Connected: Wi-Fi on Board - Sail Magazine

Connected: Wi-Fi on Board

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!
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
No longer is sailing synonymous with getting off the grid — it's now easier than ever to stay connected from your boat.

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

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

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*

Pros

Cons

Cost

Wi-Fi

Free

The Holy Grail of cruising, but an endangered species

Often slow due to high use
Dangerous for online banking, etc.

Free

Paid

Often available at anchor or in Cafés/Restaurants

Can be expensive
Time-based billing (per hour)

Varies

Cellular

USBDangle

Longer 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 dongle

Varies by plan
Usually less than paid Wi-Fi

Via Phone

Longer 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 tethering

Varies 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.

Table2-2_0

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.

Related

180615-01 Lead

A Dramatic Comeback in the Volvo

After winning three of the last four legs in the Volvo Ocean Race (and coming in second in the fourth), Dutch-flagged Brunel is now tied for first overall with Spanish-flagged Mapfre and Chinese-flagged Dongfeng following the completion of Leg 10 from Cardiff, Wales, to ...read more

MFS-5-2018-Propan-SP02

Tohatsu LPG-powered 5hp Propane Motor

Gassing it UpTired of ethanol-induced fuel issues? Say goodbye to gasoline. Japanese outboard maker Tohatsu has introduced an LPG-powered 5hp kicker that hooks up to a propane tank for hours of stress-free running. Available in short-, long- or ultra-long-shaft versions, the ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comThink Deeply When chartering, I am always maddened to be told that the echo sounder is calibrated “to depth under the keel, plus a bit for safety.” Such operators seem to imagine that the instrument’s sole ...read more

180612-01 Landing lead

Painful Sailing in Volvo Leg 10

It’s looking to be a case of feast or famine for the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean fleet as it continues the epic struggle that has been Leg 10, with it having been all famine thus far. Painful is the only word to describe the light-air start in Cardiff, Wales, on June 10, as the 11-boat ...read more

01-13_07_180304_JRE_03695_4605

Tips From the Boatyard

Within the Volvo Ocean Race Boatyard sits a communal sail loft which provides service and repairs for all seven teams sailing in the 2017-18 edition of the race. The sail loft employs only five sailmakers who look after 56 sails in each stopover. If you’re thinking, “wow, these ...read more

sailCarwBasicsJuly18

Sail Care for Cruisers

Taking care of your canvas doesn’t just save you money, it’s central to good seamanship  Knowing how to take care of your sails and how to repair them while at sea is an important part of overall seamanship. The last thing any sailor needs is to get caught on a lee shore with ...read more

Ship-container-2048

The Danger of a Collision Offshore

This almost happened to me once. I was sailing singlehanded between Bermuda and St. Martin one fall, and one night happened to be on deck looking around at just the right time. The moon was out, the sky was clear and visibility was good. Still, when I thought I saw a large ...read more

New-MHS-Promo

Multihulls on the Horizon

Fountaine Pajot New 42The French cat powerhouse has been on a roll these last few years, cranking out new models that not only replace their older line but take a step forward in design and user-friendliness. The New 42’s “real” name had not been revealed as we went to press, but ...read more