Staying in touch while on board - Soundings Online

Staying in touch while on board

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This is the second in a continuing series that will focus on technology for staying connected while on the water.

Editor’s note: This is the second in a continuing series that will focus on technology for staying connected while on the water.

One of the many joys of boating for us is the escape from day-to-day shoreside obligations it provides. As our desire to spend more time aboard increased over the years, however, so did our need to maintain our responsibilities from the boat. We found that staying connected from the water, both personally and professionally, allowed us to be away for longer periods of time.

A few years ago, when we decided to live full-time aboard Symmetry, our Lagoon 380 catamaran, we realized we would need to find additional economical and practical ways to stay connected as we cruised the East Coast. When we first started sailing in 1983 our 19-foot O’Day Mariner had no VHF radio, let alone electronic instrumentation, and affordable and portable cell phones and laptops were things of the future. With today’s technology we can manage almost all aspects of our lives from the water. We’re able to stay in touch with family and friends, manage our finances and work from the boat even when we aren’t tied to a dock. Here’s a look at the tools we use and some tips about what works well for us.

Voice communications

Our primary non-emergency communications tool is a cell phone, as it not only gives us portable, wireless voice communications but also the ability to access the Internet. And Verizon was a good choice for us as a provider, since it offers digital service along most of the Eastern Seaboard (www.verizonwireless.com ). In fact, cruising from Rhode Island to the Florida Keys over the last year, the remote AlligatorRiver area of North Carolina was the only place we experienced a lack of coverage.

We’ve found the cell phone to be convenient for calling ahead to marinas to inquire about available transient dockage or fuel prices. It’s more private than the VHF, and it has far greater range. Since the cell phone is our only telephone, we try to make calls to friends and family during off-peak times, saving our peak minutes for calls necessary during daily business hours.

Internet

The Internet is another important tool in our communications arsenal. Aboard Symmetry, we use a laptop to access the Web, and the cell phone acts as the modem. Just as talking on the cell phone uses minutes, so does accessing the Internet, so we usually log on during off-peak times only. However, for important matters like weather forecasts, we will log on during peak times but try to keep this to a minimum. While the cell phone Internet connection is much slower than broadband, we’ve found it to be more than adequate for our needs.

We also access the Internet using our laptop and Wi-Fi. We use a 2Wire PCMCIA card with an external antenna jack. This is connected to a Hyperlink Technologies 12db external antenna mounted to the Bimini frame. We are finding more and more free Wi-Fi sites in harbors such as Annapolis and Solomons, Md., and Hampton, Va., to name a few. We’ve also found many marinas offering this service. These access portals usually feature much faster speeds than we get through our cell phone.

A broadband card from a cell phone provider is yet another option for Internet connectivity. Although the monthly cost is high ($60 or so), it offers high-speed access 24/7. At this time, we can’t cost-justify a broadband card, but we expect that over time the monthly cost will come down to a more affordable level.

Our laptop runs on standard 110-volt current supplied from our house bank through our Xantrex 2,500-watt inverter. Our 430-amp 12-volt house bank consists of four 6-volt “golf cart” batteries wired in series. To charge the batteries while at anchor, we installed two 120-watt Kyocera solar panels on a stainless steel bar on our dinghy davits, which provide around 80 amps per day when the sun shines. If we need to top off the batteries on a cloudy day we use our portable 2-kW Honda generator. It will return about 60 amps into the house bank in an hour.

E-mail

We use e-mail for the bulk of our communications. Almost everyone has access to it, and it allows us to reply when it’s most convenient for us. We send out a monthly cruising log to family and friends in one fell swoop to 90 or so e-mail addresses, along with a dozen or so digital photos. We use Google’s free Gmail service to avoid monthly Internet service provider charges (www.mail.google.com ). (Hotmail — www.hotmail.com — is another popular free e-mail service many cruisers use.) Gmail gives us close to 3 gigabytes of storage, and we don’t worry about losing our previous e-mail correspondence, because messages are stored and backed up on Google’s network.

Of course, you have to deal with the ubiquitous advertising, but we feel it’s a small price to pay for free e-mail. We’ve used this for almost two years and it has worked very well.

Financial management

Managing your money from a distance is no longer the challenge it once was. The Internet allows access to banks, investment firms and insurance companies for administering our finances. Online banking enables us to manage our checking and savings accounts and investments, as well as pay our bills. With 128-bit encryption on most commercial Web sites, we prefer the Internet as we feel it is now more secure and easier than a telephone call.

We use Bank of America because it offers many online services, and there are branches all along the East Coast (www.bankofamerica.com ). When we make landfall, there usually is a Bank of America branch or ATM nearby for those times when we need cash or must speak with a bank representative. We also have online accounts with Internet banks that offer high interest rates with no minimums or fees. We have our primary checking account with Bank of America linked to these accounts, and this allows us to move money electronically. ING (www.ing.com ), EmigrantDirect (www.emigrantdirect.com ), and HSBC (www.hsbc.com ) are banks we currently do business with through the Internet. Just like other U.S. banks, they all carry FDIC insurance to protect your deposits.

We have our Internet financial management to the point where we mail out very few checks on a monthly basis. We use a mail-forwarding service on those occasions when we need to receive “snail mail.” We have our mail forwarded about once a month to a location where we know we will be for a few days. It usually takes two business days to receive our mail bundle using the Postal Service’s Priority Mail service. When we call for our mail we have the junk mail weeded out, which helps minimize postage.

Our first choice for bill paying is our Visa credit card. Not only is this method easy and secure, but we receive an annual check for 1 percent of our total credit card activity for the year. Hence, we carry very little cash and use our credit card for nearly every expense we may incur — from food, restaurants and fuel to dockage, cell phone charges and clothing. Our second choice for paying bills is by automatic withdrawal from our checking accounts. Our monthly health insurance premium is one bill we pay using this method.

Weather on the Web

As full-time liveaboards, one of the best uses for the Internet is getting weather forecasts. We like Weather Underground for local predictions (www.wunderground.com ). It includes a link for marine forecasts for a particular area. We also use Intellicast for real-time radar and surface analysis (www.intellicast.com ). Simply enter a zip code at either of these sites to get up-to-date marine and local weather information for a particular area.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Web site seems to offer every conceivable iteration of weather data known to man (www.noaa.com ). Among our favorites is the NOAA National Weather Service site (www.nws.noaa.gov ), where we can select a text marine forecast for a particular coastal zone from an easy-to-use map. Hurricane tracking sites are also available on the Internet, which enables us to monitor tropical systems and take appropriate action if necessary. NOAA provides an excellent site for hurricane tracking at www.srh.noaa.gov/tlh/tropical.

Other Internet uses

Yet another way we use the Internet is for purchasing just about anything we need for the boat. It allows us to research items and locate them for purchase. For example, last year we lost our starboard propeller, and we found and ordered a replacement online. The prop was shipped to the marina where we were to be hauled, and it was there by the time we arrived. We usually receive orders within a few days using a cooperating marina as a mailing address, or we have them shipped to our mail service for forwarding.

The Internet is also excellent for checking tourist attractions, restaurants, movie theaters, shopping and local historical information at potential cruising stops. Web sites such as MapQuest (www.mapquest.com ) are helpful for directions to specific addresses and for maps of local areas. Local transportation information is just a click away, too. And we check for Intracoastal Waterway updates on such sites as Skipper Bob’s Waterway Guides (www.skipperbob.home.att.net) and Cruising Guides to the Southeastern United States (www.cruisingguide.com ).

The Web also is useful for keeping our electronic chart system up to date. For electronic charting we use Nobeltec’s Visual Navigation Suite, and we download software updates or purchase additional charting products from its Web site as necessary (www.nobeltec.com ). One of the best sites we’ve found for cruisers is Maptech’s free chart download site (www.freeboatingcharts.com ). Here we can update our East Coast electronic raster charts, and download ones we might not have, for free on a regular basis.

Entertainment

On board Symmetry we have an LCD television mounted on a retractable bracket that’s bolted to the bulkhead abaft the nav station. This allows us to move the television about, then securely store it against the bulkhead while under way. We don’t have a satellite dish, so we only receive broadcast TV where available. We have a DVD player for movie viewing, and most cruisers swap DVDs when they get to a long-term anchorage. The television also is configured to be used as a remote display for our laptop. This is especially useful when we’re running our electronic charting software.

When we first moved aboard we installed an XM satellite radio receiver and a Terk marine XM antenna (www.xmradio.com ). For around $10 per month we now receive 170 channels of music, news and other entertainment, most of which is commercial-free. And the XM receiver interfaces into our existing AM/FM radio. We have never failed to get a full-strength digital signal along the East Coast. In fact, we rarely listen to our extensive CD collection anymore, nor do we listen to conventional broadcast radio.

Life made easier

It’s hard to imagine what it was like living aboard even 10 years ago. Technological advances in computers, satellites, GPS navigation, cell phones, and the Internet have made staying in touch with the real world and managing shoreside obligations so much easier. It allows us to enjoy the cruising lifestyle we cherish.

Lisa Brooks and Tom Schlagel are a liveaboard couple from Mystic, Conn., who seasonally cruise south and north on the Intracoastal Waterway aboard their Lagoon 380 catamaran, Symmetry.