Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   December 2005
Communication Breakdown
by David Allester
In the eleven years my wife Eileen Quinn and I have been cruising full time on board Little Gidding, communications technology has developed in leaps and bounds, usually leaving us at least two or three steps behind. When we cast off the dock lines in 1994, people still took pen to paper. We found that most cruisers had boat cards that described their boat, identified who was on board, and indicated how to contact them. We didn't have a boat card. We associated boat cards with the business cards we used to exchange at meetings at work and the last thing we wanted was something to remind us of the jobs we were leaving behind.

But we soon discovered that everyone we met was eager to trade cards with us and felt snubbed if we didn't have anything to offer them. Presumably, they wanted to keep in touch with us. Scribbling our names on the dust jackets of their cruising guides didn't go over well. A couple of months after we had begun our sailing adventure, we reluctantly walked into a photocopy shop and ordered a box of one thousand cards with "Little Gidding", our names, and our mailing address printed on them. Realizing there was little point in buying a bunch of cards if we weren't going to use them, we began handing out boat cards to anyone who expressed the slightest interest in knowing who we were and even to some people who hinted they really didn't care who we were or, for that matter, if they ever saw us again.
After pretty well emptying our box of cards we discovered that we weren't receiving mail from boaters in far-flung corners of the globe. In fact, we weren't getting much in the way of mail at all, except for those envelopes with the little windows in them that you'd really rather not receive. With uncanny timing, we had invested in boat cards just when the rest of the world had given up on writing. Somehow, a mere five or so millennia after some smart Egyptian had scratched the first hieroglyphs, we had missed the dawn of the electronic age.

It was eight years ago that we stumbled onto the information superhighway. We were sitting at a tiki bar on the beach in Placentia, Belize, bemoaning the fact that, for all the effort we had expended in crafting clever letters and for all the money we had paid in stamps, our friends and family had apparently abandoned us, refusing to reciprocate with even a trite greeting card or two. The ex-pat French bar owner pointed to a laptop computer which was plugged into a phone line and offered, for a price, to let us use it to send and receive e-mail. He'd even show us how to set up a free Hotmail account for no additional charge. He wasn't stupid. Soon we were hooked, and spending more money for Internet time than for beer. It warmed our hearts to discover how many people wanted to communicate with us after all, although most of them seemed to be primarily interested in selling us low-interest loans, prescription drugs, or their girlfriends.

There's been no turning back. In the ensuing years, we've handed over a fair bit of the cruising kitty to various Internet service providers and sunk money into acoustic couplers, cell phones, and radio modems so we'll have e-mail access wherever we happen to be. We acquired a second laptop computer to allow both of us to write e-mail at the same time, and then bought a third so we'd always have a backup if the other two failed. We reprinted boat cards with just our e-mail address indicated - no street address, no phone, no fax. Having embraced the new technology so enthusiastically, a letdown was inevitable.
Last year, we left Florida bound for the Bay of Honduras with our ISP accounts in order and all of our computers and electronic peripherals carefully stowed, confident we'd remain connected to the rest of the world in the relatively remote reaches of the northwest Caribbean. Two days out, in the middle of an e-mail session over the high frequency radio, computer number two flashed the Blue Screen of Death and promptly gave up the ghost. We should have expected its demise; it was one month past the expiration of its three-year extended warranty. But not to worry, we still had computer number one, barely two months old and still gleaming; and computer number three, our very ancient and much abused back-up.

For a while, all went well after our arrival in the Bay Islands. Each morning, we'd connect computer number one to the radio and receive weather data and e-mail messages. If we were anchored near a settlement, more often than not we'd make an afternoon trip to shore and lug computer number one to an Internet cafe for more e-mail and a bit of web surfing. We found a bakery in West End, Roatan, that provided free wireless service (as well as excellent baguettes). We were ecstatic.
After three months in the Bay Islands, we left on an overnight sail to Guatemala. The morning after our departure, with the entrance to the Rio Dulce looming ahead of us, we turned on computer number one to receive our regular weather report. For no obvious reason, its external power supply quit without a whimper. We checked the status of its internal battery. We had three-and-a-half hours of operating time left. Normally that would last us one day, two at the most. We stared at each other, the colour slowly draining from our faces. "We'll have to get out computer number three," Eileen whispered.

Computer number three is eight years old, has about as much memory as a seagull with Alzheimer's, doesn't have a network connector, and isn't compatible with our radio modem. Its screen is held together with a combination of popsicle sticks, crazy glue and duct tape. There are wires sticking out of holes that shouldn't be there. But it worked at least at that particular moment. As long as we were in reasonably civilized surroundings, we could use it to compose e-mail messages, copy them to a disc, and trot off to the nearest cybercafé. This, of course, assumed we could agree to share it (we're not very good at sharing).
The last time we had been in the Rio Dulce was during the 1997 hurricane season. Back then, the main town of Fronteras was just as its name suggests, a frontier settlement. It comprised a scattering of small shops and dusty eateries on either side of the gravel road leading north into the largely uninhabited Peten region of Guatemala. The electricity, public phones, and water supply were often out of order. One of the gringo businesses had a computer connected to a private satellite phone service. If you wanted to send e-mail, you paid the lady who owned the computer to type your message and transmit it via her server. If she received any return e-mail for you, she'd call you up on the VHF radio and you'd collect it on your next trip to town.

On our return visit to Fronteras last spring, we discovered that the road was  paved and lined with all sorts of new businesses, including three banks, five ATMs, a large supermarket, and - best of all - several Internet cafés. Eileen saw the Internet signs and sighed, "We're saved."
For a considerable amount of money, we eventually got a replacement power supply for computer number one shipped to us in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Miraculously, our back-up laptop survived until then and we were never incommunicado for longer than it took us to hunt down the next Internet café. This summer, on a visit home, we bought yet another computer - and a spare power supply. As I write this, we're sitting on the hard in a boatyard in the middle of Florida, preparing for another cruising season in the islands. There's an unsecured wireless network connection somewhere in the vicinity; I can usually get a free connection if I wander around the yard carrying my laptop for long enough.

Just this morning I picked up the signal as I was passing the dumpster in the parking lot on my way to the shower building. Toothbrush clenched between my teeth and flies swarming around my head, I downloaded a dozen messages. "Look at this," I told Eileen when I returned to the boat. "We've got three forwarded jokes, a couple of newsletters from people we don't know or can't remember, two offers for medications that will make me outperform an entire stud farm, and a personal message from a nice government official in west Africa who would like to give us a million dollars."
"It makes you wonder how we ever managed without the Internet," my wife responded.

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