Programming at Sea

Recently, on stackoverflow, Jeff Atwood has been concerned with ‘joke’ questions. One of these, which is now going to live in infamy due to all the discussion about it, is about “Programming at Sea”. Now, I got curious about the questions when I heard about it, so I tried to find it. The Stack overflow moderators had already removed it, but I found it in Google’s cache. I decided to exercise my rights under the Creative Commons license and repost the questions and some selected answers here, so it doesn’t die forever. I, for one, think this post is both funny and interesting, though I agree that it probably isn’t ‘programming-related’, so it doesn’t really belong on SO.

This entry on my blog is released under a Creative Commons license.

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So, here is the question, originally posted by Out Into Space:

I’ve decided to cast off from this dreadful economy and program out at sea.

Programming at Sea

I’ve acquired a 40ft sailboat. Should be sufficient for me and my cat (Ender).

What do I need to be a sailor/programmer? I have a basic sailing knowledge… so I’ll wing that part. But the programming! THAT requires some juice which as I understand, is in short supply on long voyages.

So what do I need SO? A genset and some fuel? Would solar be enough to charge a single laptop? What about internet connection out there, got to be something?

So, my question is, what kind of setup should I create to sling code on the high seas?

Read on for some of my favorite responses…


From Simucal:

I’ve been doing some research on this topic for you and here is what I’ve come up with:

Computer Hardware

The book Ready at Sea has a section on computers on sailboats that you can partially read via Google Book Search.

It makes sense to use a laptop for your coding for a few reasons. The specialized processors draw less power and you also have an internal redundant battery built into the computer in addition to the battery bank on your boat. Definitely look for one that draws less than average wattage.

One problem noted on an online forum is that the fans of your computer will be drawing in sea air (“Salt Air” Corrosion) which may decrease the lifespan of your computer.

Sailnet, an online sailing forum, has several posts concerning the use of laptops out at sea. This post suggests that you physically secure the laptop to the boat itself with straps/ties and then use a wireless keyboard and mouse because of the potential for the boat to rock and upset your laptop.

Several users suggested purchasing a spare charger for your laptop as well. “Consider buying a spare power cord and a spare battery, if going on a long trip. Lose either one and the laptop is dead. Replacements are not always easy to obtain.”

Internet Access

Without a doubt one of the biggest challenges for coding out at sea would be the potential isolation from the vast programming resources we have become accustom to.

There are a few ways you can enjoy internet access from your sailboat:

  • Marina Wifi – Many popular marinas are now WiFi hotspots. So, while you are in most ports of call you should be able to connect to the internet and handle your online business this way for free.
  • At&t/Verizon Card Internet – If you are in coastal waters, the bahamas, and a host of select other countries people have reported getting good connection speeds from the various cell-phone providers and their card-slot internet services.
  • Ham Radio (HF) Email – Winlink is the global radio email system. You basically hook your computer up to a HAM Radio and you are able to send and receive email over the air. While this isn’t full internet access it doesn’t cost anything (FREE) and gives you ~some~ contact with the outside world when you are on open water.
  • SatCom / Satellite Internet – The only “true” way to have internet while in the middle of the ocean. Traditionally this option is ~very~ expensive. The most popular one I could find today was KVH’s TracPhone v7 which claims to get 2 Mbps down (or ship-to-shore as they call it). However, their rate plans cost from $995/mo – $4,995/mo for unmetered internet access of varying speeds. Ouch!

Power Requirements

This one is tricky. You should really consult a Marine Electrician concerning your total power consumption needs. Here is a good article on power-consumption on boats.

Generally speaking it seems like most open-ocean sailing trips use a combination of power generation techniques. Harnessing nature (Sun, Wind, Water) you can help lighten your drain on your battery bank. Some of these include:

  • Wind Generators – Air-X seems to be one of the more popular models. This consists of a 3 blade propeller which spins in the presence of > 7 knot wind. Air-X claims to produce 1.6 amp-hours in 15 knot wind and 25 amp-hours in 26-knot wind. The cost for one of these devices is typically around $800-1000.
  • Solar Panels – The most effective solar or photovoltaic panels are called monocrystalline. Siemens Solar Industries panel costs $749.99 for a 33.6-amp-hour-per-day panel. There are cheaper solar panels made out a of a thin film which has about 50% of the effeciency of the monocrytalline panels but they are less expensive and are more rugged. A 1.9 amp-hour-per-day panel of this type typically runs about $129.99.
  • Water Generators – These generators are typically trail behind the boat on a cable in the water. Salt, Inc. makes a model that produces 2 amps at 3knots and 10 amps at six knots. The cable that attaches these generators to the boat is the same cable the delivers the power. One problem with these is they typically weigh about 50 pounds and create drag, thus slowing your sailboat down.
  • Genset (Generator) – Whatever needs are not met by the above methods of power generation are ultimately going to have to be provided by a generator. After you factor in your lights, computer, gps, radios, fridge, etc. you’ll soon realize that solar/wind aren’t going to provide all the power you need on long journeys. You are likely to have to run the generator at least some amount of time to keep the battery banks fully charged.

I hope this information helps you! I’m an amateur sailor (on a very small sailboat) and I hope to one day be able to have the financial freedom to go on long sailing excursions myself! I’ll definitely be coding when I go.

1800 INFORMATION answered:

Have you considered wind power as a backup for cloudy days? One small “yacht sized” turbine generates about 1.5kW – this is more than enough for a laptop.

From Adam Robinson:

Just keep Ender off of the keyboard; the last thing we need is a seafaring kitty asking “I Can Haz Cheezburger?”

To which, CapBBeard commented:

I don’t know, could be a great opportunity to turn out some nice lolcode: 😀

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