First off, every boat has a slightly different setup to communicate with the outside world. Most offshore sailors have similar systems, which include a variety of complicated electronics to keep track of its location, chart a course, look at weather reports, chat with neighboring boats, watch for obstacles, or talk to family. Llyr has all of these neat tools. But there are still plenty of sailors who go with the less-is-more approach, too, and seem just as happy and safe. After all, Captain Cook sailed from the Arctic to Antarctica and all through the Pacific with only sun, stars and a sextant – no batteries necessary. We, however, like battery-powered gadgets.
As you know, Rob and I had most of our electronics stolen in Baja California. Luckily, they didn’t take our most critical piece of communications equipment: a little 4×4 inch black box called a DeLorme InReach. For only $10/month, we can turn on this box to set a track (have you checked out our travel map lately?), send one of three pre-set text messages (e.g: “we’re salty and sweaty, but sailing happily westward”), or hit an SOS button if the shit hits the fan to (hopefully) be rescued. Pretty sweet deal, huh?
Our other communications device is a ham radio. Rob got his general operator license before we left Missoula, which means he can do all kinds of rad stuff with a radio – including bounce information off satellites and then back to earth. On the boat, you can actually use a radio frequency to send text emails through a specialized Pactor modem that interfaces between your computer, a radio and satellites. His call sign acts as a free WinLink email account. Crazy, I know. It’s slow and tricky – kind of like a fax – but a cool feature if we want limited email contact.
Along those same lines, Llyr has a single sideband radio and a SailMail account to send limited text-only emails. It works exactly the same as WinLink, but costs $250/year. Sideband and ham radios also allow us to listen in to “weather nets” broadcast at certain times each day – these help us plan our course and prepare for changes in wind and wave patterns. Llyr is also equipped with a VHF radio for short distance (~20 miles) communications, a GPS unit and autopilot to help steer our course, and radar and AIS to tell us where nearby land masses and big boats are located (so we can avoid them). She has an antenna to make sure all these gadgets can access satellites, which shoots 60 feet into the sky and runs up the mast
All of these things suck electricity. In fact, except for our DeLorme, none of them can survive on a few batteries alone. Since Llyr doesn’t have solar panels or wind turbines, that means we have to run the diesel engine for an hour every couple of days to make sure the big 12-volt battery series (like marine-grade car batteries) is charged up and ready to go. And it means we have to prioritize how and when to use these communications tools so we don’t draw down the juice when we might need it more.
We also have 3 laptops and 3 phones on board, but won’t have any cell nor wireless service until we reach French Polynesia. They mainly serve to interface with the other communications equipment on board, play music, or write poetry or prose when the mood strikes (and the batteries allow). Once onshore again, Rob and I have an iPhone and a small PC netbook to harness wireless internet, but no international cell phone plan. We’ve found Google Talk, FaceTime, and Skype to work well enough for calling our family and taking care of random details (and it’s free!).
Questions? Ask Rob. I still don’t get how the hell radios and satellites can transmit my words over tens of thousands of miles. But I certainly do appreciate how awesome it is.