Communications: Three voyagers’ choices

Like many aspects of voyaging, there are decisions to be made when it comes to keeping in touch. What communications approach do you take? The tried and tried voice HF SSB? Voice SSB and Pactor email? Inmarsat standard C? Globalstar or Iridium satphones? Inmarsat mini-M voice and data?

There are few aspects of voyaging where there are more choices than in the area of communications. There is a number of ways to break down the communications puzzle. For voice communications offshore, there are HF SSB or satellite systems. And within the satellite category you can choose either a fixed satellite system, like Inmarsat mini-M, or a satellite telephone, like Globalstar or Iridium. And even within the category of satellite phones, you have to decide if you want simply a hand-held phone, or do you need a docking unit for the phone with an external antenna.

Since it seems most voyagers today sail with computers and use email, there is also the question of which email service to use. Even after that choice, you aren’t done because you must also pick a way to transmit your email messages when offshore: via SSB or via satellite. Some of these decisions fold back onto each other. When making the email service decision, for example, if you wish to use the popular Winlink ham radio network, you not only have to use HF SSB, but you must also get a ham radio license.

Lynnie Bruce and Max Fletcher

Here are some of the choices made by three voyaging couples. As you would expect, when it comes to independent-minded voyagers, each has a taken different approach to solving the communications puzzle.

1. The low-cost approach

When I crossed the South Pacific in the early 1980s, ham radio was the way to go. The daily radio net amongst cruisers created a genuine sense of community, since it was the only lifeline most of us had to the outside world. When stuck in the Tuamotus with a broken starter motor, a cruiser I’d never met talked me through the repair. Information on tricky passes was passed around, enabling us to visit remote atolls like Mopelia, which we might not have dared visit otherwise. And when returning to Maine via the Southern Ocean, I was able to make phone patches home via the friendly Maritime Mobile Net, including one memorable one off Cape Horn itself.

On this present cruise, which has taken Lynnie and me from Maine to the northwest Caribbean and then to the Med, we still use SSB to tie into the cruising nets. If we had already owned a laptop when we left Maine, we would likely have gotten a Pactor modem and had the luxury of onboard email. Instead we opted for the low-cost approach, and PocketMail (a phone modem) has served us well for keeping in touch by email. No matter what country we are in, we usually end up in a town to pick up fresh provisions at least weekly, and we use that occasion to find a payphone and send and receive email. In some countries (Guatemala, Spain, Italy) the long-distance call is remarkably cheap, while in others (notably Belize and Bermuda) the phone companies make it almost prohibitively expensive. PocketMail is expanding its service and now has local access numbers in much of Europe, in addition to the toll-free number within the United States.

When in port, we use Internet cafes to access our PocketMail emails. Recently, after two years’ cruising, we decided to purchase a laptop &mdash the primary reason being (Dare we admit this?) so we could rent DVD movies. Using the laptop, we now receive weather by fax and RTTY &mdash a huge help &mdash as well as store digital photos and maintain a log of our travels. Someday we may add a modem and do our email aboard as well.

Image Credit: Lee Youngblood
An HF SSB radio is still a highly valuable tool for offshore sailing. Voyagers must decide if they will use FCC type-accepted marine SSB or obtain a ham license in order to operate on ham frequencies.

For the future, we eagerly await the day Globalstar, Iridium or someone else comes up with affordable, high-speed, satellite-based email and Web access. It would be tremendous to be at sea and be able to browse a manufacturer’s website to help with an onboard repair, check various weather sites and Gulf Stream images, send a digital photo of the whales we saw playing and trade a few stocks.

However, there is one thing we are very reluctant to bring onboard: the ring of a telephone. We find it is too obtrusive and just does not fit in with this lifestyle. We are typing this note on our PocketMail device while anchored in a gorgeous, secluded cove in Turkey. In a few days, we’ll move on to another cove and perhaps find a jetty restaurant with a payphone, and it will take a couple minutes and cost a couple dollars to send this and pick up any new messages. Such is our connection to the outside world.

Gunter and Lois Hofman

Max Fletcher completed a circumnavigation in the 1980s. He and Lynnie Bruce were married in 2001 and soon thereafter took time off from their respective careers as financial and marketing managers. They live aboard Juanona, a 1988 Perry-designed Nordic 40.

2. Relying on HF radio

One of the difficult things about cutting the dock lines and going off cruising is leaving family and friends behind. Lisa and I are easing the separation with an onboard communications system that enables us to send and receive emails from our children and friends.

Since Andiamo’s on a tight outfitting budget and we wanted the most bang for the buck, Lisa and I elected to install an amateur high-frequency radio system that’s modified for marine frequencies rather than a marine type-accepted radio, such as the popular Icom 710. Federal Communications Commission rules permit the use of any frequency in an emergency, so if we need to use the ham frequencies in a pinch, we would be using the radio legally. For HF email, we operate the radio with the AirMail software on our Dell Inspiron 8000 laptop and the SCS model PTC-IIpro modem with the Pactor III firmware upgrade. The marine band service SailMail and the ham radio service Winlink support the AirMail software.

We receive weatherfaxes using the SCS modem’s superior noise-filtering qualities to give us quite clear weatherfax downloads. The laptop automatically tunes the radio, an Icom 706 Mark IIG, to receive the weatherfaxes that we’ve specified in the GetFax software. The software can also automatically receive Navtex weather forecasts. I took an excellent weatherfax course from Lee Chesneau, a NOAA weather forecaster, and this adds to our own peace of mind as well as that of our families and friends.

One of the benefits of using the 706 is its small size and that its control face can be mounted remotely from the “box.” It’s also a very flexible unit with a large variety of input and output connections for computer and modem connections. I built a teak cabinet at the nav station that’s sloped, so we’re looking at the radio square on, and it’s right at our fingertips when we’re using it in ham mode, spinning the dial searching for contacts. The box is installed under the aft berth with all of the power, antennae, modem, computer and ground strap connections remote from the nav station. Another benefit of the ham radio is that it also broadcasts on the 70-cm, 440-cm, and 2-meter bands. We have installed a separate 2-meter antenna, mounted on the radar mast. We are planning to purchase a couple of 2-meter hand-held portable radios that we can legally use from ship to shore. Ham radio repeater stations also support the 2-meter bands, so our range is much greater than the family service radio we were using. The radio can also communicate on the marine VHF channels, and we have the commercial airline communications frequencies.

The Icom and the Dell computer were both delivered to Marty Kirk at Rodgers Marine Electronics in Portland, Ore., the SCS modem vendor. Rodgers Marine is a full-service vendor and will sell complete systems ready for installation. They will also install or arrange for a system installation in your boat if desired. Kirk installed the software, supplied all the cabling and tested the system at their store, prior to our installing the components.

John and Lisa Caruso are outfitting Andiamo, their Wauquiez Pretorien 35, for a 10-year circumnavigation starting in 2004.

3. Advice by satellite

We chose Iridium because it appeared to be the only true worldwide satellite communication system at a reasonable capital investment and moderate rates.

Though we had the possibility to use it for the Internet onboard, we only tried it a few times before we gave up. It is still too slow, and any fading signal will throw it off.

We used it to call my mother in Germany every Sunday when we were underway. No problem connecting with good clarity on our voyage from San Diego to Marquesas, Tahiti, Cook Islands, Niue, Tonga and Fiji.

Last Sunday we called my son, who is traveling in India, from our boat moored in Port-Vila, Vanuatu. We had a good talk with him and his wife on her birthday.

Several times the satphone was very valuable to get online advice from our broker, a Catana specialist in San Diego. We were anchored off the reef at the island of Palmerston and were ready to take off for Niue. We observed smoke coming from the multidiode isolator on the starboard engine room. We had an additional 50-amp alternator installed, so the total output was 100 amps. The leads to one diode were too small in cross section, and the contact was corroded, resulting in overheating and shorting out one diode. We noticed one free connection on the diode isolator assembly. We called our broker on the Iridium phone, and he verified that we could move the leads to this diode, and also recommended we take one alternator off until we got a larger cross-section cable, which we received in Tonga. Problem solved.

Another example of advice by satphone occurred on our 21-day passage from San Diego to the Marquesas. In the middle of the night in a force-6 wind, our autopilot quit, and the boat moved in wild circles. We suspected that the fluxgate compass was malfunctioning. We had a spare one onboard. Calling our broker, he advised us to jury-rig the new fluxgate compass with duct tape to a cabinet and hook it up to the course computer. After the installation and doing the 360� calibration, we were happily on our way again.

Lois and Gunter Hofmann started their voyage in France in November 2000 aboard their Catana 431 catamaran Pacific Bliss. They crossed the Atlantic and transited the Panama Canal to San Diego. In 2002 they sailed from San Diego to Fiji and currently are sailing in Vanuatu, on their way to Australia.

By Ocean Navigator