By Ben Ellison
Cruising for Hotspots
|How to use WiFi to get online from anchorages and marinas.|
Granted, the photo above is blurry, but get this: I snapped it while trying out a system called EyeOnBoard that let me, via the Web, follow that crew as they gracefully rowed past a Vancouver, British Columbia, marina—literally panning and zooming a camera mounted on the developer’s test boat from my desk in Maine. The EyeOnBoard monitoring product (opposite page, bottom), delivers this trick and loads of more critical information using the fast WiFi Internet connections available at more and more marinas. WiFi, in fact, is everywhere these days; had the evening been a tad warmer, I could have also used it to do my Vancouver Harbor spying from the porch. And there’s the rub. Somewhere between this highly engineered camera system and my dinky home network, there’s WiFi gear and Internet availability that some coastal cruisers are finding invaluable, but it’s tough to sort out.
So let’s start at the beginning. WiFi (for Wireless Fidelity) is a snappy moniker for a set of radio standards with not-so-snappy formal designations like 802.11b, 802.11g, etc. They’re all designed to put Ethernet-style networking into the air, and succeeding standards are in most ways backward-compatible with earlier ones, so you don’t have to worry much about the numbers. The technology is relatively mature. Most new laptops come with it built in, and my minimal home network—a router that distributes my DSL Internet connection both by Ethernet and WiFi, along with a WiFi PCMIA card for my older laptop—cost a little more than $100, installed fairly easily, and works fine. Touring Staples I found WiFi gizmos that could make my printer wireless, send movies from PC to TV, and so forth.
But getting a solid WiFi connection from boat to shore is decidedly harder than porch to home office, and when I asked the Staples guy about the needed equipment—like a high-power WiFi card able to connect to an external antenna—I only got a blank look. Later I typed “WiFi” into West Marine’s online catalog search engine and got zilch. What’s going on? I’ve been talking to certain cruisers who describe happily using a WiFi Internet connection almost everywhere they tie up or anchor, especially in areas like the Abacos, Florida, and the Pacific Northwest. They’re doing serious e-mail, Web browsing for fun or weather, conducting business, sending off photographs, and even making Internet phone calls in places where cell service is especially expensive or complicated. Thanks to Jeffrey Siegel, Outdoor Navigator developer, who was anchored off Key West, I tried such a call (using a cool tool called Skype, which is said to be growing at Google speed). It sounded good and was free, and he could have been anchored anywhere in the world as long he could get his sophisticated WiFi setup to connect.
Almost needless to say—yes, we were wearing headsets plugged into computers—Siegel is a tech head, the sort of cruiser who put his own high-powered WiFi system together (and generously answers questions about it wherever his DeFever 53 wanders). His favorite discovery is a 12-dB HyperLink Technologies 2.4-GHz omnidirectional antenna bungee corded to his flying-bridge rail. HyperLink also sells the high-quality co-ax needed for these rigs, recently introduced a $60, 8.5-dB marine model that fits a standard boat mount (left), and offers a wealth of information about various cards, connectors, etc. at www.hyperlinktech.com. Other sources for marine WiFi gear are MarineNet (www.globalmarinenet.net) and BroadbandXpress (www.bbxpress.net). Hopefully some marine electronics dealers know about long-range WiFi gear and are ready to set up yachts belonging to less-techy owners—or soon will be (hint, hint).
This article originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.