November 27, 2007

Using Wireless Internet - WiFi - While Cruising - Update

Summary of Current Recommendations:
October 20, 2009 (scroll down for earlier postings)

Technology continues to advance.  We now recommend the ALFA AWUS050NH is an updated 500 MW model which supports all the WiFi protocols 802.11 a/b/g/n.  This can give you a much faster and longer range connection for those hotspots that support the newer "n" protocol or the dual band "a" and "n" protocols.  It's available for around $70 US at

If you are staying in one particular country for a while, and they have reasonably good 3G cell phone coverage (surprise!  the coverage is much better in Mexico than in the US!), you might also consider a cellular modem.  These can run a good high speed connection (often faster than WiFi), at anchorages and miles offshore.  You can get a pay-as-you-go monthly plan (with no cancellation fees) for about $50US/ Month (plus or minus) in many countries.  The adapter itself hooks up via USB (I recommend USB over PC Card) and costs between $100 and $200 US.

If you do move to another country and you get an unlocked USB adapter, you can just buy a plan in your new country and swap SIM cards.  SIM cards are unique to the carrier.

Interestingly ALFA is claiming that my prior recommendation, the AWUS036H, now is rated at 1000 MW (which is 1 watt).  Others have tested this and say they only improved the output around 7%.  In any case the increase from 500 MW to 1000 MW in my opinion is diminishing returns and not worth the bother.  Remember too that your power is only half the puzzle, you have to have the receiver sensitivity to hear the WiFi access point.  It doesn't help if the access point can hear you, but you can't hear them!

Also, Vista SP 2 and Windows 7 appear to now have built in drivers for the Alfa models which work fine.  You no longer have to worry about downloading special drivers.

Note, Netgate no longer appears to carry the AWUS036H model.  I now recommend the one above instead

We are also playing around with client bridges and found that the Ubiquiti NanoStation models seem to overcome many of the earlier drawbacks of this technology.  You still need to be at least a "geek in training" (but at least not an "alpha geek") to get it working, however.  They come with a standard directional antenna - which works best in marinas and not on the hook.

We have ours hooked up to the Power over Ethernet Injector, on to an Ethernet hub and then our multiple computers are connected to the hub.

January 1, 2009 (scroll down for earlier postings)

We have update our current recommendation to the ALFA AWUS036H. It sells at Netgate for $54.95. See

Netgate also has 7db and 9db RP-SMA antennas for under $20.

You may also want to pick up a USB extension cable if you don't already have one.

This unit has higher power and greater range than our prior Engenius pick. It also has an Apple MacIntosh driver.

December 20, 2007 update (scroll down for earlier postings)

Engenius EUB 362-EXT High power USB adapter, available as a kit with a high gain antenna from Netgate. See:

We suggest the "Standard RV Kit PLUS" if you already have a USB extension cable or the "Extended RV Kit PLUS" if you don't.

Be sure to download the updated drivers - see below.

As we continue cruising, helping folks, experimenting and the as technology evolves - our recommendations evolve.

After our last articles were published in the SSCA bulletin and Latitude 38, we were contacted by Bill Hallett of Netgate and who sent us a case of EUB-362 EXTs with their 7 db high gain omni-directional antenna. These units have been working great for the cruisers down here in Mexico.

We're now thinking that this unit, plus an additional antenna or two, such as a directional antenna for use in radio packed marinas, would eliminate the need for a separate unit (such as the Hawkings) for such purposes. Directional antennas are available from Netgate and other sources.

You can even make one yourself if you're feeling adventurous. You can Google "making WiFi antenna" for a great list of all kinds of antennas made from discarded Pringle's and soup cans, a Wok Spider (that's the large screened spoon used to fish out tempura) and other odds and ends.
Some of the more interesting ones are:
The Microsoft Vista Operating System is proving to be a bit of a challenge. If you have an EUB-362 and Vista, you will need the Vista driver at: and there are instructions at:

Also, there is a new driver for windows XP. You can download it at:

If you're using the server (64bit) version of Vista, or Windows 98/ME, you'll need to go to the Engenius website to download those drivers:

April 21, 2007 update

Since we went cruising, we've seen all kinds of WiFi set ups on board cruising boats. We help fix many of them.

In my opinion, some people have been seduced into spending a lot more money on equipment that they're not able to keep running once they're away from the geek who set it up for them.

My recommendation is to keep things very simple. We now have and use both of the following (we also have our original HWU54D which still works fine. We're keeping it for backup. This model is no longer manufactured).

The Hawking Technologies, $60, HWU8DD see It comes with a 6 foot USB cable. I recommend getting a 10 foot extension cable, putting it in a zip lock baggie and put it on top of your cabin or better yet, on top of your boom. If it's windy, put a soft SCUBA weight (or something similar) in the baggie to keep it from blowing around. Also, take the unit in when you're not using it and over night to keep it out of the dew.

If you're going to be at anchor a lot, consider the Netgate's: $200, EUB-362-EXT Marine Kit this comes with a higher power (200mw) USB adapter, USB Cable, Coax Cable and an omni-directional external marine antenna. With this set up, you can run the antenna outside and keep the adapter down below out of the elements. You can mount the antenna permanently if you want, but we just run ours up a halyard when we're at anchor. We used this set up when we were anchored in Tenacatita and we could occasionally hit an open access point in La Manzanita about 4 miles away.

We found the combination of the two adapters works best in the variety of circumstances we've seen. We have yet to find a place where a permanent installation with a client bridge works and either the Hawking or Netgate doesn't. In San Diego, for instance, there were too many access points around Shelter Island for the omni-directional Netgate setup to work. We saw over 40 access points online, half were on WiFi channel 6! We had to use the Hawking and aim it at the access point we were using to have any success at all. At anchor away from it all, however, where we're swinging around, the Netgate works great and the Hawking is troublesome as it won't stay aimed in the right direction.

By the way, I don't own stock or have any interest in any of the companies mentioned.

One attractive option that has seduced some is a unit called a client bridge. This unit would let you network all the computers on your boat, either via Ethernet or WiFi. So if you have more than one computer, you could use them all at the same time and ideally share files and peripherals (like printers and scanners). My advise is that unless you're a geek, forget it!

I've seen quite a few boats with permanent installations with Ethernet client bridges that just plain don't work in the real world of cruising. Remember that you will be moving from place to place. You will need to be able to connect to a wide range of shore WiFi access points - all set up differently! This also means a dealing with a wide range of methods used to control access.

Most client bridges have problems with some or all of the access control methods, some also just plain don't play well with strange access points. Remember that every time you change locations, you will probably have to reconfigure the unit to roam to the new service provider's access point(s). There are a few totally open and free access points, but not enough to rely on. I would go so far to say that of all the client bridge installations I've seen, most don't work (anecdotal evidence only)!

Some examples of the wide range of access control methods:
  1. The Vallarta Yacht Club in Paradise Village Nuevo Vallarta uses the MAC address of the WiFi adapter as it's access control method (this is the hardware address unique to every WiFi adapter made. The easiest way to get it right is to look at the printed sticker on the adapter - folks who try to look it up on the computer often give the club the wrong address!. This same approach is used by Rick's Bar in Zihuatanejo.
  2. At the Isla Navidad Marina in Barra de Navidad, you get a "ticket" with a secret code at the concierge desk at the Grand Bay Hotel. These tickets are good for a specific time frame like 1 hour, 24 hours, or a full month - from the time you first connect. This requires that you go through a curious logon process with your computer. Similar techniques were used at Marina Palmyra in La Paz last time we visited.
  3. Other locations use secret encryption keys that you need to set in your WiFi adapter's configuration.
I strongly recommend avoiding the investment in a boat wide Internet access Ethernet client bridge and other complex gear - unless you're geek enough to thoroughly understand it, reconfigure it, figure out how to connect to strange access points and generally keep it running. This gear can also cost quite a lot. I've seen installations cost well over $1,000.

Original Posting
October 10, 2005

Wireless Internet "WiFi" - is becoming available in more and more marinas and anchorages, worldwide. WiFi adapters are now also a standard feature in many computers.

WiFi can be used not just for email and web surfing, but also for very inexpensive telephone service, using a voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) service like Skype (which we love and highly recommend).

In many of the Marinas we've been in, the service is free. In most, though, you'll need to sign up for the service or pay on a daily basis. We're currently cruising the Pacific Northwest and up here a company, Broad Band Express has wired many of the marinas and anchorages. So it made sense for us to sign up for their annual plan.

Hawking HWU54DThe biggest challenge to successfully using the service has been getting good reception. WiFi uses radio communications at 2.4 gigahertz, which is quite finicky. We've had little luck using the WiFi adapters built into our PCs, so we've found a good solution in a combination WiFi adapter and antenna from Hawking Technology their HWU54D. This unit attaches to your PC via a serial USB cable, which also supplies it's power.

We bought ours online at for $50 US.

There are also WiFi antennas on the market that you could try, but there are a couple of issues with external antennas:

1. Most computers have no antenna jack to connect the antenna to, and

2. The cable loss at WiFi frequencies (2.4 Giga Hertz) is so high that the cable loses a lot of power.

You could also buy a marine grade external antenna and a high power PC Card, but this costs a lot more money (well over $100 US).

All our PCs have a built-in WiFi adapter. We don't use the built-ins when we using the Hawking HWU54D.

It's easy to disable the built-in adapter. Just right click on "My Network Neighborhood" (in Windows XP), select properties. All your network adapters will pop up in a window. Right click on the built-in adapter and select "Disable". When the adapter is disabled, this menu will allow you to "Enable" it - for when you take your laptop to a hotspot.

When we use the HWU54D, we run in with a 10 foot USB extension cable and put it on top of our boom. I use a high tech enclosure to weather proof it.... A zip lock baggie ;-}

I use another baggie and twist tie to weather proof the connection between the two USB cables.

If you need more than 16 feet USB cable length, You'll need to buy an "Active" USB extension cable. These amplify the USB signal and will let you cascade cables to extend a greater distance.

Hawking HWU8DDRecently, Hawking has announced a new unit, the HWU8DD. It looks interesting and I'll have to give it a try. It's listed for around $60 US.

This unit uses a small dish, and is advertised as having an 8 decibel gain vs. the HWU54D's 6 decibel gain, which should yield slightly better performance.

Keep in mind, however that generally the more gain an antenna provides, the more "directional" it is. That means that you must aim the antenna at the access point you are trying to hit to maximize your performance. It also means that if you are swinging at anchor, your signal may drop out if the swing is enough to aim your antenna away from the access point.

One particularly blustery day, that happened to us in Gorge Harbour on Cortez Island in British Columbia.

November 3, 2007

Copper Canyon - Barranca del Cobre

Hi Everyone!

We got safely back to Raptor Dance on Oct 13th and We've been swept up in boat maintenance and the social life here since. So we're just getting to our much delayed report on Copper Canyon. Accompanying pictures are on our website at

The Copper Canyon (Spanish: Barranca del Cobre) is a group of canyons consisting of 6 distinct canyons in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern part of the state of Chihuahua in Mexico.

The overall canyon system is about 6 times larger and half again deeper than the Grand Canyon. Copper Canyon also straddles the continental divide, so the rivers flow out to either the Pacific (Sea of Cortez) or Atlantic.

The canyon system is transversed by the Chihuahua al PacĂ­fico railroad, known by the nickname "Chepe". It is both an important transportation system for locals as well as tourists. The train runs from Topolobampo on the Sea of Cortez to Chihuahua. The train took 90 years to build because of the extremely rugged terrain, which also results in great sightseeing from the train. see and

We started our visit at the Hotel Posada del Hidalgo, a beautiful restored colonial mansion, built in 1890 by the Mayor of the town. Part of the original structure was the original home of Don Diego de la Vega, origin of the Zorro legend and the hotel has a fun appearance by El Zorro at the bar's happy hour with musicians. see

Since we were traveling on our own and not in a group, we got to know the hotel staff pretty well and had a great time joking around with them during our visit. We had a great time and highly recommend the hotel.

The hotel also had some of the best food we had during the trip, especially the Huevos Rancheros at breakfast and they langostinas (crayfish) and shrimp at dinner.

After a two nights stay (Oct 3 & 4) we caught the train to Creel - 8 hours up the line. The train goes very slow as the engineer has to keep an eye out for rocks, cattle and other stuff on the tracks. The scenery was every bit as fantastic as advertised.

At Creel we stayed at the Sierra Lodge just outside of town. Early October (Oct 5) is just before the start of the high season and we were the only guests in the 22 room lodge.

Sierra Lodge is very rustic with no electricity - only kerosene lamps. Great hiking in the area - we did a great 4 mile round trip hike to Cuzarare Falls. The food in the lodge was very tasty.

We recommend the Sierra Lodge particularly for the hiking. It's at 7,000 feet and we didn't have any problems at that altitude. later at Posada Barranca, we were at 8,000 feet and noticed a quite a difference.

That night we were treated to a great light show as a thunderstorm passed through dropping probably an inch or two of rain.

The next morning, our guide for the next 3 days, Pedro picked us up in his Chevy Sierra to take us down to the silver mining town of Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon. The trip took 7 hours: 75 km on paved roads and the last 65 km on dirt roads. At the end of the rainy season there were lots of rocks on the road and near washouts. The prior nights rain also fortunately kept the dust down. It was an exciting trip. The last 40 km we rode on top of the Sierra in seats welded to a strong framework with full harness/seat belts to keep us on board - it was breathtaking and exciting. The scenery was fantastic.

Batopilas was founded by the Spanish in 1632, but the road was only finished to in 1977. Before that the only way in and out was via burro or hiking. Still it was a very interesting town. It was the second town in Mexico (after Mexico City) to be wired for electricity due to its mining wealth. Today the town is quieter, with the economy based primarily on agriculture, tourism and some residual mining.

We spent 2 nights (Oct 6 & 7) in the Riverside Lodge, a beautifully restored silver barons town residence. It took up a rambling city block in downtown Batopilas. The town itself is only about 3 blocks wide but over 1 mile long, alongside the Batopilas river at the bottom of Batopilas Canyon. Our room was very comfortable, but quite funky with the main entrance through the bath.

We toured the town on our day in Batopilas and hiked the 4 miles to the Satevo mission, now in the process of restoration. Pedro picked us up in the Sierra at the mission and we rode back to town, touring the castle-like home that Alexander Robey Shepherd, the last governor of Washington, D.C., built after leaving the United States in 1875. It stands across the river from the center of the village and has long been in ruins. A new small hotel building is almost complete in the midst of the ruins.

The food we had in Batopilas was basic rustic. OK, not fantastic. An area specialty is a preserved dried meat - Machaca - see We didn't find it as flavorful as many of the dishes we enjoyed throughout Mexico.

The two restaurants we experienced in Batopilas were Dona Micas and Restaurant Carolinas. Dona Micas has no sign but it's just across a small plaza from Carolinas. Dona serves a dish of the day. When we visited she served a nice Chicken Mole. Carolinas as a more extensive menu with Machaca specialties as well as a selection of other dishes.

After breakfast on Oct 8th Pedro picked us up at the Lodge to head back up to Creel. We gave a lift to a Tarahumara friend of Pedros who rode most of the way back on top of the Sierra. We rode inside. In contrast to the ride down, the ride up was quite dusty and we were glad to be in the car.

On our way back we were delayed about an hour as the bridge across the Batopilas River was blocked about 15 KM up from Batopilas by a fellow who had too much tequila and drove his truck into the side of the bridge. We worked with some other folks who were also stuck to push the truck over enough to get by. We heard that an Army truck got there a few hours later and towed the truck off the bridge.

Once back up the canyon, we toured another village and a Tarahumara cave home. Once our eyes got used to the dark, it was quite interesting with a number of room areas with furniture a kitchen area with ladies cooking. A very rustic way to live.

That night (Oct 8) we stayed at the Best Western Lodge in Creel. We walked around the town and would suggest giving it a pass - if we were to do the trip over, we'd go directly from Batopilas to our next stop, the Hotel Mirador at Posada Barranca.

We took the train from Creel, a few stops down the line to Posada Barranca, but you could just as well take the road this short distance. You would miss the Divisidero stop on this part of the trip, but we stopped there on the train on the way up. It's fantastic with a great overlook of the canyon so you should plan on stopping there sometime on your trip.

Divisidero also has a number of very interesting Tarahumara craft and food stalls.

We highly recommend the Hotel Mirador see: It's perched right on the edge of a spectacular part of the canyon. The balcony of our room was right on the edge with a fantastic view. As the sunlight changes throughout the day the colors in the canyon morph through a series of fantastic colors. The hotel faces the South East and the sunrise over the canyon was truly majestic (It was still daylight savings time, so sunrise wasn't too early).

That afternoon, Oct 10th, we caught the train to head back down to El Fuerte. The Canyon was just as amazing heading down, with different views as we were headed in the opposite direction and the afternoon light dramatized the colors of the canyon.

We again stayed in the Posada Hidalgo hotel for the next two nights before heading down to Mazatlan for the night (Oct 12th) then back to Raptor Dance in Paradise Village, Nuevo Vallarta.

We especially want to thank Sue Stilwell, the owner of S & S Tours who arranged our independent tour of the canyon. Reservations are vital in this area as accommodations and guides are limited and often booked in advance by tour groups. We also needed to make sure that we had a safe place to leave our car while we were off on this side trip. We recommend her services. See: