Island Time - Saving lives and credit ratings

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A small arsenal of communications tools and services can do both jobs without costing a fortune

A small arsenal of communications tools and services can do both jobs without costing a fortune

The shallow waters of the Caicos Bank are liquid emerald. Above us float green cotton candy clouds, their eccentric hue a pale reflection of the waters below. With settled weather, we anchor Rio between these sympathetic greens; we are alone and miles from the desert islands thereabouts.

Stunning though the view may have been, my attention is turned to business — to a different green, an altogether different type of bank, and the cold racks of circuitry passing high above those clouds. On my mind at that moment, in order: dollars, Wachovia Bank and communications satellites.

We may be at anchor off the Turks and Caicos islands, but I still have to make a truck payment in Jacksonville, Fla. A few minutes later the transaction is completed, and Kelly and I can enjoy that sundowner cocktail that so many folks back home associate with successful cruising. Were it only that simple!

The most valuable lesson I learned the first time I headed off to the Caribbean had nothing to do with seamanship or navigation. The lesson was about loose ends. Any key decision not made, any detail of life left unattended while cruising will eventually rise up and bite you.

The impact can be devastating. Back during that first 18-month sojourn, online banking was in its infancy, and I had left the payment of my bills to the woman who was taking care of my ailing mother. Let’s just say she was an excellent nurse and companion, but fell short in the check-writing department.

She drove a stake through my fiscal heart when she paid an entire cycle of bills from the wrong checking account: the one with hardly any money in it. Every payment bounced, but that wasn’t the worst part. I didn’t learn that this had happened until maybe six months after the fact. I was grossly in arrears.

Everyone got their money, but it took six years to repair my credit rating, and that score, as it’s called, is a key measure of how we American adults view our self worth. Americans wear bad credit like a scarlet letter: D for deadbeat.

Obviously, then, online banking is a huge benefit for anyone who goes to sea. At the very minimum, cruisers can manage financial affairs from the Internet cafes of the world. Better still, any cruising vessel should have a notebook computer and an on-board Internet connection. For me, writing for a living, this was essential — not to mention its value for maintaining connections to family and friends.

Sci-Fi and WiFi

One can spend a small fortune achieving connectivity. Putting up one of those R2D2 Star Wars antennas (you’ve seen them; they look like the little robot) would cost what Kelly and I spend cruising aboard Rio for an entire year. Let me describe our approach, at once minimalist and effective.

First we bought a Globalstar GSP 1600 satellite phone for $650. (Used sets go for less than $400.) I prepaid for 6,000 airtime minutes, which costs $1,440, or 24 cents a minute. If that seems excessive, keep in mind that those $5,000 Star Wars antennas entail monthly subscription and per-minute charges, too.

The 6,000-minute plan includes data service and software to install Globalstar’s Express Data compression on the computer. The phone’s computer connection is a 9-pin serial cable, so we needed to buy a serial-to-USB adapter cable to connect it to the notebook.

When connecting, we’d place the phone in the cockpit and link it to the computer with a 6-foot USB cable extension.

The Express Data program speeds up the phone’s 9.6 Kpbs connection, but the result is still excruciatingly slow by today’s standards. And dropped calls mean one often has to make multiple attempts. And to that I say: Who gives a fig? We’re anchored inside a reef at the edge of the world, and through the miracle of satellite telephony I’m making a truck payment online. It’s not like we had something else to do that afternoon.

Besides being a telephone, Globalstar is the tool that makes online banking and any other Internet business possible. For e-mail, we subscribed to Ocens Mail service, which works so well with a Globalstar phone the two companies recently entered into a strategic partnership.

Ocens processes your e-mails on its own server, fetching them from your existing account(s). It downloads the short ones, and sends you an e-mail notification of those that exceed the size limit (set by you). Ocens retains your big-file mail on its server, so you can choose to download lengthy messages or wait until you’re near some WiFi hotspot for a speedy connection.

Ocens software is designed to work with bad connections and has one feature that we found highly valuable because of dropped calls. When you reconnect, the Ocens Wireless Gateway detects a previous download and asks if you want to continue the download where it left off, rather than begin again. With this feature and a little patience, we were able to download some pretty big files while anchored in the middle of paradise. We found 40 e-mails took about 2 minutes to send and receive.

Ocens built its business catering to the requirements of the Alaska fishing fleet, and one of those is the demand for timely weather data. Another feature we bought from Ocens is WeatherNet, which allows users to specify weather downloads for any cruising ground. There were more than 20 files applicable to the Bahamas, but we chose to regularly download just two: Chris Parker’s superb Bahamas forecast and the U.S. government’s Southwest North Atlantic and Caribbean Offshore report.

A word about costs: $59 for Ocens Mail software; $99 for WeatherNet. Twelve months of Ocens service is $220. Weather downloads are priced individually. Chris Parker’s forecast, for example, costs $1.20 (money well-spent) and the NMW forecast added another 18 cents to bring Rio’s usual forecast total to $1.38.

A service we would have purchased had we intended to go farther down island is Ocens GRIB Explorer. At $199 this viewing software gives cruisers on a modest budget the same access to real-time graphical representations of weather trends that once belonged exclusively to the R2D2 folks, including my favorite, the U.S. Navy’s pictorial seven-day wind and wave forecasts for the North Atlantic. This and all the other GRIB files download to your computer through WeatherNet.

Snail mail for sailors

You may have noticed that weather has blown this column a bit off course, so let’s bring it back to its focus: loose ends that turn into butt-biting vipers. Internet banking, satellite phones and whizzy software only go so far. There’s the matter of snail mail and package handling.

Did the interest on a variable-rate mortgage just go up? Is there another paper you need to sign for your retirement? Is a warrant about to be issued because of that unpaid traffic ticket? Important business — all courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service.

The walls at some cruiser hangouts are decorated with a mosaic of “cruising cards,” business cards cruisers trade to stay in touch. Based on the addresses, you might mistakenly conclude that Green Cove Springs, Fla., breeds cruisers the way Cuba breeds ballplayers. Then you might notice that all those Green Cove people are living at the same address, 411 Walnut Street.

The truth is many have never even been to Green Cove, a little town on the St. Johns River just south of Jacksonville. The Walnut Street address belongs to St. Brendan’s Isle, the best marine-oriented mail-forwarding service in business today. Doug and Linda Moody bought the business in 2000 and have built up to more than 2,500 clients, most of whom are cruisers or RVers.

No matter where you might be in the Caribbean, St. Brendan’s staff knows the best way to get mail to you — which pick-up location, which carrier. Service is personalized, with every boat assigned a staffer to look after the crew’s needs.

They can act as your agent to renew a vessel’s federal documentation. They will monitor your incoming mail for items such as checks, and will pay bills if necessary. They will screen out junk mail and magazines so it doesn’t cost a fortune to ship your mail to wherever your boat may be. Mail-wise, you tell them what needs doing, and they do it.

St. Brendan’s can also act as your vessel’s purchasing agent, and receives volume discount from a number or marine wholesalers.

Doug Moody once said the reason for St. Brendan’s success was threefold: The company understands the importance of the “content of people’s mail;” staff members do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it; and everyone does their job while putting a friendly face forward. I would also add that their service is reasonably priced.

Believe me, this is not a glib endorsement. I’ve had St. Brendan’s working for me for four years.

Over and out

Now back to tech talk. Devotees of the single-sideband radio are probably tut-tutting my failure to mention their favorite communications technology. I’m not against an old-time single-sideband radio for weather and e-mail. I’m not advocating you rip SSB out of your boat. And if you should buy a boat so equipped, by all means get licensed to broadcast.

Otherwise, satellite telephone is the way to go, and certainly the initial costs are far less than SSB. The telephone signal is crystal clear, and it’s a great way to call the Coast Guard instantly.

I’ll finish with a story.

I was anchored in the Dominican Republic a few years ago when one of the boats in the harbor picked up a mayday over VHF radio. A fishing boat was sinking about 30 miles off the coast. It was about 9:30 p.m., and there was a general call in the harbor for someone who could speak Spanish to the Dominican Navy, which apparently did not hear the mayday. The heck with that, I said. Anyone with a satellite phone in the harbor should call the Coast Guard in Miami right now. “What’s the number?” one early adapter asked. Don’t know, I said, call directory assistance.

Long story short: The Miami station dispatched a Coast Guard helicopter from the southern Bahamian Island of Great Iguana, and those fishermen were pulled out of the water within 40 minutes. That’s when I knew that some day I was going to get one of those satellite phones for my own boat.

Whether to save lives or your credit rating, Rio’s modest technology — with help from St. Brendan’s Isle — gets the job done without having to spend Blackbeard’s treasure. The money you save could buy you a new dinghy and outboard — or a truck.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .