We were in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, half-way between the Italian islands of Ventotene and Ischia when the clouds began to darken.
We were in the middle of the Tyrrhenian Sea, half-way between the Italian islands of Ventotene and Ischia when the clouds began to darken. We had spent the night in a small Roman port in Ventotene and got up early to the sound of the harbor master trying to extract what must have been months of past due mooring fees from our neighbor. It is important to note at this point that the night and early morning hours before being awakened to the sounds of a grumpy harbor master yelling “Mario” at the top of his lungs into an empty boat was completely sleep free. You see, there was some sort of saint holiday that weekend. I don’t know which saint it was and I never bothered to find out, because knowing would not likely help me sleep. Whoever this saint is, the Italians on the quaint island of Ventotene felt compelled to spend the equivalent of their entire island’s GDP on fireworks and techno music. Yes, from sunset to about 3:30 AM there were fireworks going off in between the heavy bass thumps and screeching synthesizer arpeggios of modern Italian techno music. So we didn’t sleep really at all. Apparently neither did Mario, as he managed to get away from his boat well before anyone could come to collect. He couldn’t have gotten far, Ventotene is a tiny island.
So there we were, tired and bleary eyed. No amount of coffee or espresso could fix us. None. And now, after days of no wind, our little sailboat was once again motoring towards Ischia. We had anchored around Ischia on our first two nights out. We were familiar with a popular anchorage, but seeing as how this was our first time bareboat sailing in the Tyrrhenian Sea, we wanted to see other parts of this beautiful Island. The clouds grew darker. No problem. Then there was a bit of drizzle. Still no problem for we have rain coats and hats. Then the drizzle turned to heavy rain. Dangerous for walking on deck, but otherwise not a barrier to our motoring effort.
What was not unreliable was my Wi-Fi signal. We had purchased a SkyRoam Solis prior to leaving for Italy.
Robin was up on deck keeping watch and manually steering our chartered sailing boat because the boat’s GPS system was terribly unreliable and therefore the autopilot that uses GPS was also terribly unreliable. What was not unreliable was my Wi-Fi signal. We had purchased a SkyRoam Solis prior to leaving for Italy. If you are unfamiliar with this technology then let me explain. The SkyRoam hub is an orange cylinder about the size of a coffee saucer and about an inch thick. The technology finds the strongest cellular data signal within its vast network of carriers throughout the world and connects to that signal automatically. Your little orange oversized hockey puck becomes a wireless hotspot for multiple devices. You obviously pay for this service and the company offers a multitude of plans. We only bought day passes for $9.99 each, which is a tremendous value as you will see later on in this post. This day pass gives you 24 hours of unlimited data on the strongest local network available. Out in the middle of the Tyrrhenian sea, with shoddy onboard GPS, one can only use old paper charts, or the cruising guides that come with the boat, most of which are older than the boat herself. Look, as romantic as it is to plot a course on a paper chart, what with the unfolding, the drawing of lines and the using of the dividers and protractors etc.., we are not pirates despite our volume of alcohol intake, we are modern people with modern technology and we should act accordingly, especially in a storm.
Click on the image to purchase your own SkyRoam from Amazon. We need ours and frankly as Amazon affiliates, we make some cash if you buy from our link.
The SkyRoam hub is an orange cylinder about the size of a coffee saucer and about an inch thick. The technology finds the strongest cellular data signal within its vast network of carriers throughout the world and connects to that signal automatically.
So there I am below deck, patiently plotting our course to an anchorage on the side of Ischia we had not yet seen. I was on my iPad, using modern technology in between two relatively small islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea. I pop my head up into the rain to let Robin know we should probably change course soon if we are to reach our destination. She looked at me like I had fourteen heads, so I climbed up onto the deck and looked around. She pointed to the darkest cloud on the horizon and said, “We are not going that way.” Well, “that way” was the way we would have to go if we wanted to get to our preferred anchorage. So I go back down, sit in the navigator’s seat and pull my iPad out once again to find an alternative. Perhaps something on the east or west side of the island? Lets check the weather apps. The bad weather is headed towards the north of the island, but is sweeping around it making the tiny anchorages on the east and west out of bounds. The south was less likely to get stormy, but the swells were coming from the south and having already anchored two nights in the best southern anchorage, I already knew it would be a rough ride. There is a small harbor on the east side of the island, so I go back up on deck where the rain was falling so hard it must have been violating the laws of physics. I explain my new plan is to take shelter in a small harbor on the east side of the island. We would prefer to not have to pay for another night in a harbor, but at least it will be relatively safe. I explain our change of course to Robin, she looks around for a second to assess the dark clouds and the rain and then kaboom! The lightening struck so close you could feel the thunder rattle your bones. The sun was over the mainland, over our home port of Procida and the thunderheads were over our projected route towards an unknown harbor. This was no time to call an unknown harbor and barter for a mooring with a harbor master who may or may not be proficient in English. The decision made itself. We are going to take shelter in the only nearby harbor we are familiar with even if that adds another few hours of sailing in the rain.
She pointed to the darkest cloud on the horizon and said, “we are not going that way.”
So, why did we buy this SkyRoam device? You may say that our sailing story is an obvious answer to that question and yes, we did buy it to have Wi-Fi on our boat, but that is not the whole story. The year before, we had embarked on a grand tour of Europe. We were on a cruise ship that brought us to dozens of ports in the Mediterranean and then we went through Italy and France, eventually arriving in England. Robin and I are not fond of guided tours. We have nothing against people who love guided tours, its just that it is not how we like to enjoy a place. We like to wander. We like to find a few spots that are within walking, biking or taxi ride distance from our hotel or port and just sort of explore the surroundings. When we were in Europe, I was using a navigation app that is designed for tourists like us – wanderers. You could download the maps to your phone and these maps are huge so they eat up a lot of data, so we tried to make sure all of the maps for a location were downloaded using the cruise ship’s onboard free Wi-Fi, but apparently every single person on the ship must have been binging Game of Thrones the whole time, so the download speeds were so bad that we had to forgo some downloads. Eventually, we gave up on this app and began using Apple maps instead. Though less data hungry, we still used a lot more data than we would have liked and although AT&T sends you those data “alerts” that you have maxed out and will be charged an overage, being lost in the middle of London and having crossed London Bridge a half-dozen times in search of the street we were supposed to be on has a way of changing ones financial priorities when it comes to data usage overseas. Then again, coming home to a massive cellular bill is remarkably sobering and makes one wonder whether or not the British Museum was worth it.
Then again, coming home to a massive cellular bill is remarkably sobering and makes one wonder whether or not the British Museum was worth it.
Some folks travel so they can disconnect from the noise of modern life. Some folks like to have their gadgets in good working order the whole time they are away. I think it is possible to have your gadgets in good working order and still disconnect, but by having them, you can save time by getting yourself unlost with map apps or better yet make an informed decision out at sea in the middle of a thunderstorm. There are a few ways to stay connected while abroad.
First, you can buy a SIM card when you get to your new destination. This can be a cumbersome process. Not all phones can use foreign SIM cards, and those that can may still be locked out, especially if you have a long term service contract. Using a foreign SIM card in your phone also requires you to use a local phone number. If you are in France, you will not be using your US phone number, but rather a French number, so when you call the States, people will think you are French, unless you let them know its you some other way in advance of calling. Robin and I rarely need to make voice calls while abroad. Most of what we do can be done using data. You can make voice calls with numerous apps and none of them require you to have anything more than a basic data connection.
Second, you can call your American service provider and ask them about calling and data packages for your destinations. Some of these seem affordable up until you use up all of your data trying to find a museum. This option is pretty useful in Mexico. AT&T for instance offered to extend our data and voice plan into Mexico by simply upgrading to a higher plan at a cost of an additional $15 a month. Not bad, especially if you are on an extended stay in Mexico. The only problem with this solution is that often there are limitations to your data, and like the SIM card option, it is only good on one device. Some of these data plans may also prevent you from using your phone’s hotspot, though I think those types of restrictions are less popular these days. And while a plan that includes Mexico is relatively cheap, one cannot say the same for other destinations. Finally, with a cellular plan like this, you are still bound to your particular carrier’s foreign network affiliations. While AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile may have a great network where you live, they may not be as well connected in other areas of the globe.
Finally, we come to the SkyRoam system. One limitation is that you do not get a voice connection, so if you have to make a phone call, you either have to use an app like WhatsApp or you have to burn some international roaming minutes on your US based phone plan. If you are a talk on the phone all day type of traveler, this is probably not a good option for you. If you are a data hog like us, then it is probably the best option. The pre-purchased day plans worked well for us, because not ever day required us to use data, so we only bought a pass when we needed one and remained quietly off-grid on days we did not. There are other plans, some of which may be more suitable than buying day passes depending on what you are doing and where you are going, so you will have to figure out what method works best for you. While you cannot make voice calls with SkyRoam, you can use it as a hotspot for multiple devices. If you have five people in your group, they can all connect one device. Since the SkyRoam system can connect to practically every cellular network in over 130 countries, you are more likely to get a strong signal, rather than whatever signal your US based device can locate, if any signal at all. There are a few variations of the Skyroam device, some are less expensive than the one listed below and apparently you can also rent these devices so you really don’t need to make a commitment to the hardware. Personally, I am glad we own ours since we can just pack it away whenever we go out wandering globally.
“We sell travel.”Robin & Dave