WiFi Networking for Cruising Sailboats

Posted on Tuesday 28 July 2009

I was over on s/v Itinerant, helping Joe with his WiFi setup, and decided to write what I did. Joe had bought a NanoStation2 based on my recommendation and was having some trouble with it.

The equipment I’ve been recommending for cruising sailboats are either the NanoStation2 or the Loco2 for monohulls and the Bullet 2HP for multihulls. All the hardware is designed and manufactured by Ubiquiti Systems, and are designed not to require any device drivers.

All three units use a wired ethernet port and a wireless WiFi 2.4 GHz spectrum radio to either create a WiFi-to-Ethernet bridge or an Ethernet-to-WiFi router. The standard configuration for cruisers is using it as a WiFi-to-Ethernet Bridge.

This approach has two major advantages over the solutions that use an external amplified antenna or a USB network adapter. First, there are no coaxial cable losses, since the electronics are located at the antenna. Second, there are far fewer stability and compatibility issues, since there are no device drivers to install. Finally, it allows you to share your connection with other cruisers if you desire to do so—more on this later.

The main reason I recommend the NS2/Loco2 for monohulls has to do with their stability and the greater vertical angle of coverage that the NS2 and Loco2 have, 20˚ and 60˚ respectively. I generally recommend these be hoisted on a halyard with a control line, so that you can aim the antenna, since they only cover about 60˚ horizontally. I’ve had fairly decent success using the NS2 to setup a terrestrial link of over two miles.

For the Bullet 2HP, I’ve been recommending a 10 dB gain omnidirectional antenna, which seems to be working fairly well for most of the boats it has been installed on. The 10 dB gain antenna has a pretty narrow angle of vertical coverage, and isn’t really well suited for monohulls IMHO. Most of these have been permanently mounted.

In both cases, the higher the antenna is hoisted or mounted, the greater the range you will generally have. Be aware that you will often have less range in heavily developed areas, as there will generally be more noise sources and interference in the open 2.4 GHz frequency range, the NS2/Loco2/Bullet 2HP and 802.11 b/g/n equipment usually use.

Equipment required:

A NanoStation2, a Loco2 or a Bullet 2HP WiFi Bridge/Router with an antenna. The NS2/Loco2 have an antenna integrated into them.

A Power Over Ethernet power injector tap. This allows you to run a single wire for the data and power connections for the ethernet bridge.

A power cord for the POE injector to wire into the boat’s electrical system or plug into a 12 VDC outlet. These units can use a fairly wide range of voltages, and will generally be fine with the 12VDC system on most boats. Typically, the units will work on voltages from about 9 VDC to about 24 VDC. Anything above 24 VDC may cause a problem.

A long ethernet cable, preferably exterior grade for the connection to the bridge unit. This will be connected to the data/power port on the POE injector.

A shorter ethernet cable for the connection inside the boat between the computer and the POE injector. This will be connected to the data port on the POE injector.

A computer to configure the bridge with.

What Now?

The configuration of the NS2/L2/B2HP, generically referred to as the UBNT bridge from now on, are all basically the same, and require basically the same steps, but the steps will vary depending on what OS you are running. I am writing instructions for Windows XP and Mac OS X. If you are running Vista, then you’re on your own, since I don’t own a Vista-based machine. However, the Windows XP instructions should work for most Vista users, if the software I recommend works in Vista as it says it does. If you are using a Linux-based machine, the instructions for Mac OS X will a pretty good starting point, but most Linux users are tech-savvy enough to figure it out themselves.

If you are new to WiFi networks, you may want to read the WiFi security primer I wrote, which will give you a fairly good overview of what the different terms you will run into in the rest of this article.

Using Windows for Configuration

Since the majority of you will be on some variant of MS Windows, I’ll go over the Windows XP configuration first.

First, do yourself a favor and download Easy Net Switch, which is a shareware application that will greatly simplify this for you.

Setting up Easy Net Switch

After installing Easy Net Switch, you need to setup at least three profiles. One will be called “UBNT Configuration“, another will be called “UBNT Internet” and the third will be called “Automatic“.

The “UBNT Configuration” profile will have the WiFi card in your machine disabled. It will have the Ethernet card setup with the IP address “192.168.1.100“. The subnet mask should be “255.255.255.0“.

The “UBNT Internet” profile will have the WiFi card in your machine disabled. It will have the Ethernet card setup to get the IP address automatically.

The “Automatic” profile will have both the WiFi and Ethernet cards enabled. It will have both of them setup to get their IP addresses automatically.

Configuring the Bridge

Run Easy Net Switch and select the “UBNT Configuration” profile. This will put your computer on the same “logical” network as the UBNT bridge. Open up your web browser and enter “192.168.1.20” into the address bar and hit “Enter“. A window should pop-up asking for the login credentials for your bridge. The default username and password is “ubnt“. Enter the username and password and log into the bridge.

Selecting a Network

Click on the “Link Setup” tab, and click on the “Select” button. A pop-up window should appear with a list of WiFi networks visible to the UBNT bridge. This screen also gives you a fair amount of useful information, like the network SSIDs of the networks, the signal strength, what type of security they use and what channel they are on.

The AirStation OS Link Setup tab

The AirStation OS Link Setup tab

Now, click the button on to the left of the network you want to use. Then click on the “Select” button. The pop-up window should close and return you to the “Link Setup” screen.

The AirStation OS Network Selection screen

The AirStation OS Network Selection screen

Check that the “Wireless Mode” is set for “Station“. I believe this is the default choice from the factory, but you should check to make sure the correct mode is selected.

Now, if the network SSID you selected had security turned on, you will need to enter the password or pre-shared key on this page. WEP is not a secure encryption scheme, but some people still use it. WPA or WPA2 are far more secure encryption schemes.

Now, click the “Change” button at the bottom of the screen. The screen should refresh and you’ll need to click the “Accept” button that now appears near the top of the screen. A window will pop-up saying that the changes are being applied.

You should now be on the selected WiFi network, and if you click on the “Main” tab, you should see the signal strength indicator, a series of colored boxes near the top of the screen, active now.

Surfing the Internet

Now open the Easy Net Switch program and select the “UBNT Internet” profile. Once the ethernet card comes back up as connected, you should now be on the internet. However, some WiFi networks will require you to login, sign up or click a license agreement of some sort.

Using Mac OS X for Configuration

This article assumes you’re using either Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5, Tiger or Leopard, at a minimum.

Setting up Network Preferences:

Open “System Preferences” and then select the “Network” icon. You will need to setup at least three location profiles. One will be called “UBNT Configuration“, another will be called “UBNT Internet” and the third will be called “Automatic“.

The “UBNT Configuration” profile will have the Airport card in your machine disabled. It will have the Ethernet card setup with the IP address “192.168.1.100“. The subnet mask should be “255.255.255.0“.

The “UBNT Internet” profile will have the Airport card in your machine disabled. It will have the Ethernet card setup to get the IP address automatically, via DHCP.

The “Automatic” profile will have both the Airport and Ethernet cards enabled. It will have both of them setup to get their IP addresses automatically, via DHCP.

Configuring the Bridge

Select the “UBNT Configuration” profile from the “Location” sub-menu in the “Apple menu“. This will put your computer on the same “logical” network as the UBNT bridge. Open up your web browser and enter “192.168.1.20” into the address bar and hit “enter“. A window should pop-up asking for the login credentials for your bridge. The default username and password is “ubnt“. Enter the username and password and log into the bridge.

Selecting a Network

Click on the “Link Setup” tab, and click on the “Select” button. A pop-up window should appear with a list of WiFi networks visible to the UBNT bridge. This screen also gives you a fair amount of useful information, like the network SSIDs of the networks, the signal strength, what type of security they use and what channel they are on.

Now, click the button on to the left of the network you want to use. Then click on the “Select” button. The pop-up window should close and return you to the “Link Setup” screen.

Check that the “Wireless Mode” is set for “Station“. I believe this is the default choice from the factory, but you should check to make sure the correct mode is selected.

Now, if the network SSID you selected had security turned on, you will need to enter the password or pre-shared key on this page. WEP is not a secure encryption scheme, but some people still use it. WPA or WPA2 are far more secure encryption schemes.

Now, click the “Change” button at the bottom of the screen. The screen should refresh and you’ll need to click the “Accept” button that now appears near the top of the screen. A window will pop-up saying that the changes are being applied.

You should now be on the selected WiFi network, and if you click on the “Main” tab, you should see the signal strength indicator, a series of colored boxes near the top of the screen, active now.

Surfing the Internet

Select the “UBNT Internet” profile from the “Location” sub-menu in the “Apple menu“. Once the ethernet card comes back up as connected, you should now be on the internet. However, some WiFi networks will require you to login, sign up or click a license agreement of some sort.

Mounting the UBNT Bridge

I generally recommend the NS2 and Loco2 units be hoisted aloft on a halyard. You should provide some strain relief for the ethernet cable, so the weight of the cable isn’t being supported solely by the ethernet jack. The NS2 or Loco2 should also have a “tail”, which is an extra line that will allow you to “aim” the unit. The higher it is hoisted, the further the range of the unit will be.

The Bullet 2HP units as equipped with the 10 dB gain omindirectional antenna should generally be mounted as a fixed mount device. Again, these units could be hoisted on a halyard, but you’d want some strain relief to prevent the weight of the cable from being supported by the Bullet unit itself.

Some Recommended First Time Changes

I would highly recommend you change the password the first time you log into the bridge. I would also highly recommend that you change the router’s name. Changing the IP address for the UBNT bridge may also be a good idea, but that would require you to modify the directions above accordingly. These are basic security precautions and will help prevent unauthorized changes to you UBNT bridge’s setup.

Some Computing Advice for Cruisers

If you’re using WiFi to check e-mail, I would highly recommend using SSL or TLS-based encryption for your e-mail. If you don’t do this, your e-mail username, password and e-mail will be visible to anyone on the same WiFi network as you. Most modern e-mail servers support this feature, and most e-mail programs support this feature.

Using a good e-mail program can be useful, since it will allow you to download your e-mail and then read and reply to your e-mail while off-line, and then connect to send your replies over a fairly short time period. This can save you money if you use a satellite phone for internet access.

I would also recommend you use the “secure” versions of any websites you have to log into. The secure versions of a website use the “https://” version of the website’s url, but not all websites support this.

Helping Other Cruisers

One other thing you can do with the UBNT bridges is setup access for other cruisers who don’t have an amplified WiFi setup. The easiest way to do this is to plug the ethernet cable from the UBNT bridge into the WAN port on a WiFi router, like the Linksys WRT54G. Then you can configure the WRT54G to re-broadcast access to the distant WiFi network to boats near yours. This also allows you to use multiple computers on your boat without needing to have them “wired” in. Being able to do this will probably make you very well-liked in remote anchorages.


12 Comments for 'WiFi Networking for Cruising Sailboats'

  1.  
    October 20, 2009 | 5:01 pm
     

    [...] really recommend you read this post. __________________ Sailingdog Telstar 28 New England You know what the first rule of sailing [...]

  2.  
    February 6, 2010 | 6:19 pm
     

    Nice. I have been using the WaveRV usb wifi antennas with the card in the base of the antenna with some success but these products are much cheaper. WaveRV is 179 dollars.

    Lots of changes for me in the last year. I got married and also we bought a DE38 downeaster to live on. I built a community site at http://www.downeasteryachts.com

    later man.

  3.  
    February 7, 2010 | 1:33 am
     

    The reason I don’t use the USB-based WiFi solutions is that many don’t have decent Mac OS X drivers and the Windows drivers are often buggy.

    Also, the NS2/NS2 Loco/Bullet 2HP can be connected to a small WiFi router, like the D-Link DWL-G730AP, and re-broadcast the WiFi connection for use by several notebooks or even several boats.

  4.  
    February 9, 2010 | 1:27 pm
     

    [...] extended family. I have written a post on setting up WiFi on a cruising boat, which you can read here. __________________ Sailingdog Telstar 28 New England You know what the first rule of sailing [...]

  5.  
    February 10, 2010 | 1:51 pm
     

    [...] VOIP software package and e-mail. I've written about setting up a decent WiFi setup on sailboats here. As long as you're cruising in relatively civilized areas, WiFi availability will be fairly [...]

  6.  
    February 11, 2010 | 2:49 am
     

    [...] the Bullet 2HP and a 9 dB gain omnidirectional antenna. Read the post I wrote on WiFi on cruising boats. [...]

  7.  
    March 8, 2010 | 3:59 pm
     

    [...] commonly available. Using an amplified WiFi antenna setup, much like the ones I written about on my blog, allow you to take advantage of open WiFi hotspots from a fairly significant distance. Further [...]

  8.  
    March 29, 2010 | 12:55 am
     

    [...] relatively civilized waters, I would recommend using an amplified WiFi antenna. Read about it on my blog. __________________ Sailingdog Telstar 28 New England You know what the first rule of sailing [...]

  9.  
    June 20, 2010 | 6:57 pm
     

    [...] the strongest signal possible. The set-up instructions are sparse, but worth the struggle. This link from Dan’s blog, Adrift at Sea, has very helpful set-up instructions. The Nanostation is great aboard Daphne [...]

  10.  
    September 24, 2010 | 11:28 am
     

    [...] Wifi Networking for Cruising Sailboats [...]

  11.  
    October 22, 2010 | 6:42 pm
     

    [...] [...]

  12.  
    January 29, 2011 | 2:20 am
     

    [...] Posted by sailingdog READ THIS ARTICLE I WROTE If you still need help after reading it, PM me a phone number I can reach you at, and I'll see if I [...]

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