Offshore communications

A 292
Editor’s note: As an offshore racer, delivery skipper and sailing adventurer who has set several offshore records, Bill Biewenga has had the opportunity to try out a wide variety of communications gear. We asked him to give us his view of communications choices available to voyaging sailors.


Offshore communications have been undergoing significant changes for decades. Change almost seems to be a way of life. During the 1981-'82 Whitbread Round the World Race, we received weather information in the Southern Ocean via a high-frequency radio tuned into a Morse-code transmission. Aboard our boat Flyer, we had a huge advantage: a display that automatically transformed the Morse code into actual letters and numbers. Eight years later, aboard The Card for the same race around the planet, I could use our Sharp laptop, interfaced to a Skanti single sideband, to send Sitor (simplex teletype over radio) telexes to shore and have them miraculously pour forth from a fax machine anywhere in the world. There were, of course, the issues of radio-wave propagation and sunspots to contend with, but the system seemed like a huge leap forward. We're still leaping forward, and the pace seems to be increasing rather than letting up. For those of us who venture offshore, these are monumental changes.

Communications from offshore can now be a multimedia experience. Voice communications are not only easier and clearer, they are also much less expensive. Data-transmission costs are also lower, and because the digital systems are so much more efficient, some forms of data communications allow not only text but also graphics and even limited video transmissions. With all of the changes, how do we sort it all out, and which systems seem to work best for our own particular needs? Over the past year and a half, I've tried most of the new systems while aboard a variety of vessels, and here's what I found.

Some systems have wider coverage areas than other systems — even among various satellite systems. Of course, HF radio still has atmospheric considerations to take into account, but as the founder of Pin Oak Digital told me once, it's a lot less expensive to put up a radio antenna than it is to launch a satellite. HF radio is still a very cost-effective means of communication. You may find it difficult to transmit and receive as you might like during the middle of the day, but if you can wait for acceptable atmospheric conditions or time your calls, radio can save quite a bit of money — but not in all cases.

Cell phones are great, but with a limited range, they usually only reach a few miles offshore. Once in a foreign country, it may be impossible to use your U.S. phone, unless it uses the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Communications companies haven't been oblivious to these circumstances. They all would like your business and, in that effort, have provided a variety of solutions to the problem of communicating with the rest of the world from a distant and sometimes remote location.

The revival of satellite phones

One of the most interesting options is Iridium and its hand-held satellite phones ( Rising from the flames of bankruptcy like the mythical Phoenix, Iridium is back in business. During the recent New York to Melbourne, Australia, speed-record effort aboard Great American II, we had two separately hard-wired Iridium phones. The redundancy was to insure our communications with the SitesAlive education program. Throughout the trip, the Iridium phones worked beautifully, although the Sailor model seemed more sturdy than the Motorola unit. We were able to dial a series of numbers and almost immediately talk with classrooms around the world. Even from locations as remote as the South Indian Ocean, we had few problems. While we did drop a few calls, those relatively rare occurrences may have been the result of solar storms. We were experiencing GPS problems, and other vessels in the vicinity reported also having communications problems at the same time.

While we used Iridium for voice communications, the majority of our communications via Iridium were for sending data. Throughout the speed-record passage, we were able to send back not only text but also pictures and even brief low-resolution video clips to be used on the educational website. A month and a half after finishing in Australia, I was aboard Peter Johnstone's new 62-foot catamaran, Tribe. He had a new Motorola portable, ruggedized Iridium phone. A small modem clipped to the bottom of the handheld. Throughout the South Atlantic and up to the Caribbean, the system worked flawlessly. We sent pictures as well as email text. The small hand-held unit is much more compact than the original units produced several years ago, and if I were ever forced into a life raft, that unit, a spare set of batteries and a hand-held GPS would be godsends, to be sure.

Using the Internet, there are several sites that will sell or rent units to customers. Johnstone selected Roadpost ( Roadpost also rents and sells GSM phones for use in Europe — 130 countries worldwide! Since he was a rather frequent communicator, he elected to purchase the Iridium "power users" plan: 250 minutes per month for about $250 dollars per month. If he decided to cease using it for a month or two, they would hold his phone number and place the account on hold for $20 per month. Plans have a way of changing fast in this marketplace, so it is best to confirm the arrangements that may be currently available. Other companies take a different approach. Stratos ( sells both Iridium and Inmarsat equipment, as well as setting up accounts for the various forms of satellite communications. Aboard Zephyrus IV, as well as several other vessels, I've used Stratos for our Inmarsat Standard C accounts. When we had problems, the tech department was always most helpful in answering our questions. Occasionally, we found that Stratos wasn't available 24 hours per day, but in those cases, the support staff always returned our calls after we left a message. It was truly a refreshing experience to have customer service or a technician assume a proactive role in problem solving.

Iridium isn't the only satellite communications company to stage a comeback. Globalstar ( also provides both voice and data communications equipment and services. Last August they were kind enough to loan me one of their portable units to use during a passage from Sweden across the North Sea and through Scotland's Caledonian Canal. While in the United States, I was able to use both voice and data, successfully accessing the Internet and retrieving email with the Globalstar hand-held unit connected to my laptop. In the North Sea and Northern Europe, I was able to make international calls from remote locations easily, but again, some of the calls were dropped. Coverage for Globalstar is not worldwide. But it does cover areas that are of most interest to U.S. and Canadian markets, extending to Alaska, the West Coast, East Coast and Caribbean. The system does cover other parts of the world, as well, but if your travels take you outside of Europe, the Western Hemisphere and Australia/New Zealand, it would be best to check Globalstar's website for a list of coverage areas.

As far as Globalstar's rates are concerned, there are some areas where the rate structure is better than others. For example, in the Caribbean, their rates may be as low as 71 cents per minute, in some cases. Since they charge long distance rates in many areas outside the Caribbean and the United States, their rates may be higher in those areas than Iridium is currently charging its frequent users. One interesting feature of the Globalstar phone that I used was that the phone could also call using the GSM protocol. The unit would select the least expensive means of communication — either cellular or satellite — and automatically put the call through one way or another.

  When choosing between Iridium and Globalstar, determine the area you will need covered and then explore the plan that suits your own particular calling habits. After financial reorganization, both companies are now up and running, fortunately, for those of us who require remote communications. The healthy competition works in the favor of the consumer, and as more people take advantage of the lower prices, volume increases, which presumably is in the interests of the company, as well.

First with marine satcom

Competition is having its effect in other parts of the satellite communications world. Inmarsat ( has been around for some time now. The older technologies of Standard A and C have been in existence for more than 15 years. Originally, the antennas for Inmarsat access were too large to be practical aboard smaller vessels, but with time, the antennas and units were downsized. Less than a decade ago, mini-M came on the scene. It was the first practical voice, fax and data system that could accommodate global communication aboard a small vessel. Antenna advances, such as the stabilized 10-inch antenna from KVH, have further improved the usability. Because the system has been in existence for so long, most of the bugs and questions have been put to rest.

We had a briefcase-sized unit (typically used in land mobile applications) aboard Great American II to act as a standby in the event that the Iridium phones didn't live up to expectations. We used the portable mini-M twice during our two-month passage. With the "lid" on the briefcase acting as its antenna, we were able to locate the satellite quickly, and the multihull was stable enough to complete the call through the satellite. On an earlier passage aboard a monohull in the Pacific several years ago, however, some concentration was required as one of the crewmembers balanced and aimed the lid toward the satellite. The system is good. It works reliably, and it can be rented or purchased. But the portable system has limited convenience aboard a monohull. Additionally, the older technology is still saddled with its higher cost structure. Per-minute prices for mini-M voice transmissions are in the range of $3 per minute.

If price is less of an object, and you are going all out for speed, Standard B has been your choice. The data rates are fast enough to allow for video teleconferencing, and the stabilized antennas, while quite a bit larger than those of mini-M, are still small enough to fit in the forepeak of a Volvo 60. Moving the technology up a notch or two, however, is the new Fleet F77. KVH has worked in conjunction with Thrane & Thrane to bring a fully stabilized antenna and a communications system capable of achieving ISDN (integrated services digital network) speeds of 64 kilobits per second. The new system will also be capable of using the fourth-generation Inmarsat satellites due to be launched in 2004.

Inmarsat's Standard C has the smallest antenna of the Inmarsat systems. A small cone shape, the antenna has become quite common on a wide variety of boats. The operating costs aren't inexpensive, however, when you consider that charges are at the rate of a penny per character, spaces included. Even the new mini-C has costs of a penny per character. Bringing a smaller size, global email capabilities, GPS position reporting and the ability to send faxes, as well, mini-C draws on Inmarsat's long history and solid reputation.

HF radio still a factor

All of the offshore communications advances aren't in the vacuum of outer space, however. Slightly closer to earth, HF radio communications have been undergoing an overhaul, as well. Pin Oak Digital took the digital age to commercial HF radio in the United States with Pactor II, a much faster and efficient means of sending data than the earlier Sitor system. Recently, Pin Oak has been sold to SeaWave, a company in Middletown, R.I. (

After Pin Oak brought the Pactor II technology to the United States, SailMail (, a West Coast organization, was started by Stan Honey and Jim Corenman. Operating as a non-profit, they charged $200 per year plus the cost of the equipment to send up to 10 half-page emails per day, using the same Pactor technology via HF radio. In order to bring the email software up to modern standards, Corenman wrote the software himself. Working as volunteers, they added coastal radio stations for their digital form of communication at a time when AT&T was closing their own older coastal radio stations, WOM, WOO and KMI. It was yet another breath of fresh air that allowed the voyager a cost-effective means of communication.

Corenman not only wrote the software for SailMail, he also wrote the software for Airmail, the program used in Winlink 2000. Available for ham operators, Winlink 2000 makes it possible to use HF or VHF to send and receive email on amateur frequencies.

Progress on the HF radiowaves has continued. Competing systems have emerged in this now-busy sector of marine communications. CruiseEmail, based in Hollywood, Fla., is building an extensive network of stations that will give it extensive coverage in all the major world cruising areas ( MarineNet ( from Jupiter, Fla., is working with Kiel Radio in Germany, as well as WKS in Jupiter, Fla. Older, established companies have also changed the way they do business. Globe Wireless (, originally sending information via Sitor, has spread out into satellite communication, as well. Their radio stations cover the planet.

Even the venerable station WLO (, now owned by Telaurus, has changed. It has been in business since 1947, providing commercial radio services to ships and pleasure craft at sea. I have used their high-quality radio services extensively over the past 15 years, and since AT&T has closed down WOO, WOM and KMI, the full-service radio communications offered by WLO are one of a kind in the United States.

The changes that offshore communications are going through are huge. How they impact us is significant. The technology is affecting how we get our weather reports, the information we are able to access, how we are able to conduct business, get assistance or just call home. Prices are falling, and being offshore is no longer synonymous with being out of touch. n


Bill Biewenga is a sailor, delivery captain, adventurer and freelance writer who lives in Newport, R.I. Along with Rich Wilson, he recently broke the sailing speed record between New York and Melbourne aboard the multihull Great American II.

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By Ocean Navigator