Computers have clearly found a welcome place on our waterways. And it’s not just small laptops for emailing, paying the bills, or cataloging digital photos. Cruisers are creating fully featured floating offices, allowing them to stay connected to their many obligations while enjoying time on the water.
That’s certainly our case. As full-time liveaboards and cruising guide authors, our boat needs to serve as our home, a survey vessel, and a floating office. Would we be able to meet all three needs on a 34-foot PDQ power catamaran?
With double staterooms, a well-designed galley, and roomy shower, Semi-Local was already a comfortable home. And the catamaran design makes it a perfect survey platform, with widely spaced twin engines, a rock steady stability, a less than 3-foot draft, and great visibility from the flybridge. But a fully functional ergonomic office? That was a real challenge.
You may not need to run a business from your boat, but these days it’s hard to get by for more than a couple of weeks without office-level amenities. Banking has shifted from walk-up tellers to online accounts, correspondence no longer uses a postage stamp, and completed “paperwork” now means an emailed PDF. Even if you’re not working full time, an onboard office lets you manage your finances, keep up on correspondence, and engage in freelance work.
So, unless you and your spouse share a single laptop or iPad, your boat is most likely starting to resemble a home office. And it’s probably time to bolster your boat’s technology and security infrastructure—with things you might not have needed before, like wireless networks, an uninterruptible power supply, secure Internet, multi-device storage and backup, and some physical-therapy-saving ergonomics. Here’s how we addressed these issues and what we learned along the way.
COMPUTERS AND PERIPHERALS
Our computer and office specifications were far more demanding than simply opening up one of our three laptops on the saloon table. We needed a dedicated workspace that would accommodate at least one production desktop computer and all its extras.
And we do mean extras! As soon as you bring a computer aboard, and expect it to be the cornerstone of an honest-to-goodness office, you’ve also invited a slew of necessary peripheral devices.
Any computer, including a laptop, should be backed up onto external hard drives for storage and archiving. In our case this meant a Sans Digital 4-disk external drive cabinet. Housing four 1TB drives in a single USB-connected cabinet gives us plenty of elbow room for all of the pictures, charts, fonts, and other multimedia assets we need for our cruising guides, as well as automated incremental hourly backups.
Equally important, a desktop computer that is powered through a boat’s electrical system needs a battery backup. Without battery backup, a catastrophic shutdown is not an if, it’s a when. Shorepower from dock-mounted stanchions is notoriously quirky, with spikes, brown-outs, and outages as common occurrences.
An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) is an external device, connected between your desktop and the outside 110VAC power source, that conditions the incoming power and functions as a battery backup in the event of a power outage. The UPS keeps the computer on long enough to bring it to a safe (e.g., data-preserving) landing. American Power Conversion (www.apc.com) is a leading manufacturer of these devices and offers a website calculator to help you determine what unit will temporarily power your equipment in the event of a blackout. (Note that a laptop’s built-in battery serves as an uninterruptible power supply, protecting your files against the sudden loss of 110VAC power.)
A computer may be the central component of any office setup, but it’s severely handicapped without peripheral devices. As an example, why have a computer without a printer? We needed two: a large-format color printer and a black-and-white duplexing laser printer.
We’re now considering decommissioning our two large printers and going with a smaller, lighter wireless multi-function device (MFD). Today, special color or high-volume printing can be brought ashore on a thumb drive to any of the ubiquitous copy shops. And for day-to-day onboard printing, we might as well opt for a tiny MFD, such as the Epson Expressions XP-400. Other features of the MFD give us direct copying capability and serve as a backup for single-page scanning.
An onboard document scanner is worth its space and weight in gold, especially given the compactness of the new models. We are very pleased with our 50-sheet, 20-page-per-minute Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M. This scanner lets you save documents electronically, rather than as heavy, moisture-retaining paper copies. If you purchase a quality scanner, you can scan photographs, magazine clippings, receipts, business/boat cards, and other documents to digitally store or send as PDFs by email. We’ve even dropped our eFax account, and now send all paperwork by scanner and email attachment. A document scanner is the foundation of any paperless office.
We began the makeover by trading our desk-side computer for a new iMac 27, where the CPU, memory, and drive are built inside a large flat-screen monitor. Guests look at our iMac and ask, “Where is the computer?” Many large boats now carry big-screen televisions—the iMac 27 gave us a computer and flat-screen TV combined.
Normally these new integrated flat-screen computers sit on a desk using the factory-provided stand. That obviously won’t work on a moving vessel. Fortunately, they are also designed to be mounted using VESA-compliant hardware. VESA (the acronym for Video Electronics Standards Association) defines the standard mounting platforms you see in libraries and doctors’ offices.
Most computer display manufacturers, including Apple and Dell, have adopted the VESA standard and offer kit conversions with many affordable options. And even if you aren’t packing a fire-breathing computer onboard, there are comparable products for smaller computers, televisions, and laptops. Ergotron (www.ergotron.com) is a leader in the field and has a wide selection of desk and bulkhead mounted arms.
We chose the Ergotron MX LCD Arm for our iMac 27 because of its rigorous design, extraordinary articulation, and stainless aesthetics. The MX is rated to 30 lb., which just clears the weight specification of the iMac 27.
Whatever type of computer you bring aboard, the design principle holds: Take advantage of these new three-dimensional mounts to gain more space and user customization. Mounts give you added flexibility to design a space-saving, yet ergonomic, placement of the monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Our LCD arm pivots to position the computer monitor perfectly in the production work area. Or the monitor can be rotated to face the inside steering station to view large-screen displays of navigation software. When the going gets rough, the arm lowers so the monitor securely rests on a padded cabinetry surface. And at the end of the day, we can rotate the arm so the computer monitor faces the saloon settee for large-screen DVD viewing.
To connect your boat to the Internet, why not just sign up for a Verizon MiFi (mobile hotspot) and call it done? Although that option works for many cruisers—particularly that couple sharing one laptop or an iPad—it won’t suffice for an onboard office. For that you’ll need more connectivity and more efficiency across multiple computers, mobile devices, and peripherals.
For starters, we always use both cellular and wi-fi Internet onboard. At the most basic level, this belt-and-suspenders approach guarantees we’ll always be able to get online. At a more subtle cost level, except for our initial equipment costs, our ongoing Internet expense is less with this redundancy. By juggling cellular and wi-fi we can balance our paid bandwidth from Verizon and AT&T with the free wi-fi at marinas and harbors, thus avoiding overage on the cellular data plans.
For this two-frequency approach, we have two routers: one for the cellular modem (CradlePoint) and one for the wi-fi booster (EnGenius). Although in theory a router can “trip” or switch over automatically between two sources, in practice, combining a cellular modem and wi-fi booster yields less than ideal results. As an example, it can’t properly arbitrate the two options in the event a marina’s wi-fi blinks for a few seconds.
Instead, for less than $100 extra, we have two independent networks. And each can have different resources available: The CradlePoint router has an Ethernet port so the HP laser printer “lives” there. It also hosts a guest login password for friends’ Internet access. The EnGenius is the path to the sea for the wireless MFD. We make the choice directly on our computers at any given time whether to surf using wi-fi or a cellular modem. This is as simple as opting for “EG” versus “CP” on the network pulldown. If we’re in a marina with free wi-fi (and not too many boats are downloading movies!) we select wi-fi. If we’re in an anchorage, without free wi-fi, we opt for our cellular modem.
Rather than roll our own, we chose IslandTime PC for our wi-fi booster. The price and feature set are excellent—it includes the latest Bullet offering, and the reports of phone support excellence are, if anything, understated. Researching alternatives for your own circumstances you should also consider Rogue Wave, Wirie, and 5Mile.
SECURING YOUR CONNECTION
Unfortunately, accessing the Internet without handing over the family jewels is becoming more and more complex. Cellular’s built-in encryption continues to provide extremely secure connectivity, but what about free wi-fi?
Every time you log on you’re attaching your computer to the Internet, opening a pipe for sniffers to steal your passwords, account numbers, and address book’s email addresses.
To protect your onboard network, subscribe to an inexpensive VPN (Virtual Private Network) service. A VPN’s job is to use encryption and other security mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access the network and that your data cannot be intercepted. When using marina wi-fi—even if it’s not an “open” network—a VPN intermediary is crucial to prevent crackers from attacking your computers.
We signed up for Cloak for Mac as our VPN (www.getcloak.com). If you are on a PC, WiTopia is an excellent choice. With either, you can even safely use open wi-fi networks. And for us, at only $8 per month, Cloak easily pays for itself in the savings of not consuming data on our cellular plan.
The final integration of our onboard office involved a mix of low-tech and medium-tech touches.
THE LAST FEW EXTRAS
We wanted to avoid the usual computer cable mess. That meant installing a few more GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) outlets. However, electrical installation on a boat isn’t as easy as in a home or office. Electricity generates heat, so strategically placing louvered panels and cable grommet holes are important for ventilation. For example, running cables through large finishing grommets (available at any home improvement store) dresses the cables for a neat finish and helps vent the heat.
Some other accessories further streamlined the entire design. We opted for Bluetooth keyboards and mice, which additionally avoided cabling hassles. Bluetooth also meant we could move the computer controls freely around the boat interior, from ergonomic typing to helm station controls to a saloon entertainment remote control.
Of course no office is completely paperless, so we added a compact shredder. If you receive mail while under way, then presumably you receive documents that should not go into the marina trash. Inexpensive and surprisingly small models are available at the big-box office stores. We’re very happy with our cross-cut MiniMate paper shredder, available at Staples.
We’re still tweaking, but so far the floating office is working very well. If we could only resist the gravitational pull of Best Buy and the Apple Store, we could say it’s done.
Mark & Diana Doyle (and a big-box store’s worth of technology) cruise the eastern seaboard researching and writing their OnTheWater ChartGuides series. Visit www.OnTheWaterChartGuides.com for more. They are also regular contributors to PassageMaker magazine.