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Keeping In Touch - 3/14/02

By Little Gidding - Published March 14, 2002 - Viewed 893 times

Keeping in Touch - March 14, 2002 

Eileen waits in line to use her Pocketmail

"Now they're sailing on slowly from place to place
He loves the sea and the wide open space
And he's thinking he's lucky he checked out of the race
She's thinking her grandchildren won't know her face..."

(E. Quinn, "Don't Ask Your Love To Choose")

With the exception of a handful of individuals who suddenly get very nervous whenever the words "IRS" or "alimony" crop up in the conversation, most long term cruisers are roaming the seas in search of new experiences rather than fleeing ones that soured. For the vast majority, there are ties that still bind after the docklines have been cast off. Keeping in touch with loved ones back home is the biggest challenge facing many sea gypsies.

David recalls visiting Post Office Bay in the Galapagos islands in the mid-'80s. A wooden barrel had been located on the shore of the uninhabited bay since the golden days of sail, when whalers would drop off letters to be picked up and delivered by others who were headed in the opposite direction. The post card David dropped in the barrel was hand delivered to his father in the Pacific northwest a couple of months later, having passed through several hands along the way. Advances in communications technology have made it a lot easier for today's sailors to keep connected with the folks back home, but it's no longer free.

The Bahamas where we are now located are an overnight sail from Florida. For the purposes of communications to and from North America, they could be located on the other side of the globe. The local postal system might seem reasonably expedient on a scale of geological time. The first time we visited the Bahamas we made the mistake of having our mail forwarded to us by ordinary post. It arrived okay - three months later when we were in Puerto Rico. Some cruisers attempt to circumvent delays in the local postal system by giving their US stamped mail to anyone flying or sailing back to the States. We generally don't do this. Surrendering our mail to a total stranger to stuff in his or her carry on bag and post on arrival in America doesn't seem a whole lot more secure than dropping it in a Bahamian letter box. We know of one couple who cruised for a whole year thinking their boat was insured only to find out that their policy had been cancelled when the renewal form and cheque they had "mailed" via another boater never reached the insurance company.

We've more or less given up on snail mail as our primary means of communicating with home. It's not just because of the lengthy delays. The sad fact is that no one we know writes letters anymore. Most of the envelopes that eventually reach us when we have our mail forwarded have little windows in them. The day that David's 76 year old stepmom got a computer and started doing e-mail was the day we knew the last roadblocks had disappeared from the information superhighway.

We're admittedly e-mail junkies. When we left Canada almost eight years ago, we didn't have an internet server or e-mail address. Now we have four. When we're in an isolated location, we can send e-mail via our high frequency radio. A group of amateur radio operators has developed a set of protocols and computer software that allow us to send and receive our electronic messages by tuning in a shore station that's connected to the internet. The best part is that the system is absolutely free - after you've dropped a few thousand dollars for the radio, computer and the little black box that connects the two, that is. There are a number of drawbacks, however. The transmission rates are slow, discouraging long messages. It's taken a long time to educate our family and friends not to send us forwarded jokes, much less photos of the new puppy or class reunion. Conditions affecting radio propagation are uneven and may render a connection difficult or even impossible at times. And, since we're communicating over amateur radio frequencies, we can't conduct any business.

Cyber cafes are just about extinct in North America due to the proliferation of home computers, but in less affluent settings they're common and cheap. We surfed the net in Venezuela a few months ago for a buck an hour, connecting to our North American server through a local provider. We choked when we arrived in George Town a couple of weeks ago and discovered that the only comparable service charged $1.50 to connect and 50 cents a minute thereafter.

When cyber cafes are inconvenient or too expensive, we pack up our laptop computer in a waterproof case and go searching on shore for a phone line that we can plug into. In George Town, this means hiking across town to Batelco, the public telephone office. The first time we did this, we were surprised to find the small reception area filled with other cruisers carrying almost identical waterproof cases. Many of them also carried books and other reading material. This should have been an important clue.

The polite woman behind the counter told us that it was going to cost us $6.00 to use their phone line to connect with our North American server and then $1.50 per minute after the first three minutes. She didn't mention, and we failed to ask, the typical connection speed. It normally takes us only a couple of minutes for a "flash" session to receive all our backlogged messages and to send the mail we've composed offline. We thought six bucks was a little steep, but there didn't appear to be too many alternatives. We set ourselves up in one of the phone cubicles and watched with horror as our messages came in at glacial speed. The minutes ticked by. We cursed every online charlatan who was trying to sell us a weight reduction programme or a low interest mortgage. We finally left the phone office twenty dollars poorer.

It didn't take a lot of complicated arithmetic to figure out we'd be better off signing up with Batelco's local internet service provider. Now we get 50 hours of "free" internet time a month - hopefully enough time for a few e-mail sessons at the connection rates we've been having. We always bring books when we go to the telephone office. We've made a lot of new friends there.

When we want to send a quick e-mail message and avoid the throng in the telephone office, we use a service called "Pocketmail". You access the service with a nifty little handheld device that incorporates a miniature keyboard and an acoustic coupler. The beauty of Pocketmail is that it works from pay phones. You dial a number in the States, hold the device against the telephone handset, and let it make sense out of a happy stream of squawks and squeals coming over the line. Despite limitations on message size and content (no attachments), Pocketmail is very popular in George Town. In front of the phone booths, there are often line ups of cruisers clutching their mobile devices. We're thinking of buying stock in Batelco.

Yes, it's great having the technology to maintain instantaneous contact with those at home. But sometimes the thought of simply dropping a letter into a barrel on the beach seems awfully attractive.

David & Eileen

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