Four cruisers discuss the systems that keep them connected, entertained and on course.
From a pocket-size smartphone to a full-blown desktop PC with monitor, keyboard and printer, you’ll face a lot of choices when it comes to selecting a computer for your sailboat. What you choose will likely be determined by how you plan to use it. If you’ll be keeping up a website, working remotely or editing a lot of video, your requirements will be different than if you just need something to send and receive emails and weather and to surf the Web from time to time.
Below, several veteran offshore sailors discuss their computer solutions and recommend gear for those fitting out their sailboats.
Michael and Windy Robertson and their two daughters have been cruising the waters off the U.S. West Coast and Mexico aboard their Fuji 40, Del Viento, since the middle of 2011.
“Aboard Del Viento, we have a 17-inch Dell laptop, a 14-inch HP laptop, and an iPad 2 with 3G,” Michael reports. “We bought the 17-inch laptop thinking that it’d be powerful enough for Windy to do freelance cartography work on, and we figured the large screen would be nice for watching DVDs. We bought the 14-inch HP thinking it would be good to have two computers aboard, because there are four of us, and I figured this would be the computer I’d use personally.
“In reality, the 17-inch Dell is hardly ever used. The DVD drive broke at some point after we started cruising, and it’s a big, heavy beast. When it dies, we’ll replace it with a cheap, smaller PC laptop like the 14-inch HP. The 14-inch HP laptop is the workhorse. I use it for all of my writing and for family movie night. It’s also light and easy to carry.
“Before cruising, we bought the iPad because we’d read about other cruisers who use them for navigation. We’re so glad we did. Though we have paper charts aboard, a fixed-mount GPS down below with a tiny chart-plotter screen, and a couple of handheld GPS units, we’ve never used anything to navigate other than the iPad and cruising guides. We love the iPad. We use the Navionics app, and it’s worked great for us. We love the ability to move and pinch the chart with our fingers — it’s super intuitive and easy. We’re considering buying another iPad as our backup. I never use it for writing or updating the blog because it doesn’t get along with Blogger, but Windy and the girls use it all the time for checking email, keeping the family calendar, and calling family by using Skype and FaceTime.
“Contrary to what we imagined before heading out, we rarely take either of the PC laptops off the boat. There’s just no need. We usually can access the Internet on the boat, either through a marina connection, 3G Internet we buy, or free Wi-Fi accessed via our Wirie booster antenna, so there’s no need to schlep a computer to an Internet café or something. If we started over, we’d have two cheap PC laptops and at least one iPad, and two if we could swing it.”
John and Wendy Clarke and their two children spent four years cruising along the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. and Canada and in the western Caribbean aboard Osprey, their Adams 45 steel cutter.
“Osprey carries four computers on board. We have two Toshiba Satellite Pro laptops that run on Windows XP and two Apple MacBook Pro laptops. Each of these computers has a primary function and an important secondary function,” says John.
“Our primary Toshiba serves as our main computer navigation source. We have four different stand-alone nav programs and one that interfaces with the Raymarine chart plotter. This computer serves as our high-seas communications link through SailMail and our SSB. We also use this computer to gain Wi-Fi Internet access using the Ubiquiti Bullet receiver. The second Toshiba is a complete backup to the first, and I use it for travel when I’m delivering boats. It’s also used to play DVDs and to access external hard drives.
“The primary Apple is Wendy’s. She uses this computer to keep track of all of our financial matters. She sends email when we have Internet access, and it’s her primary writing platform. We also store all of our photos and journals on this computer. The most recent Apple belongs to the kids. They use it for school, research and entertainment. The primary computers are backed up to an external hard drive regularly.
“As an additional navigation backup, we’ve just purchased a new iPad, and I absolutely love it. I run the iNavX, Garmin BlueChart and the Navionics programs at the same time.
“The oldest computer is our primary Toshiba. It’s 5 years old and sits on the nav-station table without any special protection. I have some trouble with corrosion on USB cables, but it’s minor. The next oldest is the second Toshiba, at 4 years old. It doesn’t enjoy any special protection, and it travels the most of all the computers. Over time, it’s developed some idiosyncrasies, but we still use it a lot. Wendy’s Mac is next at 3. It’s used all of the time and is still going strong with, again, no special consideration.
“My best advice to cruisers looking for an onboard computer is for them to get a proven operating system with quality hardware. Once you find what you like, get another one and duplicate the essential programs that you use all of the time.”