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Communications 2010

“How can I stay in touch” is one of the biggest concerns for cruisers heading off on a long trip. Off all the changes affecting sailors over the past 20 years this has to be one of the major ones.

With the new boat going in the water in just a few weeks I am looking for options to upgrade to the latest and greatest - mainly in the wifi and “cell phone” areas.

We have tried a number of wifi options over the past 6 years and it has been great to be able to connect to the internet from so many places. We don’t always succeed and the challenge now is to make up the ULTIMATE wifi system. The main thing seems to be to raise the antenna up from the inside of the boat. Especially in crowded marinas it seems we were often being blocked by the hulls of nearby boats. When we put an external antenna up on deck we always got a better signal. We have tried a few external usb antennas, the latest being the waveRV marine unit we got last winter in St Martin. We never found a good place to mount the unit on Distant Shores though. I used to bring it our and prop it up under the dodger when we wanted it.

For the new Southerly 49 I would like to mount an antenna permanently on the stern-rail. I recently saw this unit made by Bitstorm that is interesting in that it is designed to connect via ethernet instead of USB. This means you can run a longer cable, and even have the antenna at the top of the mast for the ultimate range! They have a companion product that is a router so you don’t have to connect the antenna directly to the computer if you don’t want. It would also give you the option to connect multiple computers around the boat!! Oh boy has cruising changed!! ;-)

Cell Phone
The other obvious way to stay in touch is to get a decent cell phone plan. Over the past 14 years of travelling we have been experimenting and our favourite method has been to get a local GSM Sim card for the country we are cruising in. We have always been able to get a SIM card for our phone, and because we are now local we have by far the cheapest rates. It is a bit of a nuisance to be getting new numbers though. This method works best if you stay in one country for more than a few weeks. The SIM cards are not much and easily available. The important thing here is that you must have a GSM phone and it must be “unlocked” - not for use only with a specific provider.

The main thing to watch out for is roaming fees! These can mount up to crazy numbers. Friends of ours were using their phone while they travelled and got a bill after 3 months of $6,000.

I am also investigating the idea of a special roaming SIM card like this one. It might be able to give us halfway reasonable rates and would still keep the same number. We would likely still get a local SIM card when we would be in a country for a long time.

Still the best way to contact other ships on the high seas. We have the excellent Icom M802 on Distant Shores and it has been great for talking to other sailboats on the transatlantic crossing, for talking to Herb “Southbound II” for weather. And it can be used for data as well with a modem although we haven’t tried this.

Wow there is a lot of technology to keep connected. Some times though it is great just to be out in nature though. So if you can’t get a good wifi connection in paradise you can always just make up a margarita and enjoy being out in it!

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