Millennial Sailors: The Endless Search for Internet Connectivity

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I feel like I’m standing behind a podium, hands sweating about to admit something I’m not proud of, but here it goes: I am an Internet / cellphone-service loving (some may say “dependent”) millennial who lives full-time on a sailing vessel during the Internet age. 

Born at the end of 1985, the Internet was strong and accessible in personal homes by the time I was old enough to turn on Saturday morning cartoons for my younger brother and me. These conditions meant I was fortunate enough to grow up with the Internet. 

My first screen name was SheenaGal and I remember being in elementary school signing onto AOL - if you sat still long enough while holding your breath through the screeching, your Internet connection would happen faster - waiting to hear, “You’ve got mail.” These magical words were exciting not because I thought I had mail as an 8-year-old girl, but because they confirmed a very special thing: connectivity

There was no way for SheenaGal to predict it back then, but my love for connectivity would travel with me when I moved onto a sailboat and started full-time cruising. It wouldn’t be long before I felt the pangs of frustration that comes with traveling and connectivity, forcing me to discover - like a modern-day Cristóbal Colón - the varying routes to the Internet.

First, I had to digest some difficult but factual information: the ocean in all of her grandeur does not provide a strong or reliable WiFi signal nor is it reasonably priced to have satellite service for your cellular phone while floating 20 to 40 miles offshore. Zero. Nada. The words “no service” actually appear on your phone. 

I just finished reading Charles C. Mann’s revelatory, national-bestseller book 1493. It was 690 pages of lively fascination for me. In this book, Mann tracks what is called the Columbian Exchange: the effects of voyages by Cristóbal Colón, Miguel López Legazpi, Andrés de Urdaneta, and Hernán Cortés who brought with them food, seeds, bugs, animals, diseases and people from all over. These explorers are responsible for blending everyone (ethnicities, languages, religions, diseases) and every land (plants, animals, bugs, farming ideas) into what is now called the homogenocene (our current epoch, where biodiversity is diminishing and ecosystems around the world are becoming more similar). 

None of these explorers - not a single one of them - owned a cellular phone. They didn’t have a satellite phone or e-mail or Facebook or Navionics or Active Captain or anything. When they discovered something or when they needed a recommendation they couldn’t ask Facebook or Google, they had to turn the entire boat around and sail all the way back from whence they came.

These world-traveling navigators, however, didn’t have to worry about finding, purchasing or figuring out connectivity! While I am sometimes jealous of them, I am living in a different sailing time, navigating different waters, well, metaphorically. I, not unlike the explorers before my time, have kept notes to share, lessons learned, a detailed travel journal. 

For you, straight from my sailing log of traveling connectivity:

Know your personal connectivity behavior. Before untying the dock lines and heading out to the open ocean, I suggest knowing what kind of actions you would like to be able to do. 

For safety, I want two-way communication while out on the open ocean. We went with the Garmin InReach+ and its unlimited ($50/month) plan. This enabled our families to follow points dropped, tracking our exact location but it also enabled them to write us and vice versa. The Garmin InReach also syncs with your Facebook, pushing the same information to a Facebook page. 

For fun, work and discovery, I want WiFi or cellular service in order to send and receive e-mails, upload YouTube videos and blog posts, Google questions and update Facebook and Instagram. These wants have served as the impetus of certain sailing-related behaviors. 

We have chosen where to drop anchor while holding my cellular phone actively searching for nearby open WiFi networks to which our WiFi Booster could connect.

We wake up early - before the hotel, restaurant or bar guests awake and busy up the signal - in order to get the fastest WiFi. 

At coffee shops with WiFi, we drink espressos at an excruciatingly slow speed, in order to complete our upload or Internet research. 

One of the first things we do after immigration and customs check-in is find a local convenience store to purchase a pre-paid SIM card. I currently have six SIM cards in my stash. 

I have learned more about the history of these islands thanks to being able to Google the most random questions from the most random places. (Really, though. How were the mountains of the Virgin Islands formed and are there other ways to heal a jellyfish sting besides urinating on it?) 

While traveling, I want to be able to call the people I love

This led us to the brilliance of What’s App or Facebook Messenger; calling that allows you to use a WiFi connection or cellular data, instead of having to purchase a high-priced international-calling plan, sometimes identified as a “talk” plan. Under a talk plan, a 10-minute international call can cost you $2.00 a minute, which is the equivalent of four tomatoes, two pineapples, a papaya and five potatoes in the Dominican Republic. Through What’s App and Facebook Messenger, we can call our loved ones for nearly free and still afford four tomatoes, two pineapples, a papaya and five potatoes. 

For community, I want to be able to post in groups or discover likeminded individuals to meet for coffee. 

The Internet is full of groups of people bubbling over with helpful information. In the late 1400s, Colombus had his crew of 90+ men to bounce ideas around or learn from, in my sailing world it’s my boyfriend and me. Facebook groups dedicated to hyperlocal cities and anchorages help you learn key information like where to check in, where the dinghy dock is located, where you dispose of trash or oil. Geotags or hashtags on Instagram have located some of our newest lifelong friends by simply locating them, seeing they’re near you, and reaching out to them. 

We have found sailmakers, parts dealers, immigration, customs, grocery stores, libraries, agents, water, dinghy docks, and lifelong friends all from the empowering tools of the Internet that include geotags, hashtags, community groups, and messaging. 

For navigation, we want to pull the latest information on weather, depths, tides, shoals and anchorages. 

We use Navionics with downloaded maps onto our iPad. Then, we use GPS PRO+ Bad Elf to connect to satellites for a live feed, which we connect via bluetooth to the iPad. This way, our boat’s heading and path is being tracked live from a satellite feed that we can see on our iPad. Navionics provides you detailed breakdowns of where you are heading and what you can expect (for landlubbers, think of the app Waze). Active Captain provides you with similar information, but it also includes notes from people who traveled before you. 

For entertainment and down time, we want Netflix

We pre-download movies before heading offshore or to WiFi-barren anchorages (enter extremely slow drinking of espressos here). 

In the millennial sailing world, these are the tools we use: Bluetooth, Cellular data, WiFi, Satellites, and technology such as WiFi boosters, iPads, Bad Elf, and movie-streaming. These are the resources we use to stay safe, entertained, and connected. 

And my boyfriend, not unlike Christopher Colombus, knows that in order to avoid an unruly crew wanting mutiny, keep this millennial sailor connected and our entire world will open up to new discoveries and friends. 

Fair winds, following seas and connectivity, friends! 

P.S. Please follow our YouTube (we spend 8+ hours drinking a single espresso just to upload them!) For live updates, follow our Instagram! Love you guys, really. If we had cell service, I would Google, "Does our readers know how thankful we are for them?" And so many searches would come back.