Sea Savvy - When your home office is on the water

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From wireless connectivity to reliable power, today’s technology makes it easier to work from the boat

From wireless connectivity to reliable power, today’s technology makes it easier to work from the boat

When I was around 15 years old I wanted to be a writer, the kind who wrote great stories like Ernest Hemingway and got to be rich and famous and could ride around in big boats. I thought it would be really cool to begin on my little boat, a highly porous 18-foot wooden skiff. I had built a lopsided plywood cabin on the bow, and its weight gave the skiff a noticeable decline forward despite the weight of the waterlogged 25-hp Evinrude on the stern. There even was a fore-and-aft “sleeping” bench inside that I could sit on.

One day I took my portable typewriter to the boat. We didn’t have electric ones then, which was a good thing because my skiff didn’t have electricity, and if it did I would have cooked myself sitting plugged in with my feet in bilge water. I headed down the York River, threw over the hook, sat down on the bench, and started typing with the little machine balanced on my knees. When I proudly cranked out the first page it fell into the water on the deck. When I tried to shake the salty, muddy water off the paper, it splashed into the typewriter and made the ink on the ribbon run. Then my knees got tired, and I began to feel seasick from the fumes of the gas that was mixed with the water on my deck. I finally decided I’d have to do my writing ashore.

Things are different now. As I write this I’m at anchor, sitting at a desk on my boat, using a computer with an Internet connection and printer. My wife, Mel, and I try (note I said “try”) to support ourselves while cruising by writing for various publications. Mel also sells photography and her art. We’ve lived aboard full time since 1979 and do all our business from our Gulfstar 53. While the thought of working on board seems antithetical to boating and cruising, more and more people are doing it to some degree.

The popular myth is that you go out on your boat to forget business. If you can, that’s great. But every day we see people having less fun because they feel it’s unrealistic to “forget it,” and because they worry when they can’t handle problems that might arise. Whether you’re out for a few hours or a few months, it helps to have the control you may need. Also, many people find that they’re satisfyingly productive doing work from the relaxing surroundings of their boats. I’ll tell you how we and others do it. You may find techniques more appropriate to your circumstances, but hopefully this will get you going.

Computers

Computers of one type or another are now standard equipment on many boats. They’re used extensively for navigation, and for such boating tasks as keeping a spare parts list and maintenance logs. But we can use them for business on board also. On Chez Nous we’ve always used off-the-shelf computers and printers, marketed for home and office use. We’ve never experienced problems because of this.

Most people prefer laptops because they take up less space. Another plus for laptops is that, when running on their internal batteries, they aren’t as susceptible to the power spikes that occur so readily on boats. Even if plugged into an external power source, a laptop probably will seamlessly switch to its internal batteries if the external source should fail. Power considerations for computers on boats are so important that we’ll go into some detail here.

Power to the computer

Boats typically get AC power from being plugged into a dock outlet or from their generator. Both of these sources are relatively unreliable for computer use. The dock source can create a CPU disaster if someone simply trips over the power cord, causing interference with the connection in the plug. Twist-lock plugs help but aren’t invulnerable. Power irregularities also can arise when someone plugs into the same line and turns on two or three air conditioners at the same time, when someone jiggles your plug while trying to plug in his or her boat, turns off the wrong (read: your) circuit breaker, and in many other occurrences.

AC power from an on-board generator can suffer irregularity caused by a malfunction or even hiccup of the genset. For example, voltage regulators often fail to perform with the precision necessary to maintain the consistent power to which we’re accustomed ashore. Also, power supply irregularity can be caused by common occurrences such as fuel impurity or starting surge from a large electric motor, such as in a pump or compressor.

On Chez Nous we’ve been using both laptop and desktop computers for many years, but we take special precautions to protect them. We use good surge protectors, as well as good inverters. For years we used the Freedom series inverters manufactured by the company formerly known as Heart. Now we use the ProSine series of inverters manufactured Xantrex, which purchased Heart and various other companies making related products (www.xantrex.com ). But there’s an important issue with most good inverters that you should know about.

One of the features of these products is that they sense incoming AC power (as from shore power or the generator) and, when it’s available, automatically pass that power through to on-board users. If that power is disrupted, they almost seamlessly switch from the pass-through function to the inverter function, supplying AC power by inverting DC power from the boat’s batteries. In our experience the switch has been so seamless that, even with the older Freedom series, if someone suddenly unplugged the dock line while my desktop was turned on it wouldn’t be affected.

The Freedom series supplies modified sine wave current, rather than the pure sine wave you get ashore. None of my desktops or printers had been affected by this until I switched from a Hewlett-Packard printer/fax/copier to an HP printer/fax/copier/scanner, which wouldn’t work on a modified sine wave. We began to find other equipment that also needed a pure sine wave. The ProSine series produces pure sine wave when it inverts from DC power, and this successfully runs our computers and the scanner. This series also has the seamless pass-through function.

However, there’s a potential hitch to any pass-through function, especially when the electricity being passed through to a computer is coming from a generator. If the generator hiccups in any way, the inverter could briefly pass through the irregular power caused by the glitch. Xantrex says the ProSine is designed to only accept power within certain tight tolerances, but I don’t want to take the chance of a generator-induced aberration causing a problem with my desktop. For that reason, we’ve gone a step farther.

For my desktop and HP printer/scanner/fax/copier, we use a dedicated ProSine inverter with no incoming AC. I simply don’t connect the incoming AC wires to it, only the outgoing AC wires and the 12-volt battery supply cables. It never sees any irregularities that my generator may send out. Its only source of incoming power is the house battery bank of two heavy-duty deep-cycle 8D Rolls (Surrette) batteries (part No. 12HHG325BS). The power stabilization circuitry of the ProSine, coupled with the source stability of the battery bank, results in what is, in my opinion, a very good surge protector.

I’ve never had trouble with my desktop using this system. And the money I save by purchasing a powerful, tricked-out desktop computer instead of a powerful, tricked-out laptop more than pays for the ProSine inverter. (I should note that there obviously are other inverter manufacturers. I mention Xantrex because I use these products, not because I’ve tested all inverters and made a decision based on such a comparison.)

Backing up to avoid reverse

It’s important to regularly back up your work any time you’re using a computer, but it’s exceptionally important on a boat. I save every few minutes, as well as choose the auto backup options available in many programs. We back up not only to the internal hard drive but also to external storage. Read/write CDs used to be our medium, using Roxio or other programs that enable us to drag and drop files to the disk. However, we found this to be slow and that CDs have an unacceptable — to us — susceptibility to corruption. Now we’ve switched to the small external storage units that are available in roughly the size of a Zippo lighter and plug into a USB port. They’re known by various names such as flash drives, external memory chips, Micro Vaults, etc. These can have much greater capacity than a CD, they seem to be more reliable than CDs (only time will tell), we can save or copy to them quicker, and it’s easy to just slip one in your pocket when you leave the boat. You can take all your work with you and not worry about losing everything should the thing sink while you’re away.

Communicating unplugged

Communication is key to most forms of business. It’s particularly critical to ours, because that is our business. We must regularly interview people, talk with editors, and obtain and exchange information from sources beyond the boat. Because communications likely will be the foundation of taking care of your business while aboard, and because there can be many problems, I’ll go into it in some detail.

When we first began living aboard, it was (and still is) full time all the time. We cruised (and still do) 3,000 to 5,000 miles a year. E-mail wasn’t an option then. To send a fax I’d typically have to put the paper in a waterproof bag, take it ashore in the dinghy, walk to an office or a store that had a fax machine, and pay them to send it — if they would. If this fax required a faxed response, I was out of luck unless the business ashore would agree to receive one back and had a VHF radio so they could call me when it came in. (In the Bahamas most stores had them.) Then I’d have to take another dinghy trip ashore. If they didn’t have a VHF (they seldom did in the States) I’d have to keep coming in and checking. Sometimes I’d spend two or three days exchanging a fax communication.

Telephone calls were just as bad. I’d have to go ashore in the dinghy to find a phone. There were very few available in the Bahamas, and if they were available they frequently weren’t working. If I got a voice mail, I couldn’t leave a message to call me back. And taking notes on a windy day while standing in a phone booth with lizards or cockroaches running across my feet didn’t do a lot for productivity. Rejoice, things are much better now.

While aboard — whether at a dock, under way or at anchor — we surf the Internet, send and receive e-mail with large files (including graphics), have conference calls, and turn out work daily. Along the East Coast, we use Verizon for talking and Internet access (www.verizon.com ). Thus far we’ve found Verizon to have the best overall coverage for both, relevant to East Coast boating. For around $80 a month we have unlimited wireless Internet access using its 1XRTT (national access) service. Verizon says this service has speeds bursting up to 144 kbps, although it says users should expect average speeds of 60 to 80 kbps. This coverage is available in most areas along the coast, with some notable exceptions, like portions of northeast North Carolina and some areas of Georgia.

We hope to soon switch to Verizon’s broadband service — presently for $59.99 a month — which it claims has typical speeds of 400 to 700 kbps and is capable of bursts up to 2 Mbps. But this has very limited coverage relevant to boating except in a few coastal urban areas. However, this coverage is expanding and defaults to 1XRTT when it isn’t available.

Other carriers also are investing more heavily in this field, and this hopefully will be good for all of us. All aspects of communication technology relevant to boating are changing so rapidly that you should investigate thoroughly before you buy anything. This will probably take much more time than it should, because the carriers gear their customer service and Web sites to the land-bound masses, rather than boaters. Finding representatives who know much about boat-related issues can be difficult, but stick with it. I once had a rep ask me if the Atlantic was a lake in Ohio.

Remote connectivity

If you plan to cruise to the Bahamas or Caribbean, the availability of reliable and relatively fast wireless data service is much more problematic. Your cell phone may or may not work. I know of one instance where one couple bought two identical cell phones with identical service, and one worked in the Bahamas while the other did not, though both were on the same boat. And even if you can talk on your cell phone, data transmission for e-mail and Internet access usually is more of a problem. This is complicated not only by the technology available on the various towers planted around the islands, but also by the fact that in the United States different carriers use different cell phone transmission protocols, such as CDMA, TDMA and GSM. (GSM is used in Europe, by some carriers here, and in much of the Caribbean.) As you move from island to island, each may use a different protocol, thus your phone may work in one island paradise but not the next.

If you want to be more certain that you’ll have voice and wireless data capability anywhere, consider satellite equipment. We’ve found even this to suffer from some coverage holes, but generally it works if you’re within the footprint of the satellite. Globalstar (www.globalstarusa.com ), for example, has added a land station in Florida to eliminate holes that previously existed in the Bahamas and Caribbean. Ask the service provider about coverage before you sign.

The main problem with sat phones is the expense of the equipment and air time and the slowness of data transmission. It requires a very high level of technology for a satellite antenna on a moving boat to stay locked onto a “bird” well enough to allow for consistent speed in receiving and sending data. But technology is advancing. KVH (www.kvh.com ), for example, offers very sophisticated equipment that uses Inmarsat, as well as products that, depending upon your service, it says allow high-speed Internet access by satellite in the far reaches of the ocean.

Chris Watson, corporate communications manager of KVH Industries, says the cost of the satellite equipment ranges from around $12,000 to $24,000. Cost for satellite usage varies with the service to which you subscribe and can be billed by minutes or data bit increments. Watson says many prefer the per data bit plans because as long as you are simply looking at a Web page, there is no data flowing.

KVH has announced that it intends this summer to offer, in conjunction with Microsoft’s MSN TV, the TracNet 100 system for coastal cruising. Watson says the company anticipates that the subscription cost will be les than $100 a month for unlimited Internet and MSN TV access. This will provide broadband speeds within the range of Verizon cell phone towers that are so equipped. The hardware will interface with a television and will serve multiple computers and phones on board.

Ocens (www.ocens.com ) offers products and services that many find an attractive compromise for considerably less expense. Company president Mark Freeberg says Ocens sells and rents both Globalstar and Iridium satellite phones. He notes that Iridium is used more by longer-range cruisers — beyond the Bahamas, for example, and particularly those going down to the Southern Hemisphere — because its coverage includes “just about everywhere.” However, he notes its data rate is slower than Globalstar because its signal goes from the phone to satellite to satellite until it gets back to Iridium’s land base. Globalstar, he says, doesn’t have the wide ocean coverage in the Southern Hemisphere and some other areas, but it’s much faster because the signal goes from your phone to one satellite and then to a ground station for your area.

Freeberg says that for Globalstar voice and data you should expect to pay around $650 to $750 for the phone (Ocens sells them for around $650), around $70 for the data kit and around $30 for the cable. An external antenna with cable, which should prevent signal interference by your deck and superstructure when you’re below, could cost an extra $1,000 to $1,100. Then you pay an activation fee with XWeb or another program and pay for a plan. Globalstar rates for the typical cruiser’s plan, he says, are usually around 24 cents a minute.

Freeberg notes that with Iridium you should expect to pay around $1,500 for the phone and around $100 for the data kit. An external antenna would cost around $200 to $400. Usually a typical cruising plan is more than $1 per minute, he says.

Ocens also provides voice and data services, which are available for different types of communications gear, including satellite phones. One of its e-mail products allows different people on the same boat to have their own e-mail accounts through the main account. You also can get a free feature (or an upgraded paid version) that will track your position for friends and family whenever you e-mail. In addition, you can download from a huge selection of weather products, paying a small fee per downloaded product or getting better rates through packaged deals.

Freeberg says that its XWeb Web browser can increase the speed of a browser by a factor of up to 10X, an important consideration with the cost of air time. This is achieved by methodology that includes compression and filtering out of some extraneous material. (Such programs might not work well with some secure sites.)

You also can e-mail — even in remote areas — using a single sideband radio if you purchase a modem that will work with your radio and if you sign up with one of several service providers. But there are sometimes problems of frequency congestion or disruption of transmissions by interference from such factors as sunspots or ionosphere deterioration. Slow transmission speed is the norm, even in good circumstances, and this means you can generally only send and receive short messages. This may not be adequate for your business applications. Ham radio also is being used for e-mail, and if you are licensed you can do this with help from other hams without the costs of service providers. But ham radio isn’t supposed to be used for business purposes. As with all of these issues, research carefully for the latest developments before you buy.

Bringing in the signal

Cell phones, PC cards, repeater stations and even cell phone towers have limited range from the boater’s perspective. This would be fatal to much maritime usage if it weren’t for people like Bud Gallagher, with his impressive background in electrical engineering and problem-solving inventions, as well as his love of boating and traveling.

Gallagher is president of Digital Antenna

(www.digitalantenna.com), a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., company that specializes in bringing in the signal. For example, its Small Building Repeater (DA 4000SBR) includes the DA4000 signal amplifier, marine grade external antenna to be mounted on a mast or radar arch (or other high spot), wiring to connect the antenna to the amplifier inside the boat, and a small inside antenna that serves as your own little cell phone tower for all the cell phones and air cards in your boat. Your cell phone and/or air card communicates with that inside antenna, which communicates with the big towers through the external antenna mounted high on your boat. Signal strength is improved by both the height of your external antenna and by the amplifier. This setup sells for around $600 and requires at least 40 feet of separation between the external and internal antennas. Digital Antenna also offers other kits, including the Mobile Repeater for smaller boats, which requires 20 feet of separation.

There are other antenna and amplifier manufacturers, and I haven’t done comparative testing of all the products. I mention Digital’s equipment because we’ve used it for several years and have found that it helps us immensely. In the Bahamas we’ve been able to talk at ranges well more than 50 miles from the nearest tower.

Obviously, the range of data transmission is improved with this equipment, but speed of data transmission also is improved, because with a stronger signal there is less ongoing error correction. Of course, if there is no carrier signal available this type of equipment can’t help, but most of us boat where there’s at least a weak signal.

Digital Antenna also offers connectivity kits so you can hard-wire your amplifier to a cell phone or certain air cards if you prefer to go that route. A hard-wired antenna connection generally will provide a stronger signal than one transmitted via the internal antenna, but you’re more limited as to mobility within the boat and number of phones.

The number of Wi-Fi hot spots for cruisers is rapidly increasing, and many are free — for example Hampton Creek in Hampton, Va., the Southpoint Anchorage mooring field at Stuart, Fla., and downtown Annapolis, Md., to name a few. In the Bahamas and Caribbean, as well as other places, entrepreneurs are creating hot spots for which they might or might not charge access fees. If maintained — and that’s often an issue in the islands — these provide circles of Wi-Fi coverage enabling even the use of inexpensive voice transmission through your computer with services like Vonage (www.vonage.com ). But few want to remain huddled around a Wi-Fi transmitter with a crowd of other boats, trying to suck in a signal.

There are other products that can help you bring in Wi-Fi from greater distances. Digital Antenna offers a 2.4 gigahertz Wi-Fi antenna that provides a 10 dBi gain. While many variables will affect range, Digital says this equipment will increase your signal strength 10 times and your range three times.

We’ve also used products such as the Linksys (www.linksys.com ) Wireless-G USB network adapter with what’s called a “speed booster,” which we purchased at CompUSA. It’s a remote antenna with enhancing features that plugs into the USB port on the laptop. With its programming, it enables the laptop to bring in Wi-Fi signals from farther away than it would without this or similar equipment. This is because of the hardware and because you can place the antenna much higher than your laptop, which may live on the nav station a foot or so above sea level. We get more height by using a 6-foot USB extension cord, but we wouldn’t use a greater length, because of the potential for signal degradation. This product isn’t weatherproof or built for marine use, but we place it within our Bimini enclosure and take appropriate precautions.

With any connection, particularly wireless, there are security concerns. This depends in part upon your risk-tolerance level, the security programs on your computer and repeaters, and the nature of information transmitted. Discuss this with the professional when you buy your equipment.

Boat office bugs

Your computer, printer, monitor and other components should always be well-anchored. Even when running in calm, protected waters, you never know when someone is going to roar by and throw a huge wake.

Printer paper presents an unexpected issue. Inexpensive paper has a tendency to absorb moisture, which will have a tendency to cause paper jams in your printer. We use only the expensive high-grade, high-gloss, high-weight paper and have found that this significantly reduces printer problems.

You’d think that metal office products like computer chassis, staples and paper clips would be affected by the salt air environment. The only thing that we’ve seen suffer is paper clips. We’ve found that plastic clips or plastic-coated metal clips serve better.

Boats have a tendency to accumulate dust more than houses. They’re holes in the water into which dust — and money — settle. Computers have fans that run almost constantly to suck in air to cool the CPU and other components. This air might be dust-laden, and the dust could be salt-laden. We’ve never found this to cause a problem, but regular boat-vacuuming and dust removal from the computer’s air intake (and any other serviceable components where it might accumulate) may be helpful. Don’t clean the inside of your computer if you don’t have the knowledge and skills involved or if it would invalidate the warranty.

Like every other piece of equipment on board, you’ll need spares, such as extra paper and printer cartridges. We also carry extra cables.

Paper ballast

Office work traditionally has meant lots of paperwork. On a boat there’s not much room for paper storage, and even if there were, it’s quite heavy. We try to keep paper records to a minimum. We store our paper files in plastic boxes with snap-on tops. However, we store as much data as we can electronically.

We use the IRIS optical character recognition program in conjunction with our scanner (www.irislink.com). We’re not completely satisfied with OCR reproduction, but it has been helpful. We can scan a paper document and convert it to an electronic file, such as a Microsoft Word document. Then we discard the paper. If we need it in paper again (we seldom do), we print it. The electronic reproduction often is deficient in capturing unusual symbols like logos or handwriting, and it might lose formatting. However, it usually adequately captures the material we need, which is easily kept on computer storage media, can be found and retrieved, weighs nothing, and takes up virtually no space.

Scanning helps solve a problem left over from the dark ages: It’s still hard to fax. Off-the-shelf fax machines seldom are compatible with cell and satellite transmissions unless you buy expensive hardware to trick them into thinking they’re getting a dial tone. So if we have to fax a hard copy, we scan it and send the electronic copy as an e-mail attachment. When printed by the recipient, it looks just like it came from an old-fashioned fax machine.

The rest of the problem

Now I own a “big boat,” at least as compared to my skiff of more than 50 years ago. I’ve solved a lot of boat/office problems on Chez Nous, from high-tech gizmos to permanently sealing the leaking port hole over the computer station with 3M 5200. But I haven’t even come close to my dream of becoming a rich and famous writer. I’m sure you’ve figured that out if you’ve gotten this far. Maybe I’d have better luck trying to figure out the stock market — like those guys I see buying and selling online while riding around on the really big boats.

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 .