Biggest Change in Cruising
- Communications have changed the most in 20 years.

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We have often been asked, what has changed most during our 20 years of global cruising?

sim

These sim-cards are only from the past 18 months
- and I even forgot to display the internet dongle!

Several things have changed on the cruising scene, in pace with the rest of the world. Among other things, there are a lot more catamarans than in the early 1990's and the risk of encountering pirates has risen. But the biggest change has to do with technology, and in particular with communications, and in ways that are not necessarily for the better.

This morning, with a fresh cup of tea in my hand, I fired up one of the laptops and started my usual first session of the day, checking emails and a number of news sources around the world. I usually check the following sites, listed at the bottom of this page. Getting pretty busy, huh?

When we sailed through the Caribbean in 1992-1995, we could be for months at a strech without any contact with our shoreside life. Our existence revolved solely around our cruising life. Any kind of communication would be restricted to local VHF calls, usually with some other cruising boat in the same area. If we needed to make a phone call back home we would make either a reverse-charge (collect) call or, in the French Antilles, where the phone booths display their phone number, we would make a short call to someone who was in his office and tell him to call us on that number (his employer would thereby pay for the call). Once in the BVI, I placed an international call via VHF, which I guess must have been horribly expensive. The hight of luxury was finding a working fax machine. You could then put a lot of data on one A4-sized sheet for a modest charge. These faxes were usually found at post offices or in marinas. Nobody out there had heard the word Internet yet.

In those days you still really got away from it all, which, I guess, always was the main idea for us in the first place. This separation between life ashore and life afloat no longer exists, which, in a way, takes away something from the cruising experience.

The only times there rose a need for communications would have been when someone from back home was expected to fly and visit us. Things had to be planned and agreed a long time ahead and then we just needed to find some way of checking for any last minute changes (usually by fax). World news was not an issue, who cares? We sometimes used the HF radio to listen to BBC World Service and Radio Finland's Abroad Services. We didn't even have a TV until August 1992, when, in dutyfree Philipsburg in St Martin (Dutch Antilles) we decided to buy a 15" (nesting box) Grundig for the Olympic games in Barcelona. The TV was in use if we could find public broadcasting by arial, which happened every now and then, for example in Venezuela and the ABC-islands during the World Soccer Championships in 1994.

Things didn't change much until 1998, when I was trying to live aboard most of the year on the Costa del Sol, Spain, and at the same time take care of my consultation business. The laptop computer had already been introduced onboard in 1995, but hadn't been used for anything else than off-line word processing (and games for the kids). In Andalusia I started to use my moble phone (Nokia 2110?) as a modem for (text) emails and for sending and receiving faxes (top speed 14,400 kbs?) on the PC. We were now in Europe and mobile phone connections started to be common place ashore. Prices for roaming were quite substantial then as they are still, but in Fuengirola I remember first time buying a local sim card. Internet was not particularly widely spread at this time out on the street, even though I already had had the first version of Scorpiosail web site up and running in 1997.

Internet cafe´s started to pop up all over the world in about 2000, and since then staying connected has been quite easy although connections were often through slow dial-up systems, particularly in places like the Bahamas. But the remarkable thing is, that you could get connected even in unlikely places like Cuba, at some hotels, provided the connection wasn't down.

In 2001 we bought a Pactor modem which is connected to our SSB (HF) radio. This brought capability to send and receive (text) emails and get grafic weather forecasts on demand practically anywhere in the world. We still use it on longer passages.

Since 2005, in every country we have dropped the hook, we have bought local sim cards, which has been great for communications with the local environment (mechanics, carpenters, marinas, chandleries, travel agencies etc), but also making it possible for friends and family back home to quickly get in touch with us if reqired (we usually do not turn on our Finnish phones abroad, it gets too expensive).

In New Zealand, where we spent most of our time in three areas, Auckland, Whangarei and Opua we were often able to connect to the internet on Wi-Fi, covering some of the anchorages, otherwise we still had to visit Internet Cafés.

The biggest leap forward came in Australia with mobile broadband using a local internet sim card on a dongle through the USB port in a laptop. We have had them since then in Malaysia, Thailand and the Maldives also. In all these countries we usually sailed close along the coast, or were always close to an inhabited island, which kept us almost constantly within reach of the arials ashore and we could have connected to the web even under way.

mobile meditation tuk-tuk militia
Mobile meditation:
monks in Chiang Mai
Cambodian tuk-tuk driver
Vietnamese militia

Mobile phones have radically changed communicating particularly in certain countries, like Vanuatu and the Maldives, where they have never had wide spread fixed "land" lines and never would have gotten the funds to build them in the future either. Today the whole population in these two countries, and many other similar geographical locations, is connected by mobile phone coverage. Practically everybody carries a phone, from the fisherman out on his boat to the housewife at home, or the shop keeper in the village. Relatively inexpensive arials erected evenly all over the islands accross the atolls have brought a tremendous change in less than a decade. The fast development of broadband technology over the mobile net is now also spreading the World Wide Web to these remote places.

For us on a transient sailing vessel it means that we can go on-line almost anywhere and use software like Google Earth to research the anchorages around us or Skype to make a free call to our friends and family back home. In the early 1990s we didn't even have a GPS on board; technology has come a long way indeed. Today even phones have built in GPS's.

Communications tower on Goidhoo, The Maldives

In a way, I miss the old days, when we didn't care about being connected. We were fortunate to experience that time, however, but as our cruising is being extended year after year we feel that we now want to enjoy most of the commodities that we would be using ashore. Communcations capability is one of them.

There is no turning back.

April 13, 2011. At anchor and connected in Phuket, Thailand.

p.s. Having said all the above about the new mobile technology; if I was allowed to keep only one of the systems we now have available on board and ditch everything else, it would be the SSB radio with it's modem connected to a modest laptop. Those connections, although slow and limited, cover practically all the areas we will be cruising in and they are free (once you have paid for the system itself).


 

The links in rows 1-3 remain the same regardless of our lat/long, but the sources of local information on row 4 change depending on the location.

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