Phil Johnson looks at Starlink for cruising sailors and asks if internet everywhere and remote switching is set to revolutionise the boating world
Imagine you’re peacefully anchored in a tight cove on the lee of some remote uninhabited island with zero mobile phone reception. But you unexpectedly need to speak with family or a colleague about something important – so you chat by FaceTime. Then you spend the evening streaming a film on Netflix. You don’t even stop to check your connection.
This scenario is getting closer to reality for some cruisers with the release of Starlink RV and Maritime versions. Starlink promises truly unlimited broadband satellite internet service without breaking the bank – but is it really the perfect solution on board?
Starlink is the first in a new generation of low-earth orbiting satellite communications services that promise to deliver low-latency, broadband internet everywhere. Developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Starlink has launched over 2,500 satellites to date – spread out in a diagonal web flying across our horizon. To connect with the network, users purchase a satellite dish (the so called ‘Dishy McFlatface’) and wifi router, assisted by an app downloaded on their phone.
In other words, just plug in the satellite dish and “Boom! you’ve got lightning fast internet everywhere you want to sail!” Or at least that’s the sales pitch that my wife and co-skipper, Roxy, gave me after ordering a Starlink RV unit to install on our 1986 Cheoy Lee Pedrick 47, Sonder, which we’ve called home for nearly four years while living and working remotely.
Around two months ago a large cardboard box from Starlink arrived. With excitement, we tore into it and put Dishy with its heavy four-legged stand straight on top of the deck, connecting the 75ft cable to the router – which also serves as the power supply – and opened the app to configure. The whole process took all of five minutes and soon the dish’s motor stirred to life, tilting the antennae from one side of the horizon to the other.
From our relatively remote anchorage on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, we were instantly getting download speeds of over 100 Mbps – far exceeding that of the local LTE cellular network. Impressed by our experience, I asked some other sailors using Starlink RV to see if they too had positive results.
Lain and Brioni Cameron are currently cruising the Caribbean aboard their Leopard 47 catamaran Indioko while documenting their adventures on the YouTube channel RedSeas. Since installing Starlink, the bandwidth and reliability is so good they’ve started a video conferencing collaboration with other YouTubers, something that “simply couldn’t have been done under 4G solutions,” notes Lain.
Like us, they previously used a combination of range boosters, wifi reachers, and cell phone hotspots to manage their digital life, but still found themselves occasionally going to shore “in search of a cafe with reasonable wifi connection.” Since testing Starlink successfully at anchor between St Martin and Grenada, that’s a habit they’ve been able to break.
But it’s not just the Mediterranean and Caribbean. Dave and Amy Freeman video conference with kids in schools from the rugged coastline anchorages of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, in part using Starlink. They run the non-profit Wilderness Classroom, teaching the natural world while sailing aboard their 35ft steel gaff-rigged cutter Iron Bark. Before Starlink, they say: “We found some locations had a signal that was too weak for us to video conference with schools.” Now they’ve used Starlink reliably all around Newfoundland and Southern Labrador.
The fine print
This might all sound brilliant, but what’s the cost and fine print? Starlink RV is a non-geofenced version of the original Starlink. This means you can use it anywhere within the continent it is shipped, and use it outside the country of initial use for up to 60 days at a time. If you’re using Starlink past the 60-day time limit you’ll need to change the country associated with the account.
However, while Starlink RV includes ‘mobility’ (ie the ability to use the dish in locations other than the address it’s registered to) it does not support ‘in-motion use’ from, say, a moving vehicle or yacht. The terms make it clear that such use will void your warranty. The support page says: “While our teams are actively working to make it possible to use Starlink on moving vehicles (eg automobiles, RV or campervans, boats), Starlink is not yet configured to be safely used in this way.”
Furthermore, there are still dead zones around the world where Starlink either doesn’t yet have licensing approval or the location is too distant from supporting ground stations for the satellites to relay your connection. For the moment, this includes the open ocean, although I’ve heard anecdotally of RV users getting service on passages such as in the middle of the Mediterranean and across the Bay of Biscay. You can check the coverage maps for both RV and Maritime users at starlink.com/map, which also shows the dates for planned expansion roll-out.
There are some other considerations to make. Dishy is not a passive antennae like on an Iridium sat phone, it’s a power hungry phased-array antennae. I measured 40-50Wh in initial testing. And while it’s relatively weatherproof, the system is cumbersome to set up on deck unless you mount Dishy out of the way of rigging. As the crew of Indioko commented: “We see Starlink as a work and entertainment system rather than a replacement for safety systems like Iridium.”
The Freemans also keep their Dishy stowed below decks while under way.
Starlink has released a Maritime version geared towards commercial use. The upgrade comes with two professionally installed dishes, and promises soon-to-be-global coverage using satellite cross-link technology to expand range further into the oceans. This package, though, comes at a significant price hike: $10,000 of hardware and $5,000 per month of service. This version is suitable for superyachts, cruise ships, and tankers. By comparison, Starlink RV has one-time hardware costs of $599 and unlimited data at $135 per month.
For most cruising sailors needing reliable internet in remote anchorages around Europe and North America, the RV service will cover their needs. In two months of using our new Starlink, we’ve been up and down the coasts of Croatia and across the Adriatic to Italy without service ever dropping. The network speeds have been equal or faster than the mobile service offered in these places. For us, as remote workers that need consistent and fast internet everyday to run our e-commerce business, Starlink has been nothing short of a game changer for our cruising plans.
Since we moved aboard in 2018, ‘getting connected’ has been a constant effort. Island hopping between different Caribbean countries required maintaining half a dozen local SIM cards, each with different confusing data plans. When we sailed the remote Hebrides I’d be steering into lochs nervously looking at both our navigation chart and our cellular signal levels. The stress of not having a reliable go-anywhere alternative adds a cautionary asterisk when advising others about a ‘workaboard’ life.
That outlook is thankfully starting to change. “Feeling more freedom to anchor where we want rather than feeling the need to be next to a cell tower when we are working,” is how the Freemans put it. Farther-flung cruising destinations like the Pacific or high latitudes, where traditional workaboards couldn’t dream of sailing, are potentially in reach once Starlink builds out its satellite network. I write this article anchored in the remote Kornati islands of Croatia – a place devoid of cell reception that two months ago, before Starlink, we couldn’t have stayed in for any length of time.
It’s still early days for this technology so sailors have been getting creative to adapt the RV version of Starlink, which was designed for campervans and similar, to use on yachts. There are several Facebook groups where users share ‘hacks’ for Starlink (all of which are strictly at owners’ risk and not condoned in any way).
A popular, though warranty-voiding, solution is to disable the actuating motor by drilling into the back of the unit. This keeps the antenna stationary and pointing straight up, reducing power consumption while making it easier to mount. In some cases, this also seems to reduce intermittent dropouts in the signal.
Dropouts can also occur from blockages in the horizon, as the crew of Iron Bark experienced when anchored near very steep cliffs. We found our Starlink fits perfectly into a fishing rod holder mounted on the stainless steel arch above our bimini top. Its position allows an open view of the horizon that’s clear of all rigging and other electronics. Iain and Brioni of Indioko plan to fabricate two-mounting positions using a 3D printer, one for either hull of their catamaran. This way they can place Dishy on the “preferred side of the boat for clear views of the sky”.
Another much-talked-about hack is modifying the power supply to run on DC power from the house batteries rather than AC power from an inverter. This modification requires cannibalising the router to build your own power over ethernet (POE) board (beyond the technical grasp of me!), but has reportedly further reduced Dishy’s power consumption for some users.
Race for the skies
There are further options just over the horizon that should offer more ‘plug & play’ solutions. OneWeb is promising to compete with Starlink, with a service due to start in 2023. Amazon has pledged to build its own low-earth orbit network, while established satcom companies Iridium and ViaSat are also upgrading their networks.
Things are changing fast with this burgeoning industry. In just the span of a few years, we’ve gone from hoisting a cellphone up the mast in a dry bag for reception to not even thinking about how we might get online when sailing for a remote anchorage.
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