We decided to add a Pactor modem to the HF SSB set up on board ourWarwick Cardinal 46, Skylax. This piece of radio gear allows us to send and receive small emails while out at sea and out of range of mobile communications. Here are some considerations when setting up this system:
You will need a well-installed SSB radio with data capability, a MS Windows-based computer to run the software, a Pactor modem and lots of cables.
Depending on the radio you have, you may be able to set up the system so that the modem can tune the radio remotely to the necessary frequencies. This makes a huge difference in ease of use, and if you are buying a new radio for data purposes, then this should be a consideration. Most modern sets do have this capability, but be sure to check on this if you are buying the radio second-hand.
Consider the laptop PC you will be using. Due to our smallish chart table and its slightly exposed situation, we decided to buy a second-hand tablet PC that is small enough to sit on a shelf and has a shock-protected hard drive. We do not store other important files on it like documents or photos etc. It cost around $315 on eBay. It has a serial port and USB ports, and a 12-volt charger. We also use a USB mouse and keyboard (also from eBay) instead of the touchscreen controls for ease of use on a bumpy passage. Our main laptop with all our other files is available as a back up, but we would rather not use it when underway as the chart table is potentially exposed to rogue douses of seawater slopping around the spray hood and down the companionway.
The SCS Pactor-II modem with Pactor-III capability we use comes with either serial port or USB connection to your computer. Most modern computers don’t have a serial port, and we chose the USB version as it meant we could easily use it on any laptop if the tablet PC failed for any reason. If you have a serial port Pactor modem you can get USB converters, but this gets complicated as they can interfere with the radio. The Pactor-III using SailMail can send and receive emails up to around 10 kB in size, which is about five pages of plain text. Very few attachments can be handled and you can forget about photos. If you require more than this then you will need a satellite communications system. A SCS Pactor-II modem with Pactor-III capability costs around $1,275 new.
Consider buying the Pactor from a professional radio supplier. They will be able to help you set up the system, provide all the necessary cables, and will often ensure the system is working properly before you set off. We bought ours from Bob Smith at SailCom who was able to set up our system and test it using one of his radios — similar to ours — as our yacht was in Greece at the time. He managed to solve an obscure software-driver problem that would have stumped us, and thanks to his help, we were able to plug it all in on the boat and get it running with no problems. Of course, you may be able to pick up a used bargain on eBay or elsewhere, but there is no guarantee that it will work, and unless you can test it quickly you will have little chance of redress. You will also need to get specialized cables to connect it to the radio and the laptop.
You will need to sign up with an email provider in order to send and receive email. SailMail is the best known, with the greatest number of worldwide radio stations, and that is the one we use. If you are a radio-HAM user, you also have the option of using Winlink, but you need an amateur radio license to do so. Annual membership of SailMail currently costs $250.
You will also need to download a messaging program — we use Airmail — onto the laptop you will use to connect to the radio. Airmail is designed specifically to work with low-speed connections such as radio or satellite phone, and is licensed without charge to the amateur-radio community, and to SailMail subscribers. It is pretty straightforward to use, and has excellent online instructions on the Web site. Airmail can also obtain weatherfax, Navtex and sitor forecasts, all of which we have used with near-perfect results. In addition, part of the email message program has a built-in form for position reporting from Yotreps or SailBlogs.
Another great part of the Airmail program is the email-based document-retrieval program Saildocs. Using the Saildocs-friendly part of the Airmail program you can easily request custom-grib files, text-weather files or Web pages. You can also set up a subscription to receive regular forecasts. This system has a massive advantage over other similar services, as the complex formatted requests are auto-formatted using the Airmail software. It has a simple grib-viewing program.
SailMail even has a propagation program to help you decide which SailMail station is best for you to connect to at any given place and time. It really couldn’t be easier. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of SailMail, Airmail and Saildocs — they have been developed by an amazingly dedicated bunch of people with an enormous amount of experience, who are incredibly generous in sharing their knowledge on setting up these systems to work with your equipment. They give advice on choosing a Pactor modem, which radios are compatible, how to improve your grounding system and what cables you will need. In short, we found all we needed to know on their Web sites.
You can also link your Pactor modem to your GPS so that the Airmail software can pick up position data. It will automatically fill in your position when sending position reports and will help when selecting an area for grib files or text-weather reports. It also means the propagation program knows where the nearest station is. All you need is a length of speaker wire to run from your modem to the NMEA output of your GPS. Our GPS is also linked to the DSC VHF radio for position data.