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Surfing Aboard

Mex Folan3

Nowadays, when guests board and before they sip their first cocktail or when new crew join the boat and before they even settle in, still with baggage in hand, the first and most common question seems to be: ‘Do you have internet?’

Internet has become a lifeline for some, and rather than surfing the waves, many spend hours surfing the Net.  It may be midday in the middle of August, with soft seas and sunny skies but, invariably, YouTube, Facebook and the BBC distract fromall other activities. It seems one needs to know that the world is well before slipping into those azure waters previouslyonly dreamt of from the back of the classroom, home or office.

Having internet access on board has, of course, become more than a luxury; it is almost as critical to the operation of the yacht as it is to the comfort of the guests – and certainly a huge bonus to the standard of living for the crew.  As Captains, when organizing a charter, we need to be in close communication with the Owner, Management Company, Broker and Client, not to mention suppliers and provisioners wherever they may be. As part of the planning we also source critical data regarding weather, traffic, the plotting of courses and itineraries. Meanwhile the Engineer usually researches and sources suppliers online for parts and technical support. The internet is therefore a vital operational tool. 

On the other side of the table, guests love it too. Be they Owners or charter clients, they can maintain their broad horizons while enjoying and sharing their unique experience aboard with friends and family, far and wide. They can access their offices, check stock reports and continue to conduct business while between the blues of sea and sky.  Few now run away to sea to escape their lives; they rather share their adventures with those left behind without compromising any of the comforts. Crew take equal pleasure from keeping in contact with family and friends, sharing images of the current season, or preparing CVs for the next. Access to the Net has defined a new social dynamic, but it also broadens the traditional responsibilities of the crew, and facilitates better service aboard.

So technology has followed us out to sea, but there was a time when only satellite communication systems allowed this sort of contact – at a price - restricting use to the largest and flashiest yachts with budgets to match.  Nowadays, although rates have halved and packages include ever more incentives, there are alternatives while in coastal or common cruising areas, offering excellent quality at very reduced rates, with relatively low capital costs to install.

However, regardless of the system or rates, issues will arise when used by people and crew who do not understand how this technology works, and overload the system by downloading large files such as movies, automatic MS updates and music streaming or, ceding to an attraction for peculiar sites heavy on images and video. Captains and Chief Engineers must be aware of the extraordinary rates of data transfer that can ensue as the resulting charges, if unrestricted, may be shockingly high. I was aboard a vessel that had a monthly bill of $20,000 (almost £13,000) as the crew felt entitled to unrestricted use and offered access with reckless abandon, like kids with a free pass at a pinball arcade.  Skippers beware, the faster hardware can process data, the more data will be transferred and the rates charged by the service suppliers are often times based on data volume.  It is sometimes difficult to impose limits for charter guests, and maybe even more so for your crew, but it must be done to keep control of costs.

Wireless routers are now offered by Vodafone and other major mobile telephone and specialist suppliers, such as Global Surfer, who provide equipment with improved remote reception, which is simple to install discretely, and strategically, depending on the length of the vessel. These allow the use of common data SIM cards to provide wireless access to the internet at a much-reduced cost. The cards can be pre-paid if travelling between countries, or they can be under contract if cruising in a specific coastal region. Of course, contract cards allow for roaming which allows for connection anywhere a signal can be found, although costs do increase. It is a simple thing to buy pre-paid cards if travelling and to keep them topped-up online, and once set in place, it can be managed by junior crew - although the Captain would be wise to keep tabs!  While the packages change regularly, from provider to provider, and country to country, I have used this system with good results during charters and large events when several devices are connected at once.

On some yachts, I have set up dual systems with separate SIM cards and passwords – one for crew and the other for guests, to maximize connection rates and to control costs.  A log of all activity is automatically registered too, so advise folks to keep this in mind when surfing beyond the pale. If you would like to offer increased privacy, perhaps for a Skype call, or if your vessel is as long as the last one I outfitted, it is also simple and inexpensive to have a range amplifier installed and synchronized with your system, and this way you can sit on the bow or masthead and still enjoy a strong signal while delighting in the privacy and sense of eternity. Depending on the installation and the hull material, the effective range below decks and above will have to be determined through practical tests, but it’s unlikely to be great above 50 or 60 feet.

Certainly in today’s world, in coastal waters, adequate online connections can now be assured for most vessels, at reasonable rates. For Owners, guests and sailors alike, we can all stay connected and share the best bits between the blues. And, when business is done… you can always sit back and enjoy the view.

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Mex is a simple sailor and clearly from the old school.  With a broad background on commercial fishing boats, Maxis, IACC boats, square riggers, big classics and modern superyachts – both power and sail. He has sailed, and mostly raced his way from one prime port to another aboard some of the world’s finest yachts while setting standards and gaining his own insight along the way in common cruising grounds and well beyond. 

He has been a Captain, a Chief and Sole Engineer, a Programme Manager, a rockstar Bowman, Crew Boss and a simple sailor over the years and he has also set up and operated his own boatyard facilities and charter fleet when he wasn’t pushing water and limits.  His hands-on approach has given him the experience and expertise he shares with us in his own unique manner while provoking you to reply and rethink your actions so as to make our industry one based on performance rather than politics and so as to keep its traditions and tenets, and assure the excellence of service to match the magic of the platforms we take to sea.  We hope you shall read him with interest, learn a little, respond a lot, and learn together the details that make us better and what we are, senior crew that define the future of the industry.


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