Voyaging communications report: Nine of Cups

Keeping in touch while cruising has never been easier. Over the past 12 years that we’ve lived aboard, improvements in communication options have been incredible. In 2000, once out of the USA, we would arrive in a small port in the Caribbean or South America and just finding a payphone with international calling capabilities was a challenge. We would scramble ashore with the laptop in a drybag and cross our fingers that there just might be an Internet cafe available. Even though it took forever to upload a photo or send a message, it was better than nothing. Today, we more frequently sit in the saloon with Wi-Fi aboard or even cellular broadband access and don’t think twice about it.

We can’t remember the last time we used an Internet cafe. Interestingly enough, Internet cafes are not easy to find anymore in developed countries like New Zealand, but they’re widespread in Third World countries where folks are not as likely to have their own computers or home Internet service. We’d be hard pressed to find a marina that doesn’t offer some sort of Wi-Fi availability nowadays … many times it’s included as an amenity in the berth fees. Many cafes and restaurants ashore offer free Internet, if you’re a patron. Many resorts that also cater to yachties tend to offer free Wi-Fi in the anchorages.

It seems that Third World countries have skipped the landline phase of telecommunications altogether and progressed directly to wireless. We’re always amused to see folks at a subsistence living level whip out their cell phone from beneath their loincloths to answer an incoming call or text a buddy about fishing conditions. We’ve had access to the Internet at remote Easter Island, Pitcairn Island and the Chatham Islands in the South Pacific and even at Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic, reputedly the most remote, inhabited island in the world.

SailMail at sea
When we’re at sea, we use SailMail aboard for high frequency e-mail and weather downloads, though many other providers are available. SailMail allows several options for staying in touch beyond just e-mail. We can post daily to SailBlogs with position reports and text through SailMail. Checking our land e-mail accounts when we’re at sea with the Shadowmail option allows a selective download of any e-mails that are of interest or just can’t wait until we’ve got Internet access again. Not only does this allow us to keep in touch from the middle of nowhere, it also provides a quick, reassuring check for family and friends when they hear about tsunamis or earthquakes in our part of the world.

Most countries now offer inexpensive, disposable prepaid mobile phones with country-wide service and if we plan to be anywhere longer than a couple of weeks, we purchase a phone or a USB stick modem. The services offered tend to be per byte of service with time limitations imposed, e.g. 500 MB expiring in one month. We use a one-watt long-range Wi-Fi antenna (Alpha) for enhanced service. In New Zealand, every port seemed to have its own Wi-Fi provider. If we were visiting for only a short time, this usually resulted in “time left on the meter” which became costly after awhile. Purchase of a modem stick alleviated the need to use the antenna as well as having to purchase more time at each location. We sometimes had service as much as 10 miles off the coast if we were within range of a cell tower and while in remote Stewart Island at the bottom of the world, we were surfing the Web.

Surfing on modem sticks
In Fiji recently, we purchased a modem stick and used it in the most remote little anchorages of Vanua Levu without a hitch. We purchased extra “top-up” cards before we left Savusavu, so we never ran out. We didn’t buy a phone there since with Internet, we could just as easily use Skype and save the expense of another phone or SIM card. We sat in the yacht anchorage in Suva Harbor and chatted, e-mailed and surfed to our heart’s content while waiting for a weather window to appear.

Though many voyagers we know have satellite phones, we don’t. They’re expensive to purchase and usually require a monthly contract, so we’ve resisted the temptation to buy one and so far, haven’t missed it. We have, however, certainly heard of instances in which they came in handy.

We’ve found that cruisers tend to use their VHF radios less and less in favor of cell phones whenever possible. Texting is very popular everywhere we’ve visited, from Cape Town to Tierra del Fuego to French Polynesia. It’s relatively inexpensive and sometimes free with prepaid packages. More importantly, it’s more private than a VHF channel and allows contact when you’re not on the boat or within radio range.

Wherever there’s a congregation of voyagers, there’s bound to be a net. There are the more widely known SB nets like Jim Bandy’s Rag of the Air in the South Pacific or the more country-centric ones like the Namba Net in Vanuatu. If there is not a net and there are enough cruisers with info to share like weather, someone will usually start one up on the VHF in the morning.

David and Marcie Lynn have lived aboard Nine of Cups, their Liberty 458 cutter, since 2000 and have sailed more than 65,000 nm on their very slow world circumnavigation. Their daily blog is accessible through their website at

By Ocean Navigator