When it comes to communications technology on bluewater sailboats, I have always been a Luddite. I never had any interest in high-frequency radios and never carried one on any of my boats, even after Pactor radio modems and the volunteer Winlink ham network dazzled us all with the prospect of free offshore e-mail service. My reasoning was simple: I don’t go to sea to communicate with people. Quite the opposite.
After I got married and had a child I did succumb to the entreaties of my wife, Clare, and invested in a handheld Iridium satphone. But I used it very sparingly. I mostly kept it turned off, stowed in a ditch bag, and turned it on briefly just once a day to phone home while on passages. I also used it once in a while to confer with my favorite weather-router, Ken McKinley, of Locus Weather.
This past spring, as I planned a long transatlantic delivery from France to the United States, Ken suggested it would be much easier for him to keep track of me if I got a Garmin inReach Explorer satellite communicator. I checked it out and was duly impressed: for a bit over $500 you get a simple handheld device that for about $70 a month (no annual subscription required) can send unlimited 148-character text messages via Iridium satellites from anywhere in the world. Even better, it is also a transponder and can send continuous position updates to an online map that can easily be accessed by family, friends and, yes, weather-routers. It can also send distress calls to SAR (search and rescue) authorities and can be used as a handheld GPS plotter.
For a person like me with limited comms requirements, this is a fantastic gizmo. As I sailed from France to Spain to Madeira and thence to Bermuda—in company with Clare and two friends, Michael and David—I was happy to receive a brief forecast each evening from Ken, expertly abbreviated sans vowels to save characters. I also enjoyed sending a text message each day to our daughter Lucy, who was missing both her parents.
What I hadn’t counted on was how this device would affect other crewmembers. David, in particular, quickly became obsessed with the thing. He soon figured out there was an app you can download, Earthmate, with which you can remotely control an inReach Explorer with an iPhone or iPad. He loaded this onto his phone during our brief stop in Spain, connected it to my inReach unit and for the next month sent out an unending flood of text messages to a long list of his contacts, imploring them all to pay attention to the fact that he was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. He sent messages with his phone while lying in his berth, and more annoyingly, particularly liked to send them while on watch when I really wished he’d pay closer attention to other things.
We see this behavior all the time in this modern age—phone zombies who walk around in a stupor diddling away on their devices, oblivious to everything around them. It’s bad enough on shore, but to see it happening to someone on a bluewater boat offshore was for me, rather depressing. David had pleaded with me to join our crew and was keen to embark on his first passage, but could not resist the allure of modern communications.
Both Michael and I chided him about this, gently at first, then a bit sarcastically, suggesting he was wasting a unique opportunity to commune with the ocean and get into the zen of bluewater sailing, but David paid us no mind. Then one day he found a podcast he’d downloaded on his phone, by some ocean-sailing guru, who urged that it is best while on passage to disconnect and live in the moment. Though he could not accept this advice from the people in front of him, David was happy to receive it from his phone, and immediately announced he was instituting “radio silence.”
This lasted about a day and a half, then predictably David’s resolve weakened. Soon enough he was back on his phone, feeding his addiction. s