The Bahamas cell phone has been a big success. Not only for talking to the US as we’ve already detailed, but also for local communication too. The cost of the phone, SIM card, minutes, and forwarding services have been well worth the convenience to us. We’ve also loaned the phone to other cruisers on a couple occasions. If we were moving around from country to country, like we expect to in the Caribbean, then acquiring new SIM cards in each would become a greater hassle and expense. In that situation, we may investigate roaming service from Gymsim, a provider of SIM cards that work (relatively) inexpensively in multiple countries.
Cell coverage is pretty good in the Bahamas, at least around the inhabited islands. We have a cellular amplifier with an antenna on top of the mast that is supposed to dramatically extend the range. Unfortunately, it has never lived up to our expectations. Part of the problem may be that it is a “direct connect” model, requiring the amplifier to plug into the phone’s antenna port. This connection was always tenuous and highly inconvenient. It is also becoming more difficult to find phones that even have these ports. I think we’ll trade ours in for a connectionless “repeater” model. This essentially puts a cell tower inside the boat, which doesn’t really make me happy, but if it works…
We’ve also already lamented our need for Internet access and problems finding it. For our next cruise, we will have an Iridium satellite phone. Besides being a phone which works pretty much anywhere, itself attractive for emergency situations, it can also be used for data. The connection is slow, but workable for emails and weather data.
To illustrate the need, at this moment we are watching for a weather window for a 4-day trip back to Florida. Today is a nice day for the first leg, but the day after tomorrow is no good at all. If we had the ability to get continuous weather updates, we could go part of the way today and then wait to proceed. Instead, we feel compelled to wait here for a weather picture clear enough to do the whole trip.
Many boats have single sideband (SSB) radio transceivers for voice communication. These can even do email with the addition of a Pactor modem. However, reviews are mixed. They are not as reliable or easy to use as a satellite phone. One has to consider all kinds of atmospheric conditions just to figure out which frequencies are likely to work. Take Two used to have an SSB radio, but her previous owner took it with him. We still have the insulated backstay and grounding plane, which are the hardest part of an installation, so we may get another transceiver just to be salty. We’ll skip the modem, though.
We do have a little Sony all-band radio receiver that can pick up SSB broadcasts. With the proper cable and software it can even be connected to a computer to receive weatherfaxes. My luck with it has been very poor to date, both for quality of the signal and quality of the information, which has really helped push me toward satellite.
Lastly, we learned during this cruise that our VHF radio does not work well. In retrospect, we’re not sure it ever has. Hopefully it is just the antenna at the top, or the unit inside, and not the cable in the mast. We’ll hire a pro when we get back to diagnose it and make sure we’re putting out a clear strong signal.