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WiFi Devices for Boats – Part 1 of 5

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

This is part 1 of a series we'll run through the summer with a segment every few weeks talking about WiFi devices that make sense on boats. We think that some of the segments will be about devices you've never heard about (like the SlingBox in a few weeks). Other segments, like this one, will have parts that are a little more basic so we can all be at the same level about capabilities, terminology, and basic WiFi use.

Today there are thousands of WiFi devices. The ones we describe are not the only ones in their class. Nor are they necessarily the best ones for you. We'll talk about devices we have direct experience with. We know that every class of device has alternatives. We're not trying to present a buyer's guide. We're trying to spark your imagination about the types of devices you might want and the capabilities possible that you might not know about.

The first, most basic WiFi device that every boat should have in 2014 is a router. When we're at a marina or in an anchorage, we notice that only about 20% of the boats have routers. You really need one to take part in the incredible devices available these days.

A router for your boat is just like one for your house. They are pretty inexpensive as stand-alone boxes. One of the things they do is allow a single incoming Internet connection to be distributed to all devices on your boat. Connect that Internet connection to a single hotspot and now you have your own hotspot on your boat. If you have iPads, tablets, phones, and other devices, especially below deck, they don't have to reach the marina hotspot. They only have to reach your router which is probably just a few dozen feet away.

But a router on your boat does more than that. A router also creates a local network on your boat itself. As we'll see in upcoming weeks, there are some fantastic devices that can add new capabilities to your boat by producing data and putting it out over your local WiFi network.

Having a router allows those devices to distribute their data to multiple displays, all wirelessly. The key to all of it is having that central router.

Selecting a router for your boat is not a simple decision. It depends a lot on how you'll connect to cellular providers when there is no Internet WiFi available to you. There are many confusing points. For example, isn't your MiFi device a router? Probably not.

MiFi is a cellular internet device that allows multiple devices to connect to the internet over a cellular provider. By doing that, it feels like a router since multiple devices are connected together at the same time. But many MiFi's (all?) do not actually provide the routing capability that allows different devices to communicate with each other. This limitation is likely to change in future years and there are probably some MiFi devices (apart from CradlePoint and Pepwave – for another week) that do full routing also. For now, just remember that the routing capability between devices on your boat is important for being able to use the other devices that you might not even know about yet.

When we were considering a central WiFi router for our boat, an important feature for us was 12 volt DC powering. Routers are generally very inexpensive because they are used in houses, offices, and are sold by the millions. However, because they are general devices, they almost always expect to be plugged into AC power with some type of brick power adapter. This creates power inefficiencies that we are not happy with.

It requires 1) starting with DC power from our house bank batteries;

2) converting to AC with an inverter; and 3) using the brick to convert back to DC. At a marina with shore power, it wouldn't typically matter.

But it is a double inefficiency at anchor and there is loss and waste with every inefficiency.

So we looked for a router that runs on 12 volts. But even that isn't good enough. Your battery voltage is rarely at 12 volts. In fact, a measurement of 12 volts means your batteries are quite discharged.

Typically your house bank is between 12.2 and 14 volts. If the router needs a regulated 12 volt supply, your alternators and battery chargers could easily fry it if you directly connected the house bank (through a

fuse) to the router. What you need instead is a router that can handle about 11-16 volts. A DC-DC converter will also do the trick but if you knew that, you probably don't even need to be reading this. Still, a DC-DC converter here would be a waste – just choose the right router instead. Here are three examples:

First, the D-Link N300Click on Specifications and scroll down to Power Input. It says, 5 V DC.

Nope, that one won't work without other boxes or converters. 5 volts isn't impossible and when we talk about video cameras, we'll come back to that. But for a router? Let this one go.

Next, the Linksys WRT54GL: Under Environmental/Power it says, 12VDC. That's closer but it's not giving a range so it's not going to work and might be dangerous to plug into your house bank. Let this one go too.

Finally, the MikroTik RB951Uu-2HnD (nice name, eh?): Under the specifications is PoE which specified 8-30V DC. Now that's looking good. PoE is "Power over Ethernet" which works well too and will be the topic of another segment.

There are hundreds of routers including others which will meet this requirement. This article isn't telling you which one to get, it's simply providing you with information about what to look for.

The important point is that if you don't have a router on board, you're going to need one to take advantage of all the other devices we'll be talking about next.

Next week we'll talk about strategies to combine cellular with WiFi as well as reasons to keep them apart. This will get you closer to figuring out which router is right for you.


By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



WiFi..always use a VPN

Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…

This now marks the third year we're bringing the dangers of open WiFi to your attention at this time of year. If you connect to open WiFi routers at marinas or through long-distance "sharing" at anchor, please know the risks if you can connect without a password. You are putting your information and possibly your private email in danger of being seen and abused. The risks are real because it's easy to sniff open WiFi connections with software that any teenager knows how to get for free.

Here are the most common answers to questions about this that we receive:

– If you're using cellular connectivity only (MiFi, aircard, or phone) then you don't need a VPN. Cellular connectivity is encrypted and mostly safe.

We do not use our VPN's with cellular connections.

– If you have a centralized boat router that shares an incoming WiFi signal among multiple users and the router has WPA protection, you are not protected if the external WiFi is connecting to an open internet hotspot. You need a VPN in that situation. We always use a VPN in that situation.

In previous years we negotiated special discounts to a couple of VPN companies.

This year we're limiting it to a single company – Astrill. We still think that WiTopia is a quality company producing a great product. But they don't provide our users with a year-round discount. They will only give a 30 day discount and that's just not good enough.

If you have WiTopia, consider switching to Astrill. We have 2 Astrill accounts and it's all we've used for the last 4 months. The software is great for all platforms and we're still quite happy with their product after the 3rd year.

Astrill is providing a 10% discount for signing up. In order to get their discount, you must go through our web page so the proper discount is applied.

Our Astrill page is:


To review the previous VPN articles, check out these past newsletters:






Don't use open WiFi without a VPN while cruising. Know the dangers.


By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



Is MAC the knife?

There are people who love Apple and people who hate them. No matter how you feel though, there's no denying the incredible success Apple has gained since the iPod, iPhone, and iPad product lines. Today Apple is the largest company in the world by market capitalization:

  •  Apple is bigger than the entire US stock market was in 1977
  •  Apple is worth more than than all NFL football teams combined (by ten times!)
  •  Apple is significantly larger than the GDP of Denmark (and Sweden and and Venezuela and approximately 160 other countries)

 We've had a long personal history with Apple ourselves:

  •  Karen was an employee of Apple doing marketing in the very early 90's
  • Our first company developed software for the Macintosh (real success came when we ported that software to Windows though)
  • Jeff met with Steve Jobs twice and had numerous conversations and meetings with Bill Atkinson, developer of MacPaint and HyperCard
  • Products that we developed were on the cover of MacWeek and we received a MacEddy award for software we wrote for another company in 1989

 There were years when we only used Macs and years where we got rid of all of them and only used Windows. Today we have both although our main laptops are both MacBooks (a Pro and an Air). We use Boot Camp to run Windows on the Macs for navigation software which works great although requires a reboot.

 It's estimated that 8-9% of computers in use today are Macs. This is interesting because the ActiveCaptain website statistics show that about 22% of the access to the site is using Mac/OSX. So more boats out there are floating with Macs than you'd normally see in other places.

 Because of this, we thought it would be a great time to talk about the Mac navigation software that we use on our own Macs – PolarView.

It's a native OSX application that uses the free BSB/NOAA raster and S57/NOAA vector charts along with a variety of international chart options. It's blazingly fast, creates routes that are compatible with ActiveCaptain, and has full support for the ActiveCaptain data offline.

You can even write a review for a marker while using PolarView.

 PolarView. has a normal price of $49.99 and includes a license for 5 computers. There is a Windows version too and you can use the 5 copies across any combination of 5 computers (Windows or Mac/OSX).  More info on PolarView including a free 30 day trial

 Right now there's a special price of $39.99 – but we're not done.

We wrote to the developer and November isn't a big month for navigation software so they're providing a $9.99 coupon to ActiveCaptain users between November 1st and 30th.

Use this code when purchasing: PVAC201211

 If you have a Mac, this is really great native OSX software and you'll find good uses for it.

Plug in a USB GPS like the GlobalSat BU-353 and you have a full backup navigation system for your Mac.

This is the only OSX navigation software with ActiveCaptain support.

 We honestly use this software for real. And often. It's quite nice to be able to run it without rebooting into Windows.

Karen and Jeffrey Siegel, aCappella, Castine, Maine


The Interactive Cruising Guidebook



Weather Underground New Marine Service Plus ActiveCaptain!

WUN_1WeatherUnderground has created a new sailing and boating section on their website.

Live and historic weather radar is displayed over maps, satellite images, and nautical charts (NOAA vector and raster).

Integrated with the charts and weather radar is every ActiveCaptain marker with all the details, reviews, and hazard comments you've come to depend on.

We've been working with wunderground.com for a while. They asked us how we made our own cruising weather decisions and we showed them the handful of websites that we use – buoyweather, windfinder, passageweather, swellinfo, magicseaweed, etc.

What WeatherUnderground wanted to do was create a single place where all of this data could be integrated together along with ActiveCaptain to provide the information in context for the places boaters were going.

This capability was just announced by WeatherUnderground.


  • Weather Underground and ActiveCaptain


WeatherUnderground serves a lot of people every day. Alexa rates them as the 151st largest website in the entire United States. They don't have a server like ActiveCaptain has. They have a farm of them. We can handle about 5,000 users every day. They handle upwards of 1 million users during that same period. So integrating with them had to be done in a special way because they could easily swamp our server in the first hour of availability.

ActiveCaptain worked out the technology needed to replicate our data on-the-fly to use a small amount of resources on our server while making the full ActiveCaptain data available to millions of people simultaneously. It's been working for the last couple of months and you haven't even noticed it.

Having such a large site, always available, and adding new types of data is a huge advantage to the boating community. There is the obvious advantage of many more boaters contributing to the ActiveCaptain data and the slick new capability of integrating our data with the WeatherUnderground data. But in addition, this relationship brings their massive data and computing capabilities to bear providing an unparalleled additional free source for the ActiveCaptain knowledgebase. You now have complete access to every review and every detail on either our website or WeatherUnderground.

Providing ways that the entire boating community can access and contribute to the knowledgebase has been what has made ActiveCaptain successful. It is what has given ActiveCaptain the critical mass of data and reviews that makes the knowledgebase useful. It's having the community, you, with easy access in a variety of environments that wins. And we've learned that there is no better community than the boaters who are using ActiveCaptain today. And now that data will remain free and always available.

To try the new section on WeatherUnderground you'll have to enter your ActiveCaptain email and password to log on in order to access the ActiveCaptain part – you'll see.

  •   Weather Underground and Marinas

If you're a marina, the WeatherUnderground announcement effects you too.

With the ActiveCaptain data available on such a large site with so many new users, other non-cruising boaters will now start to see your information as they make their travel plans. Whether it's an afternoon out on the bay, a weekend off to a new place, or a cruise for an entire season, every boater will use this new weather section to access your facility's data. Make sure it is correct. Keep your fuel price current because dayboaters, especially, use that information. We have some important changes coming in 2013 with fuel pricing and some new capabilities that boaters will use. Start keeping your price information correct or it will cost you business.

We have an entire guide to help marinas get the most out of ActiveCaptain.

If you want to attract more boaters, you need to read the guide to learn how to take advantage of all the services available. It's easy and now is the time to get involved:


  • Weather Underground and other services


The WeatherUnderground marine service also displays current wind, wave, and tide information along with predictions.

The wave predictions are quite nice putting height, direction, and period all together on a scrollable display.

The best example of this date being animated is currently the MagicSeaweed site – but WeatherUnderground are a force to be reckoned with. It will be interesting to see how their offering develops over time









We'll write more about WeatherUnderground in the future. There's a lot of new things there. For now, try it out. Send them feedback (not us) about their site.

They want to hear from you and are dedicated to making their new boating section incredible.

They want to provide the information you need and have the weather and meteorologists on staff to help.


By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain



Why is AIS important..

Almost every cruising boater knows about AIS – the Automatic Identification System. Released in the last 10 years, AIS-A became standard on large ships. Today it is a required piece of equipment on most large commercial vessels. However, AIS-A was fairly expensive and complex, so few recreational boats installed it.

AIS works through VHF radio. Packets of data are sent out providing live navigation data – position, speed, course, heading – along with other very useful information – vessel name, vessel dimensions, MMSI, age of data, etc.

Early devices for cruising boats were only receivers. They'd allow your chartplotter or PC navigation software to view the position of ships broadcasting AIS packets. For offshore, busy harbors, or twisty rivers, it gave a view of the ships that were coming in many cases when radar didn't give enough information. It also provided automatic collision detection and warnings.

In 2007 AIS-B was released with a lower-cost set of specifications to work alongside AIS-A. Still, early AIS-B transponders were over $1,000.

A transponder not only receives all AIS traffic for display but also sends out information about your boat for others with AIS including ships. Over time transponder prices dropped and capabilities increased to the point where today you can purchase a full AIS-B transponder for far less. Between these new prices, the ease of integration, and the support of AIS in almost every chartplotter and navigation software, we think that if you don't have an AIS transponder, now is the time to get one.

We've had AIS integrated into our electronics since February. It didn't take long before we saw how useful it was.

Here are some examples of how we really use it:

  • AIS targets show a ship's or boat's name. That is very useful when you want to communicate with them especially at night.
  • When a boat is coming from behind, the AIS target and track line generally gets our attention. Our 7.5 kt speed means we're passed a lot. It's very nice to see the speed and closest approach calculation as a faster boat is approaching.
  • In a specific situation involving a barge, an American Cruise Lines ship, and narrow cuts, we were able to see them miles in advance on the ICW. This allowed us to hail them by name and arrange for a safe passing location. Time to closest point of approach is one of the standard AIS displays presented allowing you to see approximately how long it will be before you meet oncoming traffic.
  • Finding friends nearby by seeing their boat name is a great social tool. It's also nice to see the names of boats you're traveling with on your display.
  • Transmission of a ship's MMSI allows for VHF DSC radio calls to boats that are unknown to you. This is quite valuable for offshore communication with ships especially at night.

When looking for an AIS-B transponder, make sure it has an integrated GPS, has low power requirements (2-5 watts), and has connectivity to the displays you need. Typical devices will have NMEA 183, NMEA 2000, or USB. A device that has all will provide the greatest use no matter what other navigation products you use now or might switch to later.

If you're using PC navigation software, a USB capability is very nice since no adapters will be needed – just plug the USB cable into the PC.

There are some AIS devices with WiFi. We think these devices are too limited and create difficult situations. They limit connectivity to a single display and often make it difficult to use other WiFi systems in your boat at the same time. There are better ways to integrate NMEA 2000 with WiFi that we'll write about in another newsletter.

Suffice it to say, NMEA 2000 on any AIS device you purchase should be a requirement because it'll give you many future options.

If you don't currently have an AIS transponder, you've probably been thinking about getting one. It's time. Get it now and use it over this next cruising season. You'll love it and wonder how you got along without it.

AIS – Complexities and Issues

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when planning an AIS installation:

  • The transponder needs a VHF antenna. There are two ways to install this.

1) Get a small, inexpensive VHF antenna and install it, or

2) use a VHF splitter which will allow you to share an existing VHF antenna with the AIS radio. A good splitter will cost a couple of hundred dollars and requires power but often makes the installation simpler. The decision for a splitter isn't simple – you probably have multiple VHF antennas already. If you don't, consider an inexpensive VHF whip antenna. We used a splitter with our secondary flybridge VHF antenna.

  • The transponder is supposed to have its own GPS. For maximum quality of signal, make sure the AIS unit is placed in a location that will have a good, reliable signal. If you must buy an AIS with an integrated GPS, make sure to get an external antenna for the GPS part and put that antenna someplace higher. The GPS for our AIS is in our pilothouse ceiling with fiberglass above it. We do not have a GPS antenna outside but the inside location works perfectly. We made sure to test the GPS signal strength before finishing the installation and were prepared to modify the location if needed.

There are also a few complaints and issues we've heard about AIS. Below are our opinions on these:

Issue 1. If everyone has AIS, it's going to get too crowded, and the AIS alarms will go off continuously.

We believe that people who experience alarms going off all the time aren't using their AIS capabilities properly. When inshore and in high traffic areas, there is little need to have alarms enabled for AIS. In most cases, you're watching the navigation system carefully and will have visual AIS warnings of approaching vessels. Most systems allow AIS targets to be removed from targeting as well. Only when you're offshore or in a non-crowded area should AIS alarms be turned on. Electronic navigation means using your electronics – you can't expect to set it once for all types of travel and forget about it.

Issue 2. I don't want others to see who I am.

We believe this is compromising your own safety. It is much safer to receive a VHF call with your boat's name rather than a lat/lon estimate.

If you do feel a need for secrecy, most AIS devices have a switch that will turn off the transmission of your data. We didn't even install the switch on our AIS because we believe it's a bad idea to turn off data transmission.

Issue 3. Ships just turn off AIS-B traffic so having a transponder is worthless.

First, we don't believe it is true that ships can turn off AIS-B traffic.

We'd love to know from ship pilots out there and we'll get the info out.

In our experience, every ship we've called said they could see our boat on AIS and our name on their displays. That's good enough for us. But we'll keep asking.

There are many other capabilities possible and coming with AIS. There are already inexpensive wearable AIS transmitters for crew. Fall overboard and the person in distress becomes an AIS target on all chartplotters in the area.

Virtual buoys are being experimented with by the Coast Guard. If there's shoaling or a missing buoy in the future, it's likely to be a radio signal with a lat/lon that will show up at the proper position on your AIS display.


By Jeff Seigel

Guest Author & Founder of ActiveCaptain