Communicating From “the Boonies”
With so many electronic “toys” available to the cruiser these days, it is very easy and inexpensive to stay in touch, from virtually anywhere, with family, friends and business contacts in the “real world.”
Here is a rundown of our experiences and how we on Moonshadow stay somewhat connected to the real world.
We have installed a special marine telephone jack outside the boat that is hard-wired to a standard phone plug at the nav station. When we are at a marina for an extended period of time, we usually sign up for local landline service with voicemail and plug in a regular home phone. In first-world countries, there is usually some sort of special long-distance service available to keep the costs to a minimum when dialing family and friends back in the States. In Australia and New Zealand we had rate plans that gave us 7/24 calling privileges to the States for about US 11 cents a minute-way less than AT&T. This also allowed us to dial up a local ISP access number for email and web browsing.
Most of the local pay phone systems are modern and adequate, and use prepay cards. This is fine unless you don’t have a card and the stores are closed. Many of the cards are printed with beautiful designs and make a nice collectable or souvenir to send to kids back home. Using prepay cards for long distance calls will cost you a lot of coconuts. Using one’s long distance service is cheaper, provided there is a local access number in the country. Some pay phones post their numbers and will allow incoming calls free of charge.
Most of the South Pacific islands now have cellular phone systems, but there are some unavoidable snafus. First, the frequency used by most of the world for digital cellular is different than that in the US, so unless you have a special dual-format phone, it won’t work down here. I used my old US analog phone in New Zealand for a few months, but I couldn’t use it to transmit data, so I purchased a second hand digital phone there for about $125 and have been using it all around Australasia now for three years. I also had to buy a piece of software (about $125) to allow the cell phone to interface with my computer for web access.
Digital cellular allows web access at 9600 baud, which is pretty slow, but adequate. Per minute rates vary widely from country to country and plan to plan. Rates can be as low as US .10 and as high as $1 per minute. This makes it less expensive than SatCom systems that transmit at the same baud rate, but coverage is limited to a few miles from land where there is cell coverage. The dramatic island geography is beautiful, but can create a lot of “blackout” areas, particularly in the more remote anchorages. But then again, that ain’t so bad.
We have kept our New Zealand number active, as it will roam in Fiji, New Caledonia, Australia and who knows where else. We can access the Internet with it in those areas (once I replace the misplaced SIM card!).
It is less expensive to buy and use a prepay SIM card for local calls in some areas such as Fiji, which is what we did when we were there last season. They can be purchased at the post office in smaller towns and at cell phone stores in the “big cities” like Nadi, Lautoka and Suva. When we reached Australia, it was once again less expensive to have a local number, so we obtained yet another SIM card for use while we were there. We were able to assume a number used during the Olympics so didn’t have to sign up for a long term rate plan to get the best rates. Using prepay SIM cards increases the per-minute charges, but avoids billing hassles. The best option for each situation depends how long you plan to be in a country and how much you use your cell phone. I may end up needing a special file for storage of SIM cards!
Email is by far the cheapest, and I feel, easiest way to communicate. When we do not have a landline connection, or cellular coverage, we use SailMail. With eight centers scattered around the planet, coverage is essentially worldwide. It takes a bit of practice to get used to the best time of day and frequencies to use for successful data transmission, but after awhile it becomes quite easy. SailMail does not provide web access, just basic email at about 2800 baud (sloooooow). One needs a computer, a terminal node controller (about $1000), some free software provided by SailMail, and a single sideband and/or HAM radio. Most long-range cruising yachts are already equipped with the radio. The association fees are $200 per year, which allows the user ten minutes of data transmission time per day. This should be adequate for the average cruiser’s needs. I feel it is a great system and a great price performer. Kudos to Jim Corneman and Stan Honey for providing us the SailMail system!
Larger towns in the islands usually have at least one Internet café for those who don’t have a computer, wish to do some web browsing or check their regular email accounts. They can usually be found in the section of town where backpacker’s accommodation is located. Some places even have decent coffee, hip décor and groovy music. Some will allow you to plug in your own computer so you can download/upload email. French keyboards are nearly impossible for us Anglos to type on, so some have an English version they can plug in for us. In Nuku’alofa, Tonga, the local phone company provided Internet access. In Zihuatanejo, Mexico, the local Internet/Fax was at an ice cream parlor! Life is always interesting in the third world.
We used Inmarsat C, one of the Satellite Communication (SatCom) systems, for about two years and found it to be reliable but very expensive. Messages cost the sender about a penny a character (about $20 a page) and one has to have an account set up in order to send email to the yacht, or the yacht must pay for all incoming messages. I became an abbreviation xprt. My Comsat billings were always a nightmare and took my mother hours to get the account straightened out (thanks Mom!). The only thing I miss about Inmarsat C is the great regional weather forecasts that came in every six hours or so. They were a huge help to many of us in the fleet in avoiding hurricane Nora in the Sea of Cortez during the summer of ’97.
We are anxiously awaiting new products in the Satellite Communication arena. It would be very cool to be able to download a weather chart from the web in the middle of the ocean, check on what’s happening on Wall Street, and then send a digital photo of a mid-ocean sunset to someone back home. At last check, SatCom Mini-M, which offers voice communication as well as data at 9600 baud, was about $7000 installed, and rates for airtime were $2 to $7 a minute. Coverage is nearly worldwide, but in my mind that’s too many coconuts for limited additional capabilities.