Staying wired on the water can be simple
Posted on 31 March 2010
Written by Tom Neale
With the right equipment, taking care of business ashore while cruising won't be the headache it used to be
Taking care of business is the last thing you want to worry about on a cruise. But being unable to take care of business can become the first thing to ruin a cruise. It can eat into your pleasure like a piranha.
The myth that a mind-numbing nirvana blankets everyone who heads out on a cruise may sound great in songs and stories, but it doesn't work for most real people. No one wants a cruise, whether it's for a long weekend or for a lifetime, to be consumed by business. But just as you need equipment for navigation, engine repairs, anchoring and other aspects of the cruise, you'll have a better time if you've prepared for this aspect.
The type of "office" you have aboard will depend on many factors, such as the type and size of your boat, the length of your trips and the types of issues you anticipate. We've lived, cruised and worked aboard since 1979, so our office capabilities are probably more complex than those of many people, although they are limited by our budget. But knowing some of the issues and possibilities may help you tailor your capabilities to what you need.
If possible, it helps to have a quiet place dedicated to office-type work. We frequently see large boats with an entire cabin converted to a fancy office. This isn't possible for most of us, but there are good compromises.
An office space next to a source of loud noise, such as the engine, will create fatigue if you have to work for long periods and, of course, will make phone conversations difficult. People frequently use their navigation station for an office because it already has a desk. But if it's immediately inside an entrance area frequently used by others, you may find it hard to concentrate. Also, your equipment may be subjected to assault from things like spray, salty moisture from clothing worn by those passing by and sunlight that can make it hard to read a computer screen. A location in the bow may be very uncomfortable when you're under way.
On Chez Nous, we established an office space in the aft stateroom. This violates the oft-heard rule to never take your work to bed with you, but it's been the best solution for us. It required a little carpentry work. The stateroom has a queen bed to starboard, cabinets and drawers across the stern over a settee and a single bed to port. I can't imagine what the designer was thinking when he added this single bed, but we turned it into a great foundation for an office.
We threw away the mattress and built a sliding desk for the keyboard at the forward end of the bed. When I'm not working, we can slide it back toward the hull to give us more living space. If I need to spread paperwork around while working, I use the settee next to me and our queen bed behind me. Of course, I have to put things away at the end of the work session, but that's a good practice anyway. I use some of the drawers already in place for office supplies. There's a hatch over my head for cheering sunlight, and since it's in the stern, it seldom gets spray. Portholes all around add air and light and a view.
Issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome and backache can be just as severe working aboard as in a skyscraper, so we invested in a small but comfortable - and adjustable - office chair. I've found the ability to adjust chair and armrest heights separately to be very important for long typing sessions. The chair serves as a convenient extra place to sit when we're not working.
We have an intercom feature on our VHFs. One of the intercom microphones is at the office station, so people at the helm and in the office can talk with each other. This has proved invaluable, particularly when the helmsperson needs help or a break.
You will need a place to store paper files in your office area. The less paper you have the better, but it's almost impossible to avoid it altogether. (I'll address this shortly.) We use plastic file boxes, available in the office section of many stores. They are great for storing files on boats. You can fit them into unlikely spaces. They don't consume the large space required by the typical file cabinet. And you can keep files that you'd normally carry back with you to your home in one box, so you don't have to worry about sorting through all that paperwork when you start or finish your cruise. Just pick up the "House/Boat" file box.
The ability to reduce information to 1s and 0s has made an incredible difference in the ability to do business from a boat - not to mention the rest of the world. In our early days, we had to keep reams of paper aboard and carry it back and forth to shore. Sometimes we'd have to divert course and travel for several days in order to mail something. Now there's a piece of equipment that has changed our world almost as much as its primary companion, the computer.
It's the scanner.
You can buy a decent printer/fax/scanner that's small enough to fit in boat-sized spaces for around $150. With the scanner, you can reduce all those papers to digital files that can be stored on your hard drive and backup devices, such as flash drives. It would be quite a stretch to go back and scan the hundreds (thousands?) of pages of records you may have accumulated through the years, but scanning each document as it comes in soon begins to help.
If your CPA calls while you're in the Bahamas out islands and wants a copy of a W-2 form that you surely, in the old days, would have left at home, you simply pull it up from your hard drive and send it back to him as an attachment to an e-mail. If someone sends you a document to sign, rather than find a marina and a fax machine, you can sign it, scan it and send it as an e-mail attachment. When the recipient prints it, it's no different than it would appear had it been faxed. (Actually, its appearance will probably be much better.) If you need to sign a document that's been e-mailed to you as an attachment - already in digital form - you can print it, sign it, scan it and e-mail it back as an attachment.
Occasionally there'll be some overly anal legal eagle who may insist that a hard copy be mailed, particularly if a notary with seal is involved, but this will be the exception rather than the rule.
I'm pessimistic enough to always worry about my boat sinking. The scanner and flash drives have reduced my anxiety level in that area better than could a bottle of Gentleman Jack. With today's high-capacity flash drives, you can practically back up all the data from your hard drive to a device about the size of a Zippo lighter. When you step off the boat and onto the dock (or into the life raft), simply disconnect the flash drive from the computer, put it in your pocket (in a secure container or at least a Ziploc-style bag), and take it all with you. If, as I have done from time to time, you miss the dock and fall overboard, your life's work is still there back on the boat, on your hard drive. A flash drive also makes it easy to take all of your files, scanned and otherwise, from boat computer to home computer.
Myth of the dying desktop
For years I've heard people say a desktop computer doesn't belong on a boat for various reasons, from size to frailty. Most of my boat computers have been desktops, and I think it's a great way to go.
First, they're much less expensive than a laptop. Also, they're easier to get into to change components such as memory, hard drive, disc drive and power packs. Next-day, on-site warranty service does little good if you're in a beautiful anchorage in paradise. But a cell phone call to a technician often can get you going right away or as quickly as they can get you a part - if you can easily change that part yourself or perhaps reseat the memory board.
More laptops are being made with this in mind, but some are still difficult to work with. And a laptop screen failure is very difficult to repair while out cruising; if your desktop monitor dies, it's usually easy to quickly find a replacement.
Some say a desktop takes up too much space for a boat office, but a desktop seldom uses more space where it counts. You need a large desk for a laptop, with its keyboard, surrounding base and monitor. The CPU of a desktop can be tucked away in any dry, ventilated and secure nook or cranny, and you need a relatively small desk space for that remote keyboard and monitor. The latter can even be mounted on a bulkhead, leaving you additional working space.
Depending on the layout of your boat and location of your office space, you may be able to use the same desktop tower for navigation software. None of this is to suggest that laptops aren't great. It is simply to say you should not rule out a desktop from consideration.
One advantage of a laptop is you can take it home with you and not have to worry about the excessive heat and humidity it would be exposed to down below while you're gone. But it's nice to not have that extra computer to transport back and forth when you can take it all in that flash drive in your pocket.
Whichever type of computer you use, it may be wise to avoid wireless peripherals such as a mouse, keyboard and printer. We've found that the signals can sometimes suffer interference by shipboard electrical "noise" that might come from such equipment as radar, VHF, SSB, alternators, battery chargers and inverters.
Whether laptop or desktop, it's important that the computer comes with repair and recovery disks and disks for its operating system and programs. In the recent past, these were almost always included in the package; now we've heard of some computers coming without these. They can be critical should you have a major failure. Don't let a salesperson tell you that you can download what you need. You probably won't be able to while on your boat.
Also, invest in a good Internet security program, such as Norton's Internet Security (www.norton.com) or McAfee (www.mcafee.com). And familiarize yourself with the computer's self-diagnostic tools. When you can get online, you'll be able to find help and diagnostic programs from the manufacturer, but there will be times when you must use what you have on your hard drive to solve problems.
The right kind of power
Having a good electrical power supply for your office is an issue often overlooked. Failure to address this issue can result in serious problems. If you use a desktop, it will be particularly vulnerable to a poor power source. This may be less of an issue with a laptop because its battery provides some buffering protection from power failures and surges, but you'll still have power supply issues with high-tech peripherals, such as a printer/scanner or router.
On a boat, AC power supply problems come both from shore power and generator power. If somebody trips over your power cord on the dock or unplugs it or jiggles it (as happens far too often), the resulting surges can be devastating - especially to computers, printer/scanners, routers and other equipment. Also, the power supply in a marina may not be as stable as what you're probably accustomed to in a house ashore. And generator power, even from very good units, is likely to have surges.
Surges can be caused by sudden power draws from other equipment such as air conditioners, fuel issues, filter issues and mechanical problems. On Chez Nous, we address this problem with what has proven through the years to be a very effective system.
My office station's current is supplied by a dedicated Xantrex inverter. Some inverters (usually less expensive) put out AC current in a modified sine wave. While this type of current will run many things, it won't run some equipment at all - most scanners, for example. And, in the long term, it could be damaging to other equipment that seems to be running satisfactorily at the moment.
There are also inverters that produce a true sine wave, which is the type normally in the power grids ashore. Xantrex (www.xantrex.com) is one of the companies that makes true sine wave inverters (as well as modified sine wave units). I've used its ProSine inverter/chargers for many years. These are designed to invert DC from a battery bank to true sine wave AC and automatically switch function and charge your batteries when external AC becomes available - when the generator is started or you've plugged into shore power, for example. Also, they are designed to seamlessly stop inverting and pass through that external AC from the shore or the generator.
We use a ProSine 2.0 as the main charger for our batteries and the supplier of AC throughout the boat when there is no generator or shore power. This has worked well for the vessel as a whole, but I didn't want it to pass through potentially corrupted AC from the docks or the generator to our sensitive office equipment. Therefore, we also use another ProSine dedicated exclusively to the computer station. However, we didn't wire this to our AC system to avoid the pass-through when dock or generator AC became available.
Xantrex now offers a less-expensive series of inverters - the PROwatt SW - that can provide true sine wave AC for your office. It also may be appropriate for your entire boat if you don't need the charging muscle and AC current production of the ProSine 2.0. Xantrex includes a dual GFCI output as well as a USB charging port. It's an inverter only, with no charging capacity and no AC pass-through feature.
Inverters use DC power. If you want to use them at anchor without listening to a generator, you need a good battery bank. This is even more important if you plan to spend hours using your office equipment in that quiet anchorage.
Our house bank consists of two 8 D Surrette (Rolles) 12HHG325BS batteries with Hydrocaps. A bank like this can supply a long-lasting source of DC power, and it serves as a buffer of sorts for the inverter's supply. These batteries are modular and can be installed one cell at a time. It's important to keep your battery bank well-charged so you can work at anchor without running the generator all the time and without fear of computer crashes.
The ProSine 2.0 can pump up to 100 DC amps into them during charging. This shortens generator time. And while the propulsion diesel is running, our Balmar alternator keeps the banks charged and feeding the inverter.
Xantrex's new Truecharge 2 series of chargers can charge up to three dissimilar banks, at up to 60 amps DC. It has an auto range for AC input from 90 to 265 volts and 50 to 60 Hz, so you have less worry about varying shore or generator power. Its efficiency frees up available AC power for other uses.
If you want a more robust inverter/charger for the boat's AC and charging that's less expensive than the ProSine, the new Freedom SW series can charge large banks quickly, output true sine wave and handle larger starting loads than the ProSine. I've discussed Xantrex products here because I've had years of personal experience with them, but there are also other products that would serve you well.
This type of system basically gives a huge, uninterrupted, stable power supply to sensitive office equipment. I also use an off-the-shelf, high-quality office UPS (uninterruptible power supply) at the computer station as an extra precaution.
Getting online on board used to be a nightmare. Today, it's relatively easy and reliable all along the coast. We use an air card with Verizon Wireless, which, in our opinion, has the best coverage for broadband speeds. And most of the better marinas offer complimentary Wi-Fi service for docked boats.
If you travel to the Bahamas or other offshore islands, you can usually find hot spots. And with sufficient speed (and not too many people sharing the transmitter) you may be able make phone calls using VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology. But you need the right equipment. Your U.S. cell phone and air card may not be compatible with offshore systems. Different companies and different countries use different protocols for their systems.
This is all changing rapidly, usually for the better. If I were to suggest that something is the "right" equipment today, it would probably be outdated by the time this article is published. The best advice is to wait until shortly before you go, then ask the experts selling the equipment, as well as other cruisers. If you want to spend the money (and usually you must), you can generally achieve the communications you need. Remember, however, that most entry-level cell phone company employees will not have a clue about your issues.
Regardless of your equipment, you'll probably need help sucking in the signal. Cell phone towers are often oriented to land, where the people are. Consider signal enhancers. We use a cell phone antenna made by Digital Antenna (www.digitalantenna.com) mounted atop our mizzen mast. This alone greatly increases cell phone voice and data coverage. It's important to use the recommended wire because inferior wire and connections can significantly diminish the signal, particularly if the run between the antenna and your equipment is long.
We also use a DA 4000SBR amplifier down in the boat, which boosts the signal received by the antenna. The amplifier is connected to a small antenna mounted in the boat. It's like our own mini cell phone tower.
Various companies market devices that allow your air card to be utilized by more than one computer. Cradlepoint, for example, offers cellular routers like the MBR 1000, into which you can insert a USB air card (www.cradlepoint.com). The device will retransmit that signal throughout much of the boat, depending on structures and interference. Your boat has its own Wi-Fi hot spot. Up to four computers can also connect to the device via LAN cables. This is important, because a boat typically will have many potential sources of signal interference - radar, inverters, SSB and VHF radios. Also, there are numerous Wi-Fi signal enhancers you can purchase for that type of communication.
The above is relevant only when you're close to a cell phone tower or Wi-Fi hot spot. While cruising along the coast and in most of the continental waterways, this isn't much of a problem. But there's a lot of ocean out there where you'll be out of touch. However, if you have the need - and the money - you can get online almost anywhere in the ocean via satellite using equipment from a company like KVH Industries (www.kvh.com). In addition to Internet access in the middle of nowhere, you can also get television, music and voice. Air and satellite time can be reduced with compression programs that essentially weed out the unnecessary stuff and keep in the good stuff. You'll have to evaluate whether you'll be spending much time in those areas and whether the business usefulness, entertainment and peace of mind that satellite capability affords are worth the cost. If I could afford it, I'd definitely have it.
It's also possible to send e-mail via SSB with the right equipment, and you can find more information by searching "e-mail ssb" on Google. Compression programs can be particularly valuable with this methodology. However, they may limit some of what you can see and do online, so careful investigation is important to be sure it will work for you. We've found SSB unsuitable for our purposes, such as a lot of lengthy e-mails, sending attachments and Internet surfing.
As mentioned above, check with communications specialists for the latest technology before you go. Ocens (www.ocens.com), for example, is a one-stop-shop company used by many cruisers that can help you begin your search for what you need with many of these applications.
The other end of the line
There are also issues relating to the other end of the communications. If you have Internet access, there are many things you can do without dealing directly with anyone back home. Online banking and related activities immediately come to mind.
We all know that there is a certain amount of risk with online activities like banking, bill paying and stock sales. The risk increases when your communications are traveling through cell phone towers, Wi-Fi and satellite. But encryption programs, careful use of passwords, and careful monitoring of all accounts can diminish this risk. And many would question the comparative risk of putting a paper check in the mail.
However, it's still important to have a banker, broker, perhaps an attorney and other professionals with whom you can do business by long distance if necessary. You may need to educate these people regarding issues unique to you, such as the efficacy of scanned signatures vs. faxed signatures.
You should cultivate these relationships well before you go cruising. Some leave a limited or general power of attorney with a highly trusted individual for use in an emergency. A general power of attorney can allow the holder to sign your name as though he or she were you. A limited power limits that ability to defined situations. In either case, this isn't something you should do without careful consideration of risk and benefit and a certainty in the trustworthiness of the person to whom you grant the power.
What you take with you
Before you go on a cruise of any length or distance, look ahead and determine whether you're going to need to take any documents with you. A typical situation occurs when someone out in paradise has a CD mature and gets notice that the interest on the renewal is less than the cost of cheap-grade dirt. He wants to cash in the CD and invest the money elsewhere, but the CD is safely locked up in his bank safe deposit box back home.
In theory, you can handle this sort of thing by affidavits and enough other papers to satisfy the bank's legal team, but it's much better to know what papers you may need while you're gone and either take them with you (and hope you don't sink) or leave them with an attorney or other trusted individual who will accept your instructions. Also, consider having certified copies of documents you may need made. Essentially, a notary certifies that the copy of the original is, indeed, a copy of the original.
Though there is a tendency for some notaries to not use embossed seals, it's better to have these when you're traveling. The value of a certified copy will vary, but depending on the type of document and the circumstances, this may be helpful.
What about the fun?
By now, you're probably thinking you may as well forget the cruise and stay at home. Not so. Despite all this talk about business, a primary reason for being on a boat is to have fun - to enjoy the peace and freedom from that hassled world ashore. But if you're like me, you may find you have more fun and less worry knowing you can deal with shoreside business while at sea.
Tom Neale is technical editor for Soundings and lives aboard a Gulfstar 53 motorsailer. You can buy his book, "All in the Same Boat," at www.tomneale.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.