A Sampling of Cruising Communications
By Daniel Piltch, Marine Computer Systems
Going to Sea and Staying in Touch
Two Ways of Getting Email at Sea
I’m often asked what the best system is for staying in touch when away from the dock. These days, it’s a difficult question to answer – mainly because there are so many options available. Unlike years past, most of them are reasonably affordable for the average cruising sailboat.
Rather than trudge through a list of products and features, instead we’ll look at a few real-life examples of sailors who have outfitted their boats for a variety of different types of cruising. Focusing in particular on their communications gear, we’ll look at how each of them needed to stay in touch as well as what their intended cruising grounds were. Hopefully, their stories will help illustrate how the variety of communications equipment on the market can solve the ever present problem of getting away from it all, but staying in touch at the same time.
S/V Zora – The Collins Family
Neil and Stacey Collins had long dreamt of buying a boat and sailing to faraway places. A diagnosis of breast cancer in December 2001 put a grinding halt on their plans. Or so it seemed. Rather than abandon their dream, they decided not to put it off any longer – six months later (after successful treatments – which included some sailing on Casco Bay), they purchased Zora a Mariner 39. They spent two years completely renovating the boat, and finally cast off their docklines in August of 2004 just outside our office in Portland, Maine.
Bound for points unknown while cruising on a limited budget, they opted to add a Pactor IIex ($740 + $150 for Pactor III upgrade) modem to their single sideband (SSB) installation. This allowed them to use their laptop computer to send and receive emails over the airwaves. Membership in the SailMail association ($250 per year) allows them to transfer up to 10 minutes per day of email.
After some troublesome SSB installation issues, they replaced a faulty automatic antenna tuner, and have been happily exchanging email with friends and family. Of course, they also carry a VHF radio for short range marine communications and a cell phone for voice calls – which helped tremendously while troubleshooting the SSB installation. Neil and Stacey, along with their six year old daughter Olivia, are onboard Zora enjoying some time in the Exumas.
We first met Nigel MacEwan in 1999, when his onboard laptop computer started having trouble talking to his Inmarsat Mini-M satellite phone. Since then, he and his wife Judy have crossed the Atlantic twice, visiting the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, Madeira, the Canaries and the Caribbean.
Before making the last Atlantic crossing, the MacEwans added an Inmarsat C terminal to his existing mix which included a VHF radio and an SEA single sideband (SSB) radio. Inmarsat-C, or Sat-C, equipment consists of a $3,500 small black box that hooks into the boat’s laptop and provides access to a text based system enabling the reception of free weather in English at least four times a day, as well as sending and receiving email (albeit at a relatively high penny per character). Another feature of Sat-C, and the one that really prompted the addition to the boat’s arsenal of gear is that it has an advanced distress function. By pressing and holding the two red buttons on the face of the unit, a prioritized email is sent to the nearest Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). In the contents of the email are the vessel’s identity, the vessel’s position (thanks to an inbuilt GPS), and the vessel’s last known course and speed. Once the RCC receives this info, they can look up emergency contact information on file and take appropriate rescue action. In addition, the RCC will likely also make an attempt to notify the vessel by return email over Sat-C that help is on the way. As long as the system isn’t used for sending or receiving routine emails, there is no subscription cost and no ongoing monthly cost.
As their cruising itinerary evolved, so did their communications equipment. The boat is now destined to cruise the US East Coast and Caribbean for a few years, and so Nigel added a Globalstar phone to the mix. Realizing a per minute airtime savings of over 50% ($0.99 per minute for Globalstar as opposed to $2.25 for Mini-M) helped defray the cost of the new Globalstar equipment ($1800 including docking station, handset, and antenna enclosure). Since Globalstar’s data can be transmitted at four times the speed of Mini-M (9600 bps as opposed to 2400 bps), additional airtime savings were realized during email and weather download sessions.
On a previous trip in 2002, Nigel had rented a cell phone in Antigua. While this allowed for greater mobility in moving around shoreside while carrying a telephone, the rate was surprisingly nearly double what he had been paying on his Mini-M satellite phone. Calls to the US were billed at $4 per minute on the rented cell phone, while the onboard satellite phone (Mini-M at the time) allowed similar calls at $2.25 per minute. The new Globalstar phone allowed for both a lower rate ($0.99 per minute) as well as the ability to carry the phone on land based jaunts. Though admittedly the Globalstar phone is quite a bit bulkier than most cell phones, and is not reliable for incoming calls unless the antenna is extended.
Mid-Atlantic cruisers may have run into Mike DiMario’s Hunter 376, Serenity, out on the water. This Tolchester, MD based boat spends much of its time cruising in and around the Chesapeake Bay, as well as up the New Jersey coast to New York Harbor -- though it’s also been seen on the occasional offshore passage having reached as far east as Nantucket.
Since ninety percent of the time, Mike is within range of the local cellular telephone network, he relies on his Verizon cell phone for both voice calls and data usage. By adding a separate data plan to his standard Verizon plan, Mike is able to connect his laptop to his phone via a USB cable, and have the phone act as a modem to enable access to the Internet (and thus his email). For some folks, configuring this connection is straightforward and simple. For others, it can be the source of continuing frustration. Verizon seems to have better support than Cingular in this department – both in terms of connection speed as well as knowledgeable customer support.
For the sporadic offshore trip or charter where they’ll be out of cellular range for a while, they’ve been known to rent a Globalstar phone. On a recent vacation chartering in the British Virgin Islands, they made use of a rented Globalstar phone to keep in touch with an elderly relative and their children back home. Most satellite phone dealers, will rent out a handheld phone for about $60 per week plus usage. This is a convenient way to get access to uninterrupted coverage when needed without the expense of buying a satellite phone or committing to a year long airtime contract.
Scott and Nancy Hancock first approached us after attending one of our marine technology seminars in 2000. At the time they were in the process of buying and outfitting a new Swan 56 for delivery in Finland, followed by a few years of cruising across much of the globe.
Staying in touch with friends, family and the occasional business colleague was important to the Hancocks, as was safety and distress communications. Aside from the single sideband they had already intended on fitting we recommended an Iridium satellite phone. Though Globalstar would have been a cheaper and faster system in comparison, the coverage footprint on Globalstar had notable gaps in the oceans where the Hancocks would sail. Iridium worked well as it offeres planet-wide coverage, albeit at a slightly higher cost than the non-global Globalstar.
Since Nancy had earned an amateur radio license, she also wanted to experiment with email via Pactor modem. The modem would also serve as a backup system in the event of an Iridium failure.
As an amateur (ham) operator, she was entitled to make use of the Winlink network of volunteer operated radio stations which can forward emails to and from shore based correspondents. Business traffic is prohibited on ham services, but the cost of use is very attractive as there are no subscription or ongoing charges.
Emory and Susie Sanders were busy outfitting their Passport 44 Susannah Gale in the fall of 2003 when they asked what communications gear we’d recommend for staying in touch via email on a trip down the coast from Nantucket to the Caribbean and back. Since voice calling was not a strict requirement, we suggested a Skymate system.
Skymate’s fully enclosed silver box interfaces to a customer provided laptop, a 12 V power source, and a 3 foot stainless whip antenna (provided with purchase). Once installed, the Skymate software (also provided with purchase) provides a very easy to use interface for sending and receiving emails via satellite nearly anywhere in the world, with some notable coverage gaps in some southern ocean areas.
Skymate was also able to provide the useful function of position reporting. The device would automatically email their friends and family with a position every 24 hours, along with a link to a map showing the position graphically. The distribution list, and the reporting frequency can be changed at will by the customer.
After ironing out an installation kink with a USB to serial adapter, this simple system proved very effective during their trip down all the way down to Granada. Luck was not on their side though, as Susannah Gale was one of several boats damaged by Hurricane Ivan. Now completing repairs, they expect to have the boat back in New England this summer.
As evidenced above, there are lots of alternatives available for communications these days – nearly all of them will work out just fine. For most boats, it’s often a combination of devices that’s required. Work with a knowledgeable dealer who’s familiar with a broad range of products. The Internet has an ever-increasing amount of information about these options.
Useful Web Sites:
Some places, such as Jacksonville, Florida see WiFi connectivity as a draw for visiting boaters and offer the service for free at their town docks and waterfront. There are even larger free WiFi projects in the works – the City of Phildelphia recently won a court battle allowing them to offer free WiFi connectivity within the city limits.
Cell Phone Browsers
When it works, it works well. However, while the challenges of offering web access via cell phone have been solved by scientists and engineers, cellular salesmen have failed miserably at the challenges involved with being able to explain it all to customers. Even within a single service provider, many different plans and services exist. When buying a new cell phone, I was faced with the daunting task of signing for some combination of MediaNet, MediaWorks, DataConnect, LaptopConnect, and/or PDAConnect services. The Cingular employee who sold me the phone wasn’t able to offer much explanation or assistance.