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Sailing in the Age of Gizmos: Part 1

by Jean Baillargeon, Bluewater Cruising Association 15 Nov 14:32 UTC
Communication devices © Bluewater Cruising Association

As many of us have discovered, or are about to discover, communicating from offshore has come a long way since the days of Bernard Moitessier's slingshooting his 16mm film canisters onto decks of passing freighters! The list of gizmos now on the market ranges from the very basic position repeater to elaborate satellite up-link systems.

In this two-part article, I will share what our small experience with these systems has been, now that we are finally sailing offshore. Some are very user-friendly while others need a bit of self-education to use and appreciate. In part one, I will speak about these systems with a focus on communication, and in part two, I will focus on weather and navigation aspects. My goal is to share ways to get usable info out of the myriad of options out there, using some of the more affordable satellite technologies combined with preexisting analog ones. Included will be some finer points, or shortcuts, we've discovered over time to save on download times and connectivity issues.

By no means are the systems described in this article a "must have" list. Far from it. They are simply one fellow cruiser's opinion, limited by my own tech expertise and research.

Let me start with a quick description of the systems we use on Shamata and then I'll explain more about each bits' quirks, quarks and workarounds.

Where to start?

Starting with older technology, we installed an SSB radio (Icom 802) and an AIS transceiver. We bought a slightly used Iridium Go satellite unit from a friend, who had recently come back from a year away. Shamata already had an older VHF radio (Standard Horizon – no DSC capability). I bought a handheld VHF (Icom) and we were given a spare one by my kind father-in-law.

In addition, we still had the quotidian array of personal computers none of us can do without – (two unlocked iPhones, one brand new iPad with integrated GPS and barometer sensors and a MacBook Pro laptop with GSP receiver USB puck). Shamata also came with an ETrek basic GPS receiver (circa early '90s – a trekker's unit) and finally, I set up a long distance WIFI booster network to enable us to connect to WiFi from shore based networks.

Because we are Mac users, that means some of the software out there for marine use will not run on our machines unless we create a virtual Windows drive on our laptop. One popular software application to do this is PARALLELS. It reportedly will run any windows software on a Mac. I chose not to get into that and keep to a computer world I understand best.

There are untold number of apps to get weather, plan routes, navigate, manage stores, get the latest currency exchange rates, translate to various languages and to learn to play the ukulele. We used an assortment of these and I keep learning of new ones from other cruisers. More on that later.

SSB radio in the digital age

I heard an offshore sailor say once that he did not want or need a single side band (SSB) radio on board, because he thought of it as WWII technology. Yes, SSB has been around for a while. But to say that it is obsolete is far from the reality. SSB is, and remains, an amazing tool on board an offshore vessel. Plus, for geeks like me, it's fun!

One common misunderstanding I'd like to dispel is that in order to operate an SSB radio you need a HAM operator's license (amateur radio license). That is not true. If you hold a valid Marine Operator and station license for your boat, you can operate an SSB. But, you cannot operate an SSB on dedicated HAM frequencies, nor communicate with other HAM licensees on their frequencies unless you are facing an emergency (note: running out of beer does not qualify as an emergency!).

You should have on board a copy of the station license for your vessel; in that document are listed hundreds of frequencies on which you can operate. To make it simple, when you buy an SSB radio, it will be ready for use by a licensed marine operator. To use HAM frequencies, the set needs to be unlocked; a simple procedure described here. But again, even when unlocked, you still can't legally communicate on the HAM frequencies unless you hold a HAM license. You can listen in, though.

How it works

There are countless resources on-line where "nets", i.e. virtual SSB rendezvous of sorts, are listed with broadcast times (usually in UTC), and frequency used. Sometimes the nets will be labelled as HAM only. You will not be able to tune to these HAM frequencies unless your SSB radio has been unlocked.

Most nets operate with a simple agenda and are usually run under a loose format. On HAM nets, the communication protocols and lingo are a bit more formal and established. The Net Controller announces which net will be running on the chosen frequency and will ask for emergency priority traffic (that means anyone with an emergency can call in right then). Then he/she will proceed to establish a set of relay stations operating for this net. That simply means that since SSB cannot reach or hear everyone tuning in, the Net Controller will ask for other operators to relay messages to and from stations the Controller cannot hear. In this way, the Net Controller tries to establish the widest listening post possible, so that anyone calling will be heard. This is typical of HAM nets, which count on primarily land-based HAM enthusiasts that operate pretty sophisticated home stations and thrive on receiving far signals from boats offshore.

Once the net is set up, it proceeds with open ended roll calls or structured ones. In either case, participants state where they are, status of ship and crew and current conditions. Often one of the regular contributors is an amateur (or professional) weather person who will produce a reliable forecast and even answer specific questions about routes and suggested departure times. Some nets also provide a following service where they track a boat (often posting the position reports on the web). Nets are often involved in search and rescue efforts, because they have recent positions of a vessel.

A great example of this that you can listen to from anywhere, or listen to on-line if your reception is poor, is the Pacific Seafarer's Net that runs daily at 0300 UTC. This net follows boats all over the Pacific and runs mainly out of Hawaii, with relays as far off as New Zealand and mainland America.

One benefit of SSB is voice communication, not just with one person, but with a community. In a situation of troubleshooting a problem on board, talking to a community is much more likely to produce a solution. In the case of marine SSB nets, you are almost assuredly talking to fellow sailors who have the same preoccupations as you: weather, supplies, safe anchorages, restaurants, and sailing the same waters. A great net is the Magellan Net in the South Pacific. It's composed of sailors who've been, in some cases, cruising these waters for years and have a wealth of information, not always found in guide books, to share.

Nets also spontaneously sprout up when a few boats attempting the same passage at the same time decide to stay connected while en route. We experienced just that when seven to eight boats left Bora Bora for Suwarrow and Palmerston Islands in the Cook Islands. We used an SSB frequency all boats could legally use (some boats were not HAM licensed) and we gathered every evening (0500z) to report to each other our positions and sailing conditions. It can be that simple.

SSB and data over airwaves

Once you're familiar with the voice part of single side band you can delve more into it. NOAA, the US weather service and other similar agencies around the world, offer a number of weather related products that are accessible through SSB. Some are voice only broadcasts, like Iron Mike, a computer generated read out of area forecasts for pretty much anywhere in the world. NOAA and others also use fax technology to broadcast graphical area forecasts. For example, if you need a forecast for the southern California coast to Cabo San Lucas, the NOAA's website will indicate when and on which frequency that forecast is broadcast. The rest is a matter of tuning to that frequency, connecting your computer to a specialized modem, a Pactor Modem, connecting the modem to your radio and voilà, you're receiving a graphical area forecast fax over the air waves.

Additionally, by using a modem and a computer linked to your SSB, you can send and receive email. There are two providers of this service: Sailmail and Winlink. They both use proprietary software (Windows only) and dedicated frequencies. They both require subscription and a small annual fee in the case of Sailmail. These services were created by cruisers with the know-how to bridge the growing divide between SSB technology and the internet. And it totally works.

There are two slight downsides to these modem based communication methods. One is propagation, or the ability for radio signals to travel to your locale and be received with some clarity. The other is bandwidth, or the speed at which these data transfers occur over the air waves. Eventually they do work and "What's the rush anyway! You're in cruising mode now, right?"

As a quick aside: a friend tested out the download times between satellite technology (Iridium Go) and Winlink and it turned out the download times were within seconds of each other for a comparable file size. Mind you, using modems over the airwaves is a bit more involved technically than just hitting the send/receive button on the Iridium Go Mail app, but it is within the capability of anyone able to connect a printer to a computer.

Satellite devices

There are two well-known providers of such services in the cruising market. One is Garmin InReach, which has been in use for years, mainly with the back country skiing/hiking crowd and now with the cruisers market; and Iridium, which offers a range of satellite services to fit any purse. We haven't used InReach, so I can't comment on its usability. I know it uses the Iridium satellite network, it automatically reports positions to a specific web address, offers a blog space and allows for texting within the InReach web interface or between InReach users.

Advantages for this technology are low usage fees and simplicity of operation. Especially when you want to stay in touch with folks back home, but only up to a point. Iridium is the other player and it is a different beast as they offer a set of satellite communication services. We chose the Iridium Go package.

Iridium Go

Iridium GO! is a satellite communication system made up of a base unit, a small box the size of a pack of cigarettes. It runs on a rechargeable battery. Once you turn it on, the box launches a small WiFi network on the boat. You connect to that WiFi network like you would with any personal device. Set up of both the box and the WiFi network is easy and well explained in brochures and YouTube clips.

In order for the box to connect to the Iridium satellites, you need a subscription, like with your cell phone, and then you'll be faced with choosing from a variety of providers and plans, where pretty much every aspect of communication is tailored to your budget and needs. Then it's a matter of shopping around. There are a number of providers in Canada and the US and a quick internet search will bring them up.

Communication with Iridium Go is over the WiFi network with your device (phone, tablet or computer). At least two apps are needed to work with Iridium Go. One is the Iridium Go App and the other is the Iridium Mail and Web app. They are found, free of charge, on your provider's web site or through Apple's AppStore or other app stores.

Iridium Go app

That app is, simply put, a phone and text app, with a few added bells and whistles like posting to Facebook or Twitter and sending an automated position report to a list of user determined email addresses. Mainly this app is used when you want to call someone from the middle of the Pacific. It allows a regular cell phone to become a satellite phone!

Like any cell phone, you can also text other phones and email addresses, in real time. On my first crossing of the Pacific to Hawaii, I confess it felt unreal to be able to text my wife back home to let her know all was ok. But then that opened the door for her to ask me how to program the DVR... (there is a downside to this instant communication thing, as you well imagine).

Iridium mail and web app

This is the app you'll use to send/receive emails and even very, very slowly surf text-only web sites. With the subscription, you will be able to set up a specific email address to go with your Iridium Go, using the Iridium domain. Your package will also specify the amount of data you can receive over a period of time, as well as a certain amount of minutes the plan offers before overages kick in.

I think personally this is where the Iridium people have fallen short of providing a solid app. This thing is clunky as all get out. It reminds me of the mail software we were using many years ago where basic features such as managing contact lists, folders and even searching for previous emails is poorly designed or just non existent. I have written Iridium about it and got a polite: "we're working on it" response.

A habit to form early on when using this app and Iridium Go as a service, is to reduce any file size you are sending, to a minimum. There is actually a user defined upper file size limit you set in the app, where any message beyond those limits gets treated as over-sized and requires additional up/download steps. As an example, a friend sent a photo of her new baby. The email and the photo would have taken hours of connect time to download! We are talking kilobytes, not megabytes. The system reported an oversize message, but did not download it. Again this has all to do with the bandwidth offered over this cheap (relatively speaking) satellite network.

If your intention, when subscribing to Iridium Go, is to be able to post photos to Facebook, Skype or send emails with large size attachments, you'll have to start shopping for a much larger satellite up-link hardware than the tiny Iridium Go box. Probably something along the lines of the satellite domes you see on larger yachts, with a price tag commensurate with the communications budget of the Nunavut government.

Stay tuned for part two of "Sailing in the Age of Gizmos"

This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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