Dan W

Software Developer

Postcards #3: From Whisky to Wifi

Jan 20, 2015

I had prepared for isolation and boredom at sea. Packed books I’d long been meaning to read (Ghetto at the Centre of the World, Handmaiden’s Tale). Brought some thematically appropriate films to watch (All Is Lost, Leviathan, Captain Philips).

Passing through immigration on the way to board the ship I made use of the last pocket of wifi to send a few last farewell messages and check in to the port’s foursquare venue. I was looking forward to ignoring email for a bit.

Aboard the ship there are amenities to help pass the time. A gym, a (tiny) swimming pool and a basketball hoop down on the poop deck. There’s a library (also tiny, the size of a broom cupboard) stocked with DVDs, paperbacks and a few old VHS cassettes. A broad mix of films and TV boxsets. Including Gossip Girl: The Complete Series, which was helpful having rewatched a few episodes on the Aeroflot flight from London to the ship.

The Captain recalls that these ships used to be sent films on reels, a new movie shown communally every 2 weeks. Then it changed to the ship being given a budget to buy its own VHS and DVDs when calling in port. Nowadays folks fill up hard drives with content when ashore, to watch on their laptops.

With people on different contract lengths and starting on different dates, it makes chatting about TV shows over the dinner table tricky. We passengers have to avoid spoiling plots, working out how far behind each individual is on Game of Thrones.

There are a few communal computers in the meeting room. Before boarding I’d heard the internet connections aboard container ships are strictly for work email and remotely monitoring the ship. So I was surprised to find the wifi aboard the Seletar was open for the whole crew to use.

"They join the company for the internet” says the Captain. When you’re spending months away from friends and family it’s a very welcome amenity, and a helpful selling point when persuading crew to join Maersk.

There’s a cap on how much bandwidth the ship can use per week. Watching a few brief Youtube videos would be enough to use the entire allocation. To prevent hitting the cap the wireless is only switched on for some hours of the day. 0600–0900, 1200–1300, and 1800–2100. Roughly around meal times.

The internet connection is slow. Very slow. Dialup slow. After dinner is the worst, with many of the crew off-duty and trying to connect. Email and basic web pages work ok. Facebook is fine. Anything that uses webfonts is a no go. I watched fellow passenger Liam, one of the organisers of our trip, spend a frustrating three hours trying to fill in an online form, only to be stumped by a captcha that failed to load.

We trade tips on the best spots and techniques for good wifi. Perched outside the E deck meeting room. Sitting in the stairwell on C deck. Tilt your phone. Stand under the ceiling mounted wireless access points. The usual half-superstitions that come with a temperamental connection. The connection between the ship and the satellite backhaul seems fast enough, rather the problem seems to be down to wifi signals struggling with the ship’s metal structure.

As the week goes on the internet connection improves. The ship has switched to a faster, newly installed satellite link. One that presumably doesn’t go through the vintage Inmarsat terminal in the radio room, that has a green CRT screen and a floppy disk drive. The wifi changed to be left on 24 hours a day, reducing the congestion from everyone trying to use it at the same time.

The ship’s satellite broadband isn’t the only way of getting online. As we visit China's East coast ports new wifi networks appear on the ship, from 3G routers.

When alongside at Yangshan, the world's busiest container port, two enterprising chaps visit the ship with goods to sell the crew. They spread out their selection on the Upper Deck. SIM cards, 3G routers, android tablets and not-quite-Beats branded bluetooth speakers. Ways of keeping in touch, and staying entertained. SIM cards are activated on the spot and trimmed down to micro- or nano-SIM sizes to fit your existing phone.

Travelling along the coast between ports the ship stays a safe distance from the shore, but sometimes mobile phone signals stretch out far enough as we pass islands. Close enough to receive a few text messages or make a brief phone call.

What there isn’t on board is a bar. No alcohol can be brought aboard and crew can’t be under the influence when returning from shore leave.

The lament about the lack of alcohol is that now crews don’t get to know each other. Instead they retire to their cabins to use the internet. From whisky to wifi.

Would you like to know more?