Captain's Tips

Wi-Fi Update: How Boaters and Marinas Can Create a Better Wi-Fi Experience

By
Bob
Arrington

Oh, how times have changed. If you look closely at older power pedestals at some marinas, you may see a connection point for a telephone and cable television. The TV jack might still be used, but not many boaters today look for a telephone dial tone through a copper wire. Today your phone and television need a strong Wi-Fi signal more than being hardwired.Most of us use Wi-Fi today, but exactly what is Wi-Fi? In 1999, several leading technology companies came together to form the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit organization with the goal of creating a universally accepted protocol for a global wireless networking system. Their visionary plan has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

The very term Wi-Fi is now understood in every language around the world, with billions of Wi-Fi devices in use.The number of devices aboard your boat using Wi-Fi has grown exponentially over the past few years. Smart phones and tablets use Wi-Fi to connect wirelessly to chartplotters and radar. You can know the conditions aboard your boat remotely with sensors monitoring high water and battery voltage, all transmitting their information to your phone or tablet wirelessly. When aboard the boat in a marina, phones, tablets, computers and TVs connect to the outside world through a Wi-Fi network.Which brings us to the question: Is it reasonable to expect from a marina, a fast, dependable Wi-Fi, just like they provide connections to power and water? The answer is yes, but making that a reality requires effort from the marina and the boater.

UNDERSTANDING HOW IT WORKS
The first step to better Wi-Fi is knowing a little about how it works. Wi-Fi is the technology standard used to create a wireless local area network or WLAN. It is the protocol for placing radio transceivers in your devices that allows them to share information and data wirelessly between the devices and a network.Your devices look for a Wi-Fi signal from an access point or AP, which is the link between your Wi-Fi enabled devices and a wired network. A small marina may have a single AP on a building pointed toward the piers or a mooring field. A large marina will likely have multiple APs positioned around the marina, so each boat is near one.

TAKING CONTROL
Your ability to acquire a good Wi-Fi signal is not just dependent on the marina; you control some of that in the type of hardware you are using. If you only use individual devices like your phone, TV or your computer to access the Wi-Fi network, you are limited in the quality of your connection. The small antennas within your devices have limited ability to access signals from distant APs. Add to that the interference of all the boats and marina structures and you might get a good signal.This isn't necessarily the marina's fault. The best way to access a marina Wi-Fi is to install a Wi-Fi antenna at or near the top of your boat. This antenna will have a clearer view of the marina's AP. These antennas are also helpful or even necessary to access a Wi-Fi from an anchorage or mooring field.

Your Wi-Fi antenna can then be connected to a router, creating your own mini network within your boat.APs transmit Wi-Fi signals on varying channels. Individual devices such as phones or tablets have no way of knowing those channels or giving you the ability to select them. However, software within a router allows you to find those channels, along with the strength of the signal. Utilizing a router gives you the option of selecting the AP with the best connection and setting your system to that AP's channel.

All this increases the quality of your Wi-Fi performance.A fringe benefit of using a dedicated router within your boat is placing an additional firewall between your information and the marina's network. All the devices on your boat, such as TVs and printers, can now communicate with each other on your secure network.

MEASURING QUALITY
Without getting too technical, you should understand a few numbers and units of measure for getting the best Wi-Fi performance. When you think of a good quality Wi-Fi connection, you probably think in terms of speed. How fast will a page load? How quickly can you upload or download an attachment in an email?

THE MARINA's PART
Many marinas have been slow to realize that having good Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury; it is a necessity just like power and water. To meet this need, some technology companies have become specialists in marina Wi-Fi networks.

Installing Wi-Fi in a marina environment is different from a hotel or office building. Hiring a company with proven marina experience is essential to building a successful network. Also, a company that offers technical support for boaters saves the marina staff from taking technical calls outside their expertise.

SETTING EXPECTATIONS
Read reviews of a marina's Wi-Fi service when making reservations. Ask how recently their system was installed or updated. Ask boaters about their Wi-Fi experience with other marinas. Only if marina owners hear that boaters expect a good quality Wi-Fi and when they realize it affects their business will they take seriously the investment required to offer dependable Wi-Fi service.Fortunately, many have heard and answered with successful networks that enhance the boaters' stay, connect to work, read a good book downloaded to your device, or stream a movie through the TV.

Wi-Fi works better when everyone does his part, when the marina offers dependable high-speed service, and boaters know how to access service in the most efficient way. This speed is measured in megabits per second or Mbps.

To get fast service over a Wi-Fi, you must first have good quality signal strength, which is measured in dBm. It is represented as a negative number from -0 to -100. That means the closer the value is to zero, the stronger the signal. For example, -40 dBm is a stronger signal strength than -60 dBm. It's key to measuring the speed at which data is flowing and the signal strength of your connection. Free speed test apps downloaded to your smart phone or tablet make it easy to measure download and upload speeds.

Armed with this information and the proper tools enable you to make selections in your Wi-Fi connection that you cannot see connecting directly to the network with your devices. You do not need a mega yacht's budget or a degree in computer science to install a Wi-Fi network within your boat. The cost of equipment and ease of installation continue to improve with technological advances.

Related Articles
Dinghies: Small Boats with Big Value
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overhead view of a man on a dinghy in the blue ocean
Dinghy | webcasamiento from Pixabay

Few items carried aboard your boat, embody the freedom of the cruising lifestyle more than your dinghy, or “tender” if you prefer. These often abused and rarely waxed little boats are a valuable part of cruising adventures. They allow you to moor or anchor out, enjoying the peace and quiet of a secluded anchorage, yet still take advantage of amenities on shore.

They take you on excursions through back water, narrow channels, and man- grove forests, too small or shallow for your primary vessel. And if you have a four- legged friend on board, you know not only the importance of getting them to shore, but oh how they love a dinghy ride.

They can even make stays at a marina more enjoyable. For instance, Dolphin Marina in Harpswell, ME, provides guests aboard boats in the marina with charts showing a half a dozen dinghy trips you can take around the islands of Casco Bay to scenic coves and remote islands that would be impossible to get the big boat into. And if you plan to cruise to the Bahamas, Caribbean or remote destinations, you need dependable transportation to shore.

The most important feature of a dinghy is that it must be easy to use. If it requires too much effort to launch and operate, you will be reluctant to anchor out as often as you might like. Ease of use is determined by several factors, such as whether you must inflate the dinghy, mount the engine, or need three people and a crane to lower it into the water. Many of these choices are determined by the size and configuration of your boat, but regardless of your boat’s size or your budget, you can create a setup that’s easy to use.

The choices for how and where to carry a dinghy fall into a few basic categories. If you do not have the option of a crane- style lifting device, you may be limited by the size and weight of your dinghy, but that does not mean you are relegated to the equivalent of a rubber toy boat. Efficient davit systems can be mounted on medium size swim platforms. These accommodate a variety of dinghy styles, both rigid and inflatable, and allow you to keep the engine mounted to the dinghy.

Also, hydraulic lift systems can carry a tender off your stern, but your transom must be capable of carrying the device, and your boat should be heavy enough to stay balanced with that much weight aft of center. If your boat meets those require- ments, the hydraulic lifts are about as easy to use as it gets.

A couple driving their inflatable dinghy through the water
Inflatable Dinghy | Canva

Another option some cruisers choose is to tow a dinghy. While I’ll admit to having done this in protected waters, it’s generally not a safe practice. There are too many documented cases of towing components fouling up props and leaving boaters stranded. If you travel to the islands, you will see many cruisers towing dinghies, but please use extreme caution if you choose to do this. Learn where and how to safely attach the dinghy to your boat, and if there is any threat of rough seas, retrieve the dinghy immediately and secure it to the mother ship.

Dinghies come in a variety of hull styles and materials, including plank- reinforced fabric bottoms, high-pressure inflatable bottoms, and rigid hulls of fiberglass or aluminum. In general, soft-bottom styles are limited to what they can do and endure, even with a high-pressure floor with a keel.

If you intend to transport serious loads of supplies and people, a rigid hull is a must. Its durability is also important if you are cruising in the tropics, where you are as likely to land on a beach as tie up at a dock. Rigid bottoms can be part of a fully rigid boat, but more often they are connected to an inflatable top tube and called “rigid inflatable boats,” or RIBs. These have become the ubiquitous tender of choice for most cruisers. You get durability and stability from the rigid hull, and buoyancy and lightweight from the inflatable top tubes. The top tubes are much gentler on the sides and finish of your boat when tied to it.

RIB’s hull bottoms have been primarily fiberglass, but aluminum hulls are gaining market share with even lighter weight then fiberglass and more durable for beach landings. The inflatable tubes come in a range of materials, including PVC, coated neoprene and Hypalon, which are widely considered the best material for the inflatable parts of a dinghy.

A well-built dinghy will provide many years of service, but it won’t last forever. A sign of a good-quality RIB dinghy is the ease with which it can be serviced and even re-tubed when necessary.

An example of a feature that could affect serviceability is the fuel tank’s type and location. Separate fuel tanks carried in dedicated compartments are easier to inspect or replace but have limited carrying capacity; built-in fuel tanks may carry more fuel and be better balanced, but may also be difficult or impossible to repair without completely un-assembling the dinghy.

It used to be your only choice of power for a dinghy was a gasoline powered outboard engine, however innovative companies have been actively introducing clean burning propane powered internal combustion engines, and most recently electric motors with impressive power and range.

When shopping, it’s best to purchase from a dealer that in addition to sales, performs complete service on the dinghy and engine. A high-quality dealer will be willing to visit your boat to determine if a particular model can be carried, launched and retrieved safely.

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FAQ About Doing the Great Loop
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Tim and Kate

My husband, Tim, and I spent most of 2021 and part of 2022 completing the Great Loop on our 31-foot Camano trawler, Sweet Day. One of the most unexpected and best parts of the trip was the opportunity to share our experience with friends and family. Guests stayed overnight, family members joined us for a day cruise, and generous friends brought over meals when we passed through their hometowns. For those who couldn’t experience Sweet Day physically, we shared our journey through our blog and Instagram, and caught up with stories when we got together off the boat.

Boaters who are familiar with liveaboard life know there is no shortage of questions that curious people ask about a nautical lifestyle. Those who are exploring this way of life may feel like there is no end to the questions you could ask.

Below is a compilation of the most common questions we posed to us about our year doing the Great Loop and living full-time on Sweet Day. Hopefully the responses will get you ready for your adventures on this incomparable waterway.

WHAT IS THE GREAT LOOP?

The Great Loop is a 6,000+ mile “loop” around the eastern U.S. and Canadian waterways. The journey takes about a year, if done consecutively, and covers 15+ states and two countries, depending on your route. A few hundred “loopers” complete the journey each year, some doing it all at once, and others covering segments year by year. Loopers plan their journey traveling by seasons to avoid hurricanes in the South and tough winters up North. The America’s Great Loop Cruisers’ Association (AGLCA) is the resource for all things related to the Loop, and we highly encourage checking them out when planning your trip.

Kate's AGLCA Flag on her boat

WHAT DOES THE FLAG MEAN ON THE BOW OF YOUR BOAT?

If you are currently looping for the first time, it is traditional to fly a white AGLCA burgee or “flag.” Once you complete the loop, it is customary to replace your white burgee with a gold AGLCA burgee to indicate to other boaters that you already completed the full loop. Those who have done the loop more than once fly a platinum burgee. All burgees can be ordered from the AGLCA website. It’s a great way to easily spot and meet other loopers.

HOW DO YOU MEET OTHER LOOPERS?

Since many of us on the loop travel the same segments of the trip at the same time, it is common to see loopers at a dock, anchorage or cruising by. The AGLCA burgee makes it easy to spot cruisers on the journey, and a lot of loopers also use the Nebo app, which shows where other loopers are physically located, so you can message each other. Sometimes we travel a few days with the same boats; others you may see one day and then meet up again a few weeks later.

DID YOU GET STUCK IN BAD WEATHER?

Having a flexible schedule and keeping a close eye on the weather kept us mostly out of uncomfortable waters. We used services such as Windy, AccuWeather, and NOAA to anticipate wind speeds and wave heights. We tried to only cruise when waves were under three feet, although twice we found ourselves in five+ foot waves (once on the Chesapeake heading to Annapolis and another heading to Presque Isle, MI, on Lake Huron), because our final destination happened to be closer than trying to find an alternative place of refuge. We also encountered strong wind while at anchor and tied up to docks, especially when the wind was going against the tide outside Savannah. By staying vigilant about our lines and anchor holding, we luckily were never in any danger. They say the boat can handle more than the captain, and thankfully the only thing we ever lost due to weather was a few hours of sleep.

Kate and Tim enjoying the Superbowl from their deck

DID YOU SLEEP ON THE BOAT EVERY NIGHT?

Our trawler had a v-berth with enough room for us to sleep comfortably. Often when we were near friends and family, they would offer for us to stay on land. Sometimes we took them up on it, but we preferred to stay on Sweet Day. Just like a land house, Sweet Day had all our comforts of home (because it was our home), and anytime we didn’t have to pack a bag was a plus.

WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT FOOD?

We ate about 75% of our meals on the boat using our tiny kitchen equipped with a small oven, three-burner stove, microwave, fridge and some pantry space. We ate out if we found a must-see place or were exhausted from a long day and not in the mood to cook. But often we were not close to a restaurant and had to be creative with what was in our pantry. We went to a grocery store two to three times a week by bike and would get enough fresh food for about three dinners (and snacks for lunches) but were limited by what we could carry and store in our boat. Because we didn’t have space for a ton of food, and sometimes our meals were whatever we had on board, so we wasted a lot less food than when living on land.

WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE PARTS OF THE TRIP?

We get this question all the time, and it’s still challenging to answer. Each part of the trip (inland rivers, Gulf of Mexico, Intracoastal Waterway, Chesapeake Bay, Delaware and Hudson Rivers, Erie Canal, Great Lakes) posed their unique challenges, breathtaking scenery, regional cuisine and character. The loop has too many special places to mark our favorites as each place we stopped shaped our journey, whether it was having a conversation with a dock hand to enjoying a locally made beer, to attending a community BBQ. Our country’s waterways are beautiful and a critical part of our infrastructure, and the life that is built around them is always worth experiencing.

Kate and Family on their boat

DID YOU EVER GET SICK OF EACH OTHER?

Mostly no, but sometimes we were very aware we were living together on a 31-foot boat. We learned communication is key and ultimately felt very fortunate to be on this journey together. Before the trip, we heard about the “80/80 Marriage,” which is the concept that spouses should not try to ensure each is doing their fair share (or 50/50), but each should aim to do 80%. This mindset helped a lot. At night lying in bed, I may say, “I forgot to turn off the water pump. Tim, can you do an 80 for me and get up and turn it off?” Or Tim would comment, “Kate, you really pulled an 80 on cooking dinner and doing the dishes.” We couldn’t imagine doing this trip with anyone else.

WHO WAS THE CAPTAIN?

We consider us both the captain. While we both have our strengths, each of us was involved in almost every aspect of the boat. We both drove, troubleshot boat problems, navigated, planned routes, grocery shopped, cleaned and so on. From a safety standpoint, it was important both of us could take on responsibilities should something happen to the other. This was our journey, and it was vital to us that we both were involved in decisions and operations that made this adventure possible.

Article and photos by Kate Carney

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Blackwater Management
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Pumpout | Oregon Sea Grant

Brown sludge dripped off the brim of my hat as I peered out from behind sunglasses spotted with a decidedly unpleasant substance. It was the stuff of pump out nightmares, the result of an ill-fitting connector, a sanitation system severely neglected by the boat’s previous owners and a rather poor decision on my husband’s part to try to fix it himself. “Here honey, hold this down while I go below to bang on things to see if I can get it working.” Following numerous showers and excessive disinfectant efforts, I was able to find the humor in the situation and eventually forgive my husband.

Boaters do not often like to talk about it, but sewage happens. Managing our sewage situation, also known as blackwater, is a part of boating. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of bacterial pollution from one weekend boater’s discharge of untreated sewage is equal to the amount from the treated sewage of 10,000 people during the same period. Properly managing our sewage situation is a part of boating, and it is the law.

Under federal law, it is illegal to dump untreated sewage into navigable U.S. waters, including waters within three miles of shore and inland waters such as rivers, lakes and estuaries. In addition, the EPA has designated at-risk areas as No-Discharge Zones (NDZs), forbidding any discharge, treated or not, in a body of water.

To facilitate compliance, all boats in U.S. waters with permanently installed toilets must have a Marine Sanitation Device (MSD) aboard. There are three basic Coast Guard approved MSDs. Type I MSDs involve sewage treatment to meet bacterial content standards prior to discharge. Type II MSDs meet a higher standard of limited bacterial content prior to discharge. Most recreational boats have a variation of Type III MSDs, which store blackwater in tanks for shore-based disposal or discharge beyond the three- mile offshore limit.

Type III MSDs require boat operators to manage when and where they will need to empty their blackwater holding tank. Unfortunately, mismanagement of blackwater discharge can be found throughout the boating community and the impact can be startling. Some examples:

› Untreated effluent from boats is not only environmentally harmful, but also a health hazard for other boaters.

› Improperly discharged blackwater can introduce excessive nutrients to a waterway, triggering devastating algal blooms.

› Organic matter and decaying algal blooms settle to the sea floor depleting oxygen levels and harming shellfish and other aquatic species.

› Chemicals added to toilets and holding tanks are toxic to marine life if released unchecked.

› Discharged feces can contain disease-causing organisms, which pose a risk to other boaters, swimmers or those who errantly consume contaminated shellfish.

Blackwater management is an important contributor to the health of our marine environment. Responsible blackwater management starts with knowing and caring for your Marine Sanitation Device. Blackwater systems require routine maintenance such as regular inspection of fittings, hoses and pump mechanisms. (This will also reduce the likelihood of you experiencing your own pump out nightmare like mine.)

Clean Marina award winner, Mitchell Creek Marina | Lee Roberts via U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A FEW GOOD TIPS

› Use rapid-dissolving toilet paper specifically designed for your MSD.

› Be mindful of products used to clean toilets or treat water as some chemicals cause seals to deteriorate over time.

› Periodically, after you have emptied the holding tank at a pump out station, flush the holding tank with fresh water and pump out a second time. Many recreational boats with a Type III MSD (holding tank) also have a “Y” valve allowing direct overboard discharge when beyond the three-mile limit. Federal law requires this valve to be secured in a closed position while in inland or coastal waterways. To secure the closure, a non-releasable wire tie may be used or the valve handle removed to prevent accidental discharge.

Responsible blackwater management also involves pump out diligence. In the past, most pump out facilities were located solely at the fuel dock of a marina. While this is still a viable option at some marinas, you can now find more convenient situations.

Thanks in part to the Clean Marina initiative, increased government funding and new technology, pump out options have increased. Pump out services are often accessible in the slip or portable and brought out to your slip. Some marinas and mooring field hosts offer pump out services by boat. When making slip reservations, ask about pump out services and plan accordingly. Some marinas prefer to have their staff handle the pump out for you, while others may let you do it yourself. Take advantage of pump out availability as often as you can. Frequently pumping out helps keep your tank cleaner and reduces the risk of overflow.

According to the California State Water Resources Control Board, “Discharge from a single boat over one weekend contributes the equivalent bacterial pollution as treated sewage from 10,000 people.” One boater discharging inadequately treated blackwater can cause significant environmental damage ... but likewise one boater exercising responsible blackwater management can prevent significant environmental damage. Be the better boater.

Read More

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