Thursday, February 28, 2013

Online Position Tracking with Your Inmarsat ISatPhone for Free (By Mark Kilty)

We recently purchased the ISatPhone to allow us to receive weather information (via email) and for emergencies while offshore on our upcoming trips in the Pacific.  We do not have an SSB installation on Irie, and nowadays, with Sat Phones being more reasonably priced, don’t see a reason to justify the cost of an SSB.  The phone we purchased was $550 new, and the basic cost per minute is $1.  Data calls and voice calls are all billed the same, so however long you are connected getting your emails is what you pay.

One of the nice features of the ISatPhone is it allows you to send short emails (160 characters) directly from the phone.  So, no need to turn on your computer to let someone know everything is ok, just power on the phone, type your email, and send.  Nice and easy.  These emails cost a flat $.50 per address that the email is sent to.  By the way, short emails (160 characters) can also be sent directly to the ISatPhone from anyone you give your email address to, and the cost per incoming message: $0.  Nice. It is also free for the sender.

Along with this built-in email feature is another feature called a “Position Report”.  Since the phone has a built in GPS, you can configure a list of recipients to receive a Position Report (including a 55 character custom message), with the click of a button.  Also costing only $.50/address the report is sent to.  The position report is just a preformatted email that the phone builds based on the current latitude/longitude that the GPS receiver in the phone receives, and then adds your custom message to it.

This is again a great feature, but I wanted to be able to map our location, and keep track of our history as we moved, all on our blog, and on a map.  Similar to the way the SPOT device works that a lot of cruisers use.  But if I could figure out how to get the SPOT mapping equivalent, using our ISatPhone, it would be great.

Here is what my goals were:
1)    Create a map that was always current with our location on our blog.
2)    Be able to update the position via our ISatPhone.
3)    Be able to update the position via a normal WiFi connection when available.
4)    Be free.

Google Maps has the best mapping service available for free, so I wanted to use their maps to display our location on our blog.  Google also provides a service called Google Latitude that allows you to share your current position with others, and provides a way to display it on your website or blog (  The issues with this service, however, is it does not allow anyone but you to view your history, and there is no way to update the location from the ISatPhone.  It is tightly integrated with Google Maps, and there are a number of third party applications available for Apple and Android devices that can be used to share your location.

Further searching led me to another service, (  This service is similar in functionality to Google Latitude, but uses open source maps for their map data.   I wanted to show the satellite view from Google Maps, not a map one would use to drive in a city with, which is what uses.  Therefore Google Latitude has to be linked to Some of the great things about are: it allows a number of ways to update your location (including email, and now the ISatPhone), allows anyone you permit to view your history, and integrates with Google Latitude (and other location based services) so your location is in sync between the services.

So here is what you need to do to get up and running:
1)    Create a account for your boat (  Set up your account (“Accounts” tab) and upload a photo to be used when your location is displayed.
2)    Create a Google account ( if you don’t already have one.  Log into Google Latitude ( and set your Privacy Settings to “Set Your Location”.  This will make sure Latitude only updates your location when you request it and not automatically, when you use your computer for instance.  Also, log in to Gmail with this user account, and set a “Google Profile” photo for your boat.  This image will be displayed on your Google Map on your blog/website.
3)    Link your Google Latitude account with your account.  Click on the Sources tab at, and select “Push your location from to Google Latitude” and follow the steps to authorize the sharing of location data between the two services.
4)    In, also in “Sources”, generate an email address you can use to update your location with.  It will create a custom email address,
5)    Enable the “Sharing” settings on to allow “The Public”, “Full Accuracy”.  There are ways to limit access to your location information, which you can try as you need.
6)    Turn on the Google Latitude Badge in “Application Settings” at Google Latitude, and integrate that HTML into your blog or website.
7)    On your ISatPhone, configure the “Personal Alert” (Menu->Extras->Personal Alert->Configure Personal Alert), and add the email address from

That’s it.  You can update your location on (and in turn, Google Latitude) by one of these methods:
1)    Send a Personal Alert from your ISatPhone to your email address.
2)    Go to and manually enter your lat/long.
3)    If you have a GPS enabled phone/tablet, and are online, go to and click on the “Auto CheckIn” box to update you position, then you can uncheck it so it does not update as you walk around town :).
4)   See the “Tracking” section for more ways as well:

The link to your history page is simply, so you can add this link to your blog/site as well to allow people to view your past locations.  USERNAME is your account name you set up on
Now you have full mapping and tracking from a number of sources, including your ISatPhone via their simple and inexpensive, Personal Alert feature.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Magnificent Sail

Mark and I moved from Contadora, the “main” and most touristy island of Las Perlas, to the east side of the biggest island in the chain: Isla del Rey. The distance was only about 15 miles and all we hoped for was some wind and no current against us, something we seemed to always “time right”, meaning it has been taking us forever each time to switch anchorages, even though the distances are short.

On this beautiful sunny day with deep blue skies and not a white puff of a cloud, we had a magnificent sail. Not in the way of speed or it being invigorating – there just is not enough wind for that in this area, gone are the trade winds -  but magnificent in the way of our surroundings. There was barely 6 knots of wind from the north, so behind us, and we had pulled the spinnaker up. The seas were flat; the ride was smooth, comfortable and very pleasant. We didn’t mind only doing 2.5 knots, one or more of which was current; the brand new autopilot didn’t mind doing all the work.
It took us about 7 hours to reach our next destination Espiritu Santo, but the last couple of hours were filled with entertainment on top of relaxation. While Devil Rays were jumping and doing summer saults all around us (they leap out of the water and do acrobatics in the air!), we spotted some whales in the distance. Through binoculars, we saw them take turns breathing (“Look at the water spout!”), breaching (“Wow, he’s coming out of the water”), sliding along the surface (“His body is huge!”) and disappearing (“Watch the forked tail!”). It was an awesome spectacle and we are starting to believe the stories about an abundance of sea life in the Pacific Ocean.

We also noticed big, turbulent spots in the water, where hundreds of fish had gathered. The areas looked like breaking waves. Unfortunately, we were going too slow to catch anything. I should probably mention the birds as well: pelicans, frigate birds, birds of prey, they are ever-present at all times of the day and in large numbers. The other day, I spent an hour on the beach and counted at least ten different species of birds, while lying on my back in the powdery sand. To finally be surrounded by all these amazing creatures is a joy and – for me – one of the main reasons why I (still) live on a boat!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Snail Experiment

Mark and I have been in the Las Perlas islands, 40 miles southeast of Panama City, for over a week now and let me tell you, this is a much nicer, more beautiful, cleaner, quieter and flatter place to get some boat work done and make the last preparations for our big trip(s) to come. There is supposed to be an abundance of fish here, but so far we’ve only caught a bonito (small tuna) while trawling from our dinghy along the ocean’s edge. It was tasty, and provided three lunches, but we got excited about a new possibility of seafood…

One day, we talked to other cruisers in the area and they told us about the snails they found on the rocks at low tide and how tasty they were. They showed us one of the shells and with that information we set out “hunting” one day ourselves. At lowish tide, we took the dinghy to our “private” beach – and island – and walked along the recently exposed rocks. I was distracted by a whole array of funny sea creatures I’d never seen before and by the amazing scenery, which my camera couldn’t keep up with. Mark – the better focused and committed of the two of us – found plenty of snails. Dinghy bailer in hand (we did bring a knife, which was not needed to pick them up, but forgot a bucket or bag to put our catch in), he managed to fill the broken pitcher up. I also found a “pile” of shells, which looked a bit different than his ones, but added to the lot.

Back at home, we faced the question “Now what?” Some online site mentioned a four day waiting period – so the snails would “get rid of all their gooey stuff” – before cooking the animals, but who wants to wait eating the catch of the day? So, we boiled the bunch for five minutes, removed the snails from their shells and cut all the dark and yucky stuff away. What we had left was barely visible! Mark cooked up a wonderful pasta sauce, tossed the handful of snail meat in it, and we each enjoyed our seafood flavored meal, while hunting (again!) for the ten chewy white bits. Conclusion: it was a lot of work for some pasta flavoring, but it was an entertaining activity and we might do it again one day! That day, we will bring a bucket, though, and I’ll wear my glasses…

On the left: the meat for the meal; on the right: garbage

One of the creatures (cute, little slug) I spotted in a pool of water, while Mark did the hard work.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Good and the Bad of Panama City

Mark and I have been in the country of Panama for over a year. Most of that time was spent in the San Blas islands, with occasional trips to the mainland and time there needed for projects and provisioning. Before driving Irie through the canal and anchoring her in the capital for almost three weeks, we had been to Panama City four times: once by camper in 2006, once after we helped our friends Axel and Liz through the big cut, once to visit them again and once after flying back from the States. Most of these “visits” were taken up by boat and grocery shopping in the nice and modern stores. Only once did we actually explore the old city, which is not too spectacular anyway. When you live on a sailboat it is surprising where your priorities lay!

I would not call the Panamanian people over friendly. One time, a local guy helped us and some friends out with his bus card, paying for the ride and not accepting the dollar back. Over the year, I’ve had a couple of men get up and offer me their seat in the bus. Usually, people don’t like to cue, but prefer pushing to get on the bus first, they don’t smile often nor greet tourists on the streets, they like loud music, crowding and tight clothing. It is common for them to throw garbage on the street, in nature or through the bus window – sides of streets are very littered, mostly outside of Panama City – even whether there are bins around. They are never in a rush or stressed, and mostly do what they please without seeing any harm in it. Once, I had a woman with a chock full cart cut the line in front of me at the grocery store check-out as if that was the most normal thing to do!

When you own a boat on which things break all the time, run a business or have to stock-up on groceries and other supplies, you need to rely on local businesses. Panama, being a thoroughfare for many vessels on either side of the canal, has surprisingly few conveniences for boaters. On top of that, the careless attitude of the people makes things worse. Most people do not seem to enjoy their job or their customers. You get used to the female cashiers playing with their phone or their nails, hardly looking up to help you out. A lot of patience is required and endurance to try to get what you want or be helped properly and satisfyingly. That being said, you can get a lot of things done over a long period of time and frustration, mainly in the city. This all sounds a bit harsh, but many cruisers share our opinion and experiences. Over the time we have spent in this country, we had two really positive experiences (both in PC) and would recommend both businesses. The first is Roger (Rogelio), the taxi driver, who is VERY reliable, friendly, helpful and responsible. The other is the Balboa Dental Clinic, where the employees are extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. English is spoken by all.

Big, western-style grocery stores, small Chinese run shops, marine stores, hardware centers, shopping malls, metal shops, specialty stores, gourmet markets, department stores … you find it all in Panama City. There is more available here than anywhere else in the country and that in itself is a breath of fresh air. Still, particular items are unavailable, a pain to source or very expensive, so when Mark returned from the US, his suitcases were chock full of boat parts and repair materials.
Panama City is a big place, with many stores. Visiting boats are located at the Amador, which is a causeway, pretty far away from everything. The way to get things done in the easiest fashion is by taxi. Fares do add up quickly, especially since the return trip – with all the groceries – is more expensive. The cheapest way is to take a $1 taxi (the minority of cabs is interested in charging only $1 per person a ride, especially if you’re a gringo) to Cinco de Mayo, one of the bus congregations, where you can take a chicken bus or Metro bus close to your destination. You need to have a good idea about the layout of the city and the unadvertised routes of the buses. There are no bus schedules. The Metro buses are comfortable, relatively uncrowded and airconditioned. You do need to buy a $2 card at one of the vending locations and “put” money on it. Each person scans the (same) Metro card when boarding the bus. Rides are 25 cents everywhere in the city. On the way back, you can try to follow this process in reverse, or take a cab back to the Amador, for which you will have to bargain big time. It is very important to agree on a price before taking off!

Traveling (partway) by bus is very time consuming and most cruisers prefer to use cabs. Having to run around the busy city like this every day, hailing cabs, asking prices, knowing the drivers overcharge, bargaining them down, trying again with another cab, albeit being successful in the end, gets very tiring. Some Spanish knowledge is required. Don’t expect the cab driver to give you a hand with all the groceries. Traffic in the city can be horrendous as well, especially around rush hour. Once, I spent three hours on a bus to reach my destination 15 minutes away. That was after the half an hour taxi ride to take the bus. I have to admit I took this bus at the wrong road and went the opposite way…

Mainland Panama does not have great anchorages and Panama City is the worst. Cruisers can pick up a mooring (and pay) at the Balboa Yacht Club, where a lancha is needed to get to shore (patience is required, freedom to go whenever is gone) and where the close proximity to the canal means rolling around at anchor. Or, they can anchor at La Playita anchorage, where the big wake of passing ships, ferries and pilot boats create the same uncomfortable moments at anchor, where stuff flies all over the place and the boat is not at rest, ever. There is a good dinghy dock, but you have to pay $38 a week (per boat) to go ashore. Garbage disposal is free, but for fresh water you pay 5 cents a gallon. Diesel is the same price as in the gas stations, but much more convenient to get. The third option is the Las Brisas anchorage, which only gets choppy and uncomfortable with strong winds from the north/east or when the current differs from the wind direction. It is less busy and less noisy, but the dinghy dock is very inconvenient, tricky and dangerous. Being there is free and you have a nice view over the city. You also get to enjoy the city’s run-off. And then there are the extremely expensive marinas as the only other alternative… Each of these places gets showered with dirt from the big city and the boat becomes truly gross and dirty, inside and out.

Most of the days have been warm and enjoyable, with blue skies and a little breeze. The rain has stopped falling for many months to come, so we have to buy and lug water again. The nights have been cool, sometimes even chilly, and in the city, we slept with a comforter and took a sweater when going out. In the mornings, we used the dew to “clean” our decks. The water of the bay was frigid and taking showers less than pleasurable. Condensation took place in the hulls – mostly the underwater part - and we found a decent amount of water in the bilges. Temperatures seem to be rising again now. The phenomenon of “red tide” has been prominent everywhere. The water turns red with big particles floating about. Not ideal to take a dip. We would love to get a little bit more (and consistent) wind.

In the past, I have wanted to see sloths in the wild and I have been looking and searching for them on many occasions. Big was my surprise and excitement to see two of them in the trees at the parking lot of La Playita! They live in that neck of the woods and around 16:30 – 17:00 you can spot them eating the fruits off branches. There are also a lot of birds and fish around, now that we are in the Pacific.

Social Times
Thursday means “pizza night” on the Amador, in the Eskinita pizzeria. Lots of cruisers show up, a long table is formed and good food and fun times are had. Books are swapped and goods are sold. One day, I joined Mark and Marian (SV Zenna) to Taboga to observe the Festival of the Sea celebrations and explore the cute island a bit. Mark and I also met up with our Austrian friends Christian and Birgit (SV Pitufa) a few times and said our goodbyes to Britta and Dave from SV Anam Cara. As they are getting ready for a new “twist” in their lives, we are getting ready for our own, new kind of adventure as well.