The Talking Deposit

By Tom Neale, 9/9/2004


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The lady smiled and said, “All we need is $375.00 to begin the service.” I stood in shock and awe, “Three Hundred Seventy Five Dollars, why is it so much?” The lady smiled again. “Don’t worry, Tom, three hundred of it is a security deposit. You’ll get that back when you cancel the service.” I stuttered, “But I don’t want to cancel the service. I’ve been waiting for years to get the service.” She smiled again. “Tom, Everybody wants to cancel This service.”

This wasn’t any ordinary service. I was trying to sign up for a Bahamian cell phone number. I’d been trying for a long time. Each time I’d tried before, they’d told me that I couldn’t because they’d “run out of numbers.” Today was a special day. The word had been whispered in the palm trees, along the beaches, and in the bars. Today they had some numbers. So I paid the $375. The next step was to talk about paying monthly bills, so that I wouldn’t forfeit the security deposit.

“Oh, you don’t owe any more for a month. We can talk about that then.”

“But I’m on a boat. I might not be at this island and mail sometimes takes two months, maybe three to reach me. Can I pay you in advance?”

Cruising Communication

E-mail and internet surfing on land are no big deal. But doing it from your boat while cruising presents a host of issues.

To do email successfully on the cell phone, you not only need digital equipment, but also equipment that’s data capable. In addition, the tower that’s serving you must have equipment that can handle your cell phone company’s type of digital signal. There are several different types of protocol being used by the various companies. They’re called technical names like “CDMA,” “TDMA, “GMS,” etc. Sometimes one company will rent space on a tower that’s owned by a different company and the equipment on the tower won’t be totally compatible with the tenant company’s data services. This means that sometimes your phone’s display may indicate that it’s being served by your company, but it still won’t work for the digital data communication program of your company.

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“I don’t think we can do that. What do you want to do that for anyway? Everybody else wants to pay late. We can handle paying late. I’ve never heard of this paying in advance thing.” So I made a special trip to go to an island with a telephone office “next month” to pay.

“You can’t pay today, Tom. You’re not in the computers yet. It might take two or three months before we know how much you owe.”

“But then I’ll be late and the computers might take my “$300.”

“No Problem, Tom, No Problem.” It’ll be a lot longer than that before those computers have any idea we’ve got your $300.”

This was a few years back. I still send them money every month. I still have my Bahamian cell phone number. At least I think I do. Whenever I call it I get a rapid dial tone---like maybe---just maybe, it’s been disconnected. When I call the Bahamas telephone company, they say that they’ll fix it when I get there, if I’ll just call them at the time. Never mind that I can’t call them because my phone doesn’t work. I love the Bahamas. I loved the Bahamas way before they invented cell phones. I love to go there even when their cell phones don’t work. Guess I’ll find out on my next trip whether mine does.

When I started cruising as a kid back in the 50’s, I didn’t worry much about communications. I could always pull up a country station on my little AM battery powered radio. I didn’t worry about getting FM stations because there weren’t any then. But in those days I was just listening to music. Later, when I went cruising on weekends and vacations, while living and working ashore, I’d brag about how nice it was to “get away” where nobody could reach me. It was the cool thing to say, even if you’d just lost a couple thousand bucks because you didn’t get the message that someone wanted to buy that old car you’d been trying to sell for a year. But since I’ve been “away” most of the time for around 25 years, I’ve noticed I’m a lot less stressed when I can communicate. Now I want to talk. And email. And get on the www. Fortunately, communications for cruisers have been steadily progressing, but not without some kinks along the way.

Back in the early 80’s we paid five bucks a minute to make a phone call via Single Sideband Radio or the VHF. For the money you got the extra thrill of entertaining a lot of people, because everyone who had another set and the inclination to do so could listen in. Lots of folks had sets and inclinations. And if you got bored while weathered in behind a rock, you could always tune in for somebody else’s show. The good part was that the people on shore who were talking to the people out in the ships usually didn’t realize that other people could listen in. When some lonely soul got going about what he or she was missing and finally said, “over,” it gave a whole new meaning to the term, “pregnant pause.”

Things have come a long way since the 80’s. Sat phones and compression programs for SSB radios now let you call your creditor to see how much you owe and then tell him there’s no way in hell he can find you, much less get you. Hams have their own incredible network. And for those of us who like to hang close to the continent or the islands, there’s always the cell phone. It’s clear they don’t make it for boaters because they don’t float when you drop them overboard. But they really come in handy until you do. Now you can call up a marina in private instead of on the VHF and no one except you and the dock master will know that you don’t have a clue about rigging a “starboard after quarter spring line.”

Now, when I look for anchorages I don’t just look for good protection and pretty scenery. I also look for cell phone towers. In the old days when I picked that perfect anchor spot I watched my depth finder. Now I watch my depth finder and the bars on my cell phone. Believe it or not, this is less and less of a problem. Am I nuts? I think so, but I still want friends and family to reach me if they need to, and vice versa. Am I a “cool cruiser?” Obviously not. I no longer brag about “getting away so nobody can reach me.” I get away, but I can still tune in, and it’s getting easier and easier, even out at sea. To me, that’s good news. It’s also good news that I just called my Bahamas number and it seemed to be working. The bad news is that the Bahamas telephone company still has my $300. But the price of love is sometimes high.

Copyright 2004-2005 Tom Neale