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One hundred years ago, mail was the only way to communicate with ships, and it could take months to reach its destination in either direction. Radiotelegraph, and later modern radio, changed that. Still, the changes took time, especially for private vessels. A few decades ago, HAM radio started to allow instant, direct communication with some cruising boats. When my parents were cruising, HAMs ashore would make phone patches between their radio and the telephone, but not all boats had HAM capability and it relied upon the generosity of the operators. The calls were also limited by the HAM regulations against business-related traffic, and were completely public.

Today, e-mail has almost completely replaced normal mail as far as cruisers are concerned. However, e-mail still requires some form of connection down to the boat. Internet cafes are becoming common, and most large islands have at least some connection now. However, it is an inconvenience to go to the internet cafe any time a connection is needed, and may be both expensive and slow. The situation is similar with regard to telephone calls. Although most islands now have phone booths, they are rarer and far more expensive then on the mainland.

Cell phones are the obvious solution in the USA. It's now expected that the new cell phones T-Mobile and Verizon offer have to include internet and e-mail capabilities. But cell service outside the USA can be expensive and the towers have limited range. Furthermore, only multiband phones will work in North America as well as overseas. Satellite phones are completely global, but very expensive to use.

Staying in touch is very important to us on the boat. Back home, I didn't tend to spend a long time on the phone, but I did use it often and saw my friends face-to-face even more frequently. On the boat, I almost never get a chance to talk to my friends back home, by phone or in person. Even though we have an Iridium satellite telephone, it is very expensive to use. We also have a HAM radio, and General class licenses, but few of our friends back home do.

Since voice communication is so difficult, we must use e-mail to keep contact with friends back home. Most cruisers use internet cafes, either sitting online and using Hotmail or Yahoo, using a floppy disc with e-mails that were written on board, or taking their own computers in and connecting them. We sometimes use internet cafes, but it is risky and a hassle. A much better option is to get the e-mail right on board!

To do this, we use HAM radio e-mail. Without going into the details, this allows us the great luxury (from a cruiser's point of view) of sending and receiving e-mail on board. This is a special treat on passage, allowing us to communicate with our friends even from the middle of the ocean. When stuck on one boat with only the same people for three weeks, it is truly wonderful to have e-mail access.

What the radio cannot do is get us online to surf the web, use IM, play games, or anything else of that sort. This makes research difficult, updating the computers rare, and cuts us off from most of the joys of the WWW. For some people that wouldn't matter, but I sure miss broadband connections sometimes. Few internet cafes down here have a connection significantly better than a dial-up, and they all cost too much to spend more time there than necessary.

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