Out of Office: Communication Options for Cruisers

By: American Sailing Association, Equipment, Social Media, Weather

wiring SSB radioWe’ve received a number of reader questions about internet access at sea. This guest blog by ASA cruising expert Meghan Harvey has the answers!

Lots of people preparing to go cruising wonder what their options are to stay connected. Gone are the days of truly intrepid adventurers who simply cast off, never to be heard from for months until they land on some island with a payphone somewhere in the Pacific. Most mothers nowadays—or fathers, girlfriends, siblings, friends, or kids—might be okay with you going cruising, but expect you not to just fall off the face of the continent! Even if you’re the solitary type who would want to sail away to blue nothingness, most people want to have a line back to their loved ones.

Internet technology continues to change, but currently there are several ways that cruisers access the internet while globetrotting.

First, the old-fashioned coffee-shop method. It takes some getting used to not to have the internet at your fingertips right at home, but if you’re going cruising, do consider this option. Especially if you’re cruising internationally, where personal internet connections are less frequent, wifi coffee shops abound in almost every port. I was shocked to find wifi cafes even in the most remote stretches on the Mexican coastline. You will have frequent and inexpensive opportunities to connect to the internet while cruising, even if you don’t purchase any additional gear for your boat.
prescott working remotely
Another popular internet source while cruising is a wireless internet card. Offered by many cell phone providers, this little USB device wirelessly taps into cell phone networks and allows full internet access from your computer. What’s great about these things is that they’re very small—about the size of a flash drive, and they are relatively inexpensive. Most companies charge a fee for the card itself ($75-150, usually), and then either a monthly fee for a set amount of gigabytes, or prepaid chunks of gigs. For example, in the US, we pay about $50/month for internet via Sprint’s “aircard” (with a limit of 5 GB); in Mexico, we purchased a Telcel card and bought 3GB prepaid chunks for about $30USD. If you’re planning to cruise in a single country for awhile, the wireless internet card is a practical purchase, which many cruisers prefer. Note: Since these cards run off of cell networks, you will not get service very far offshore, or even in some remote anchorages. However, we got service at anchor about 70% of the time in the Sea of Cortez and Mainland Mexico. Most companies have coverage charts that you can check out before buying.

A third option, which is quite uncommon in the cruising crowd in our experience, is satellite internet. With virtually worldwide coverage, satellite internet gives you broadband internet anywhere—even in the middle of the Pacific. However, because this option is quite pricey, it’s not a common choice for cruisers. If you are interested in looking into it, try contacting the provider Inmarsat Fleet Broadband.

Other Communication Options
installing ssb through hull
But, do you really want to be checking Facebook while you’re at sea? I can answer that for you—NO, you don’t. (Well, maybe just the ASA page. -Ed.) You’re going off the grid, checking out, sailing away! As soon as you go, your priorities will change, and you’ll have a lot more time for exploring if you aren’t connected to the internet while cruising. Besides, the internet is not the only way to get weather reports and stay in contact at sea. These are both important things to have access to, and right now there are two great solutions available.

An SSB radio, paired with a Pactor Modem, is almost one-stop-shopping for your communication needs onboard. Though the purchase of the equipment and installation is a factor in terms of cost, the service itself is free. The SSB radio is a long-range communication tool, letting you tap in to professional weather nets multiple times daily. The Pactor Modem connects the radio to your laptop computer, allowing you to request and receive weather files to your computer via radio. In addition to weather files, you can send and receive text-based emails (sadly, no photos though) via the downloadable Sailmail program. It’s magic; I don’t really understand how it works, but it’s awesome. Of course, with a long-range radio, you can also keep in close contact with other cruisers as you make passages together, and become involved in the ever-amusing daily cruisers’ social nets. Note: transmitting via radio is verrrrry slow—think dial-up internet from the 90s speed. But thankfully, you’ll have plenty of time.
prescott and nessie wiring
Rather than the installation hassle of an SSB radio, some cruisers choose to purchase a satellite phone and modem. While you can’t get on the cruisers’ and weather nets this way, you can make a phone call to your onshore weather router (or your parents), and you can also use the modem to download weather files to your computer. My understanding is that you can send email via sat phone and modem as well, though I’ve personally never used this setup. While the initial cost is cheaper than an SSB radio (around $1000 for the phone vs. around $3000 for the SSB setup), sat phones charge users by the minute (often around $1.50/minute). Check with providers Iridium or Globalstar for current phone prices and minute rates.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the SPOT Tracker (~$150), which we use on Velella to track our progress via GPS points on an online map. It can’t send email or make phone calls, but it can send a pre-programmed message from anywhere in the world that “All is well aboard” or whatever you want it to say, along with your precise position on a Google map. When you’re at sea, and in the absence of any other form of contact, it may be just what the folks back home need.

Now, go put up your virtual “Gone Cruising” message and cast off already!