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Old 09-22-2001
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Paul & Sheryl Shard is on a distinguished road
Communications Made Easy

Sometimes at sea, the sailing is just so good you've got to call friends and family to share your moments with them.

Not too long ago we were in Spain, sailing down the Costa del Sol—the Sun Coast—which was living up to its name at the time. The sun was certainly shining. For what seemed like endless weeks, hot sunny weather had tanned us to a golden brown and mellowed our souls as we explored this historic coast. Even the famous variable winds of the Mediterranean had blown in our favor and today we were romping along with 20 knots from astern—sailing wing-and-wing with two jibs and the mainsail. It's on days like this that I often feel it would be great to share the experience with people at home—so I gave a friend a phone call!

And it is really as simple as that. I picked up our Spanish mobile phone, dialed my friend in Canada, and 20 seconds later he was on the line.

Knowing that the phone can ring almost anytime you're at sea is somewhat of a double-edged sword, but always a good safety measure.


"Hi John, you'll never guess where we are." (Mobile phone calls often start like this. It's just so tempting!)

"Is that you, Paul? I thought you were away in Spain."

"We are—I'm calling from the cell phone—we're sailing."

"Get out of town! I'm on the car-phone myself—I've pulled over at a donut shop."

"Well, it's mid-afternoon here and we're about eight miles off the coast—the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas are in the back and we've got a lovely sailing breeze…Hey! Have a donut for me!"

I suppose part of the novelty is just being able to juxtapose the two worlds—home, work, etc., with the freedom of sailing and foreign lands. There is certainly a wonderful appeal to being in touch with home and family. In the 11 years since Sheryl and I started cruising internationally aboard our Classic 37 sailboat, Two-Step, communications have jumped ahead. Systems have improved and there are options that didn't even exist before.

Of course communicating with friends and family back home aren't the only joys for long-range cruisers.
On our first voyage to Europe, we wrote lots of letters, managed the occasional phone patch through the HAM radio, and sometimes tried to call home from a public phone center or pay phone, an expensive and frustrating process in those days. Now a decade later, Spain (and all of Europe) has leapfrogged ahead with a state-of-the-art digital mobile network. Our new Spanish mobile phone, which works on a debit card system, was just US$100 including $30 of calling time. Most appealing of all, so long as we are in Spain, we don't pay airtime for incoming calls at all! Our families and friends in North America can call us in Spain at anytime and it doesn't cost us a cent. This means that we leave the phone on all the time and people can always reach us (except if we're well offshore and out of range of the nearest transmitter, in which case the family can reach us by HAM radio). Additionally, long-distance rates have dropped tremendously during the 11 years we've been cruising, making long-distance calls from pay phones more affordable. But the fact that we can receive calls free on the mobile phone makes it a valuable communication tool for staying in touch with home while coastal cruising in Europe.

"Part of the novelty is being able to juxtapose the two worlds—home and the freedom of sailing in foreign lands."
Like us, many cruisers visiting Europe pick up a cheap phone (the European network, GSM, is generally not compatible with American phones—plan on buying one there). Then when you sail to another country you sign up for a plan in the new area, including a new electronic chip to convert the phone to the new country's plan. Phones that allow the chip to be swapped are called "open phones" and are readily available for just a few dollars more than a dedicated Spanish phone.

Of course phones are not the only communication option that has recently appeared. E-mail seems to be the perfect tool for cruising sailors since it's a "store-and-forward system." Mail is stored in the system and retrieved for you automatically (forwarded) when you connect. Heading out of range on passages, or just turning the system off is more or less what the system was designed for. No one expects an immediate answer as with a phone or fax. We have cruised with e-mail for five years now and tried various systems that we'll detail in an upcoming article on SailNet. And now that so many people at home have an e-mail account it's an even better way to keep in touch. 

Pocketmail has become a handy system for sailors operating in distant areas.

Writing a normal letter is a wonderfully romantic method of communication! A foreign stamp, an exotic postmark, and possibly some torn edges indicate an exciting journey to a far land. But it is certainly not ideal for sailors. Although we set up a person at home to forward our snail-mail to us at various ports on our first trip, almost no one sent us anything since they didn't feel confident that it was really going to reach us and the response time could be several weeks. Now our friends have a number of satisfying options for contacting us, namely e-mail, the HAM radio, or a simple phone call.

As the afternoon progresses the wind lightens and we slow down to five knots. Still the beautiful coast slides past, another rugged range of mountains pushing up on our port bow. This is a dramatic coast to sail along. Even the tourist developments that crowd the shore in places are almost lost from this distance off—tumble of white blocks kneeling at the foot of the majestic dark mountains 5,000 feet in the impossibly blue Spanish sky. I suppose that the world has grown smaller with the new communication options open to us as cruising sailors, but I prefer to see it as a wonderful opportunity to involve our friends and family at home more fully in our travels. Oops, there's the phone—gotta go.

Suggested Reading:

Offshore Communications by Tom Wood

Sailing With E-Mail by Kathy Barron

Communications from Abroad by Sue & Larry

Buying Guide: High-Frequency Radios

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