Connected: Wi-Fi on Board

No longer is sailing synonymous with getting off the grid — it's now easier than ever to stay connected from your boat.

Is the water potable? How’s the holding? Where’s the nearest chandlery? These are no longer the first questions posed by cruisers arriving in a new port. Nowadays, our first questions revolve around a more crucial topic: the Internet!

Is there Wi-Fi here? What’s the cost? How fast is it? Where can I get it? There is no doubt the Internet has changed the way we cruise, for better or for worse. For some cruisers it is a luxury, a way to stay in touch with family and friends and do some occasional online banking. For others who work remotely, finding a decent Internet connection is a necessity.

Most cruising boats have at least one Internet-enabled device aboard, whether it’s a laptop, tablet, smartphone or a combination. At home, you wouldn’t install a separate Internet line for each new device, so why would you pay separately to connect each of your devices while cruising? Fortunately, it is possible to reduce Internet costs by sharing your connection between devices, and to make the most of those connections depending on how they are billed.


The Rogue Wave is a good example of a Wi-Fi booster for boats

Getting a Connection

How you connect to the Internet will vary based upon what’s available at your cruising location and what’s in your cruising kitty. Connection options often can be slow and expensive, like in French Polynesia where it costs $5/hour for the smaller plans.

In order to optimize your connection, it’s important to understand how plans are billed. For example, paid Wi-Fi hotspots will bill based on time, usually per hour, with price breaks for buying larger blocks of hours. Cellular-based connections, on the other hand, offer a range of packages, generally in time/bandwidth pairs, such as 30 days or 3Gb of data, whichever comes first.

Table 1 provides a summary of the different connection options you are likely to encounter while cruising and compares their advantages, disadvantages and costs.

A cellular connection can reliably be used at anchor when you’re in an area with good coverage, and possibly in marginal areas if you have an external antenna and booster. Getting a reliable Wi-Fi connection aboard your boat, on the other hand, usually requires some sort of Wi-Fi booster antenna. Wi-Fi boosters can be divided into two categories based on how they are connected, USB or Ethernet. We prefer Ethernet-connected Wi-Fi boosters because you can connect them to a Wi-Fi router to achieve the ultimate onboard system (see sidebar), mimicking the setup most people use in their homes or workplaces. USB Wi-Fi boosters are also very prevalent and can still share their Internet connection, but not as easily as a Wi-Fi router onboard.

Sharing your Connection

Sharing a connection can greatly reduce your Internet costs while cruising, especially for boats with multiple “Internet hungry” crew members. These days there are many ways to share a connection between devices, and the method you choose will vary based on the type of connection you have. Internet sharing is a flexible process that works whether you are onboard your boat at anchor using a USB dongle cellular connection or sitting in a bustling Internet café using their Wi-Fi connection.

The easiest option, when it is supported by your hardware, is to turn your computer or phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot to which your other devices can connect. When your primary device is connected to a hotspot, however, this isn’t possible, as the Wi-Fi adapter cannot simultaneously receive the incoming connection signal and broadcast as a hotspot.

The next best option is to share the connection via Bluetooth. This should always be possible on your Bluetooth devices, since you will never have an incoming connection via Bluetooth on the primary device. Bluetooth has a more limited range for sharing, however, and can be slower.

Table 2 describes the various options for sharing your Internet connection wirelessly based on how the primary device is connected.

Deck plan courtesy of Hylas

Minimizing Connection Time

If you’re paying for a Wi-Fi hotspot by the hour or less, the key to stretching your cruising dollar is stopping the clock as much as you can by logging in and out as necessary.

One of the biggest time-sinks is reading and replying to emails. The best way do this efficiently is to get yourself a client-side email program. There are many to choose from, like Mozilla Thunderbird, Apple’s Mail, Microsoft Outlook or GMail offline. With a client-side email program you can connect to your web-based email, download all your messages, and log off the hotspot to stop the clock. Then you can read and reply to messages at your leisure and reconnect when you are ready to send out your replies. A client-side mail program also helps to minimize bandwidth usage, since it is more efficient than loading your web-based email client in a web browser.

Table 1: Comparing Common Cruising Internet Connection Options

Connection Type*ProsConsCost
FreeThe Holy Grail of cruising, but an endangered speciesOften slow due to high use
Dangerous for online banking, etc.
PaidOften available at anchor or in Cafés/RestaurantsCan be expensive
Time-based billing (per hour)
USBDangleLonger range (up to 5 nautical miles offshore)
Often fast speeds
Variety of plans
Long terms (days not hours) with bandwidth limits
Higher start-up cost for dongleVaries by plan
Usually less than paid Wi-Fi
Via PhoneLonger range (up to 5 nautical miles offshore)
Often fast speeds
Variety of plans
Long terms (days not hours) with bandwidth limits
Providers may charge more for or prohibit data tetheringVaries by plan
Usually less than paid Wi-Fi

* Wired connections omitted since we have never seen one in our time cruising

When catching up on news or browsing the Internet, you can save on connected time by opening several websites in different tabs or windows, and then logging out of the hotspot. There are also “read later” apps like Instapaper and Pocket that also strip out ads and large images. Such strategies can save time, but can be annoying for those used to unrestricted Internet access.

Also, if you have multiple devices on board, crew should aim to share the Internet and use these devices simultaneously in order to decrease connection time. This, of course, is not always possible, but it’s a good objective to aim for.

In Short

Figuring out how to share your Internet connection based on what’s available will save you money and time. If all your crew members can use the Internet simultaneously, you can all get on with enjoying the “real world” of cruising.

Making the most of Bandwidth

For bandwidth-limited connections, like those in most cellular plans, you may run out of bandwidth if you aren’t careful. Here are a few tips to help you keep your bandwidth usage under control.

1 Disable downloading of images in your web browser—this saves bandwidth by allowing you to choose which websites you want to view images for and downloading them on demand.

2 Disable flash and other web plug-ins—these can be enabled on certain websites as needed.

3 Disable automatic software updates for your operating system and applications—wait to perform your updates on a connection with unlimited bandwidth.

4 Use a client-side mail application instead of your web-mail portal.

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