We caught up with KVH customer James Hamilton aboard M/V Dirona, the Nordhavn 52 he and his wife, Jennifer, live aboard and cruise. The Hamiltons, who hail from Seattle, are currently in Cape Town, South Africa, midway through a circumnavigation that’s also an extended working vacation. They departed from Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle, in 2012 after selling their house and car and moving onto the boat.
James is a vice president and Distinguished Engineer for Amazon Web Services, which caters to clients such as Netflix, Pinterest, and Dropbox, so remaining in contact 24/7 for work, as well as for life and safety at sea, is vital. With a KVH TracPhone V7 equipped with mini-VSAT Broadband airtime service, he and Jennifer have uninterrupted communications, including a phone number with a Seattle area code.
By email, James answered a few questions about experiencing the world from the deck – instead of the desk.
Q: Tell us how you are able to combine work and play by living aboard a Nordhavn 52 and cruising the globe while handling such a critical engineering position for Amazon.
A: Cruising around the world and working at the same time is, in many ways, living the dream. But there are also downsides. Working slows the trip down considerably. There is less time to explore. Working remotely is more challenging and there are times when it’s clearly easier to get things done face-to-face. The travel time and costs are significant, but I’m not complaining.
When we first conceived the trip, the plan was to take a year and a half off work and do what we were calling “a quick lap around the world.” Our thinking was that it’s better to do the trip before we retire rather than run the risk that we are no longer capable of doing it once we retire. So, we planned to take some time off. But, it hasn’t worked out that way. There have always been large projects underway that make leaving work untimely, so the trip kept getting delayed. We eventually decided we just needed to get the trip started so I decided to complete the remaining work underway.
Q: Given your position at Amazon, you understand intimately the importance of being connected. What KVH products do you have aboard?
A: We are very dependent upon the KVH TracPhone V7 Ku-band antenna with the worldwide mini-VSAT broadband network. We use it for 24/7 data communications and it also gives me a phone number with a Seattle area code.
It would be very difficult to do this trip without the KVH V7. It’s been a real enabler for us. We also considered the TracPhone V11, which would have gotten us slightly broader coverage on the Ku-band and add C-band coverage. But we ended up concluding there really isn’t a place on the boat where a 1.1-meter (42.5 inch) satellite antenna can reasonably be placed. The V7 continues to look like the right choice for a boat of our size.
Q: You’re described in your industry as someone whose talent is broad and deep. How do your job responsibilities create the need to be in constant contact?
A: Working in engineering, the most impactful projects end up being fairly large endeavors. Large projects inherently involve many people and multiple teams, so communications are a core part of successful engineering at scale. In fact, communications are a key part of almost any significant human enterprise done broadly. Bigger projects involve multiple contributors with different backgrounds and skills coming together to solve a customer problem. It’s a very rare engineer who is so good that he or she can work alone and achieve great things. I can’t. Most of us need to communicate and work with many others to get bigger things done.
Q: Tell us about your blog and why you write it, despite the high-tech world’s penchant for confidentiality.
The two blogs have different origins and different motivations. The boat blog grew out of our love for boat cruising and our interest to share what we learn about great places to explore and ways of setting up boats to make remote cruising more enjoyable. We initially wrote articles for cruising magazines and even authored a cruising guide. But in the end the immediacy of being able to post articles as we are experiencing the cruising life made the blog seem like a good format to us.
We get more enjoyment from being able to make the results available immediately, and like the online format where, for example, we show the boat location in real time. Before we had access to 24/7 satellite communications this wasn’t even an option but the KVH TracPhone V7 makes this affordable and it has ended up becoming an important part of our trip. (Hamilton recently converted to a new “open” airtime plan from KVH, which provides the highest data speeds on the network.)
Q: Your background as an auto mechanic must help you maintain self-sufficiency at sea. What kind of repairs are made easier by being able to communicate via satellite phone and can it help you get the parts you need when you next pull into port?
A: Definitely true. When a thousand miles from shore, and outside of helicopter rescue range, you really want to have reliable mechanical equipment and be able to fix equipment if it does fail. My auto mechanical background was more in exotic Italian cars than diesel engines but there is no question that it has helped. However, my biggest focus is on avoiding emergency repairs rather than being good at fixing them.
Actually, more recent experience in working with high-scale data centers and helping to make them reliable through unexpected and rare events might even help more. In my opinion, avoiding problems through redundancy and good monitoring beats emergency repairs every time.
The record will probably be broken on the next trip after mentioning it here, but in more than 6,700 engine hours and 46,000 nautical miles traveled, we have never had to do an emergency repair at sea. Also as part of this goal, we do just about all of the maintenance on Dirona. The idea is that if we do the work ourselves, we know the system better, know better which spares we should stock on board, and have thought through the “what if” situations more deeply.
It’s helpful to know the systems well and be able to service them. However, modern communications make this less and less of a requirement for long-distance cruisers. With satellite communications, the best experts in all systems are just a call away. We’ve never had an emergency but my favorite example of the skills being just a call away is an engine control system alarm we experienced while docking in Valdez, Alaska. I called Cascade Engine Center in Seattle and asked a question about it as we tied off the boat. We got a call back in seconds from the service manager with a detailed explanation and a work around. It wasn’t much of a problem but it really shows the deep skills that are only a sat phone call away. Worldwide communications make long-distance boating more widely accessible and much safer.
Note: Follow the crew of M/V Dirona as they voyage to the Caribbean, with a first stop planned for Barbados. After enjoying the tropics for a few months, they’ll proceed north to the U.S. East Coast before hurricane season 2016.