Internet Connectivity

People ask us all the time what we use for internet access on the boat. It’s a vaguely complicated setup, so I figured I’d write it up in case others want to follow in our footsteps (or even better, have suggestions!)

The Cradlepoint COR IBR1700

The central router on the boat is a Cradlepoint COR IBR1700. It serves the wifi network on the boat that everything, including our cell phones, connect to. I’ve set it up to run off the 12V on the boat through a dedicated breaker switch that we leave on 24/7. The unit comes with an integrated dual-antenna (2×2 MIMO) cellular modem with two SIM card slots. You can add a second modem to it with an additional two SIM card slots, and if you have the antennae for it, you can split your bandwidth between the two modems. In all honesty, we’ve been struggling with this unit since we got it, and have had the whole unit RMA’d twice, and the second add-in modem RMA’d twice as well. The problems they’re trying to address are still unsolved, and our internet blinks out once or twice a day for several minutes while the modem spontaneously reboots. I’m probably going to call this wasted money and switch to another unit in the near future and sell this one off. For paying nearly 2000$ between the unit and the add-in modem, I’m not thrilled. But when it’s not spontaneously rebooting on us, it does work nicely.

A MOFI4500 router — simple and cheap, and does the job.

Our backup router is a MOFI4500. It only has one SIM slot, so you’re manually swapping SIM cards to change networks. It only has a single cell modem, which is slower than the Cradlepoint’s cell modem, and the Wifi is slower as well. But not by much. It’s also cheap and just works. For most boaters looking to get a reliable cell internet connection on their boat, this is what I tell them to get.

Our original GigaMIMO Lite cellular antenna. The new unit looks similar, the white pucks are just around twice as long.

The biggest piece of our connectivity puzzle is the antenna. We started with a WirEng GigaMIMO Lite, and while it was an improvement over just tethering, we wanted more, so we upgraded to the full GigaMIMO recently, and it was a pretty big boost. Both GigaMIMO units are 2×2 MIMO antennae, which means it’s basically two antennae in one, with orthogonal polarization, so they send non-intersecting wavelengths, for double the bandwidth (if you have a router that supports plugging in two antennae.) After upgrading, we now regularly get several megabits of internet when our cell phones show zero coverage or are just squeaking by on 1x. We have only lost connectivity in the absolute boonies for a few minutes on one day of the trip so far. The full unit is nearly 3000$, though, so you have to really want that internet to justify it, as well have somewhere to put what’s basically a 3 foot cube of antenna with an unobstructed-by-metal view of the horizon. But in even moderate connectivity, we usually have 20-30 megabits of download, and in good areas, we’ve cracked 90 before.

For actual data plans, we burn through huge amounts of data between work, gaming, streaming, and general browsing. We regularly use hundreds of gigabytes a month, which is far more than the standard plans will give you, so I had to get creative. We have three SIM cards on the boat: AT&T, Verizon, and Google Fi. The AT&T plan is through NoLimitData, and is a nearly unlimited plan (no throttling, 500GB a month warning line). The Verizon SIM is a no-longer-available prepaid truly unlimited plan (no throttling, no limits), though you can get something similar through UnlimitedVille. The Google Fi SIM is our backup plan and lightweight international roaming solution. On our great loop trip so far, AT&T has often had better bandwidth than Verizon, so it tends to be our default active SIM. I don’t yet have a solution for when we get to Canada. There don’t seem to be any actual unlimited plans there, no matter how much money you’re willing to pay, so we’ll cross that bridge in a few months as it gets closer.

The Wave Wifi Rogue Pro wifi booster

Lastly, if wifi is available anywhere remotely nearby, we have a Wave Wifi Rogue Pro wifi booster on top of the boat, across from the LTE antenna. This works fairly well if there’s wifi within a mile or so, though we’ve gotten signals several miles away before under perfect conditions. Under almost all conditions on the loop, though, our cellular setup works so much better than even good marina wifi that we don’t even bother using this. We’ve only bothered I think once on the trip so far, and it was merely academic, while I was debugging some issues with the Cradlepoint’s cell modems. I expect we’ll be relying on this a lot more in Canada, given the likely no-unlimited-data solution we’ll run into there.

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Final Preparations and Initial Plans

As I go to bed tonight, we tick down past the 8-days-to-go mark. So, we’re just finishing up some fairly frantic last-minute planning and logistics, and are ready to move into see-what-happens mode.

Today, we dropped off the last pile of stuff at the freight company to be sent out to the boat. Since the boat had to go through Victoria, we couldn’t send any alcohol out on it, so instead we’re shipping out a few cases of wine and a case of northwest liquor (small batch stuff you can’t get in liquor stores out east). Combine that with a radar and chartplotter upgrade, throw in a folding dock cart, some art, and a few miscellaneous other things, and you have 460 lbs of shrink-wrapped boxes on their way out east to meet us. It’ll give me some fun projects to get started on from day 1!

Speaking of the chartplotter upgrade, we made the call to upgrade the main ancient Garmin 5012 chartplotter to a new 1242 Plus unit. I was looking into prices for getting all of the map cards we’d need to safely do the loop with the 5012, and it was getting up over 2000$. At the Seattle Boat Show, I talked to the Garmin rep and he said he actually knew a few people who had recently just done the Great Loop, entirely using the built-in G3 base map that comes with recent Garmin chartplotters. Given that I could get the new unit for essentially the same price as the map cards I was looking at, it seemed like a vastly superior answer. The reps at the Garmin booth don’t actually sell anything, and I’m sure the margin on hardware is lower than a mass-printed SD card, so it seemed like a genuine suggestion to save some money. But then I found a nice combo sale to upgrade our decade-old radar unit to a Fantom 24 at the same time, and suddenly everything got more expensive…

We also got news this week that our new couch was ready to ship, so it’ll head out east about the same time as our random-stuff pallet. We’re excited for the extra storage!

Lastly, we’ve started trying to look at what a timeline MIGHT look like for our loop. We currently only have 2 hard dates:

  • March 7th, we have a celebration of life for my grandmother, who passed away earlier this year. We have plane tickets from West Palm Beach for the weekend, so we need to get ~100 miles north of Ft. Lauderdale up to PBI by then.
  • November 1st, or so, the locks south of Chicago open from 4 months of maintenance closures, so we can start hauling ass down the Illinois to the Mississippi, away from what will, by then, be quite cold weather.
Transit days on the standard Great Loop, according to Captain John’s Great Loop Cruising Guide

Outside of those two dates, pretty much anything goes, so I’ve been trying to add some constraints/odds to give people a rough idea when to come out and visit us. If we follow a roughly-72-to-75-degree-average high daily temperature for the first bit (colder than we want, but we get north earlier and can explore further northeast), we end up with the following vague-but-quite-aggressive schedule:

  • Feb 28: Ft. Lauderdale, FL
  • March 7: West Palm Beach, FL (100 miles)
  • March 25: Jacksonville, FL (300 miles)
  • April 15: Charleston, SC (300 miles)
  • May 1: Wilmington, NC (250 miles)
  • May 15: Norfolk, VA (300 miles)
  • June 1: Washington DC (250 miles)
  • June 10: Baltimore, MD (200 miles)
  • June 25: NYC (250 miles)
  • July 15: Providence, RI (250 miles)
  • Aug 1: Portland, ME (250 miles)
  • Aug 20: Back to NYC -> Enter Hudson River (500 miles)
  • Sept 5: Montreal, QC (400 miles)
  • Sept 15: Leave Lake Ontario into Trent-Severn (200 miles)
  • Oct 1: Leave Trent-Severn onto Lake Huron (300 miles)
  • Oct 15: Enter Lake Michigan (400 miles)
  • Nov 1: Head south from Chicago, IL when the locks open (400 miles)

We, of course, have no idea if we’ll be able to hit that aggressive of a timeline, since we’re also going to be both working full time and trying to enjoy everything along the way. So, we might just skip everything east of NYC, enter the Hudson in late July, and hang out more in Canada. We’ll see!

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Arrived, But Not Quite in One Piece

Highwind getting unloaded at Port Everglades, Ft. Lauderdale, FL

As the date of the boat’s arrival in Florida got closer, we were thinking that it was probably too early to fly out and start our loop in late January. I’d told my job that March 1st-ish was when we’d start, and while I could have gotten away with it, it was a better idea to stick around for another month to keep building work relationships. So, we started reaching out to our boating community connections to find a captain to pick up the boat and a slip to hold the boat for a month and change. Amazingly, someone found a captain in FL who had a friend with a slip outside a house they’d bought that would be free for a couple months until they got around to buying a boat in the spring, for an amazingly reasonable price. So, we paid a deposit, coordinated pickup details, and slowly watched the Garmin tracking site as the boat wandered its way over.

An Inreach track of the cargo ship’s route (loaded via Google Maps)

It was fun following the boat on its route. They stayed hundreds of miles off shore down the west coast of the US, and then hugged pretty close to Mexico on the way down to Panama, making a pretty consistent 14 kts the whole time. Once they hit Mexico, we’d get emails every day or so with the cell modem on the boat picking up a signal for that middle part of the trip. Then, when they headed north from Panama, they were taking a weird route and going very slowly for a couple days, before turning to the west of Cuba and picking up speed again. We didn’t know what to make of any of it, but it was interesting to watch.

The first picture texted by the captain during the pickup — sooooo where’s the rear canvas?…

On January 18th, after some delays that pushed unloading of our boat into the late evening, they let the captain aboard to start checking out the condition of the boat. We got the first text above, and our hearts sank a bit. Over the last year, we’d replaced all of the canvas on the boat, and paid a premium for some fairly high-end stiff isenglass that would last longer and stay clearer than standard materials, all of which now appeared to be hanging broken or missing from the back half of the boat.

First picture from the captain of the inside of the boat

They let him aboard the boat to check things out, and the inside was a mess. Nothing on a quick inspection by the captain appears to be damaged, but everything was tossed around quite a bit. We later got the story that the cargo ship hit a big storm just north of the Panama Canal, and was seeing steady 35 degree lists in the ocean swells. Another big ship they were also transporting had a large granite countertop break off and bounce around the kitchen for a day and a half. So, things could always be worse.

After some more time aboard, the captain found a pile of stuff nearby that the ship operators had apparently collected as it all fell off our boat. All of the canvas is there, though much of it was destroyed. The grill apparently snapped the railing off the port side of the boat, so that’s going to require some welding and likely a new grill. Not ideal, but nothing catastrophic, at least. Money and a few weeks can fix all of these things, but it’s not really the experience we were looking for.

Eventually, all of the parts were gathered and it was Highwind’s turn to get unloaded. The batteries lasted the whole trip, so my gamble worked out. The engines fired right up and the captain had an uneventful trip inland a couple miles to the dock where Highwind will sit for a bit.

The captain has some local connections, so in the couple days since the boat landed, we’ve gotten the boat fully cleaned to see what other damage there might be, and it doesn’t appear that anything is notably damaged beyond the canvas/railing/grill. Some of the furniture that ended up exposed to the elements in the storm needs some heavier work, but everything else cleaned up nicely.

We are getting estimates for the various required work on those items early next week. We have a special insurance rider as part of the transport, so hopefully most of the costs of repairs are covered by that, but we’ll know more after we get the estimates and start the claims process. Insurance companies are always eager to fulfill claims, so I’m sure this will go smoothly…

No return flight this time…

After assessing the situation, we decided that the Feb 22/23 weekend would be a good option for moving out east, and performed the weird act of buying one-way tickets to the opposite corner of the country. This should give us enough time to get the boat fixed up before we head out, with some time to settle in and receive freight shipments before we should be heading north in early March.

On one last slightly-brighter note, back in November, we commissioned a custom couchbed for the boat to make better use of space and replace our aging and not-terribly-comfortable one, and it’s now finished and ready to ship (the pictures above are the latest ones they sent before saying it was done)! We were intending to have it completed before the boat got shipped, but the early transport changed the situation a wee bit. At this point, it will be shipped to the driveway of the house where our boat is after our arrival in late February, and we’ll swap couches from there.

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On Its Way

After several back-and-forths with Florida on Thursday and Friday, we got our ISF filed (customs forms) and were cleared to load. 3pm Friday, they loaded it up, and 7am this morning the ship departed Victoria, headed to Ensenada. There’s no going back now.

Progress as of this posting from the InReach tracker

I’m gambling a little bit with the batteries on the ship for the voyage, basically entirely because I’m a geek. I disconnected almost everything from the NMEA 2000 network on the ship other than my prototype ShipIt hardware and the GPS antenna, and pulled as much off the rest of the 12V system as I could. This left the boat pulling about 1.8 amps to have the router + cell antenna going to hold connectivity to shore/my house (automatic VPN tunnel), the ShipIt hardware/N2k network, a USB charger for the Garmin Inreach, and whatever else is floating around using power.

A during-assembly shot of me building the solar setup on top of the hardtop last winter

The kicker, and the other side of the bet, is that there’s 500 watts of solar on the roof, but only 390 amp-hours of AGM batteries as a buffer. So, if solar does absolutely nothing, we’ll drain ~43Ah per day and the batteries will be too low to do anything sometime mid next week. But if the solar does, well, really much of anything (which is more likely as it goes south), it’ll keep everything more than topped off. But mostly it needs to make it through the deep dark north before running out of batteries to then find some sun…

Of course, for the vast majority of the trip, the boat looks like it’s going to stay way off shore, well out of range of any cell antennae, so the InReach will be the only reliable tracking mechanism outside of Ensenada, the Panama Canal (we’ll see how Google Fi roaming does!), and then Florida. So, it’s likely that most of my work to keep the network alive will be a waste. Oh well. Experiments are fun.

The current ETA is for the boat to arrive on Jan 2nd in Ensenada, and then ~Jan 20th in Florida. We currently have no plans in place for what to do when that date arrives. It’s still too up in the air around Hannah’s job search and how my job progresses to know if we’ll be ready to move aboard on the 20th or if we’re going to stash the boat somewhere for 5-6 weeks before heading back to actually begin the loop. More updates forthcoming, as soon as we make some decisions…

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A Journey of 6000 Miles Begins With a Single Email

I hadn’t heard from the boat broker in a month, so last Tuesday night (Dec 16) I fired off a quick checkin email to see if he had any update on when the January/February sailing was going to happen. I woke up to a lovely response:

Hi David , when would be the earliest you could be ready to go ?  Would December 28th be too early ? We will have a ship in Victoria at that time would have to double check and see if space is available. Next one will likely be early to mid Feb ..

Anthony

We were two days away from heading to Big Sky, MT for a week of getting together with the family for skiing, arriving home on the 28th. I was also scared by the word “likely”, so I shot him a call in the morning to clarify. He did some research and found that the “likely” February boat was currently not planning on even stopping in Victoria due to not enough customers, so we were looking at more likely an early April shipping at best, arriving in FL in May, significantly too late to start the trip.

Frantic calls to marinas and brokers ensued, and we threw together a list of everything that we’d need to get done to get the boat up to Victoria. The week is compounded by it being Hannah’s last week of work (due to the company management imploding, she put in notice a few weeks ago), so we couldn’t just take a couple days of emergency vacation. At least we were planning on driving to/from Big Sky, so those plans are flexible.

Logistics aside, we were looking ahead at weather for the next few days, and were not thrilled by what we saw. When push came to shove, we decided that the additional expense and hassle of days of logistical hell was worth making sure that we could start the loop in time. So, the plan unfolded:

  • Wednesday/Thursday Nights: Pack the boat with clothing/tech equipment/gear, while the record-setting rain makes everything we own soaking wet. Pack car for ski trip.
  • Friday 5AM: Take the boat out from Kirkland in the dark, through the cut, out the locks, and moor in Shilshole Marina for the day/night. Uber to/from work.
  • Saturday 8AM: Head north to Victoria, clear customs, place boat in Victoria Marina, show the captain how to start/run the boat to load it up later in the week.
  • Saturday 5PM: Take the Victoria Clipper back to Seattle.
  • Saturday 8PM: Drive east to Big Sky.

Somehow, amazingly, the plan worked out without a hitch. The promised rain did come, dumping over 6 inches of rain on us over a 48 hour window, and clearly demonstrating that it’s time to re-do the waterproofing on our bimini top. About the time we crossed the Canadian border, it stopped pouring on us, and we had an uneventful clipper trip home and a reasonable drive out to Big Sky.

We got some last minute news about some customs forms that need filing, which will be done tomorrow morning, just in time for them to load the boat a day early, on Friday. If the loading goes well, then it’s just a waiting game, to get a final date to buy tickets out to Florida to pick up the boat.

The GPS tracking link for the boat (also in the links bar at the right) has our Garmin Inreach active on it, so unless the house batteries run out (here’s hoping that our solar can keep it topped off), we can all follow the boat’s transport together!

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Preparation for The Loop

TL;DR: Early in 2019, Hannah and I made the decision to start seriously planning on doing The Great Loop, a year-long marine circumnavigation of the eastern third of the continental USA — up the east coast from Florida, into the great lakes, down the Mississippi, and around the gulf. After much planning, we will be starting the loop in early 2020 on our boat, Highwind, and this blog will attempt to document our adventures along the way. Hopefully, at the end of the trip, we will have done a good enough job to use something like Pixxibook to print out photobooks of the trip.

Hanging our second boat sign in the decaying hut in the Octopus Islands

Despite buying our first boat only a few years prior, we’d very much enjoyed our month-long summer voyages up into Canada, and were looking for ways to spend more time boating and exploring new areas. The obvious next step was to do an Alaska trip, which would take an entire summer, but unfortunately there’s essentially zero cell coverage over much of the transit route and essentially all of the Alaskan waters, making working remotely difficult. Satellite internet is still incredibly expensive for remarkably little bandwidth, so this basically ruled out Alaska as an option. We’re hoping that Starlink will bring a huge improvement to worldwide high-speed connectivity, but that’s still 2-3 years out at this point.

The next major trip we looked into was The Great Loop, because it keeps you close to cell-covered civilization for the overwhelming majority of the trip, and also covers a bunch of the country that both Hannah and I have nearly zero experience with. We’d heard of the Great Loop in the past, but didn’t really connect it with the trip my cousin Kevin did several years ago until were deeper into planning, amusingly enough. Planning started out as a vague joke, until I kept reading trip reports, finding solutions to the major issues with the trip, and getting more excited about it.

Hannah with Aunt Helen at our wedding in 2013

The unfortunate passing of Hannah’s aunt Helen to cancer in late 2018 kicked us into gear to stop putting off future plans, because, really, who knows if you have a future to plan for. So get to it. We decided to just jump into Great Loop planning and see if we could make it work, and have it be a bit of a Helen Parkinson Memorial Tour. Somewhat surprisingly, after a couple months of planning, we both had approval from our jobs to work remote for the year and had determined that we were going to ship our boat, Highwind, to Florida (via a larger boat) to start our trip in early 2020.

We spent much of the summer of 2019 modifying the boat to get ready to work remotely for a year, living aboard. Our boat is a 2004 Meridian 408, an aft-cabin powerboat, which is a good start for a live-aboard, with its huge bedrooms and expansive salon/living area. However, it wasn’t designed for tech-workers, shockingly, so we needed to make some changes. Also, our boat was built for the northwest, so it had diesel-powered heat, but no way to keep the boat cool for the balmy Florida weather we’re looking forward to.

Test-fitting a custom desk as we were shaping it, one cut at a time

We first ripped out the starboard couch, which was already an awkward small 2-ish person couch, and replaced it with a custom desk we built, with room for two of us to work all day. With 2 rolling office chairs, we have even more versatile seating for dinner as well.

The WirEng GigaMIMO Lite, our huge LTE antenna, undergoing testing on our porch

For internet access, I built a complicated 12V-powered internet system involving a giant cell antenna mounted on the hardtop, a router usually used by metro busses to provide wifi, and our existing wifi extender for the rare case where we could actually use remote wifi. We’ve been able to get 50-90Mbit on anchor in the San Juan islands and around Kirkland with the setup, so I have pretty good confidence that internet access is mostly solved.

Our somewhat-ghettorigged reverse-cycle heat pump climate control solution for the loop

For climate control, we worked with several vendors to get estimates, but retrofitting the existing boat with adequate heat pumps was going to be on the order of 25k$, while adding nearly zero value to the boat. After much hemming and hawing, we decided to simply get a home portable AC unit, adapt a custom polycarbonate window insert, and secure the heck out of it. Experiments through the fall have shown that it is a very effective heater, so we have faith that it will work well as an A/C unit in the summer.

Attempting to navigate a giant swath of dozens of boats on Lake Union during one of the Argosy Cruises Christmas boating events

With the boat and our lives prepared as much as possible, we hunkered down and got ready for final transit plans. At the beginning of December, we left our rental slip in Anacortes to bring the boat down to Kirkland to have easy access for final preparations of moving clothing, electronics, food, gear, etc. onto the boat when the time came for transport. A side benefit of this plan is being able to decorate the boat and spend the month following along the Argosy Christmas Cruises, which is always a fun way to get friends together in the winter.

Working with a transport broker since late summer, all signs point to getting on a boat in late January or early February, arriving in Ft. Lauderdale, FL around March 1st to begin the loop. So now we wait…

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