June 22, 2015

Remote Communication

We've been out of civilization for almost a month now and while we're almost out of fresh food thanks to our SSB/HAM radio and our new Iridium Go! I've never felt out of touch. While I know some people have the goal of unplugging at sea—I think we're part of a new nomadic breed that wants both remoteness and connectivity. I'm not sure I would have been happy to spend four weeks in a place like Chagos if I knew I'd be completely cut off. 

Since being in Chagos we've made good use of our communication's options: we've made a phone call home to check on the health of an injured parent, used our Go's messaging function to follow-up over concern about a boat at sea, received vital repair information by email attachment, used Predict Wind's excellent resources for weather and stayed in touch with the Indian Ocean fleet on a 2x per day radio schedule.

If we had to choose just one device, I think we'd still opt for the SSB. By using radio-based mail services like sailmail it allows us to do much of what we need to. And with mobile phone use spreading to the most remote corners of the world it's really only while voyaging across oceans that we use the SSB and sat phone. And it's while voyaging that the SSB radio has its most vital place.

I'm not sure I could ever adequately convey the role a radio net plays in a cruising voyage. The way it works in our informal net is that twice a day the boats that are on passage, or at anchor, check in over the radio with their positions, weather conditions and any questions they have. Someone typically takes on the role net manager and another as weather forecaster.

While it sounds staid—the radio net takes on the life of a radio drama at times. We get the real-life moments of boats enduring terrible weather; 'our boat looks like a war-zone but we're hanging on' or boat putting up with no wind for days on end; 'I think we're setting a record for the slowest passage ever'. What you also get is the benefit of the collective wisdom of a group of skilled boaters—details like how safe a harbour is to enter at night (from someone who was there last week) and real life up dates on whether the weather is matching the forecasts.

The problem with the radio is it's not instant. If you have a problem and the net isn't running for 5 (or 10) more hours—you can't get immediate advice. And if you miss the net, not only will everyone worry about you, but you'll be out of communication for 12-24 hours. This is the gap that the Sat phones fill. Our net includes boats without radios that send position updates in by Sat phone—and often if more information is needed we'll switch to email to ensure clarity.

Our new sat phone also lets us keep up with the world through facebook and other basic mobile sites something I've really enjoyed during our time in Chagos. Today though, it's time to head back toward civilization and easier communication. As one of the last three boats in Chagos we've been reluctant to leave—but the Seychelles are beckoning. So we're pulling up the anchor and heading 1000 miles west. Somewhere along the way we'll hit the 'halfway around the world' mark and we'll no longer be traveling away from home, but will start on our way back.

Image of Ceilydh from the top of Totem's mast courtesy of Behan

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