Can You Hear Me Now?

10 February 2009 By Rubi McGrory

Communication on the high seas has come a long way from the days of sending your four fastest ships, one in each direction, to relay a message.

Today, Buttercup -- heroine of The Princess Bride -- could use her iPhone, Blackberry, GSM, SatCom, VHF, SSB or go online and log into to message, call, text, Skype, e-mail, SMS, IM or FB Wesley to say she loves him and isn’t going to marry Prince Humperdinck.

With of these options and technological innovations available, yacht crew are finding it far easier to stay in touch with loved ones and friends back home, at sea or across the marina.

Craig B., (all names have been changed), who spent the past few months traversing the seas of South America, says he Skypes his girlfriend from internet cafés. Skype to Skype is free. “So why would I try anything else when I can talk to her face to face?”

More and more vessels are equipped with VSAT, so crewmembers have unlimited Internet access and don’t even need to leave the boat in search of wireless to Skype or e-mail. Sometimes this is a safer and more productive way of life for crew, who don’t have to subject laptops to trips ashore on the tender.

Capt. Adam hates that mealtimes no longer foster lively discussions and interactions between his crew, but instead have turned into silent study hours when all he can hear is the click of keys. These same crewmembers also spend much of their work time either texting or on a Bluetooth-equipped device chattering away.

“I think it is important to talk to their friends and family, but that's happening at the expense of being a cohesive crew and forming new bonds,” he said, before sheepishly admitting to sometimes turning off the signal before mealtimes.

Not everyone has the luxury of tapping into onboard communications, but as long as the boat spends time in densely populated areas, cell phone service often is enough to keep crewmembers connected. Many admit to not being able to exist without their iPhones or Blackberrys, and a few confessed to not accepting jobs that would keep them out of touch with loved ones.

In some locations, however, even the most cutting-edge technology is unavailable. “At first I felt so isolated,” offers Stew Steph, “but then I forgot about it. We had been at sea for about a week when the Satphone rang. My watch partner and I looked at each other completely confused. We forgot what to do.”

Steph recently has spent a lot of time offshore and offline. “The captain understands that we don’t know how to live in a world without such quick communication,” she says. "On holidays or birthdays, he lets us make quick calls to our family on the SAT or send off quick e-mails.”

Steph’s captain, Jake, says he feels really old when he thinks about the evolution of communication on board yachts. “When I started, there was no e-mail and very few boats had cell phones. We had an answering service and picked up mail once a month. I remember Pocketmail [a small electronic device with screen and keyboard used for writing, storing, sending and receiving email] used to be cutting-edge communication for my crewmembers, and now that is obsolete.”

He adds, “I am not complaining. All of this ability to communicate makes our jobs so much easier. The chefs and the stews can do all of their ordering digitally before we get into port. I can have all of my clearance papers, dockage info and refueling in place.”

What do crew say they do with the extra time saved?

“Mostly cruise around Facebook or to see what my friends are up to,” laughs Steph “Oh, and of course, read world news and stay on top of current events.”

How do you stay in touch with family and friends around the globe?