I want to start this post with a disclaimer. There is no one on POF that is a “fanboy” of anything! We aren’t “Chevy”, “Ford, or “Mopar” people. Nor are we “Apple”, “Microsoft”, “Linux”, or “Google” people. We are still savvy enough (for now) that we will quite easily adapt to another platform if it works best for us. This post is not meant to insult anyone, or imply that what other people use is less capable. I just wanted a post to show what works for us.
Now the second disclaimer… Forget everything you know about reliability for devices on land life. Yes, even if you live on the coast (this includes swampy Florida, Louisiana or another other high humidity land based environment). The combination of high humidity, constant movement and general poor treatment of gear is a whole new world of hurt that %90 of people will not inflict in normal land life. Us cruisers, quite literally beat the shit out of our gear in ways you cannot imagine.
No, not buying it? Well let me ask you, when is the last time you asked your laptop to operate in a high humidity environment, while catching air in rough seas, then taking a salt water bath through an open portlight (I don’t want to talk about that part). Hell, and that was just me watching a movie on a Wednesday, while we ran a channel between 2 islands. Compared to other cruisers, that is actually pretty tame (imagine asking it to take that abuse for 20 days straight while crossing an ocean). For those wondering, it survived that with only 4 strange lines appearing on the screen after (I flipped it over immediately). The kids complained about watching movies on it for a few more months till a “donor” screen could be liberated (I actually stole their screen and gave them mine).
After some trial and error, we have settled on cheap Android tablets for the kids on POF. Frankly, the more expensive tablets don’t seem to last any longer than the cheap ones. In the last 2 years it has been rare that a tablet actually dies a corrosion death. Its usually left on a bunk and one of the kids sits on it (breaking the screen). Sure we could buy better devices with the nuclear bomb proof cases, but that whole shebang would cost us WAY more than just buying new cheap tablets every year. We could beat the kids till they stop sitting on their tablets, but we are trying to take a nicer less beating/yelling approach to parenthood (it doesn’t always work). They don’t give a crap if its the latest/greatest.. Does it run Minecraft, ok cool! Now here is the secret, “Remember that money you got for your birthday/Christmas/Easter… Well, “Surprise”, we are using all of it to buy this tablet!” Quit being a dumbass and take care of your stuff and you can buy candy with the money in the future”
E-Readers are definitely a MUST on any cruising boat! Seriously, we know almost no cruisers that carry actual books these days (wet paper is not something you want on a boat). Of course the default answer for an E-Reader is the Amazon Kindle. Back in land life, I wouldn’t even bother to argue. The Kindle products are class leaders. However, out here, we have the annoying “assahoy” issue (see above). Actually, with E-Readers it seems to be a bigger problem. You see, we allow our kids to read in bed as long as they like. So inevitably they fall asleep reading, and yup, you guessed it, roll over on the device. We currently have 2 broken readers aboard that suffered this exact fate. Now, I’m NOT willing to take that night time reading away from my kids. So, a broken E-Reader is just the price we pay (about every 6-7 months). Since we are cheap and always looking for ways to save money, I have started buying discounted, refurbed E-Readers online (Kobo). We were turned onto this option by our friends on Saphira Blue last year. So far it is a great option as a new device is about $30USD.
(No, the irony is not lost on me. Paper books would not have this issue. However, the advantages of e-book FAR outweighs this)
Ahhh laptops… Aboard our boat, our laptops are undoubtedly the most used devices. If we are aboard the boat then one or both of our laptops are being used. On a rainy day we may actually have 3 laptops going for 15 hours. As you can imagine with all that use they take one hell of a beating. They get carried all over, often without closing the lid (really tough on screen hinges). Often they are sitting on our salon table being fed a steady diet food crumbs since that is where we also eat. On passage days, one of us usually watches movies while the other is on watch. On particularly “sporty” days its pretty common for the laptop to be airborne as we top a wave or take Poseidon’s punch (the name we coined for the slamming all cats do, some more than others). Of course we have no spinning disks left on the boat and everything has been converted over to SSD drives. Even then, with all that abuse the average life of a laptop aboard Party of Five is about 11 months. They often have problems earlier than that, but we just limp them along (or give them to the kids to finish off). Rhonda actually used a laptop with a dead keyboard for 2 months before a “donor” keyboard could be sourced. She got pretty good with the onscreen keyboard and a mouse.
So with that kind of life expectancy and pretty much ZERO warranty centers down here, we opt for used laptops. Our original laptops were very graciously gifted to us by a client of mine. Unfortunately those are long dead. However, since I came to know that make and model very well, we have stuck with them (Dell Latitude E6430). The good news is they can be had on E-bay for pretty cheap these days. I just bought the top end version with an I7 and Nvidia video card for $105USD. Unfortunately, the shipping and import fees added another $55USD. However, another benefit of continually buying the same devices is we can reuse the batteries. We have about 10 batteries now!
Accessing the Internet has changed quite a bit since we started cruising (I may do a whole blog post about this). We originally relied on a WIFI booster to provide internet access to the devices on our boat. However, that has changed and our primary internet access is provided by 3G/4G. We were able to get a plan in Martinique that give us 50GB of data, unlimited phone calls to Canada, USA and Europe, text worldwide and roaming the ENTIRE CARRIBEAN (we can actually roam to Canada but only get 25GB of data). Total price is $54 euro.
We have that SIM card installed in a Netgear MIFI device that shares the data over WIFI. Its a Netgear 815S, however I don’t really recommend it. It has some very strange behaviors that make it frustrating to use (finicky usb charging, connection limits (no bittorrent), random reboots, ect).
We do still have a WIFI booster aboard and use that to extend our 50GB when we are in places where the WIFI coverage is good. We originally used the Ubiquiti Bullet devices but they had reliability problems. They would die like clockwork at just over 1 year old. I took them apart and determined that they had not died of corrosion (they all still booted, just stopped connecting). So we decided to switch to a different brand. We now have a Microtik Grove as our main WIFI booster. So far (only 3 months), it has been excellent. One nice thing, it does 5GHz as well as 2.4GHz. That feature has been amazing in places where 5GHz is available as almost no cruisers have that ability (or don’t know how to use it). Even though 5GHz has shorter range, the clear traffic spectrum means we have smoking fast internet if we can hook up to it.
Yes, there are open source options to %90 of our equipment (plotter, wind/depth, charge controllers, even AIS). Some of the open source options are really good, but some of them are not. I have done my fair share of “playing” with open source options and have my own opinion. At this point, I’m just not comfortable with relying %100 on those options (nor think I would ever be).
So on our boat, we choose marine grade equipment from a known names and back that up with some open source options. Of course this is NOT a foolproof choice, but it defiantly carries less risk. Since my whole family is aboard, I will error on the cautious side every time!
The boat electronic landscape is an ever changing field. After our lightening strike, I opted to replace all our gear with almost the exact same stuff (all our gear was only 6 months old). However today I would probably do things differently. I don’t think I made the wrong decision, but things have changed in the last couple of years and if I was purchasing today I would examine all the options again.
We have B&G gear for our main plotter and instruments (wind, depth, speed, ect). While they have have alright, they have not been excellent. First, while the interfaces are useable, they are not what I would call “excellent”. The competition has definitely pulled ahead here. However, they may be working on this as the latest updates have made big improvements in this area. Second, the reliability of some things have not been great. The water temperature sensor died within 7 months and a quick Google shows its a very common problem (literally hundreds of posts). Then, the bearing in our wind instrument died. Maybe I was expecting too much, it did last 3 years. However we know boats with 15 year old gear that have never replaced the bearing in their wind instruments.
For our AIS, we opted for a Vesper device. We originally had the top end color screened device (Watchmate Vision), but I could not swallow the cost of replacing it with another one (after the strike). Frankly while the Watchmate Vision was neat, it was really overpriced and underpowered. While I really wanted to replace it with an XB-8000, I also couldn’t swallow the extra $200 for the WIFI option (had it on the Vison and its not worth that price). Now, while I don’t have a bad thing to say about the Vesper devices as they have performed flawlessly in 4 years, I do think they are WAY over priced. Frankly I think the whole AIS industry is that way. They are simple devices, but its a niche market so they can demand as much as a modern cell phone.
Now our autopilot is a whole different story. After a whole ton of research I decided to buy a complete Raymarine autopilot even though its wiring is not compatible with our B&G stuff. That meant it was more fiddly to install (had to make wiring adapters), but the end result was worth it. “Franze” as we call him, is an absolute champ. He will happily steer the boat for hours while just sipping power. Best of all, he can steer the boat better than I can (however, I’m a pretty shitty sailor). The only problem he has ever had turned out to be a loose wiring connection. I would not hesitate to buy another Raymarine autopilot.
To sum things up, I don’t think there is one simple answer to electronics on a boat. You may have noticed that I did not include a cell phone in this post. While we do have one on board, its only function is phone calls when required. However, we know lots of cruisers who use a cell phone as their primary device these days. Our setup may not be ideal for everyone, but it works for us today. In the future, I suspect it will change (laptops are pretty power hungry).