Sprint plan provides LTE in US coverage areas and lets us roam free (2G and below) in foreign countries where Sprint has a reciprocal agreement. That includes voice, text and data. Most major ports are covered throughout the Caribbean Island chain and we consider cellular tower locations in our route and anchoring planning.  We installed a Smooth Talker cellular booster with the antenna atop our 63 ft main mast that lets us optimize range and signal strength. Cellular is our most used communication system.

– WiFi: We love free WiFi! It is usually available somewhere when we are near infrastructure. We connect to WiFi through our onboard router to open source services or those provided by places where we are patrons. We often expect to have to move to where the signal is. When signal strength is too weak (at the boat) to use the router alone, we have an Alfa signal extender and a parabolic-style omni-directional antenna mounted on a TrackIt TV antenna rotator which keeps the antenna automatically pointed at the designated signal as the boat swings on the hook. I’ve picked up a free signal from over 3 miles with this setup. The router (and our wireless extenders in each cabin) broadcasts signal brought in by the Alfa (and the cellular hotspot) throughout the boat.

– Single Side Band (SSB): Our ICOM 802 radio is a cool device. This 2-way long range radio can talk around the world when solar propagation is right. We can place phone calls (with HAM operator assistance on certain channels) and we have email through our Sailnet Service via our Pactor Modem. Email is text only but that’s good enough when no other communication services are available. We can download weather fax and grub files over the SSB and get voice broadcast information as well. SSB is frankly the most versatile and valuable communication device aboard.

– Inmarsat: We have a legacy Tracphone F33 mobile phone/internet system aboard that we have chosen not to establish an account for (expensive airtime) and we know this system will reach “technology/service end of life” soon but it is here and available as long as a provider can enable service (at a cost). Inmarsat provides voice and low speed data via satellite coverage.

– VHF: As most boats do, we have VHF radios as a primary 2-way voice link up to 25 miles out. We get our local weather from VHF via NOAA and Coast Guard broadcasts. We get local navigation information from helpful folks monitoring channel 16 as well as reaching out to the local Sea Tow or Tow Boat US captain for guidance in hazardous areas.

– DIRECTV: Although not internet, we have satellite TV aboard that serves us well (mainly for news and entertainment) while we are in the satellite service areas available to our account (US, North Caribbean). We use a legacy TracVison S3 gimballed dish mounted on our mizzenmast mast (made for an RV) connected to our DIRECTV receiver. We get all paid channels and can tune the dish to receive free international satellite TV. Since we have left our original DIRECTV installation area, we do not get local programming, but our separate HD antenna and booster pick up any available local HDTV channels.

– SIRIUS Satellite Weather: Another system that is not really internet (or 2-way) but provides important information is our SIRIUS weather account. We use it mostly offshore when cellular is unavailable. Connected through our Garmin GPSMap chart plotters, we can acquire and overlay weather forecast information onto our electronic maps.

– SPOT: We have a legacy DeLorme PN-60W Earthmate hand held GPS with a SPOT satellite communicator. It was a gift from my Father. The SPOT is a “send only” device that allows us to broadcast our location, tracks and short text messages to family and friends. It is an essential “emergency” piece of gear we will not go without! Our family and friends like the track updates feature as they can see where we are via an online map. We are trying to leverage open source code to get this feature included in our website so everyone can see it on demand.

– Radar and Sonar only provide realtime information about the environment around the boat like weather, vessel and navigation aid signatures, structure (surface and bottom), temperature (water) and depth.

Information is a sailing necessity. How it comes to you is a function of affordability and choice. From the days of non-motorized sailing, mariners used their 5 senses to gather information and they literally made their own maps! Today’s cruiser has so so many technological advantages like GPS, long range communication, radar, sonar, solar and wind power generation…not to mention electronic maps and the internal combustion engine!

Getting information beyond the range of your senses means you have to have a means to do so. Electronic gadgets are most people’s preference. Other electronic gadgetry enhances our experience aboard as well, such as:

– Chromecast is an HDMI dongle that makes our dumb TV a smart one permitting internet programming, streaming from our laptops or phones and playing local movies and video files for all to see on the big screen for entertainment or when we gather to plan our next route.
– The IRIS (by Lowes) home automation and security system (that we have written about before) is awesome, but it does depend on an internet connection to fully function.
– Our DJI Phantom drone is a really cool toy that helps us with our filming for the website. We are still learning how to fly this thing. Aerial shots are a neat perspective and grab viewers’ attention. It’s not Internet dependent but we do upload its video via the web which requires a connection.
– AIS is a terrific navigation and safety aid that is connected to our NEMATODE 2000 data network linking our chart plotters, radar and sonar…plus it provides a back-up wifi signal aboard when the router freaks out and allows us to connect the IPad to the NEMA backbone for a mobile navigation screen.
– Our Pactor III modem is linked to our SSB and provides low speed data transfer to/from radio ground stations offering email, weather fax and text services.
– EPIRB is our emergency beacon that we can activate in life threatening situations. This small, floating, waterproof device sends an emergency signal via satellite to international monitoring agencies for rescue. We EPIRB up to date and test it every 6 months.

We know how to leverage communications that are low cost and frugal to maintain. Yes, we have spent some cash on all of this “stuff” but I (Steve) am a gadget man. It’s kind of a hobby, Kimberly and David love their cellular devices (as do I) but I (Steve) have a special fondness for our SSB. Our SSB, as previously stated, is our most agile and economical 2-way communication device. It can serve as a VHF radio, a telephone, an email device and brings us weather, social reach and safety information. All other communications gadgets aboard are, in fact, luxuries that we enjoy to enhance our quality of life.

If you are interested in how we leverage any of these “gadgets” or want to know how we linked them all into other systems and our Cruising lives, drop us a note or question at our contacts link.

Electronics are here to stay! Should we ever lose all power due to a system failure or lightening strike – we have analog back-ups (paper maps, sextant, compass and visual emergency signaling devices) to help in a pinch.

Stay tuned!