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.

27 January 2017

Saba - Incredible and Impossible

When you approach Saba, you are deceived by scale.  It looks like a small round island with some cliffs and mountains.  Then you realize that you are still 5 miles (not 200 yards) out and as you get closer, the sheer cliffs around the perimeter of the island tower above you.  And on top of those towering cliffs, are some very tall and very steep mountains - a dormant volcano, actually.

Bob Damiano

We departed Simpson Bay in St. Maarten and headed Southwest toward this tiny Dutch island 30-ish miles out in the distance. We stayed in St. Maarten a little longer than we planned because of my collar bone incident, so we were on the fence about hitting Saba or just going directly to the BVI. We're both glad we did as Saba was one of the most unforgettable experiences so far.

On approach to Saba from the northeast. That cloud was over Saba the whole time we crossed from St Maarten. This is common with mountainous islands in the trade winds. The trades run up the windward side of these mountains, cool and condense.

Saba looks absolutely uninhabitable from the water (save for the houses you can see on slopes of the Northeast side).  And, don't come here for the beaches. There are none. Well, I mean there are usually none. Apparently an occasional beach washes up on the western (leeward) side of the island near "the steps" (more on those later) and remains for a few days to a few weeks. Sabans take advantage of this beach whenever it appears. The lack of a beach is a selling point to me. Since breaking my collar bone at Maho Beach in St Maarten, I can say with authority that beaches are dumb!

Besides the lovely scenery, villas, hotels and great restaurants, Saba is also a major diving and snorkeling destination and lots of people come here just for that.  We didn't have a lot of time to play in the water (and with my shoulder...) but we found some of the clearest waters so far here.

Sure, lets build a town, and an airport on that thing!

Jagged, dramatic cliffs along the entire perimeter of Saba. One would think that Sabans do not want to be bothered with visitors, but the opposite is true. Saba has an extremely welcoming culture.

There are two main places to grab a mooring at Saba: Well's Bay on the northwest side and Port Ford pier on the south side of the island.  The latter is where you must go first to check into customs. Neither place is especially protected - or to be exact - protected at all.  One of the reasons we decided to come here was that we were in for a spell of very light winds and calm seas. Saba can be a miserable place to sit on a mooring in any sort of weather. As it turned out, we were perfectly comfortable in both mooring areas.

The view from Port Ford is not so inviting. There is a commercial pier surrounded by sand mines, an auto graveyard and very steep cliffs. At this point, you are maybe questioning why you came. It gets better.  Anyway, we grabbed one of the free (and very well maintained) moorings and took our long-ish dinghy ride to the customs dock.

The commercial pier.. and sand.  LOTS of sand.  It is Saba's main export.
Aside from the occasional cruising sailboat who wants to brave the conditions, Port Ford also is a cruise ship destination - for tiny cruise ships, that is. Apparently there is one that comes once a month with about 40 passengers and it actually arrived the 2nd day we were there.  She dropped a very large anchor a few hundred feet out (too big for the pier) and a shuttle boat brought passengers to Customs, a "welcome" station and of course the waiting fleet of cabs.  Besides that, there is ferry service from St Maarten.

Pop's Bar near the pier and dive center

Some of the sand mining operation and a bit of the junkyard can be seen too.

Customs and the harbormaster office.

After Customs clearance, there is not much to do right in the immediate area (unless you are into sand mines and junk yards).  While passing the harbor on the way to the moorings, we caught a glimpse of one of the settlements up in the hills.  It didn't look that far and we wondered if we would just walk it.  Well, it's not that far in 2D but the Z axis is a killer here.  We wandered into Pop's Bar (the only bar near sea level on the entire island) outside of customs and asked about a taxi. Two different taxi drivers happened to be drinking in the bar at the time (Hey, it's the Caribbean, mon!) and we had our ride. (We think that the driver who had had less alcohol volunteered to drive us.) All four wheels had all lug nuts - a bonus as we have been in some interestingly maintained vehicles among islands.

Wider shot of Port Ford harbor. The beginning of "the road that could not be built" can be seen as well as a bit of The Bottom settlement.

Long and Winding Road (that could not be built)

Prior to 1950, the only way for people and goods to get on and off the island was from Well's Bay (completely exposed) up crazy steep stone steps and with no sort of dock... only a thin strip of rocky, surf battered shoreline at the base. We wanted to go ashore here but even with our mild conditions, beaching the dinghy was untenable. It is hard to imagine the dangerous conditions that residents must have had to deal with for hundreds of years.

These 800 winding, steep steps lead up to The Bottom. This was the only way for people and goods to arrive/depart the island until the harbor and "the road" were built in the 50s.

Another shot of the steps

Warning: Any pictures in this blog that attempt to capture the insane steepness and height of these roads and structures fail miserably to do so. I suggest you read the blog while up on a wobbly step ladder standing on one leg. That might help.

Today there is a semblance of a harbor (Port Ford on the south side) and an actual road connecting the harbor to the small capital of The Bottom and on to the other town of Windward Side. After quickly ditching ambitions to walk up the mountainside, our driver, Willum, started up the steep road from the harbor.  Very soon you realize the absolute insanity of building this road. Within the first half mile there is a "S" turn that is incredibly steep with very sharp, tight hairpin turns.  They also happened to be resurfacing this part so one lane was out. At this point in the road, you've gone less than a half mile from the sea but are 617 feet above it. (This link has a great topographical view of Saba and you can see elevations at any point by dragging the marker around.)

"The S" from our taxi.

"The S" from space.

In fact, until the 1950s, this road did not exist and conventional wisdom held that it would be impossible to build a road that could transit this island.  Sabans are a very stubborn and proud people and telling them something can't be done is apparently a sure way of getting it done. A man named Josephus Lambert “Lambee” Hassell took a correspondence course in Civil Engineering, designed and led the building of the road that couldn't be built in the 1940s and 50s. Needless to say, he was hero and remains a legend among Sabans.

Generally speaking, the well-maintained roads in Saba do not look wide enough for two vehicles to pass - yet they do and with a friendly "toot toot" of the horn because of course everyone knows everyone here.

The Road as it cuts across the south of the island. The huge retaining walls remind one of "the great wall".

A plaque in honor of Lambee - the builder of this road. The house he lived in is still in Windward Side

Eventually you get to a somewhat flat area of the island, and it is here that the lower settlement called "The Bottom" is built. The Botttom is a mere 917 feet above sea level (about .9 miles inland).  This is a fully equipped small town with government offices, stores, shops and a restaurant or two. The Bottom is situated in the crater of the dormant volcano.  By the way, on wikipedia, Saba's volcano is classified as "Potentially Dangerous".  It has not erupted since 1640, but in geological time scales, that is like yesterday. I would say Sabans worry about the volcano about as much as Americans worry about Yellowstone.

Looking down on The Bottom (and the medical school) from the roadside en route to Windward Side.

We stopped briefly in The Bottom but had our taxi take us on up to Windward Side. On the way up, we passed the Saba University School of Medicine (yes, you can go to med school in Saba) and picked up a student who was hitch hiking up the hill so she could watch Sunday night football in one of the bars. Windward Side is the big city of Saba.  Here, you will find a few hotels, restaurants and bars, art galleries, museums, churches, markets and the hospital and pharmacy. Windward Side is over 1300 ft above sea level and about a mile inland from the southern shore.

This graveyard is solar powered.
The next day, we hired "Lollipop", a local jack of all trades and lovely woman who not only runs a taxi/tour, but a laundromat, guest houses and student apartments. She also does home visits to take care of an elderly woman on the island. Lollipop is what you call a good person. She acquired her moniker from one of her elderly clients who thought he was "as sweet as a lollipop". Lollipop gave us an excellent tour of the whole length of the road explaining lots of local trivia and telling us about her family as we went. Later we ran into her again in Pop's bar of course.

Lifelong Saban "Lollipop" - our taxi driver and excellent tour guide.


Looking south east from the road. On this very clear day, we could see Eustacia, St Kitts and Montserrat.  It's very rare that they can see all the way to Montserrat

Another view of The Bottom.
Lollipop dropped us off in Windward Side for a few hours so I could log in to work for a while (using restaurant wifi was the only option here), and we could explore a little on foot. It was here looking out over the Caribbean so far below and seeing these incredibly steep, high mountains all around that the whole thing started to feel like a strange dream. This beautiful, vibrant picturesque town in the middle of this totally forbidding environment. It just seems impossible. But there you are.

My office for the day at Scout's Bar.  We're probably 1500 feet above sea level here.  Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Netherlands, towers above this area rising to 3,000 feet.
Linda and our new friend, Picky.

Still on the mend from my broken collar bone enjoying some local medicine.

View over some hotels and homes and the blue Caribbean far below.

And churches too.

A very good pizza at Long Haul in Windward Side.


We started appreciating how incredibly clean and well maintained everything was. And we noticed more than one person outside of their home or business with a broom sweeping the street. Lollipop explained to us that this type of pride in their community is ingrained in all Sabans from a young age and it's just part of the culture now. There is also reportedly virtually no crime as all of the less than 2000 inhabitants seem to know and support each other. A real community.

A resident out painting his fence and generally keeping things beautiful.  As you do in Saba.

Signs like this are for us tourists (and maybe newly arriving American medical students).  Locals would never have to be reminded not to litter.

By Air... on the shortest runway in the world

Saba is challenging to visit by sail boat.  You really need a good weather window to be there. You will either need to stay in Well's bay which is in the lee of the island, but a very long dinghy ride to the port, or near the port which is completely exposed to the easterly trade winds (and still a relatively long dinghy ride).  Another thing they said couldn't be done was to build an airport here.  So of course they did. We met a pilot in St Kitts who described Saba's airport as like landing on an aircraft carrier. Apparently you are not allowed to land there until you've co-piloted with someone else who has.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (IATA: SAB). Not a lot of margin for error there. The runway is the shortest commercial airstrip in the world at only 400 meters long with a steep mountainside on one side and cliffs at both ends.
There was a flat enough spot on the Northeast corner of the island that, with clearing lots of rocks and boulders, was just big enough to build Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport. Flying in to this airport on one of the small Winair planes is said to be quite the thrill. The road to the airport is also full of sharp winding s-turns as it rapidly climbs the mountains.

SAB airstrip from space and the extreme road connecting it.

Moving On...

We moved Argon from the Port Ford mooring up to one of the balls in Well's Bay.  It was from here that we would depart at midnight for the British Virgin Islands under a moonless but star filled night.

The much more picturesque, albeit intimidating and isolated, northwest coast. Thankfully there are a handful of well-maintained moorings (all were vacant, we were the only boat in sight) as it would be impossible to anchor here due to the depths and likely rocky bottom.