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E-Mail Options

The technology allowing you to share idyllic anchorages with those back home is here.
You're anchored off the low dunes of an idyllic island in three meters of azure water. A nice day breeze is falling away and the sunbathers on the beach have gone back to their hotels leaving the night for the sailors at anchor. The sun is setting and you pick up your digital camera to record the sunset scene. Grabbing a couple of shots you savor the night air before going below. Now, firing up the trusty PC, you choose the best picture, and e-mail it off to friends at home with a nice note "Wishing you could see this place! Cruise is going well! (Not to rub it in or anything!)"

This scene is not just the fanciful imaginings of a wishful cybercruiser! It's increasingly common to send e-mail from the boat and, like us, many cruising sailors are setting up to do this. E-mail has been a great way for Sheryl and me to share our cruising experiences and keep in touch with the folks at home, but over the miles we have had to work through many e-mail options and pitfalls to make this form of communication effective—read on!

Our first e-mail cruising experience was in 1996 when we cruised down the Eastern Seaboard. We had an AOL account which provided us with a toll-free number to reach local servers. This was great because it made it easy to make a phone connection. We could connect to anyone's phone ashore in marinas, restaurants, etc.—and there was no charge to them. When there wasn't an opportunity to use a phone jack, we used an acoustic coupler over the mouthpiece of a payphone. However, the dropout rate was high since the quality of the sound on payphones is not as clean. We even tried the acoustic coupler with the cell phone to save going ashore on occasion but had too many dropouts and broken connections due to poor sound quality—expensive when you're paying roaming charges.

Now, there are even more options, and sometimes it seems that just when we have it all sorted out, the game changes. Nevertheless, we feel that e-mail is one of the best ways for sailors to keep in touch with home. Here are the major factors to consider and the options available.

The only disadvantage to PocketMail is that others may want to use it when you do.
Connecting at Sea: Satellite, HF, and cellular phone options allow you to connect from on board.

Satellite  For years mega-yachts have had this sort of connection via those large satellite domes in the rigging. When you have that much money you may as well get two for redundancy! We often see motor yachts with a matched set of these $40,000 beauties in the rigging. That's a two to five-year cruising budget for the rest of us. Yikes! Now there are much less expensive options suited to e-mail. Installed for less than $6,000, the Inmarsat Mini-M allows you to send e-mail at 2,400 baud anywhere in the world. You still pay a hefty $.01 per character though, so it's best to tell your friends not to send you the joke of the day! We have only met a couple of cruisers who use this option.

A simple acoustic coupler sends your messages anywhere in the world with Internet access.
HF Radio links  The most popular onboard system that works wherever you travel is based on HF and HAM radio. HF systems such as MarineNet, Globe Wireless, GlobeMail, or SailMail offer you the ability to connect over the radio to land stations that link your traffic into the Internet. Some cruisers have had success with this, but it is still expensive to buy the equipment if you don't already have the HF transmitter. Speed is limited to a slow connect speed (200 to 1,200 baud if you're lucky!) so some providers limit large file transfers. The benefits are the ability to connect from the boat just about anywhere. Much development has occurred in these technologies in the past few years. If you must connect from on board, anywhere in the oceans, then the HF systems may be the best option. The volunteer/non-profit SailMail seems to be a good bet with a low annual fee and no charge per character transmitted.

Cellular phone connection Where we are currently cruising (the Balearic Islands in Europe) this is by far the most popular option. The cellular system in Europe is very advanced—more so than in North America—and quite affordable. Cruisers can get a digital GSM phone with a connection kit in most little towns, and link the PC to the phone. Calling is affordable and speed is reasonable (9,600 baud).You can't surf the web or upload huge files, but the sunset shot above, at 30KB, transmitted in just half a minute. Normal "text only" mail is very quick. The negative is that you are limited to the range of the coastal transmitters—realistically you must be able to see the shore for it to work. Nevertheless, we met numerous people happily e-mailing from the boat this summer using a mobile phone. If you're planning to stay within range of the cellular network for a while, mobile phones provide a fast affordable connection.

 Shoreside connections Landline connections, PocketMail, and Internet cafes are more affordable, but you have to go ashore to get your e-mail.

Connection from a shoreside telephone line This is the option we have been using for the past two years. Type all your e-mails on board then take the trusty laptop in the dinghy, find a place to connect, dial your provider (possibly long-distance) and do the send-and-receive thing. Since you are not typing your messages on line, the long-distance charges are not high. This is the most economical option so far since you need no expensive equipment—just a few adapters for odd situations. We also have an acoustic coupler to allow us to connect through an ordinary payphone. A new twist on this method is called PocketMail. This is a palm-size computer that has an integrated acoustic coupler on the back. Much easier than balancing the laptop at a phone booth!

Half the fun of getting away from it all is keeping in touch with the rest of the world.

Internet cafe connnection via Hotmail or equivalent  This is possibly the least expensive and uncomplicated option. You do not even have to take a computer cruising. Whenever you find yourself in a town with an Internet cafe you go on the web, visit the page where you have your account (usually HotMail or Yahoo), sign on, and check for e-mails. Any messages you want to send can be quickly typed in and sent right there. A common variation on this method is to have larger e-mails pre-typed on your laptop on the boat. Save them on a floppy as a text file and just bring the floppy into the cafe. The file can be cut and pasted into the message to save you time in the cafe. The biggest disadvantage to this method is the possibility that there are no Internet cafes near any of the ports you visit. We tried this on a recent cruise and were only able to check e-mail three times in one month. But for cruisers who just want a casual communication to replace postcards this is a viable solution.

On Two-Step, Sheryl and I have been happy with an e-mail connection via a shoreside line for the past few years. But now we have seen the future with an onboard cellular link. It is great to be able to connect from the boat. As we continue to cruise Europe this is definitely the way to go. And at the rate technology is changing there may be new options available when we need them in a year or so.

Still, in summer 2000, the technology is here already. I'm on board our friends' Jeanneau 44, Maraton, at anchor off the island of Mallorca, sitting in the nav station, pecking at the keyboard as our new friend Alf-Gunnar coaxes a tantalizing aroma from the mussels he is preparing for dinner. I'm compressing the pictures we took that day sailing up to the island, trimming them smaller than 30K each so they can be uploaded to his website (www.svmaraton.com) for friends and family to follow back in Norway. And as dinner is just about ready, we dial up the Internet and send the message. Connecting is easy and the message goes through quite quickly—less than 30 seconds for each photo. The Spanish use an advanced GSM digital network and connections are far more reliable than in the bad old days when we first tried all this. In three minutes we have sent the web page update and downloaded all the messages waiting for them as well.

Two-Step swings at her anchor line nearby, the two boats sharing our own private cove. We haven't been ashore for a few days, but the e-mail is sent from our remote paradise, and after dinner we all collapse in Maraton's large cockpit. The sun has gone from our shaded cove but the rocky hills around the valley glow a golden orange. Then we watch the sky take on a midnight blue, pricked by the first stars of the evening. In a few more days we'll have to take both boats into the nearest town to reprovision, but for now we have everything we need on board—even our e-mail!



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