Showing posts with label long range cruising. Show all posts
Showing posts with label long range cruising. Show all posts

08 February 2020

...And Barbuda

The name of the country is Antigua and Barbuda, but in all the previous times we've been to Antigua, we've never visited this island until now.  It's not the easiest place to get to or be at in a sailboat but if you make the effort, it can be really worth the visit.

Capt. Bob

Getting there

We were thinking that the rest of the trip home would be a downwind ride once we got to Antigua. Adding Barbuda to the plan made for one more upwind sail as you head due north (actually about 008 degrees) from the west coast of Antigua for about 30 nautical miles to Barbuda.

Our track from Deep Bay in Antigua to Coco Point in Barbuda

Most of the coast of Barbuda is lined with coral reefs and there are areas of uncharted coral heads. It is best approached (and departed) in good light with a person on the bow looking for obstructions by reading the color of the water. Because of these hazards and the fact that Barbuda is such a low-lying island, there are famously said to be 200 shipwrecks around it. The idea is to not be the two hundred first.

"Eyeball Navigation" as we approach Coco Point

You don't see land until you are within just a few miles of Barbuda. Immediately, you are reminded of the Bahamas with low-lying land, beautiful water and those reefs and coral head hazards.

Fitting Barbuda Into Our Itinerary

Our plan was to leave from Barbuda and head west to our next destination (at the time thinking Nevis/St Kitts). This can potentially cause one more complication. While Barbuda has a Customs office (next to the air strip), they do not have a Port Authority.  So if you're leaving the country of Antigua and Barbuda from Barbuda, you have to do your port checkout in Antigua before you go to Barbuda. Luckily, Linda made a phone call and found out this bit of trivia before we found out the hard way.

A striking rainbow at Coco Point

The Weird Weather

One reason we decided to add Barbuda to our plan was that we were in for spell of some very strange weather in that part of the Caribbean. The forecast was for very light and variable winds from various directions for the next week plus. This is in stark contrast to the usual nearly constant East Trade winds that are whipping through here. We liked the sound of the "light" part, because there is not a lot of great shelter to anchor in around Barbuda. But as it turned out, the "various directions" part caused some complication in Barbuda.

This massive Low in the Atlantic was sucking air from our latitude causing a major dead spot for about a week

Light wind from the southwest?  Yes it was.

Anchored in Low Bay outside Codrington Lagoon. This picture looks deceivingly calm as conditions were fairly rolly due to the swells from the west.

The Bar Is Open

In 2017, Hurricane Irma devastated Barbuda although it largely spared Antigua. Along with causing major property damage which we'll see below, Irma breached the thin sand spit that separated the Caribbean Sea from the huge Codrington Lagoon on the northwest part of the island. The Lagoon was always a salt water body, but this created a new large opening to the lagoon which small skiffs and dinghies can transit. Well, it looks large but there is actually a relatively narrow part that is deep enough and lacks breaking waves to make a safe passage.

We were anchored in Low Bay just outside of the bar and this opening gave us relatively easy access to Codrington (the only town and where the majority of residents live).  Even then, it was nearly a three mile dinghy ride in total because that lagoon is huge!

Remember the bit about the weird weather?  Well at the time, wind and swell was coming from the SW which not only made our anchorage really uncomfortable, but made for some serious breaking waves over the bar. The first time we went through, we had the foresight to record a track on the Navionics Mobile App which would show the safe opening location. As we passed through the opening, we were surfing in the dinghy in some pretty big swell and waves were breaking very hard to the north and south of us.

The track we recorded from the dinghy going through the breach. Navionics still shows it as a solid sandbar.

It turned out to be a very good thing we had that track because we ended up returning to Argon well after dark that night. The safe opening in the bar is not marked with any sort of buoy much less anything lit. Without this track, it would have been impossible to return to the boat safely!

A floating boat fender which marks the approximate location of the safe passage through the breach. This is shot from inside the lagoon looking at the bar and you can see the waves breaking over the bar.

The Lifestyle and History

Barbuda was originally purchased from England by Christopher Codrington (hence the town's name) allegedly for the price of one fat sheep. There is a disputed belief that Codrington was in the business of breeding slaves. There is no doubt that there was slavery on Barbuda (like the rest of the Caribbean). When England emancipated the slaves in 1834, it did not include Barbuda, but Barbuda emancipated at the same time anyway. Many of the slaves stayed and worked for their former owners.

Barbudians are the most friendly people you will meet anywhere in the Caribbean (and that's a high bar). They love living simple lives on their isolated island. Many people could easily live in the more first-world Antigua (or many other places) but don't. Many have lived elsewhere and returned.
Buying fresh produce in Codrington from Talene
There is some political turmoil and animosity toward Antigua from many Barbudians. The feeling is that Antigua is using the relief efforts post-Irma to coerce Barbuda into changing its way of life. Many (most) Barbudians don't want to see the island turned into a tourist trap. They live communally and there is no concept of property ownership. Every Barbudian is entitled to a plot of land for residential, agricultural or business use.

Codrington Traffic Jam
Some of the many horses came to the beach at Coco Point at sunrise

The few resorts (and former wrecked resorts) are not on purchased property. The owners can lease some land for up to 99 years but that's it. In reality, the chances of a resort lasting that long between major hurricanes is probably quite slim. There is a controversial deal in the works with Robert Di Niro trying to rebuild one of the former resorts.

On the other side of the coin, there are some Bardudians who would like to try to establish some commerce and get more money flowing into the country. They want to do it in a way that is sensitive to the communal way of life. 

Kids fishing in the lagoon at the town dock. A wrecked resort on the bar is in the background
At Timbuck One - a surprisingly first-world bar/restaurant
We hung out with Byron, Ester and Ivory at the Green Door

George Jeffrey

If you go to Barbuda, you will more than likely connect with George. One must-do if you go to Barbuda (which sadly we didn't do) is the Frigate Bird Sanctuary. It is the largest in the world and George is famous for his tours of it. Besides that, he will give you a lift from your boat into town (sparing you the risk of finding that opening yourself). George is a Barbudian through and through and really wants to preserve the way of life on the island.

George giving Linda a lift to town to clear out of customs on our last day

Uncle Roddy's

Roddy's is a famous stop for visitors to Barbuda. It's a great hang-out bar, amazing restaurant and offers some beautiful guest houses. Roddy's is now run by Kelcina (Roddy's Daughter) and husband Oliver and they are still in the process of rebuilding/re-establishing after Irma. We did a land tour and hike with their son Chris. Chris helps out running Roddy's and the guest houses and a general go-to guy for about anything. He's also a very cool dude and we could have hung out with him much more!

Inside Uncle Roddy's. We were there just prior to their official post-hurricane re-opening.

Chris with his favorite vehicle

The Guest Houses at Roddy's

Ruins of Codrington's estate in the highlands (125' elevation)

The Sinkhole - a dramatic 80' deep hole. Now with trees growing up to the rim

Linda posing with Chris the tour guide

Besides a little bit of tourism, a primary source of revenue for Barbuda is selling sand. Love those pictures of white sandy beaches in the US Virgin Islands? Much of that sand comes from Barbuda! There was a sand barge being loaded while we were there. Selling sand is not sustainable and they know it. But for now, it's a primary source of badly needed revenue.


Barbuda is very flat. The area known as "The Highlands" has a lofty elevation of 125 feet above sea level. This is where Codrington built his estate.

Taken from the highlands zoomed in. That mast is Argon on the other side of the bar about four miles away. No other boats in sight. You can see the waves breaking over the breach to the right

Irma Aftermath

When Irma hit, all of the 1700 residents evacuated and moved to Antigua but since then, most have returned. The devastation was incredible. Apart from the natural damage to the lagoon bar and many palm trees, the town of Codrington was clobbered. Many people are still living in disaster relief tents outside of their former homes. There is a single diesel power generator which supplies the whole island, but some folks who choose to live outside of Codrington, are still without power.

Various aid organizations have been helping and you can see tarps and tents with various logos from these organizations. One strange thing we noticed was that many wrecked houses had brand new windows. It seems that someone must have donated a lot of windows.

A church with the roof still gone

House with no roof but new windows

Still some folks in disaster relief tents. There is no insurance here.Those who can't afford to rebuild, have no choice.

Stop sign bent by the force of Irma

Another one of the many houses with no roof

Has potential
Swells eased at the end of our five day stay and we enjoyed still water on our final day.

Enjoyable meet up on our last evening with friends John and Victoria from s/v Jovini

Moving on

Another slight complication.  Apart from Antigua, any place you might want to go next is too far to sail to if one leaves when the sun is high (recommended for navigating the shallows and corals) and arrive at the new destination before dark.

Our solution was to choose a path out of the anchorage that got into good water as soon as possible and preview that path during the day in the dinghy while looking for coral heads. This would give us some confidence to leave in the dark early the next morning. The Navionics charts had two suggested courses out of Low Bay, but we noticed that the location of some reefs was drawn a little more to the south in the NV charts. We decided to err on the side of the more southern course and run that down with the dinghy in the light. We didn't see any sort of hazard at all along this track. A few times, we stopped and dropped our anchor over to sanity check the depths too.

Track recorded from the dinghy the day before departing so we could safety leave in the dark the next morning

Motoring out at 05:00 very slowly following the dinghy track we recorded the previous day.
After considering several options:  St Kitts, St Eustatia, St Maarten, we decided to make the next destination St Maarten. Winds were still a little light the day we left so we ultimately shortened our passage by making a sleep-over stop in St Barts. We proceeded to St Maarten the next morning.

Easy but long downwind sail with St Barts up ahead

07 July 2017

Our Caribbean Cruise in Stats, Graphs and Tables: Finances, Fuel, Feuds and Fishing

Ten months, 5000nm, 18 countries, 80 harbors. One broken collar bone, clogged head and seized up water pump. Hundreds of cruising friends met. Below are some more data and figures of our extended cruise.

Captain Linda Perry Riera


Back in Boston

As I write this post, we are overlooking the Boston skyline from a favorite anchoring spot, Peddocks Island, part of Boston Harbor Island National Park. We will sail the short hop to Constitution Marina tomorrow which was our departure point ten glorious months ago. This trip as been an unbelievable adventure in so many ways. Below are some of the analytic aspects of our voyage.

Argon's grand loop:  5000nm (5754 statute miles), 15 countries, approximately 80 harbors.

Boston skyline from the anchorage at Peddocks Island last night. A fitting time to reflect as we return to our starting point.

Many Wonder, Few Ask:  How much does a trip like this cost?

There is a range of how to approach an extended cruise from a lifestyle and thus financial perspective and scant specific information out there. During our planning phase I would read Beth Leonard's The Voyagers Handbook in the evenings (while sprawling on my king sized bed... oooohh, to sleep on a big bed again; I digress). Beth's book is a wonderful resource for learning about passage planning, watch keeping, anchoring, sail handling, living aboard, etc. A particularly interesting section is devoted to finances and is highly recommended for anyone considering an extended cruise. Below is an estimation of our monthly and total spend.

Disclaimer: We started off with an extremely ready, sea worthy vessels (and lots of up front investment in to it). Many cruisers we met along the way had older vessels and needed to spend more time and money fixing things along the way. 

Several prior blog posts outline some of our preparations prior to last September:

Our monthly burn rate was a bit higher than we initially forecasted mainly driven by:
  • Data / connectivity.  See blog post Data While Cruising  Note: Our (aka Bob's) need for data due to his job is definitely way more than that of the average cruiser. And we have accumulated half a terabyte of photos and videos to upload.
  • Eating out.  One can certainly spend less by cooking aboard vs eating out as much as we did. But we enjoy experiencing the islands by visiting lots of different restaurants and eateries. 
  • Trips. The visits with the boys were fantastic and I am very grateful for the special time with them in gorgeous locations. In hindsight, we would have chosen less expensive locales. Two of the three countries we selected for visits were extremely expensive: Bermuda and Turks & Caicos.
  • Docking more than planned (vs. anchoring which is free).  Dock fees would vary widely from $40 to $160 per night. (The lower priced docks were only basic tie ups with no electricity or water.) Sometimes we docked to be more secure in high winds, or to be able to get shore power to run the air conditioner a bit (to dry out the boat even more so than to cool it), and to give Argon an occasional good exterior washing. We extended dock time in St. Maarten to give Bob's collar bone some time to heal and in TCI due to bad weather and waiting for boat parts.

Some added notes about spending

Boat insurance - Many cruisers deem this optional or too expensive and opt out. Some marinas require insurance for dockage. I suspect shipyards will also require if a haul out is needed. Our insurance premium was quite high due to our scant off shore experience prior to the trip and the associated dangers with the long off shore passages (and shorthanded crew). In the future, our premiums should be less as our experience is now much more robust.
Medical insurance - Many cruisers are a bit older than we are and seem to have medical insurance either through their retirement package and/or Medicare (if US) or national insurance, of course, if from outside the US. We both purchased private, basic policies through the healthcare exchange last year and planned to mostly pay out of pocket for minor needs.


  • Bob continued working remotely throughout the trip, more than planned at about 20-30 hours per week which was good to help address the ad hoc hits and lessen the savings drain.
  • I had put aside $40K from my savings prior to the trip. This is gone; time for me to get back to work I guess. (I left my job July 2016.)
  • YouTube sailing channel and ad revenue from blog:  Well, we are not popular enough to make more than a couple of dollars a month here... yet. 
Bob continued his software engineering on the high seas and anchored in harbors. The work sometimes took him away from land exploration but provided nice income to off set expenses. I immensely enjoyed the freedom from paid work for a while (although the paycheck is missed).


Cost of Cruising vs. Cost of Living on Land

This is a discussion Bob and I have had several times when we estimate the cost of this trip. The above representation does not compare the expenses of living on land in a house and weekend boating expenses to the cost of living aboard and setting off on an extended cruise. Many of the expenses above would have been incurred even if we had not been cruising (groceries, eating out, boat parts, cell phones as well as many of the boat related expenses). In addition, we have not been spending money for a year or more on the following:
  • personal cars and associated insurance, maintenance, gas, repairs
  • home mortgage, taxes, insurance, maintenance and repairs
  • accumulating stuff to fill and replenish home
  • summer dock slip, winter haul out and storage
I guess one might be able to rationalize that we saved money on this trip. :-)

Although $68K sounds like a lot, this was our total expenditure for 10 months of living. Intense living filled with unique adventure, travel, challenge and beauty. It was worth every penny.


There are a few reasons why most long distance cruisers are in sailboats, not power boats:  (1) sea steadiness / handling in big waters, (2) cost of fuel, and (3) travel distance with available fuel. We strive to sail as much as possible but firing up the diesel is necessary when winds have died as well as for motoring in to and out of harbors. In addition, the alternator on the diesel engine will charge our batteries when the solar panels can not keep up such as when we were in higher latitudes (last fall) and when there were extended periods of overcast. We consumed 270 gallons of diesel overall.

We track the diesel consumption rate to ensure we know our range on a tank of fuel:

The fuel consumption rate is generally about 0.8-0.9 gal/hour when we are motoring in to and out of harbors and in transit due to low wind. The rate was lower around November when we were in Bermuda and having to run the engine a bit just to charge the batteries as the low, late season sun was not quite sufficient for our solar panels.

At 0.8 gal/hour we can run the diesel for 96 hours. Depending on conditions, this would yield a range of about 675nm. This is important to know for the extended off shore trips should the need arise to motor substantially.

Our most efficient trip may have been from Hampton, VA to Bermuda 650nm (748miles) using only about 0.6 gallons diesel which translates to 2,247 miles/gal (I'm feeling very green). However, total gallons consumed these past ten months were 270 which for a 5000nm (5753mile) trip translates to 21 miles/gallon. Diesel price ranged from a high of $7.91/gal in Antigua to lows around $2.60 in North Carolina. Our total spend was about $850 on diesel and about $50 on gasoline for the dinghy. Other than renting a car a few times, we had no automobile expenses this past year.

Feuds and Fights

Bob = introvert, Mr Fix It, keen attention to detail and safety, anxiety prone
Linda = extrovert, big picture, optimistic, not anxious enough
Both = love sailing, Argon, and each other

As friends have commented, Bob and I most definitely find our chi best when sailing. However, there have been a few times during this trip when we butted heads and both wanted nothing more than to get away from each other. Two of these times we were kind of stuck on the boat and I was unable to easily stomp off and away. Argon feels very tiny at times.

We still like each other.


Our early fishing success was attributed to Smitty, our third crew person for the six day Bermuda to Antigua passage. This would be followed by a couple of months of being skunked before starting to get hits and bring in fish starting around the waters of Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos and throughout the Bahamas. The graph below represents mahi, wahoo and barracuda that we landed on the boat (but did not necessarily keep and clean). There were several additional mahi that we came close to landing but lost. It is customary not to eat barracuda in particular as they can be infected with ciguatera so we carefully plied out the lure and threw these mean guys back.

Fishing success kicked in around February.

Mahi mahi caught in Bahamian waters.
We stretched fresh mahi for several days across many meals. Yum!
We switched to using a hand reel instead of a traditional poles in the Bahamas.

Another Project Management Spreadsheet

We lived by a multi tab spreadsheet the 18 or so months prior to our trip to help us organize the many things to do, to buy and to learn. Now we have started a new log of projects to tackle this winter complete with cost estimates, due dates, and completion statuses. Below are a few items on the list.
  • Upgrades: Reacher fairlead car adjusters, rope clutch replacement (started recently in Mystic), add solar panel (Solbian 50W) and controller - this will increase our (theoretical) power generation from 335 to 385, solar panel controller upgrade, DC to DC converter, aft cabin shelves, nav station instrument, top down furler for spinnaker (not sure), ground tackle (increase from 100 to 150 feet of chain), compass light re-wiring to separate breaker, etc.
  • Maintenance and replacements: Sails (main, jib, genoa) washed, inspected and repaired; Canvas cleaned and treated, new sail cover, brightwork (teak cap rails, cockpit table, dorade box covers, etc), interior floor varnishing, dinghy outboard servicing, dinghy cleaning and proactive patching, kitchen faucet (done), head hoses (yuk), move stern light, goose neck inspection and new bolts, etc. 
But wait, it's still only early July! We have the rest of the summer to spend enjoying the cold (but warming) New England waters. So not to much attention to this spreadsheet just yet!

Argon returning to Mass Bay via the familiar Cape Cod Canal.

03 February 2017

The Data Post - Cruising while Connected (or not)

If this blog post was being dictated, it would be NSFW and if I was using Dragon Speech recognition, I would surely have taught it some new words. Staying connected on this voyage to the Caribbean has been by far the most frustrating, swear-inducing, and unexpectedly expensive aspect.

Bob Damiano

This is definitely not a how-to, because I certainly can not claim that we've done things right all the time. In fact, we've made some huge (expensive $$) goofs. What I can say is that we've learned from our mistakes, discovered some techniques, and are now much more savvy about how to stay connected island and country hopping. And, if you are preparing to cruise over an extended period of time or even near home, perhaps you will find some helpful information below.

I thought being dis-connected was the whole idea?

The mythical reason for doing a cruise like this is to disconnect and "find yourself" and "experience a new world".  Well, all that hippy crap is true, but for those of us who are not independently wealthy, we need to get stuff done while away. And these days, getting stuff done means being connected.

Ah, we are in paradise....

... Who cares about being connected in paradise??  I do!

We both need connectivity while cruising - mainly because I am working allegedly 10 but more like 22-28 hours a week - not to mention taking a peek at work emails or production logs at random times during the day or night. For standard cruising purposes, we do like getting Weather, GRIBs, Active Caption, Google Earth and other online resources to help us decide where to go next, get where we're going safely, and learn about where we are. We also have family and friends back home that we want to actually speak to once in a while and talking over IP is the only affordable way to do that. Besides all that, we're both podcast junkies and Linda can't survive without her Daily Show (she misses Jon but is enjoying Trevor). We also like updating this blog once in a while (and we thank you for reading it).

Linda prefers her outside office.

Bob working, or doing music or something that uses data.


Nothing works all the time here. It's important to have several solutions. Obviously, prioritize the free ones and degrade to the more expensive ones. Our most expensive fallback solution is a $90/GB plan with a global SIM card provider. We definitely have had to dip into this quite a bit when there are no other options. It becomes the primary solution more often than I wish.

Speed, Schmeed

If you expect fast data, don't go cruising. That said, we've occasionally gotten lucky and had some pretty decent connectivity. Not by US cable-modem standards, but good enough.  In general, for my work, I don't need extreme speed. I need stability. It's very frustrating to loose my connection during work as I have to re-establish connections to things on the internal network at the office. It's all the more painful if I have to switch connection methods to log back in. As for the photography for the blog, we will often initiate the upload before going to bed and hope to find the 28 photo upload completed by morning.

Typical weak signal and slow-ish connection.  Not bad though considering we're hundreds of yards away out in the anchorage and picking up the free A/P from a coffee shop.

How to Connect

When it comes to Wifi, Argon is equipped with a Bullet Titanium wifi router and high-gain antenna up on our radar mast (I've since seen other boats with them up on the second set of spreaders on the main mast). The nice thing about this is that not only do we get increased range, but all our devices appear as a single IP to whatever service we're connected to. It also ends up being our own LAN which things within the boat (like Chromecast) can connect to. Having the Bullet is one thing we did right. It's been absolutely awesome to have.

The Bullet Titanium Radio/Router with Antenna.


Open Access Points (A/Ps)

These fall into several categories:
  • Totally open - For these, there is either NO login web page after connecting, or just a "click here to accept our terms of service and promise that you will not browse sheep porn".  You will of course find that these are crowded with users and may be pretty slow (but not always).
  • Facebook check in - This is a new thing and I actually don't mind it. The deal is that to get the data, you do a Facebook check in which does a little promotion for the bar or restaurant on your timeline. To me, that's more than fair. Other people have a problem with it. If you don't like it, just delete the post on your timeline.
  • Login page - This is by far the most popular model. Within this category there are some variations. Usually you enter a password given to you by an employee of the establishment and it works forever (good). A newer variation is that you get a code that works for an hour or two (not so good).
  • Subscribe for some time period - These seem to be popping up in various places in the Caribbean.  In the West Indies, there is HotHotHotSpot! which had unlimited data for 30 days for $50. We definitely bought into that and it worked fairly well from the Bullet in Antigua, Guadeloupe and even in Dominica. There was also one in Bermuda run by the Doyle Sail Loft.  That one was about $35/week if I remember right and was up and down quite a bit but more up than down. Some of them are paid for per IP Address (so only one device). Here is where having your own radio/router is a big advantage since you can appear as a single client and have all your gadgets hanging off of that.
Sometimes we find a particularly bucolic spot to settle in to on land to connect.

Encrypted A/Ps

These are your typical access points where you need to enter a code at the time you connect.  The good news is that, these do not expire (typically) so there is never a "works for one hour" version of this.

Finding an A/P

Here is our typical method when we arrive at a new place:
From the boat, fire up the Bullet, connect to it with a phone and do a site survey.  Sort the results by signal strength and take a screenshot.

Site survey results from the Bullet.

If there are any NONE encryption (open) A/Ps, we give them a try.  Sometimes, we get lucky and find either a totally open or the Facebook Check In type with acceptable speed.  If so, our work is done here (and Bob is very happy and does not swear).

You geeks will notice there is at least one WEP A/P in this list above. WEP is definitely hack-able if you know how. I don't, so to me these are as impenetrable as WPA.

Then go ashore and try to find the bar/restaurant/shop that matches the SSID names from your screenshot.  If I was in charge of one of these establishments, I would never name my SSID after my business but so far, most still do. Buy a drink (it's a dirty job but someone has to do it) and ask for the wifi password (either the encryption code or the "login" if it's an open A/P).

The cost of collecting a wifi code.  We're out in that mooring field and can see this bar's SSID with the bullet.

Enter the password and capture it.  If it's an encrypted A/P, check the box for "show password" and take a screenshot after entering it.  If it's a login page, save it in a note, or email, or write it on your underwear. Just don't lose it.
Our phones are getting full of screenshots like this as we do site reconnaissance.

Got one?  Great.  Move to another place and have more drinks and get more. The key to successfully staying connected is redundancy.  NOTHING down here works all the time (just like everything else on the boat).

Eventually, we return to the boat with our booty of passcodes and passwords and see which one works best from the Bullet. Often times, we end up switching between several.


The Wifi Passcode Arms Race

A new thing we've noticed is that when you ask for a passcode at a bar or restaurant, the waitstaff is required to enter it into your phone themselves and not tell it to you. They are catching on! So here is where a Key Logger comes in. A Key Logger app substitutes a fake keyboard instead of your phone's native keyboard. It records the key presses as it passes them on to the app. The typical use is for parents who want to spy on their kids, but it works great for spying on waiters too. Some of these have keyboards that look quite different from the native keyboard. Eventually, they will catch on if the keyboard does not look quite right. I suggest trying several and use the one with the most real looking (and behaving) keyboard. Download one of the free or cheap key logger apps from the android store and switch it into "hacking" mode when you hand over your phone.  The waiter types in the key and, you've got it recorded.  Don't tell anyone.

Recordings of keyboard entries. This could be used to capture anything typed by, say, a waiter in a restaurant such as the wifi passcode.

No WiFi...  Now What?!?

I guess I could tell the boss I'm not working for a couple weeks and just connect with nature. But then, I wouldn't get my podcasts either so that's unacceptable.

Your only solution now is Mobile Data. When cruising near home, it's fine to chew up some mobile data on your normal plan. So what if you go over a bit - you're cruising... have fun! When roaming out of the country though, this won't work unless you are independently wealthy. We have AT&T plans and they do offer a "Passport" where you can buy a chunk of roaming data for around $60 for the month.  It's a couple hundred MB and we did try that a couple times.  Unfortunately, we had some data accidents doing this and ended up with some five and six hundred dollar overages. Cha-ching!

At the upper extreme end of the pricing scale is the so-called Global SIM thing. There are several companies providing these including Go-SIM and World-SIM.  Basically they are data re-sellers who partner with local mobile providers all over the world to re-sell their data using one single SIM. This data is massively expensive - $90/GB. On a good work day, I'm using about half a GB. More if I dial into meetings and do VOIP. In theory, you should be able to find this same data locally at a much lower price. But being on a sailboat with limited transport options sometimes does not make this very practical. It could mean a $30 cab ride to buy a SIM that will only work while you are in one island for a few days and save you $20.

Our unlocked hotspot with $$$ expensive global sim.  Connected here to a 3G provider.

Sniffing out good 3/4G Mobile Data

Often when poking into remote anchorages where we are sure the only option will be Mobile Data, we will fire up a Signal Strength Meter app on one of our phones to monitor signal strength as we move along.  We sometimes end up choosing the place to drop the hook partially based on this reading!

Screenshot from one of our Signal Strength metering apps

Local SIMs

In addition to carrying the black unlocked ZTE hotspot loaded with the Go-SIM, we have a second unlocked ZTE hotspot that we figured we would load up with any local sims we could buy. Ha! Try going into a Digicell or Flow store in the Caribbean and saying you want a SIM for your hotspot. They look at you like you are from Mars. They've never seen one or heard of such a thing. "These work in only in phones" they say. We had a couple very frustrating experiences in stores meeting this kind of resistance. I'm sure this is not right. I'm sure I could get it to work. I'm also sure that I don't want to have a complication setting it up in the hotspot only to meet with "these work only in phones" from tech support.

So, we never had luck getting a local SIM for our second hotspot. And, I swore a lot.

Both of our fancy expensive Samsung Android phones are dual-SIM and unlocked. So in theory, we should have been able to pop a sim into the second slot and been good to go. I am not crazy about opening these expensive phones though. And I especially don't want to open them again and again as we swap in different local cards.

In St. Maarten (shopping mall of the Caribbean), Linda had a great idea.  "Let's just buy a cheap phone for the local SIM". And so we did. Turns out, you can buy a BLU Android 4G LTE Smartphone for about $200. It's no frills, but it works as a data hotspot and it's also the phone we can use to make local calls. In hindsight, if we would have done this months ago, we would have saved thousands of dollars, hours and hours of time and a lot of swearing.

The cheap BLU Android Phone. Why didn't we buy you months ago?

We put a CHIPPIE card in our cheap phone in St Maarten and had 4GB of data for $30!  Worked great.  Then, we put a Digicell Sim in it in the BVI (after a $40 cab ride) and got 5GB for $75.  I'm sure that sounds expensive to anyone back in the states, but we're thrilled with this price!

Installing the CHIPPIE sim card in our new cheap phone in St. Maarten.  And it worked! (look at me resting on my arm the day before I broke my collar bone)
Ah, finally!!... Almost five months in to our trip and we are able to get 5GB for $75 with a Digicel local SIM in our new, cheap phone to use as a hot spot. This is our primary back up now when we cannot get free wifi.

Linda negotiated a ride from Leverick Bay to Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda with Ceril in the back of his very rickety touring pick up truck to buy a Digicel SIM card. The normal taxi rate would have been $76 round trip! Ceril transported us to Spanish Town, and waited at the Digicel store, and drove us back for $40. The 5GB SIM card was $75 for a total of $115 and about two hours.


Avoiding Data Accidents

The dreaded windows update...  Make sure that your computers are set to not automatically update anything. We did this part right. The last thing you want is an OSx or Windows update to happen overnight while connected to your mobile data.

Windows 10 has a configuration option called "Metered Connection". This lets you mark any A/P as one that no auto updates or phone-home stuff should happen over. My work laptop is Win7 so no luck there, but our personal laptops are Win10 and we have marked all our phones and hotspots as "Metered".

For phones, it's very critical to set them up to never update any apps automatically - even on wifi. Remember, when your phone connects to your expensive hotspot (or other phone) for data, it sees that as a regular old wifi connection. Your phone has no idea that this "wifi" has a really expensive mobile plan on the back end of it. In general, Phones are data pigs and you need to be especially careful with them. I wish Android offered the Metered Connection strategy like Win10 does. I have no idea if iOS or MacOS have any such thing.

DropBox, OneDrive or whatever else the kids are using for "cloud storage"

If you use some sort of cloud drive  that "syncs" data, you can potentially have a pretty serious data accident if you are not careful.  Let's say you have a DropBox account and you have some shared folders between more than one account.  Someone from the crew goes ashore, gets on some free wifi and and downloads some gigantic PDF manual for some gadget on your boat and puts it in your shared dropbox folder.

Now imagine another laptop sitting out in the boat running DropBox and connected to a mobile hotspot.  Please enjoy downloading that whole PDF over your expensive mobile plan. You can imagine similar scenarios if you have family members back home with whom you share a folder.  Be careful!  And don't get me started about putting videos in Dropbox!

We do use DropBox and we do have a large shared folder where all the boat manuals are. But we are very careful to set Dropbox up to NOT startup automatically when windows restarts.  Whenever we DO run it, we only enable sync when we are on some free wifi.

Going Forward

We've made a lot of expensive and frustrating mistakes with data on this trip so far. If we had it to do over again, we would have bought the cheap phone before we left and kept it loaded with local SIMs everywhere we went. I think that with this option available to us, we should have a much better time going forward.  The data is still very expensive and slow here compared to home, but definitely tolerable for what we need.

Is the data nightmare over?  Nope, but it's better.  As I get ready to publish this post, the Digicell plan is working about 30% of the time and the go-sim is empty. I had to dinghy ashore to find free wifi at a coffee shop in order to buy more GO-SIM data ($$$ Cha-Ching). While I was at it, I tried topping up the Digicell plan (it was nearly exhausted) and as my payment was processing, the phone dropped the connection. But at least the coffee is good.  Now, back to work. I have data to pay for.

You may also find useful information and suggestions via the following posts from a very experienced cruising family:
Sailing Totem: Getting on Line While Cruising
Sailing Totem: How to Use Less Internet Data

Now it's time to sit back, relax, and get the wifi password from this establishment.