Working From Home

Working From Home

Date: Wednesday, April 4, 2018. 1445Z
Location: 53.1631° N, 9.0760° W — Aughinish
WX: 18 knots from N. Cold, but Sunny. 8°C

A long time ago (no, not in a galaxy far away, I think I was in Boston), I had a conversation over a beer, about working from home. At the time, the Internet had reached a sufficient speed and VPN technology was to a standard that you could work from home and achieve the same productivity as the office. Probably even more productivity than most offices I’ve frequented. I’m sure many people before me had also pondered this question, but it came as a revelation for me. I think it was around the third beer that a cloud lifted. A whole new vista opened up before me. “You don’t actually need to be at home to be Working From Home…” My sage colleague nodded in agreement. As if to say “of course! Everyone knows that.” But to me, life would never be the same, again.

At the time, my scope was limited to perhaps visiting friends in London for an extended stay, or perhaps even working for a day or two while in a foreign clime. I even experimented with the idea. A group of us went to Spain to visit some friends for two weeks, and I brought a laptop. My sister, who travelled with me, was horrified. She took the altogether sensible view that holidays were sacrosanct, and you needed to be able to get away from the office. You needed to be able to extract yourself from meetings, emails, and anything which involved a keyboard, for two weeks of sun and relaxation. I tried to explain that I was experimenting, for the good of Humanity. I wanted to see if it was possible to bring a laptop and perhaps work for the mornings, with a view to only consuming 5 days holidays over the course of two weeks. I don’t think she understood my selfless sacrifice.

The experiment was a success. I quickly got into a ritual of having breakfast with the group, and while they went off to catch the morning sunshine, I would boot up my laptop and do some work. Around noon, I would shut down the machine, and join everyone else. In hindsight, I should probably have joined them in the morning and avoided the heat of the afternoon sun, but this wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the experiment.

It was indeed possible.

Since then, I have stretched the definition of “home” quite a bit. But one definition I haven’t successfully tried, is working from the boat. I’ve brought my Macbook to Greece a few times and done some minor work (reviewing papers, mostly) while in the Ionian, but I haven’t actually tried working from the boat. I found it was more convenient to go ashore, power the laptop from a nearby taverna, and use their Wifi while sipping a Greek coffee.

But I am still curious about this concept. I can’t imagine dialling in for a conference call while swinging at anchor in a quiet bay in Meganisi, but I could definitely see myself doing that while on a visitor mooring off the west coast of Ireland.

One of the most important requirements is a good power source. My Mac has a power supply which requires 60 watts at 220 volts (well, at any AC voltage between 90 and 240, if you want to be specific). That can easily be handled by a small 150 watt inverter. It only needs that power level to charge the Macbook battery, which takes an hour or two. Ignoring conversion losses, I could produce 60 watts of power at 12 volts with a mere 5 amp consumption. Assuming the battery charges in only two hours, I can recharge the laptop with 10Ah. That isn’t a significant draw on a lead-acid battery. I used to have a charging cable for my old Compaq Evo, which ran directly off 12 volts, including one of those funky cigarette lighter adaptors. Apple doesn’t have anything like that so you’re stuck using the inverter. I did try charging the Mac just using the battery and solar panel on Nikea in Greece, and found that it was a significant draw. I seem to remember the inverter complaining about low battery voltage. I didn’t have the time/inclination to figure out why. Our solar panels aren’t exactly new, and I’m not even sure what their rated power (as new) should be. I must look a bit closer into the current consumption on the boat. At the time, I remember thinking that if I left the laptop on charge, it would run the battery down in no time, so I generally only charged the laptop when the engine was running. To be fair though, if I really wanted to consider working from the boat as a viable proposition, I’d look at doubling the capacity of the “house” batteries, and even beefing up the solar panels. As it is, we get just enough power during the day to run the fridge and to bring the batteries up to full charge (assuming we turn off the fridge by around 4PM). Yet another use for an Arduino - monitor the onboard battery voltages and produce charging data for an average day in Greece.

Another requirement is a good Internet connection. However, for a lot of the work I do, this isn’t essential. I can work offline for long periods, and then connect to the Internet (and the corporate VPN) for short periods to sync up. There are three key choices for Internet connectivity. The first (and cheapest) is to use the Internet connection in the nearby marina, assuming you’re tied up to a pontoon, or at a minimum, within WiFi distance of the marina office. This tends to be problematic for two or three reasons. Firstly, most marinas make use of a standard home DSL line so the broadband capacity is on a par with that of your average house. In other words, three or four devices online at any given time, and intermittent bursts of high volume traffic. By contrast, a marina full of boats will tax that system out of existence in short order. It’s not just the laptops on each boat, it’s the mobile phones, iPads, and everything else. Secondly, most of the marinas I’ve seen, which offer “free” broadband, do not have a proper antenna setup. They just use the little low-gain antennae which are mounted on the router box. I have seen marinas which install proper hotspots on numerous pontoons, but they’re in the minority, and rarely free. Add to this some of the weird complexities of how WiFi systems limit transmit power, and you’ll find that you can possibly access the Internet, provided you stand in the cockpit with your laptop held high above your head. The third aspect is that the DHCP pool is too small. So your device might be able to see the hotspot, but the device has long-since run out of IP addresses. Usually this presents itself as a “flaky connection.” The marina staff will tell you that they need to reboot the device about once a day, for some reason. Now you know why - they’re out of IP addresses. As the device reboots, as long as your laptop is in range, it’ll get one of the precious IP addresses, and it’ll be yours for the duration of the lease (or until the next reboot).

Some manufacturers now make WiFi boosters which can be configured to connect to a nearby hotspot, and which provide a WiFi network just for the boat. This is the ideal scenario as means you can place the booster up high, with clear line-of-sight to the marina office and their little router device, and you can work down below with a strong signal which is unique to your boat. It doesn’t fix the fact that the marina WiFi is woefully inadequate both in bandwidth terms and in IP pool terms, but it will help with signal strength.

Another option is to buy your own 3G (4G? 5G?) dongle and local SIM card. This immediately resolves the issues of IP addresses and bandwidth, unless of course, you share your hotspot password with some of your marina friends. It also means that you’re not tied to a marina, and can use the Internet while swinging at anchor in a secluded bay. But you may need to investigate external antennae for it, or at least some mechanism for boosting the predictably weak mobile signal. Ideally, you would use the WiFi booster previously mentioned, with a 3G dongle as an add-on for those cases where there is no WiFi signal, or the signal is unusable. That way, the 3G antenna is mounted up high, with reasonable line of sight to the cell mast while you’re again down below with a personal WiFi signal. A disadvantage of this approach is the fact that you will need to pay for the broadband, and this may involve having to buy a data sim in each country or territory. But while the marina WiFi may be free, it’s probably unusable, and you’re still paying for it by way of the marina fees. If you’re Stern-to in Sivota (or wherever), you may be able to tap into the WiFi signal of the nearest taverna, but it too will suffer from all the same problems. If Internet access is essential, there is little or no alternative to buying a data sim.

Unless of course, you bought shares in Apple shortly before Steve Jobs took over for the second time. In that case, you can install a satellite link on the transom of the boat, and have all the bandwidth your heart desires. Mind you, there are latency issues with satellite broadband, which can’t be cured no matter how wealthy you are. The pesky speed of light is not going to go any quicker just because you’re a dotcom millionaire. While I might present a picture of satellite Internet as cumbersome and expensive, it can actually be useful. Inmarsat makes a handheld satphone which looks a bit like an old Nokia from the days when mobile phones had keypads. We used one to pull down GRIB data while crossing the Atlantic. They are handy for uploading and downloading short emails, and even data downloads, but don’t go streaming Netflix.

In summary, then, the technology is definitely available to work from the boat. So what is the impediment? Is it that it seems wrong to be sitting in an azure pool of water, with sunlight glistening off the wave tops, while your colleagues are all huddled around their screens, and drinking coffee from a machine? Is it that no-one would believe you were working, under such conditions?

I actually think it is a deeper issue than that. I think I would need around three or four weeks of living on the boat, before my brain finally decided that this was now the new normal. The most time I’ve spent on Nikea in Greece is around 18 days, and I never completely switched into that mode of operation. Every day seemed to offer a range of distractions. Doing computer work seemed like one too many. I’m curious if permanent liveaboards experience that. Did they find that it took their bodies a month or more to fully adapt to their new life, or were they operating in “I live on a boat” mode from the off?

In Greece, I was still able to take the laptop ashore and sit at a taverna, while coding or reviewing papers. But I didn’t manage to reach that nirvana state on board.

This can only mean one thing; more testing required!

Photo credit: unsplash-logoIgor Ovsyannykov

Dermot Tynan's Picture

About Dermot Tynan

Part-time sailor, full-time procrastinator. Software Engineer, Writer, Film-maker. Interested in all things cloud, sailing, autonomous systems and robotic sailboats.

Galway, Ireland