More Stuff, More Grief?February 27, 2003
Eileen recording into the computer we borrowed from our friend Ted
One of the main purposes of the daily VHF radio net in George Town in the Bahamas is to provide cruisers with a forum for requesting information and assistance. When we first visited George Town in our sailboat eight years ago, the most common pleas for help involved cantankerous diesel engines, uncooperative refrigeration units and missing paper charts. Although engines and fridges still give their share of grief, you now hear a lot more about comatose laptop computers, recalcitrant satellite TV systems and missing electronic charts. Sick watermakers are also right up there on the list of cruiser's woes. It seems that many of the gizmos that were supposed to make cruising life easier exact a heavy toll.
We can't claim to be in the same league as some well known cruising purists who eschew any boating contrivance that wasn't available to Captain Cook. Life on board would certainly be a lot simpler if we didn't have a toilet, auxiliary engine, GPS, radio or fridge - but we're pretty sure we wouldn't be very happy, at least not after the novelty of roughing it wore off. On the other hand, we're not loaded up with all of the stuff that's becoming commonplace on many of today's cruising boats. We haven't had a TV on board since our little portable set gave up the ghost in Florida, and we certainly wouldn't invest a thousand bucks or more in a "follow me" type satellite dish. The economics and hassles of owning and operating a watermaker have convinced David that he really doesn't mind schlepping water jugs back and forth in the dinghy. And we still feel we really don't know where we are until we put a pencil mark on a paper chart.
Personal computers are our big concession to the electronic age. We've always had a laptop on board, in fact we've gone through several since we left home. Our strategy used to be to buy cheap, second hand, obsolete machines. They died with depressing regularity. There's something about a bouncing, damp environment that sophisticated circuitry doesn't like. A few years ago we bought a brand new laptop, thinking it would last longer. It did, barely. A couple of days after its one year warranty expired, it expired as well. When we bought our next computer, we sprang for the extended warranty. Then we discovered we weren't very good at sharing. David got into digital photography and Eileen began doing a lot of music programming. There wasn't enough computer time to go around. To avoid blood being shed over the keyboard, we bought another laptop and another extended warranty.
Now the problem with warranties, whether they apply to computers or to anything else of value on board a boat, is that they assume you can easily return the busted whatzit to the manufacturer and the repaired or replaced whatzit can then find its way back to you. Once you leave North American waters, the folly of this assumption soon becomes apparent. In a lot of places in the developing world, just mailing an ordinary letter constitutes a major leap in faith. Shipping a fragile, expensive item like a computer is inviting disaster - it's likely to be very costly or very risky or both. And those toll free tech support phone numbers found in your owner's manual, next to the warranty card? Most don't work outside of North America. Welcome to voice mail hell at a dollar and a half per minute.
This brings the discussion to the big event of the past week: one of our computers died. It was not a lingering death. It was a very sudden, very definite cessation of life - the machine equivalent of a massive coronary arrest. It goes without saying that it's our newer computer with the fancier features that's no longer exhibiting any vital signs. Grief stricken, Eileen came up on the radio net the morning after its demise and pleaded for the phone number of a real human being at the computer company's US office. No luck.
We were pretty well resigned to the fact that we had just acquired a very pricey dinghy anchor when our friend Ted on the sloop "Take It Easy" called to say he had a spare laptop he could lend us for a few days. Eileen was at his boat in seconds. She was at a critical phase in planning songs for her next album, using software that stretches the capabilities of our older, only surviving computer.
It turned out that Ted had a very nice computer, much nicer than our recently deceased one. Eileen completed her project after a three day marathon session. Ted needed his computer back today. David pried it out of Eileen's grasp. We're now back to having a single machine between the two of us. In a few months, we plan to be back in North America and should be able to get the moribund computer resuscitated or replaced. In the meantime, we'll have to learn to share. It could be challenging.
But at least the toilet and the fridge are still operating. Or they were the last time we checked...