Working Remotely from a Sailboat Using Starlink

Our first Starlink dish, version 1 round dish.
Our first Starlink dish, hanging on the foredeck in Candeleros Chico near Loreto, MX.

The first question people ask when they meet me and find out I live on our sailboat for at least half the year and work full-time is, “How do you do that?” 

After explaining my professional life post-Covid, the conversation always segues into something like, “Wait, Starlink works for you in the middle of the ocean?

The answer to that question is a resounding “yes.”

Elon Musk’s Premier Satellite Service

Not only is Elon Musk adding additional satellites in orbit, he is more than likely amending the dishes and services for his premier satellite Internet service.

Starlink, a global network of low earth orbit satellites, provides low latency, high speed Internet around the globe. At the time of writing this, August 2023, about 4500 satellites speed through the sky. Depending on FCC approval, there may eventually be more than 10,000 satellites. 

The quickly changing pace of Starlink has most seasoned sailors and fellow cruisers, especially cruisers who are also remote workers, following various Facebook Starlink groups for updates.

Starlink is Changing How Sailors Communicate

What we have heard, read, and experienced personally about Starlink is that it works great in the middle of the ocean, even in the South Pacific. We currently follow more than 20 boats cruising in and around French Polynesia and the Society Islands. 

What does working “great” mean?

It means that cruisers are running speed tests and achieving upload speeds from 150mbps to 200mbps; they also make Zoom calls, download weather in a moment’s notice, use Facetime to call friends and family.

The only complaint we have heard of is that connectivity becomes interrupted when it rains heavily. Obviously, conditions vary across the world. This might explain why everyone goes first to Facebook groups to find the most up-to-date information.

Real-World Applications: Starlink’s Impact on Safety

But it’s not just about leisure or remote work on sailboats. Starlink’s reliable Internet connection has had life-saving impacts, too. For instance, cruisers who set off for a 3000 mile sail from Mexico to French Polynesia last Spring coordinated rescue missions for boats that faced unfortunate events like de-masting or whale strikes.

The Starlink Service and Hardware are Everchanging

In March through the end of May 2023, most of the boats that left Mexico for the 3000-mile crossing to the Marquesas had an uninterrupted connection with their Starlink service. Then, once the Global and Maritime packages were announced and these boats were no longer in Mexico, some cruisers switched to the mobile global package without upgrading their hardware.

They have fantastic connectivity as long as they are anywhere near land. And then most sailors will toggle their service from the mobile regional plan to the “mobile priority” once land is no longer visible, and they are truly offshore.

This means paying the additional $2/gb above the alloted 50gb, if necessary, until you switch it back. The toggle mode should be used via computer rather than through the Starlink App. Just keep in mind that it make take a little time after the toggle for Starlink to re-establish a connection. 

All of this means one thing for sure: with a little bit of patience, more people can take to the sea. This means more cruising, more destinations, and more cultural experiences that will change the world…

My Experience: Navigating Remote Work and Life on a Sailboat

For the past two years, my husband and I have sailed 3000 nautical miles. We crisscrossed the Sea of Cortez three times in the past 6 months alone, while I taught my students and worked fully online.

I held Zoom meetings with students, attended college committee meetings, and graded countless hours. In short, I fulfilled every aspect I would normally complete for my full-time faculty position—from the salon and cockpit of our Amel Super Maramu sailboat rather than from the comfort of our couch.

The Journey: from Morro Bay to Loreto

In September 2019, we sailed away from Morro Bay, California, our cruising hub for two years and where we lived full-time. We spent 4 months bopping down the coast of California, spending the majority of our time sailing the coast of mainland Mexico before heading back to the Baja coast in Loreto.

On the mooring ball where SV Flying Free, our Amel Super Maramu, lived for two years.
On the mooring ball where SV Flying Free, our Amel Super Maramu, lived for two years.

At the time, I had banked enough units (saved up units rather than be paid for them for my regular teaching load) to take the entire Fall semester off of work. My newly retired husband eagerly embraced our adventure. Six years younger and having an entirely different type of pension, I viewed my own retirement on a distant horizon.

However, as everyone knows, the Pandemic created opportunities for remote nomads like me.

Even though I had been teaching online courses for years prior to Covid, the reality of my working life made it possible for me to stop driving to campus during a regular work week. All business happened via Zoom—and therefore, I happily embraced doing my work from the boat. I used my cellular data and hotspot or bought a Mexican sim card if I wasn’t parked at the marina office. I simply completed my responsibilities from the ocean rather than from our rental house on California’s Central Coast.

We embraced Kevin’s original vision of selling everything and moving on to the boat. We actually lived for more than a year on both the sailboat and in our truck camper. This enabled us to  lower our cost of living for a short while before we found ourselves unable to book camping sites due to Covid travelers.

My Working Life Before Starlink in the Sea of Cortez

My remote work life looked like this: we would drive the truck camper down the coast of Baja during my breaks between semesters. We stayed at beautiful remote beaches along the way.

Gonzago Bay in Baja, Mexico.
One of the many beachfront campsites in Gonzago Bay in Baja, MX.

Once we parked the truck in Puerto Escondido, we would get settled on the boat. I would work Mondays through Thursdays at the marina office where I would utilize their Wifi, surrounded by other cruisers on laptops and phones. Even though this meant slower internet speeds because so many cruisers were competing for the marina network bandwidth, no one really complained about the arrangement. After all, we regularly trickled out of the marina office together to salute the incredible sunsets over the Sierra de Giganta mountain range.

View of my workplace on the third floor of the marina office in Puerto Escondido.
View of my workplace on the third floor of the marina office in Puerto Escondido.

At the end of my work week, Kevin and I would sail to one of the five nearby islands, a national park which affords countless anchorages. We dropped our anchor after 45 minutes or 5 hours, depending on which empty anchorage we set our bow toward. We would dive, snorkel, and hike for three or four days straight as we avoided having to mask up for any encounters with other people.

If I needed to be able to check my email on the weekends, we would simply anchor along the shores of the two islands (Isla Carmen and Isla Coronados) that faced the town of Loreto. The cell service signal would easily reach our boat and allow me to answer emails in a timely manner.

Starlink Makes Marina Life Obsolete

Finally, Spacex’s Starlink entered Kevin’s radar in April 2020. He kept telling me about this satellite “dish” that would transform my digital nomad lifestyle—and allow for a remote connection without the use of my phone. 

Let’s just say that I wasn’t sold until we installed it on our boat in Spring 2022.  We became first time Starlink users, and within a few months, almost half the cruisers we know had ordered Starlink service–even shipping the dishes to the marina.

Starlink was getting up to 200mbps of speed. So we waved goodbye to the marina and sailed toward open water.

The Set Up: Starlink and Off-Grid Living on a Sailboat

Before we had any awareness of Starlink, we set up our boat to live entirely off-grid; we installed Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries and have enough solar panels to power Starlink, my ninja blender, my air fryer, and the bread maker simultaneously. Dropping the “hook” (sailor lingo for our anchor) was and is our preferred method of travel. 

Starlink’s Connectivity

We originally placed the Starlink dish on our foredeck, forward of the cockpit (like the first image, above). The dish would re-orient itself as we sailed, as it positioned itself with a clear view of the sky. Once we dropped our anchor, the dish would settle with a north-facing orientation.

After we realized it could be mounted in a flat position (now every sailing boat we know has mounted the dish flat), we eliminated our noisy and outdated wind generator. Now our dish sits on a pole mounted to the solar arch. Mounting it flat helped with the occasional problem of the dish dropping its connectivity in order to find a satellite in the northern sky. 

Starlink dish replaced our wind generator.
We moved the Starlink dish to the location of our old, noisy wind generator.

Current Starlink Plans and Pricing

As of September 2023, the roaming version of Starlink network is $599 for the dish and $150/month for the service. In about April of 2023, we kept hearing about an “ocean” plan, currently called the “Maritime” plan, which is $250 per month with a hardware dish of $2500. This plan only provides 50GB but offers a $2/GB for additional data after the 50GB is used up. 

Yes, the new maritime dish is pricey. For this reason alone, we have not heard of many sailors giving up their current dish. Instead, many of them have kept their original hardware and use the Global Mobile plan as they cruise close to land.

The good news is this has proved to work perfectly well. Meaning, their Internet connection has remained strong. However, without the upgraded $2500 hardware, the connectivity is spotty when they are away from land in the open ocean.

Also, if connectivity is affected, the nice thing about the Starlink App is that you can easily reset the system. 

Remote Access Makes It Possible to Take to the High Seas

Regardless, the price tag is worth it because it allows me to continue getting a full-time paycheck AND contributing to my pension.

As a Starlink user, I can now be virtually anywhere on our sailboat. I can easily work full-time in pristine remote areas even when sheer cliffs surround us on both sides.

Additionally, as the number of Starlink satellites in the sky increases, remote access makes it possible for more cruising boats to leave the dock.

In the last year alone, we have met twice as many cruising families as our first couple of years in Mexico because families can now home-school from the boat. It has been such a blessing to watch the younger generation get out from behind their screens–ironically because of Starlink. Reliable Internet access has enabled younger and older children on boats to stay connected to home and their studies while they immerse themselves in the beauty of the natural world.

Accessing remote locations with a direct connection via a Starlink system ensures that digital nomads like me can continue living and working on the move.

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