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How easy is it to keep in touch with home

By The Ithaka - Published November 22, 1999 - Viewed 1004 times

How easy is it to keep in touch with home via email these days?

Peter W. who has a Sabreline 36 in the Chesapeake, wrote to ask how we stay in touch via e-mail with home when we’re cruising in the Caribbean, and how easy it is to find internet cafes in Central America.

From Douglas:   For onboard email, we use two systems: Sailmail (www.sailmail.com), a relatively simple system. You connect an eight-pin cable from your single sideband radio (SSB) to a specialized Pactor High Frequency modem (about $800 from Special Communications Systems www.scs-ptc.com). You cable the modem to the computer’s serial port. Using software provided by the non-profit Sailmail Association, you tune your radio to one of their worldwide network of private stations to send and receive. The fee is $250 a year. The Sailmail Association provides a  primer in relatively geek-free language that demonstrates a wry sense of humor -- rare stuff.  Sailmail’s technical support is first-rate for inevitable glitches and operator errors.

There are some limitations. With Sailmail, your email address is your callsign@sailmail.com. You can’t surf the web. You’re limited to 10 minutes a day of connect time (a restriction lifted for emergencies). You can’t send or receive attachments, or files exceeding 10KB (about 1,500 words). Connecting to Sailmail and your baud rates are functions of propagation (including the ever-uncontrollable sun spots), other people using the frequencies at that moment, how well you’ve grounded your radio, and how much idiosyncratic RF (radio frequency) interference from on-board gizmos is zapping around your boat. On Ithaka, for us to send/receive, we must turn off our sailing instruments, GPS and alternator – no big deal. In addition to email, Sailmail allows you to bring down weather faxes, and customized “grib” files -- Grided Binary Data on wind and seas. We also can collect Sailmail from shore-side internet sites.

The Sailmail software and Pactor modem are the same used by Hams on the  no-cost Winlink system. That is the second system we now have on Ithaka to send and receive email (just not anything to do with business). With Winlink, we have all the elegances of Sailmail, but with many additional frequencies to connect on. Plus, you can send and receive attachments, and have almost no limitations on connect time.

The trickiest part of the Sailmail system is convincing land-friends not to include us in their mass-forwarding of gooey epiphanies or bad jokes that devour our precious 10 minutes. Other than that, we love the system. Sailmail keeps us in touch with family and cruising friends all over the world, and reliably transmits our stories to BoatUS for our twice-a-month Log Of Ithaka internet column. It’s a winner.

From Bernadette:    Good internet connections are not all that easy to find outside the major tourist centers in Central and South America. As we traveled farther south, internet connections also were much slower. In the Bay Islands of Honduras, on the island of Roatan for example, there was an internet café at the French Harbor Yacht Club, another in Coxen Hole, and another at the town of Oak Ridge; on Guanaja there were two. This was a fairly impressive number of choices. (Keep in mind that the word “café” is a broad exaggeration.) But in all cases they were excruciatingly slow –  not at all what one is used to or hopes for.

Just getting logged on down there sometimes can take 10-15 minutes; one day it took Douglas four hours to email eight highly compressed digital photographs to BoatUS for our Log! Once we got a decent connection, wild horses couldn’t pull us away from the computer terminal, and we regularly cursed ourselves for not getting ham licenses, which allow for free and easy email access on your boat anytime day or night!  (Note: You can’t send JPEG photo files through the Sailmail system.)

The biggest hassle with slow internet email is having to contend sometimes with hundreds of junk e-mails (much of it advertisements for pornography) which further slows down the system.  Douglas says, “I  never knew so many people cared so profoundly about the size, well-being and satisfaction of my organ, and I’m deeply touched.” It’s important to have spam blockers on your email accounts to avoid this.

Then, usually, just as we got our inboxes cleaned out, the system crashed and we were told to come back “annudder day” as they say down there. We’d come back a couple of days later, get back online (again, 20+ minutes to get an AOL connection), as quickly as possible try to download the emails from people we know, and get offline before it crashes again. It can take between 3-5 minutes to download just one email, and twice that long to send an email with an attachment. By the time we download all the emails (usually 2-3 hours), we’re beat. We take the precious disk of news back to Ithaka, read the emails from friends, and figure we’ll answer them at the next place we find an internet “café.” Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t happen for three weeks or a month, and then the whole rigmarole starts again.

Staying in touch can be a challenge if you only rely on these internet email connections. Once we installed Sailmail on the boat, our lives got much simpler, and it’s become a highlight of the day to check our email and see what’s in our in box.

I have an AOL account; Douglas has a Hotmail account. We’ve found that one or the other works better to get an internet connection at one of these Third World internet cafes, depending on which country you’re in. Before  you go cruising, do yourself a favor, and get your ham license, and then all your e-mails will be free, and there’s essentially no limit on the amount of e-mail you can send a day. If you don’t get your ham license, SailMail is a great alternative.

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