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Even few years ago an amateur sailor would have been able to keep friends and family informed only by means of sparse letters or phone calls when in port, or maybe by means of expensive phone calls routed via the on-board SSB radio.

The advent of the Internet, as well as the advances of telecommunication technologies, has changed all this.

Nowadays even a non-technical user can set-up and update a web-site or a blog, as well as post photos on-line, and at least part of these activities can even be performed from a boat at sea!

The subject about which we lacked practical experience before our departure was about the means to connect to the Internet, and the subsequent limitations; basically, we could use the following methods:

 - Internet cafes: not available everywhere, often crowded, obviously to be paid for at charges that usually were moderate.   Connection speed is usually acceptable and there is the possibility to make prints.   Handling large amounts of personal data is impractical or even not allowed (using USB dongles or other external memory devices is not always allowed) and obviously running your own software is seldom possible (e.g. to edit a web-site).   Before leaving we thought this would have been the most used method of connection, but in reality we did not find them as often as we were expecting, and quite often the PC's were in poor maintenance status or the internet connection was unreliable.

- wi-fi connection: quite a lot of harbours around the world offer wi-fi, unfortunately most of the times for a fee and not always a reasonable fee!   Often the connection speed was low or the connection was unstable, forcing to restart the job over and over again!   But the main problem was the distance between the boat and the antenna, which often made the connection directly from aboard unfeasible, forcing us to bring the PC closer to the antenna, hoping the battery would last long enough!    An extreme case was in Panama, where we lost the signal on every low tide!
Only when in Tahiti we found the solution, when the manager of the local wi-fi service sold us an amplified wi-fi interface which allowed us to connect much more reliably.
Note that almost never we had a chance to "ride" an open internet connection (belonging maybe to a nearby hotel or internet café).

The on-board PC with an external amplified wi-fi adapter

- GSM/GPRS telephone's data connection: at the time of our voyage the now-ubiquitous USB dongles were not invented yet; the only way to connect to the internet was using a GSM phone as a dial-up modem, calling a dedicated number provided by the telephone operator.  Not very fast, but after all it was an acceptable solution and not limited to the port areas, as long as one was under GSM coverage, but unusable abroad unless buying a local data subscription (seldom available though).
Nowadays, with the advent of USB dongles and GPS/GPRS/UMTS routers and of roaming agreements between operators, this service has become much more universally usable, albeit often not at reasonable prices (which can be circumvented buying local data-enabled SIM cards).
Excellent for e-mail service, this system can rapidly become very expensive if used for web-surfing, but costs are slowly decreasing.
With the diffusion of smartphones and tablets, it's common to have more than one data-dependent device on board, so the solution of a GPRS router, providing access to all devices via a wi-fi connection is advisable.   Note that many smart-phones have the capability to act as personal wi-fi routers, therefore you don't even need to buy a dedicated one.

- data connection via sat-phone: the working principle is the same as with a GSM phone, only using the Iridium sat-phone.   Cost is not low (about 1 USD per minute) and the speed is very low, but the system works also far from land and is a reasonable way to send and receive a small number of e-mails while at sea.   Web surfing is possible but very slow and therefore expensive, and of course only one device at the time can be connected.

- data connection via SSB Radio: there are several (charged) solutions, but we had only the Sailmail service, which allows only e-mail with some limitations on message size and attachments (only GRIB files are allowed). Slow, not easy to use, but cheap and working everywhere.

Conclusion fro all the above?   Simple!  E-MAIL EASY, WEB EXPENSIVE AND DIFFICULT.

At the time of our departure, we had a rather mixed strategy due to subsequent decisions which were forced by conflicting requirements: initially we created a bi-lingual web-site (in Italian and English), addressed via a registered, easily remembered domain name ( www.shaula3.ws ).
Before the departure, we even prepared the pages with links to the photos and texts we were planning to add during the voyage.

Just few days before departure, we opened two blogs (again one in Italian and one in English) where we planned to post short accounts of our trip: an obvious duplication of what we were planning to do on the web-site, it was an afterthought initially meant to allow the use of the blog’s RSS-feed functionality by the french OVNI-owner’s club website, as specifically asked by them.
A feature of the blog, which later turned out to be a life-saver, was the ability to update it by means of simple e-mail messages. Even when on passage, it was easy to find a quiet moment to write down a short report of the day and then send it during the daily e-mail session needed to receive meteo forecasts.

Very soon, we adopted the blog as our main reporting system.

On the contrary, updating the web site soon turned out to be an almost impossible task: updating the site required an FTP connection (not always allowed) over a fast and reliable connection, a luxury that we very seldom found available during the voyage. Nothing is more frustrating than wasting hours for a job that at home would have required only few minutes, and maybe having to repeat the same thing over and over due to the unreliable connection or finding out that the web site is no longer working because the download did not end properly… and all this while everybody else is basking in the sun on the nearby beach…

Certainly, a web-site can be more thoroughly customised, but when it comes to telling the story while it unfolds, nothing beats a blog! Furthermore, modern blog sites allow also to post pictures, which can be added at leisure when the connection is good enough.

There are even some service-providers that cater specifically to yachties, giving nice extras like map-based positioning or the ability for visitors to send short text messages to the boat, without revealing your e-mail address to everybody.
The only possible drawback might be the need to transfer all the stuff on a more permanent environment once back at home, if you don’t want to continue paying the subscription fee.


Webmaster: Gianfranco Balducci - email: gfbalduc@tin.it

Last Update: 07/09/2017

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