More and more cruisers, be they just weekenders or long distance travelers, are wrestling with the issues of staying connected and yes, I mean to the internet. My first boat had nothing more than a VHF radio and I was able to sail from the US mainland to Bermuda. Later on as the boats got larger and communications improved, a marine SSB radio was added. Then a famous person, I can’t remember who, invented the internet. With that, the ease of email crept into our lives and grew like a weed along the banks of some of the rivers we have traveled. We were hooked and began the search for the latest and greatest technology. Our first device was a hand held unit that was called Pocketmail and needed to be held up to a phone after calling a special number and it would send and receive your emails. It was a pretty neat device and very popular in the cruising circles. Next we added a Pactor modem to our SSB radio and after acquiring a Ham license, used the Winlink system to send and receive email and get that all important weather information. We still have and use extensively the Winlink system. But the more we were exposed to the internet itself, the more important it became and the more functional we found it to gather information on weather, emails and the areas we were traveling- something the Winlink could not do for us.
With the availability of WiFi hotspots to connect to, the possibilities grew considerably. Again, we would have to evaluate our needs and how to meet those needs with the changing technology. For the cruiser today there are now some great choices depending on the areas you plan to cruise, the space aboard and power requirements for additional equipment and that all important dent in the monthly cruising budget. Starting at the high end is a satellite system that can be used on a large part of the planet, even the watery parts. A satellite dish mounted inside a dome and engineered to track and hold the satellites position will give full access to the internet and all it contains.
It is no surprise the internet provided us with the answers. Research, research, research, using mostly cruising website that we have found in the past are frequented by actual cruisers willing to share their knowledge and experience. Two such sites are the SSCA Discussion Board and the great site at Cruisersforum.com. A common name came up over and over again with lots of positive input. Some cruisers also had their own way of putting the system together to improve performance and protect the equipment. We decided on a WiFi unit Made by Senao. The Engenius UEB362 EXT long range USB adapter (now updated to the EUB9603H) was recommended over and over again. Another key piece of the equipment is the antenna. Like any over the air receiver, the antenna can mean the difference between success and failure. We try and match our equipment as much as possible and decided in the Engenius 8db outdoor omni-directional antenna. A small pigtail adapter is needed to attach the much larger antenna to the unit. Your choices will be either omni-directional or directional. The omni-directional will look like the antenna you are used to seeing and the directional antenna will look sort of like a small dish that needs to be aimed directly at the WiFi access point. This works great at the docks but swinging on the anchor as most of us do would present too much of a challenge. The omni-directional does not care whether the boat is swinging so naturally that was our choice.
Having the antenna be weatherproof and outdoor suited is a big plus. Keep in mind these units are not designed to be used in the manner we have planned. The unit itself is not waterproof and the attached antenna is very small. But it is removable and many of these units on the market do not have a removable antenna. That ability limits or extends the range of the unit. We would need to either find a way to weatherproof the unit or move it in and out as needed to keep it dry. Both will work but we prefer to keep it outside while underway since we can often connect as we pass a hotspot without stopping. The final short coming of the unit as is was the short cord that attaches the unit via USB to the computer. It is only about three or four feet long and won’t get it outside unless the computer is outside and we did not want to do that for obvious reasons. But this too is easy to overcome.
Once we had the adapter and antenna in hand, the search for the additional bits and pieces began. We found that a 6X6 plastic electrical box with no holes in it would make a very good weatherproof box to mount the adapter. We purchase a weatherproof gland to pass the cable through and some coax sealer. We found we would need an “active” USB extension cable to get the unit high enough to have some range with it. Having an active cable is important because the unit gets its power from the computer via the USB cable. Be sure it is NOT a passive cable or it will not work. We have received reports that we should not exceed 20 feet for the extension cable but others might find longer will work. Finally, a bit of silicon caulk to seal everything rounds out the material.
The electrical box has plenty of room to mount everything inside and a smaller box will probably work but this was what we used. First you will need to drill a hole in the top to accept the antenna. It slides into the hole and a locking nut on the inside holds it just fine. The hole around the outside and inside should be sealed with a bead of silicone caulk. Next a hole should be drilled into the bottom to accept the weatherproof cable gland and also sealed. Remove the antenna that comes on the unit and use some double stick tape to hold the unit on the back of the box. The first thing we noticed with this unit was its size. It is not much larger than a business card. Before mounting it, attach the pigtail to the antenna and the unit itself. Pass the USB cable from the unit through the hole in the bottom and attach the weatherproofing portion of the cable gland and add some silicone sealer to help keep moisture out. Once all of this is finished, add silicone sealer around the perimeter of the box and attach the cover. The box we purchased had tabs on the corners with holes in them so we could attach different methods of hanging it. We plugged the 20 foot active USB extension cable to the one that is attached to the adapter. Here is where the coax seal comes in and makes the plugs completely waterproof where they are joined together. The seal is sticky and stays that way so be sure and cover it with electrical tape to keep it from sticking to everything (and everyone) it comes in contact with. You will be almost finished but there is one final step before you start connecting.
Before you plug in the unit, you will need to set it up on your computer. There are two methods to do this. The adapter comes with a CD with the required drivers and a program to help make your connections. If your computer is not WiFi capable you will need to install this program. If it is WiFi capable you have a choice. In our research many complained about problems using the program that came with the adapter. Your Windows operating system has a service called Windows Zero Configuration which will manage all of your WiFi connections. Many users, including ourselves, let Windows handle the WiFi with few issues, but the drivers for the adapter need to be installed. Simple - go to the disk, find a folder called drivers, open it and click on set up. It will install the drivers and ask you to plug in the unit. Once installed you will need to restart the computer, and that is should be about it. It should not take a whole lot longer than it did to read this article. Once everything is done and the unit is hung as high as you can get it with the cable attached to your computer, you will be connecting any time an open access point is within range. We have been truly amazed at the range of this set-up and how well it performs.
And now for our total expenditures:
Engenius EUB-362-EXT $45.50 (now updated to the EUB9603H)
Engenius EAG-2408 Outdoor antenna $24.99
CA100 –NM-RSMAM-12 RPSMA Male to N Male 12” cable $9.00
RJ45-FT Feed-thru adapter $1.10
104 Coax seal $2.29
Plastic Junction box with lid $12.16
20’ Male to Female USB active extension cable $12.99
Silicone caulk $5.95
Total cost: $113.98
We did find a couple of sites on the internet that sell these same units already made up for a bit more money, but we like to build these things and install them ourselves. We get not only the feeling of accomplishment, but the knowledge that the parts are of the quality we expect. This has been a great addition to our equipment list and if your needs will be filled with this kind of set up, you will surfing before you know it.
Click here for part 2.
Click here for part 3.