Friday, September 5, 2014

Blue View on Communications

Where do I start on communication!  That's the real question.  Before we started cruising last year we had a million questions and very little answers.  Linda will vouch I spent countless hours searching, surfing and digging for communication answers.  Our main goal was, how can we keep in touch with family members and be safe. Needless to say there are as many answers or opinions out there as there are sailors.  Well guess what! I'm going to add one more.   

By the time we were ready to leave the North Channel in August 2013 we still had no answers as to what would be the best communication system for us. So our decision was to start cruising with a cell phone and our VHF radio. Some people may say it was irresponsible but remember we were leaving from the North Channel of Lake Huron to Lake Michigan traveling via the river system to Mobile Alabama followed by coastal sailing. The weather can get very nasty but we would have good communication via VHF and cell phone in the US.

So let's see what's out there for communication:
1) VHF Radio: maximum range is about 25 NM. Initial cost is minimal, approximately $200.00 and is must for any vessel.  I would not be without one.
2) SSB short for Single Side Band Radio: range is unlimited, but the cost is high,
averaging $3000.00 or more for a new system and you need a licence.
3) SSB receiver: range is several hundred miles and the cost is approximately  $300.00 
4) Satellite Phone: anywhere depending on the provider. Again high cost and often people only use it sparingly and for emergency. The cost can be anywhere from $500 to $1500 for the phone and then so much per minute depending on the plan purchased.
5) Cell phone: the phone and usage costs varies considerably from $20 to hundreds depending on the cell service provider and plan. Cell phones are great, but when traveling outside your home provider area the roaming charges can be very expensive.  You can purchase an unlocked phone which will work with any provider when you buy a pay as you go SIM card in each country or area you're traveling in. I can't give you the cost of plans in various counties as cost are unlimited. 
6) Internet, you can use it to call home with programs or apps such via Skype, Magic Jack or FaceTime.  Often we had service readily available in most areas or marinas. Often, you can get internet for free at the marina you are docked at or for a fee about $5 to $20 for the day. A lot of bars or restaurants will have free internet for their customers.  
7) Internet booster antenna: will cost a couple hundred dollars and will often capture the internet from businesses or other sources while at anchor. ( Once I managed to get an unlocked internet almost a NM away). 
8) Spot tracking device: will provide accurate location and tracking via satellite anywhere and is capable of sending short pre-program text. Cost is a couple hundred dollars for the device plus a fee anywhere from $50.00 to $300 membership per year.
9) InReach tracking and communication device: will provide accurate location and tracking via satellite anywhere and is capable of sending detailed text and Facebook massaging. Again cost is about $300 for the device plus a fee anywhere from $20 to $70 per month membership. InReach can also provide a Satellite  phone with an unlimited plan for approximately $1800.00 a year

I'm nowhere near an electronic genius.  I'm only a sailor trying to make sense of what would work for us.  I'm sure I missed some systems out there and my pricing may be off a little as you can add or change plans.

My point is "The sky is the limit" or should I say "Your bank account is the limit". 

I have nothing against all these systems and wish I could afford allot of them, but we are retired and on a budget.  When we sold everything and left Ontario I really liked the fact that we didn't have any monthly bills or bills period.  

OK you're probably saying, get to the point.  Well here it is, after a year of cruising in the US, Cuba and Mexico this is what I found.

We tried the US Pay as you go cellphone for a few months,  It worked ok, the plan was unlimited long distance calls to USA and Canada but, and there's always a but, It didn't included calling Canadian cell phones.  I don't know of anybody out there that is not using a cellphone, so that didn't workout too well for us.  

In Cuba communication of any kind was pretty well non existent.  You could not use any foreign cell phones.  The internet is controlled by the government and you must use their computers.  The cost is $6.00 CND for one hour. It is extremely slow and frustrating.  Phone calls cost $10.00 CND for 10 minutes. So no big conversations.  The call was, we are here, all is good and we will try to send an email if we can.  

Mexico was totally opposite to Cuba.  Cell, internet, public phones were all readily available. At a reasonable cost of course.

After using a few devices and talking to other cruisers. Here's what we are using and worked for us.

We found that while traveling a good VHF was a must to stay in touch with other vessels, listening to weather and calling the Cost Guard if needed.  On some days we even managed to listen the weather forecast from Florida in Cuba. 

Our biggest issue was trying to get the weather if no internet was available.  So we purchased an SSB receiver.  You don't need a licence, the cost is minimal, all you have to do is hoist the antenna to hear other vessels, cruiser's nets and weather forecasts.  
Last but not least, the internet.  We stayed in communication with family and friends via Skype, FaceTime, Magic Jack, or posting on Facebook and our Blog.  To help reception we purchased a WIFI boosting antenna. Once set up with a wireless router on board all our devices could be used.  We often chatted on the internet while we sat at the dock or anchor.
Remember our goal was to stay in communication without blowing our retirement budget.  We found we didn't need to stay in contact at all times.  It was very liberating not to be attached to a cell phone or texting. It was a little harder for our family and friends but they understood and got used to it.  We are finding our only shortcoming if an at home emergencies arises, family would struggle to have immediate communication.

Of course in case of an emergency while coastal cruising our vessel is equipped with a registered EPIRB device. 

Hope this post helps you in your cruising.

Blue View Signing Out.