Internet Connectivity for our Sailboat

Rick Donaldson, N0NJY

My wife and I are about to retire to a boat.  We have spent four years of our “Five Year Plan” preparing ourselves and our house to sell, and in general learning all we can learn.  There’s no way we’re “ready” but we’re “ready to go”.

You might ask, “If you don’t have a boat yet, why are you worried about things?” – I’ll try to explain in this entry in the blog.

One of our biggest concerns is staying in touch.  My wife is an avid Facebook user and uses her iPad everywhere.  That means we need a wireless internet connection.  Our other issue is getting email while doing crossings.  I have decided to solve that using Winlink.  Now I know that some ham radio operators HATE Winlink.  I also know why they hate it.  Most of them are crotchety old men who still want all Amateurs to have to learn Morse Code at 20 words per minute to be able to get their Extra Class License.  I’m a crotchety old man too, with my Amateur Extra Class License and I think they are full of donkey poop.

With that said I’m also a computer, electronics geek and have been all my life.  I’ve been working with electronics since I was ten years old and I try to stay up on the latest technology.  So – when it comes to Winlink, I’ll use whatever I have to get my signal out to get messages back to my family and those other crotchety old men can just keep on using Morse code and RTTY as long as they like.  (Fortunately, the FCC said it was ok for us to continue using Winlink methods and the plaintiffs lost that one… but that’s another story for another time).

Back to Wifi.  I’m not a Pirate (yet) and I never propose or condone piracy of books, music or even wifi signals.  However, there are certainly a lot of free wifi-hot spots around the country (USA) and in other countries I’ve visited, and I’ve been to (at least count) 49 countries around the world.  My visits to BVI, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and other islands have shown there are still free wifi hot spots.  And if there aren’t then there are Pay-as-You-Go hotspots.

In either case connecting to a wifi connection should be as easy as getting the signal and being able to get back to the wifi antenna.  But what if you’re at anchor a mile away from the hot spot, marina or coffee shop offering the services and you can’t anchor closer, or can’t afford the slip on this month’s budget?  What do you do?

I spent several weeks researching what most other cruisers do and came to the conclusion that most everyone “throws money” at a solution.  I’m glad there are folks who did well in this world and have money to spend that those of us who spent most of our lives in the military scrimping and saving do not have to spend.  Since JoAnne and I will be on a pretty strict budget for our world cruising (because if not, we wouldn’t get very far from the first dock…) I have to over-think everything.  And I think I can’t throw a lot of money at a solution.

I also realized that while sailors are in my opinion some of the most independent minded, well-educated (even if only by experience), and resourceful to the extreme only a tiny portion of sailors are actually trained or understand electronics to a great degree.  Many say “If you can’t fix it, don’t have it on the boat”… thus they don’t have radios unless they are cheap, keep computers running by asking others to fix them, and so forth.  I have nothing against these folks.  And more power to anyone who can spend that money on things they need.

Me, I build things, I hack, I manufacture and I do a lot of my own electronic work if I have the schematics and tools.  Thus for the wifi situation-to-come, I’ve decided to put together a system of parts, antennas and so forth to make a wifi station for the boat.

Now for those that want to spend the money, there are several companies that offer pretty much what I am building for a nominal fee.  So far, the same system has cost me right at $125.00 USD.  You can contact those companies and get the same thing all in one package for between $300-$500.  At least one place will help you out for $1000.  That 1000 bucks is another month of cruising for me though.

I’ll do a quick write up for the devices, and system, building the antenna, wiring everything up and making it work.  For me, I have to do this BEFORE I have even bought the boat… I still have my job, I have the extra money NOW, rather than wait until I’m already aboard ship and headed for the Islands and the time and a work bench or three to work on.

Once I’m on the boat I’ll be busy enough just outfitting and making sure the boat is safe to worry about electronics, and rewiring computer systems.  So, that’s why I am doing things now, while I can, rather than wait until I HAVE to do something!

To that end, we purchased a new laptop.  Not expensive but fully capable of running our navigation software (OpenCPN) and communications software (Winmor, Airmail, RMS Express and some other things for amateur radio).  I’ve tested and verified everything works on Windows 7 so I’m happy with the machine.

Last night I finished the antenna elements for the wifi antenna (and I will detail that later).  The Postman brought my new toys – the Ubiquity M2HP module (more details later) and the POE (power-over-Ethernet) adapter.  That’s most of the equipment.  I already have a wireless router in use at the house which I will “borrow” from my network.  Once I have assembled and tested all this, I’ll do a write up in a step-by-step manner that others should be able to follow.

So – I believe that if you’re going to do something, do it right and practice to get better.  I’ve been “practicing” to be a “skipper” all my life – I just didn’t realize it until a few years ago.  I’ve spent my life learning everything I can, from electronics and radios, to how to lay cement, do wood work, metal work.  Hell, I even learned how to use old printing presses (those things they used for Newspapers before there were computers… don’t ask me to explain what a “newspaper” is. I’m too old and crotchety for those kinds of questions!  /grin

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