Sunday, September 2, 2012

Communications for Cruisers

In January of 1968, the USS Pueblo a “technical research vessel” (Navy Intelligence) was boarded and captured by North Korean Forces.  Initially the United States attempted to deny, deny, deny.  The claim that it was not a spy ship was hampered by the fact that the ship with numerous electronic appendages looked like a floating antenna farm.  Today, the USS Pueblo remains the third-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy, and the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive.
Motivator’s Radar Arch

I only mention USS Pueblo because modern cruising vessels are like the Pueblo in that they are also floating antenna farms.

The Very High Frequency (VHF) radio remains the cruiser’s primary means of communications.  It is used for ship to ship and ship to shore communications.  Cruisers communicate with buddy boats and crew members in launches, coordinate crossing situations, arrange dockage, receive weather information, and conduct cruiser’s nets via the VHF radio.  Cruiser’s nets are established for a geographical area and are usually hosted by volunteers.  The Grenada Cruisers Net is at 7:30 AM on International Channel 66 Monday through Saturday.  The agenda is: Security & Navigation, Weather, New Arrivals, Departing Vessels, Needed Parts and Services, Treasures from the Bilge (items you wish to sell or give away), Social Announcements, Commercial Announcements, and Items Missed.  On most mornings the net takes about 30 minutes.

Single Side Band (SSB) radio is also popular among cruisers and unlike VHF allows for communications over vast distances if atmospheric conditions permit.  SSB allows cruisers to get weather information, routing recommendations, participate in nets, and with extra equipment send and receive emails.  Because of the equipment costs and the learning curve associated with SSB, Motivator is not equipped.  So far we have not needed SSB, and I think it would only be necessary if we were crossing oceans or traveling to very remote places.   

The ship’s radar becomes your eyes in fog or at night for identifying possible vessel traffic.  Radar can also be used to verify your position by comparing displayed land features with your navigational chart.

Motivator is alerting with Stop The Press
Automated Identification System (AIS) is relatively a newcomer to the cruiser’s tool bag.  International voyaging ships with gross tonnage of 300 or more tons are required to operate with a Class A AIS transceiver.  In 2007, the new Class B AIS standard was introduced which enabled a new generation of low-cost AIS transceivers.   AIS is an automatic tracking system used for identifying and locating vessels by electronically exchanging data with other nearby ships and AIS Base stations. AIS information supplements radar.  Motivator is equipped with a Class A & B receive only AIS system that displays vessels identification, position, course, and speed on the navigational chart plotter.

When under the satellite’s footprint, Motivator receives XM Radio programming and XM Weather data.  We exceeded XM’s range when we departed the Bahamas.  Other cruisers with Sirus Radio reported receiving signal into the Leeward Islands.  While the Motivator crew sorely misses XM Radio that is not the case with XM Weather.  For the cost, the service it is lacking at best.  With Internet access there are much better and cheaper weather products available.

At this point I need to mention the Internet.  I can’t imagine what cruising was like before the Internet.  Cruisers use the Internet for weather information, emails to friends and families, blogging, paying bills, banking, business, working from the boat, voice communication (Skype), and entertainment.  The list of uses goes on and on.  When cruisers talk, you hear, “Anchorage “X” is well protected, has good holding, and the Internet is great.”

Motivator’s router is buried under the fly bridge console
The heart of Motivator’s IT network is a Proxicast LAN-Cell 2 router.  It is overkill, but it sure works well.  It provides a very strong WiFi signal, can be configured for more than we will ever need, is very secure, and is hardened to survive the harsh environment.

Motivator’s client bridge mounted below the radar arch
Most cruisers have some sort of WiFi enhancer.  Probably the most popular model is the Silver Bullet.  Motivator has been well served by a system supplied by Kennan Systems.  The Kennan system consists of an external antenna connected to a client bridge that is powered by a Power Over Ethernet (POE) injector that then connects to the ship’s router.  Once in port or at anchor, the client bridge is accessed through the router and the area is scanned for a suitable open WiFi.

When WiFi is not available, Motivator’s router is capable of switching over to an air card that allows us to connect to the Internet via cell towers.  In the States we were able to use a Verizon air card (more on Verizon later), but we also carry an “open air card” that allows us to insert a SIM card for the telephone system we want to access.  This worked especially well in the Bahamas on the Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation (BTC) phone system because about every island had a BTC tower.  It would also work in the Caribbean, however as we went down island, about every island had its own system and we did not want to buy that many SIM cards.

Many cruisers use a Kindle to send and receive emails and surf the Internet for weather and other information.  Once out of the U.S., my Kindle couldn’t pick up a cell tower.  A little research revealed that I had a U.S. Wireless only model (more about GSM and CMDA in the cell phone section).  So if you are planning to leave the U.S. with your Kindle make sure you buy an Open 3G model.

OTA in Grenada
Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, living on a boat does not mean giving up your TV.  Motivator came equipped with KVH TrackVision, a satellite TV system that allowed us to receive Dish Network while in the States and most of the Bahamas.  The TrackVision system keeps the antenna aligned with the satellite while we are at anchor.  At about the Turks & Caicos we lost signal.  Other cruisers have been able to buy a satellite box in Puerto Rico and with some equipment modifications continue to satellite TV in the Caribbean, but it was not that important to us.  Additionally, Motivator is equipped with an over-the-air (OTA) antenna that provides limited reception in some areas and excellent HDTV in metropolitan areas in the States.

EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) and PLBs (personal locator beacons) are 406 MHz beacons which transmit digital signals.  The beacons can be uniquely identified almost instantly (via GEOSAR), and a GPS position is encoded into the signal provides instantaneous identification of the registered user and its location.  Search and Rescue (SAR) aircraft and ground search parties can home in on the distress signals from the beacons and come to the aid of the concerned boat.  Motivator carries a PLB pictured above.  The difference between an EPIRB and a PLB is 48 hours battery time vs. 24 hours, but the PLB is more portable so we can take it on long dinghy trips.


SPOT is the low cost version of a EPIRB or PLB and uses its own satellites to receive distress signals at which time SPOT notifies SAR.  Motivator uses SPOT as a tracking device that reports our departure and arrival to our land based trackers who have all of the necessary information for SAR.  Our SPOT is also linked to Motivator’s web site so that others can see our location.

The other satellite dome on the radar arch provides Motivator with satellite phone and data service albeit at a very hefty fee.  Phone calls are about $2.10 per minute, and data is $4.00 per minute.  Therefore, we limit the number of satellite phone calls and have a program to compress outgoing and incoming emails.  Our usage of the satellite phone does not justify the expense of the equipment and standby charges, but we feel the safety aspect of having emergency instantaneous  worldwide communication capability justifies the cost.

On the other end of the spectrum is our Skype phone that has remarkably low service charges.  The Skype service is Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), thus dependent on good Internet service.

To improve our Skype experience, we outfitted Motivator with Freetalk Connect-Me, a small gizmo that connects between Motivator’s router and a standard cordless phone to provide us with service much like a landline in most homes.  When buying a Skype number, you are allowed to request an area code.  We selected an area code that would ensure our family with landline service does not pay long distance charges.

Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) are two competing standards in cellular service CDMA is most commonly found in North America and some parts of Asia, while GSM is found in the rest of the world.  Some carriers do offer what is referred to as an international or “open phone" that can work on both standards.

U.S. phone companies, especially Verizon prefer to have you locked down to their service, and under contract.  Only about 4% of Verizon phones will work outside of the U.S.  Additionally, Verizon will suspend service for only 3 months while you are out of the U.S. and the suspended time is tacked on to the end of your contract.  The biggest mistake we made before leaving the U.S. was still being under contract to Verizon.  Our “Freedom from Being Owned byVerizon” party is on September 7, 2013.

The best way to go is have a truly open smart phone (not under contract to a carrier) that will work on both GSM and CDMA and can be used as an Internet hotspot when needed.

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