Starlink on a sailboat!

Starlink antenna installed on the rails of our sailboat Bagabonda

Embarking on a life at sea aboard Bagabonda meant transforming every aspect of our nomadic existence into a version that could survive and thrive on the ocean’s unpredictable canvas. Our liveaboard life meant seeking as many as possible autonomous systems: systems that do not require us to dock.

One of the cornerstones of this transformation was integrating Starlink into our floating habitat.

This is a post in our series of upgrades and more we plan on Bagabonda. It’s a rather technical article rather than a post about our voyages and adventures. Want to see those stories? Click here.

The transition of my nomadic life onto the waves aboard Bagabonda brought myriad challenges and surprises. Yet, one of the most transformative changes has been the integration of Starlink into our seafaring lifestyle. Previously, my work and connectivity hinged on the whims of cellular data services—LTE, 4G, 5G—each with its limitations and inconsistencies, especially when venturing far from shore. The introduction of Starlink aboard our vessel has revolutionized this aspect of our lives. The stark difference I once felt between working in a land-based coworking space and working from the deck of Bagabonda has all but disappeared. I’d venture to say that the quality of the internet I now enjoy onboard often surpasses what many experience in their homes or traditional offices.

This leap in connectivity has not only smoothed the edges of remote work but has redefined the essence of living and working from the vast, blue expanse of the ocean.

Starlink has revolutionized what it means to work remotely, especially from the unpredictable environment of the sea. This technology has bridged the vast physical gaps that once isolated us from the rest of the world. With Starlink, the ocean no longer represents a barrier but a unique backdrop for our floating office. It ensures we’re as connected as in a bustling city center, enabling video calls, seamless internet browsing, and cloud-based work without a hitch.

As soon as it became available, we bought the RV version of Starlink. It has been, in the meanwhile, renamed to the roaming version. But, with great bandwidth came a few inconveniences we’d have to address sooner or later:

Integrating such a system on Bagabonda was not without its challenges. The primary concern was energy consumption. Onboard a vessel like ours, where every watt of power is precious, sourced from the sun and wind, traditional AC-powered systems are impractical. They were designed for the endless supply of the grid, not the finite resources of a sailing vessel. Recognizing this, we embarked on a pioneering endeavor to convert our Starlink system to run on DC power.

By converting our Starlink system to DC, we significantly reduced our energy consumption, ensuring our digital lifeline could be maintained without sacrificing our commitment to sustainability and self-sufficiency.

The cable that goes from the Starlink router to the Antenna, not only brings the network to the router, it also injects the power in the antenna. Power over Ethernet (PoE) is often used in network systems to power routers, wifi access points, etc. It’s a common standard, so we knew we’d had to ensure the DC power needed in the dish (40V DC) was injected into the cable we’d use.

On our chart table, we installed a while ago a 12V distribution panel. We connected a new brake to it and installed a Yaocheng 120W Boost PoE Injector. This small device takes the 12V DC from the boat and injects it into the network cable (RJ45 connector) that leads to the antenna.

As we did not want to cut the cable immediately and first see if all systems worked the way we expected, we also used a Yaosheng Dishy Cable Adapter to RJ45. This small device allows the original Starlink cable to be transformed into an RJ45 connection where a standard network cable can be added to the antenna cable. Once we knew all systems worked, we removed this again to cut the cable.

Connecting the starlink on our sailboat with a yaosheng PoE injector

The Starlink router, while designed very nicely, has a few things going against it:

  • It’s a bulky device.
  • It only works with 110V/220V
  • Its router is not the best one can find these days. Over a very short distance, the signal drops significantly.

So, while we love having Starlink connectivity, we needed to remove that router and replace it with a better one. With the changes made in the cable, we now had a CAT-6 cable with an RJ45 connector that would serve as the WAN connection for our router.

Before going to the next step, if you ever go this route, this is the moment you plug that cable into your laptop. It might take a while after booting up, but eventually, you’ll access the internet directly from your computer via the antenna. If I had done that, I would have gained some time debugging the router later while the dish was (on a day with 30 knots of wind and lots of rain) a bit longer to boot up.

The Outdoorrouter

Outdoorrouter is known for its ruggedized routers you can install anywhere; however, they also make routers that support load balancing, VPN, Sim-cards, and so much more for use indoors. For Bagabonda, we went for the Outdoorrouter EZR24 X500 – 5G Router. The integrated SIM card reader can balance with the Wan port (where we plan the Starlink) so that in case Starlink isn’t available, we can fall back on the 5G network if one is within reach. Especially since we made some investments in IoT earlier, we’d love to be able to stay in touch with the ship when we’re not on board.

The AC cable of our Outdoorrouter has been cut of to allow us to connect it on 12V directly

As the router uses 12V input (via a 220/110AC cable that is supplied), our main modification to this system was to cut the power plug and connect the cable to our 12V system. We decided to use the same switch on our panel for the antenna and the router, as we expect them to work together most of the time.

We might revisit this decision later.

The router also allows to have extra 5G antennas installed outside. So, if we find that our dependency on 5G is more than we anticipate today, we can add one of these to increase the range.

Once our setup is complete, all devices will connect to the wifi network or via the LAN ports of the router. When Starlink is up, this will be used to connect to the internet. If not, the router will fall back on the cellular network, connecting our vessel with the outside world.

Not all systems can connect on the 5 Gh network, such as our Victron Cerbo. So we had to make sure on our router, we had both a 5 Gh network installed for laptops and phones and a 2.4 Gh network for the IoT systems on board to allow the Raymarine to connect and update.

The basic setup of the Outdoorrouter was straightforward, but the advanced settings, such as load balancing and VPN tool a bit longer to figure out. As Outdoorrouter seems to have a cheap service available for the configuration, I might have them validate my choices later. I’ll be happy to document them here if that happens.

At this point, before we started shortening the cable and repositioning the antenna, we were able to reduce the power consumption of the Starlink antenna with the outdoor router to a combined 80 watts at 12 Volt DC, or 6.7 Amps.

The simplified network diagram for LAN and WAN onboard Bagabonda Sailing Vessel

Custom Antenna Mounting

The standard holder provided for the Starlink antenna was designed with more terrestrial applications in mind, assuming a stable, unmoving ground for installation. This wasn’t compatible with the constantly moving and often harsh marine environment of Bagabonda. Not to mention that keeping the antenna safely in place is a challenge. To overcome this, we decided to abandon the standard holder altogether. Instead, we opted for a custom solution, mounting the Starlink antenna directly onto the boat’s rail. This approach secured the antenna against the challenges posed by wind and waves and offered optimal positioning for satellite reception. The process required a bit of marine ingenuity, involving custom brackets and ensuring that the setup could withstand the elements.

When we’re 100% sure that it will be a suitable space, we will probably have a welder make this into a more permanent mount than it is now and use the fishing rod holder we used for actual fishing.

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