I lived aboard my own sailboat for several years and used long range WiFi adapters to keep connected.
Long Range Wifi On A Sailboat
My wife and I lived for a few years on our small sailboat, traveling from the U.S. to the Caribbean as well as cruising along the U.S. coast.
WiFi In Port Cheaper Than At Sea
Having internet access out at sea was prohibitively expensive for us since it still costs two dollars a minute or more. We did use a Pactor Modem and Amateur radio for slow speed e-mail access through the Ham network but this did not get us the internet.
We would go ashore in places where there were internet cafe's and use the terminals for a reasonable fee however we eventually found from other cruisers that there are often free, unsecured wireless networks available in many anchorages throughout the world.
Many yacht clubs and marinas are now offering free or cheap daily access to high speed internet via Wifi.
To pick these up out at anchor you need a high gain, long range Wifi adapter that includes an external antenna that you place up on deck, as high as possible.
There are models that use your laptop's USB port and are very versatile as well as easy to move from computer to computer. Others, such as the Engenius - Senao models plug into your laptops PCMCIA card slot and connect to an outside antenna. Ideally a directional antenna is best however these can be a problem if you are constantly swinging on anchor and not in a fixed position.
If that is the case an omnidirectional antenna is best. The "mirror mount' antennas that come with trucker's Wifi booster kits can be mounted on the life rails near the transom, out of the way. They are high gain antennas and will pick up wifi signals up to five miles or more since signals travel much farther over water.
UBDO makes a completely waterproof wireless internet booster that is housed in a durable impact resistant box. It is not directional, which is fine for a moving sailboat, and transmits one full watt of power. I like the fact that it is completely weatherproof and that there are no antenna connections to corrode.
If you want even more range you can buy the same model with a rugged fiberglass antenna. The 15db gain antenna will double the range of this already powerful marine and industrial WiFi adapter.
Shore Based WiFi Now Widely Available
There are now more and more free, open networks near marinas, as well as ones that offer high speed wireless internet to live aboard sailors in port for a small fee. Wireless internet can often travel long distances across the water and it can be fun to see what you can pick up. I once picked up a Carnival cruise ships wireless network, which required a fee of course, about four miles away. (See cautionary notes on connecting to strange WiFi networks.)
In another instance we were anchored in St. John, USVI and were picking up a free WiFi network across on the island of St. Thomas over seven miles away. It can be fun to see just how far you can pick up open WiFi networks with a booster and antenna and most of all you are saving a lot of money.
We have found an open wireless network in almost every single port we have visited, yet you must be very careful before connecting to these if you can't verify their safety.
I highly recommend these devices if you're a live aboard sailor. They'll really help you get better reception and and a faster connection in most situations where you have some type of WiFi available on shore.
Use Caution When Connecting To New Networks
While it may be tempting to connect to open networks, in rare cases some may be operated by hackers, who use them to snag personal information, credit card numbers, etc., when you are logged onto their network through an open WiFi connection. Try to stick with known networks, such as yacht clubs, city WiFi, etc., and if you do use an unknown network, refrain from doing sensitive transactions and set your browser's security settings to "high."
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 08, 2012:
Very good article with practical advise for cruisers. Most of my friends use this method of accessing the internet.