I’m a software engineer and architect by trade and am currently developing new platforms for Walt Disney Company. In order to do my job I need a reliable internet service at home so I can work part time from the boat. Since the concept of working from the boat came around, I have dreamed of connecting to the internet while at anchor in some far off place in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps close to a waist high surf break and somewhere to restock my supply of water and beer. Somewhere I can swim down and scrub the hull on occasion or sit in the shade in a hammock and hack away on the laptop. Not too much to ask for really…. I started the boat network by simply joining the NMEA wifi client to my router so I could connect to one network for using navigation software on my iPhone and iPad, eventually adding other network clients over time to do more. The ultimate would be to use a cellular or satellite hotspot as a source of internet and then allow any device connected to the boat network be able to also have internet. Today this happened on Satori.
It’s not as simple as you would think. First of all, I really wanted to be able to connect to the boat network on shore. I also wanted to be able to switch from one hotspot to another, yet while at the dock connect to a land based internet service. This way I can have internet so I can work from the boat pretty much anywhere there is a strong cellular signal. Last weekend I finally got around to also adding the long range wifi antenna to the network so I could be on shore and connect to the boat network, possibly even my own internet. This way I can set an anchor drag alarm, monitor the depth, wind speed, wind direction or even use the internet whenever I’m near Satori. One would think that sailing would be a better endeavor without all of the gadgets and savvy technology but my livelihood depends on it so I can work and get paid. I am able to work as long as a week without having to go into the office and later in my career will find a way to work remotely. If I want to take a couple of days off near a weekend right now, it would allow for sailing into the San Juan Islands during this summer for at least half of the summer. It’s just a matter of learning how to find suitable anchorages with enough proximity of a cellular tower to do my job. Satori is doing great keeping herself charged without shore power for days even with the refrigerator running nonstop.
So you’re wondering how this all works? I think it’s a great discovery that few have been able to achieve so please allow me to break it down for you. There are network links from your computer/tablet/smartphone out to the internet and each of them communicates via TCP or transmission control protocol, and uses an IP or internet protocol to move data from link to link securely. When my smartphone wants to connect to the boat network, it has two options. The first option is the wifi router, which is inside of the cabin and is the hub and main communicator for all of the other links. The wifi signal can barely reach to the bow of the boat because of the thickness of the hull, and in some cases loses connection when I’m not inside of the cockpit. The second and primary choice is the Ubiquiti wifi antenna. It is connected to the boom gallows frame, stands about three and a half feet long, and sits about ten feet above the waterline. The Ubiquiti Bullet is meant to broadcast or receive wifi so theoretically if I wanted to, I could scan wifi signals on shore and use it for my internet as long as I can connect to land based wifi network. Since I will be providing my own wifi, I will use it to broadcast my own network away from the boat for as far as a quarter mile line of sight. The bullet antenna has a wire that goes into the ‘network’ locker, which is where the wifi router and main network components are located. The antenna is powered by 12 volt and I have a switch to turn it off when I do not need it. Then I can simply connect to the Dlink network router. The Dlink router is also receiving wifi from the Vesper Marine XB-8000 client. This little blue box will take my NMEA data and convert it to TCP via wifi so my navigation software can use it. The Dlink router has a dedicated (static) IP so the Vesper XB will always remain connected. If either become disconnected, the VesperXB will keep looking for the router and trying to connect to it and does as soon as it is back online. Also, the Vesper XB-8000 wifi is hidden so people cannot see it’s own wifi transmission. I suppose I could leave it on but that would be three wifi networks broadcasting and five if I did not hide the ones not being used. Finally for the Dlink router to receive internet it uses two options. The first one is simply a combined cable modem and wifi router, which would normally be Comcast or other land based provider. It receives internet from coaxial cable that comes from outside of the boat next to the shore power connection, and sends internet to the Dlink router via ethernet cable. If the cable modem has wifi, that is also hidden in favor of limiting the available wifi connections to the ones I want.
The Dlink wifi router serves three purposes for me; First it will receive internet from a dedicated Cat5 cable port. Second it will receive the Ubiquity antenna and can send my boat sensor data and internet to any device in the network. Third it will receive the NEMA via an automatic wifi connection from the VesperXB unit. Finally it can act as a host so I can connect directly to it via wifi in case I want to turn the Ubiquity antenna off and save energy.
When I am away from the dock I will connect to the internet via a Verizon mobile hotspot. It has the best coverage of LTE networks and can also provide more limited coverage in remote areas where TMobile or Sprint may not be available. This is great for working over a VPN. I do not need a very fast connection for work since I’m just sending small bits of data to our code repository, browsing web pages, and chatting with my co-workers via Skype and email. In order to connect the mobile hotspot to the Dlink router, I use the Asus WL-330N wireless mobile router. It is a very small and low energy device that can work in a number of configurations. For my purpose, I am using it for wifi account sharing from the mobile hotspot through the Asus mobile router through ethernet to the Dlink router, and finally out through the Ubiquity Bullet which is connected to my computer to smart-device. Once they all connected, I still had issues with the mobile hotspot not providing internet to the smart-devices. The laptop worked well though. I figured it had something to the with the NetBios and so I set it to always broadcast, which extended the compatibility to iOS devices and other smartphones.
Now when I leave on a trip, I can stay connected without having to do anything new. One I am settled into my anchorage with sufficient cellular service, I can stay there and work completely off the grid. The energy cost is about .8 amps to run all five components. So that is my network in a nutshell. Five networking devices which allows me to connect to a single network from far away or allow me to connect the network to the internet via mobile hotspot. You’d think it would be simple to configure this but it took my background in engineering and networking to figure it out and it was not easy. The good news is that it works very well and is quite stable. If there is a glitch (lets not kid ourselves) I just reboot the network components at the breaker panel. Feel free to ask any question if you’re planning on doing a similar network. It’s confusing and time consuming at first but once you decide what you need you shouldn’t have too much trouble deciding what you need and how to connect it to the network.