From the Bridge: Satellite technology a make-or-break issue
Mar 5, 2019 by Dorie Cox
From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox
Satellite domes and antennae top most large yachts, and satellite-enabled devices are everywhere on board. Announcements of the “world’s fastest, lightest, ultra-compact, secure” satellite systems frequently pop up in the news. How do yacht captains navigate all of this?
To learn more, The Triton gathered a spectrum of users – from a yacht with minimal satellite service to yachts with the most up-to-date systems. These captains brought a range of experience to this month’s From the Bridge luncheon in Fort Lauderdale.
Mere mention of the word “satellite”started an enthusiastic conversation among those seated around the table for discussion. Captains took notes and asked each other questions on tricks, tips and best systems. The diverse hardware and software options were more than we could cover in an hour, so we focused instead on what satellite use looks like on board, how captains make decisions about it and how this affects the crew.
Turns out, this group expends a fair amount of effort on their satellite systems. So much so that the yacht’s bandwidth use is the first thing one captain checks each morning. It seemed to follow that satellite systems are a vital ship function. Not so, they said.
“Most satellite use is not for safety or navigation, most is for convenience,” a captain said.
“It’s keeping up with Jones,” another captain said. “Nonessential for crew, essential for owners.”
“The owner will tell you this is the most important thing,” a third captain said. “Most owners come on board and are working. They run their business on board.”
Onboard satellite systems are usually built around the yacht owners’ work and entertainment needs, several captains said. Hardware and software are chosen to provide bandwidth for emails, calls, downloaded movies and streaming music. And an increasing amount of equipment vies for that bandwidth to transfer data on phones, computers, tablets and televisions.
Many people, including crew, expect to have availability to run all of this, so poor or interrupted service can cause problems.
“No Wi-Fi, no charter,” a captain said. “If you’re down two days, you are going back to port.”
At the least, spotty Wi-Fi can cause disruptions.
“You get the anchor set, everything is organized, then it’s, ‘Can we move the yacht? I’m not getting a signal here.’ We’ve all had this experience, right?” a captain said.
All heads nodded in agreement.
“I’ve moved multiple times for the boss,” a captain said.
“See how important uninterrupted service is?” another said.
All the electronic hardware has to be monitored. Typically, service is connected through a subscription from a service provider. And usually this is handled on board by the captain or engineer, unless the yacht has an ETO – an electro-technical officer or electronics technical officer. That person sets up channels to manage the available bandwidth between all the users: owner, guests, captain, engineer and the rest of the crew, often in that order.
And that’s when crew feel their place in the hierarchy.
“When bandwidth starts to get eaten up, the first thing we cut off is crew,” a captain said. “Crew get the short end of the stick every time.”
There are even more limitations, and costs, within the bandwidth allotted to crew.
“They’ll set their laptop up in their cabin to be downloading during the day when they’re out doing the washdown,” a captain said.
Use like that can take a large chunk of the total that crew get to use.
“I can see what crew do,” a captain said. “I go to them and say, ‘You used 30 percent of the total bandwidth yesterday. I hope that movie was worth it.”
“That’s the problem, that uses a lot of bandwidth and costs a lot of money,” another captain said. “And the the boss doesn’t like paying for lots of bandwidth.”
“There is only so much bandwidth,” a third captain said. “You see too much use, you cut it off.”
Some captains warn crew that service will be shut off, but sometimes there is no notice. If crew are in the middle of sending an email, they will have to go to the helm to use the captain’s computer, a captain said.
Once crew recognize how the yacht’s satellite relates to their use, it is not usually an ongoing problem, a captain said.
“You catch them once and then they regulate themselves, they really do,” a captain said.
“Yeah, you don’t need to make a big deal,” another captain said.
“It’s best to cut them all off together and then they monitor each other,” a third captain said. “You can see who’s using it during different times of the day and see who’s working.”
Some captains let the department heads manage the users.
“I let them handle it. They come over and say, ‘Who’s doing it?’ and I tell them,” a captain said.
One captain said if it’s one person letting everyone else down, the engineer addresses that person. “When you have someone that is that on top of things, it makes life so much easier.”
Wi-Fi shutdown becomes a problem when some crew use it for entertainment, then others need it to do their jobs and it is not available. For example, chefs often go online to provision and stews may do research or communicate with guests.
Captains try to head problems off at the start when crew are hired. Our operating procedures mention that “access is available to you in limited quantities,” a captain said.
Another way to handle use is through adjustments to the satellite service through the provider, a captain said.
“We upgrade bandwidth and downgrade as necessary,” he said, and cited an example of how the yacht prepares for a charter or the owner.
“It’s up for that time period, usually three days before and three days after,” he said. “And then we downgrade to keep costs as low as possible.”
Without discussing satellite brands or businesses, we asked the group how they choose who they go to for information, the vendors who sell it, and the technicians who service it. Although each of the captains had working knowledge of satellite systems, most said they were open to advice and appreciative when one of the yacht’s crew has expertise.
“It depends who is most knowledgeable,” a captain said of his crew. “I pick their brains and get that information out.”
The captains frequently look to other captains for advice, but whether they use the engineer, a crew member or a service vendor, most important to everyone is to find someone they trust.
“Someone who gives me good advice or admits when they don’t know something,” a captain said.
He looked back on early satellite systems and remembered how the yacht engineer brought new technology on board.
“Remember when they were installed inside the vessel and how expensive it was? Thousands and thousands of dollars,” he said. “Then my engineer comes up with this box and says here’s this thing and I’m getting a better signal than you.”
Although someone has to be first when new technology is available, most of this group said they do not want to be guinea pigs for trials.
“You want to be able to talk to another captain that has used it,” a captain said of new equipment.
“We hear about so many new things – it’s the latest, the greatest. But it’s just coming out, it hasn’t been tried,” another captain said. “The tech people try it out on us with software and hardware programs, but we need it to be a year later.”
Although satellite use is primarily about equipment and technology, what captains really value are the people that help them navigate it. The captains seemed very heartfelt about those personal connections.
“When the owner calls and the wi-fi is down, you panic,” a captain said. His first call is to the yacht engineer who then works with the satellite technicians. “You hire good people and let them do their jobs.”
“I call a guy I have a good working relationship with, he might be able to help or will steer me somewhere else.” another captain said. “I call another captain, or another [yacht] build close to mind. We tend to link ourselves with people that we know.”
“I would say 80 percent of captains find their information from other captains,” a third captain said. “If you get a good guy, you want to keep that guy.”
As satellite use continues to grow in yachting, this group of captains will continue to keep watch for the people who can be most helpful to manage the changes.
“It takes trial and error,” a captain said. “And lots of talking, like we’re doing now.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below.