Radio e-mail

For many voyagers, sending e-mail messages via HF radio has become as regular a part of their voyaging routine as charging the batteries or trimming sails. A number of factors have come together at the right time to make HF e-mail a viable, low-cost alternative to satellite communications.

There are a few things to realize about HF radio e-mail, though. Unlike satcom, which uses the model of the telephone call and is designed to be easy to easy to use, HF e-mail has a learning curve. One area of HF radio use that can challenge users is deciphering the changing nature of HF signal propagation. The best frequency for establishing a link to a coast station will change depending on the time of the day. While signal propagation software goes a long way to handling this task for the HF radio user, it still helps to have a working knowledge of HF signal propagation. Certainly it is easier these days to integrate radios, computers, and modems than it was in the past. Still, this task of integrating all the pieces and getting them to work together does require some technical savvy with both computers and HF radio. The good news is that, with items like watermakers, navigation electronics, gensets, and all the other voyaging gear to care for, most of today's voyagers have good technical skills and can quickly get up to speed.

To use e-mail via HF SSB radio you need three elements: an HF SSB radio with antenna and coupler, of course; a computer, laptop or desktop; and a radio modem. There is considerable information available on the web to help get you started. Go to the following web sites:


·, especially the "Pactor Primer" at

Another excellent source of information is marine radio dealers around the country (see dealer list).

Part of getting the right setup is making the decision on whether you want to use marine SSB, which does not require a special license but does entail some sort of usage fee, or to go the ham radio route, which costs nothing for usage. Becoming a licensed amateur radio operator, or ham, is now easier than ever, and there are other benefits to ham radio like checking into the many international or regional maritime service nets. To get the most basic ham license, general class, requires a multiple-choice written test and the ability to send and receive Morse code at only five words per minute.

If you decide to make the effort to get your ham license, you'll be entitled to use an impressive worldwide HF e-mail system called WinLink 2000. According Steve Waterman, one of the founders of the WinLink system, the change in the requirements for a basic ham license has increased interest in ham radio. "There's a tremendous amount of enthusiasm here," said Waterman. "Last year 850 people joined the WinLink service who were not previously hams."

This highly capable network was put together on a volunteer basis by hams Victor D. Poor, W5SMM; Hans Kessler, N8PGR; Rick Muething, KN6KB; and Waterman, K4CJX. Poor, a well-known figure in the digital world, is a ham radio fan and a voyager. Muething is also a ham and a voyager. Kessler and Waterman are hams who saw e-mail as the logical evolution for ham radio, which, prior the lowered Morse code requirements, has been shrinking in past years. "Our sole purpose in doing this is to provide for the convenience and safety of the cruising ham," said Waterman.

The WinLink service has 26 stations (with more coming on line all the time) around the world. This network of free stations, called Participating Mailbox Operations (PMBO), allows voyaging hams to send and receive e-mail via HF radio from anywhere on the globe - although users are still restricted by the vagaries of HF radio propagation.

In the working of the system the Internet is a vital link in moving message traffic. For example, when a land-based user sends an e-mail message to a WinLink user on a boat, the message moves across the land-based Internet to the WinLink gateway in Cleveland. There the message is distributed by Internet e-mail to all the stations worldwide. Each station receives the message from the net and holds it in a "pending message" bin. Every time a user makes contact with a PMBO shore station via HF SSB using the Pactor protocol, his or her AirMail software queries the station to see if it is holding any messages in its "pending" bin for that particular user. If there is a message, the station transmits it. When the message is received at the boat, the AirMail software sends a short acknowledgement to the transmitting station. This acknowledgement basically says, "I got the message, you can take it out of the pending message bin." The WinLink PMBO shore station then forwards that acknowledgement, via the Internet, to the central WinLink server in Cleveland. The original message is marked as received and the central server sends the acknowledgement out to every station in the network (because each station has a copy of all pending messages). The stations are instructed to move the original message out of the "pending" category into the "read" category. With this system architecture, a voyaging ham can receive a message no matter where he or she is located. And voyagers don't have to change addresses as they move around; each e-mail address (e.g., remains constant.

The WinLink 2000 software is used by the PMBO stations, not by voyaging hams on their boat. Instead, they access the WinLink system using AirMail client software. AirMail, written by Jim Corenman, KE6RK, is available free at the AirMail web site listed above.

Accessing the WinLink system with the AirMail software on your computer, you can do some impressive things. Here are some of the major features of the system.

· You can send and receive text-based e-mail and binary/graphic attachments in a variety of files, such as DOC, RTF, XLS, JPG, TIF, GIF, BMP, etc., to the mobile user with the use of the AirMail software.

· You can get a position report on a WinLink user via the Automatic Position Reporting System Maps (APRS). This capability allows family and friends to track the positions of mobile WinLink users. APRS can be queried using a web browser, Internet e-mail, or radio e-mail. A map view of the WinLink 2000 user's position is available at the WinLink home page,

· You can download graphic and text-based weather files from an extensive list of more than 250 worldwide weather products. A list of these weather products is provided via the AirMail client software. This list is downloaded and updated from WinLink 2000 upon request by the user via an AirMail feature.

· You can send and receive e-mail regardless of which worldwide PMBO station you are connecting to. This worldwide availability is one of the primary objectives of the WinLink 2000 system.

· You can set file attachment size, and redirect e-mail messages to an alternate e-mail address. You can also access your messages via any web browser. Thus, you can retrieve messages anywhere you can get access to an Internet café.

All of these features make WinLink 2000 a powerful system for keeping in touch via e-mail while voyaging. And the WinLink developers are introducing a new feature in February of this year called intelligent routing. The Winlink system will track which stations you are accessing as you voyage. The system will then route messages to you through those stations that you have contacted regularly. This reduces the level of message traffic on the system since messages don't have to be sent to all 26 stations.

One drawback of the WinLink system, besides the requirement of getting a ham license, is the limitation on business traffic. A WinLink user can't, for example, trade stocks or manage an apartment complex while they are off cruising, since it is an exclusively volunteer service.

If you don't wish to make the extra push to earn your ham license, but still want to take advantage of HF e-mail, there are still options for using your marine-band HF SSB. These include SailMail (, PinOak Digital (, MarineNet (www.marinenet .com), and Radio Link E-mail from station WLO ( All these services require a membership fee and/or a message fee.

The SailMail service costs $200 a year to become a member of the association with no additional charge for messages. With four stations, Palo Alto, Calif.; Rockhill, S.C.; NSW, Australia; and Honolulu, SailMail provides good coverage worldwide. SailMail subscribers use the free AirMail client software. SailMail supports a variety of modems and protocols.

PinOak Digital has a $23 monthly access charge, plus blocks of 100 file transfer units (an FTU is the lesser of 1,000 bytes or a single message or weather forecast) at$95 each. You will also need to purchase a Pactor II modem from PinOak. These modems are modified to use PinOak's system and won't work with other HF e-mail systems. PinOak provides its own software to users. PinOak has a station in New Jersey.

MarineNet costs $30 a month for 300 minutes of connect time. Users can access the system using AirMail software. MarineNet supports Pactor II. MarineNet has a single station in Jupiter, Fla.

Radio Link E-mail from station WLO costs $17.80 a month for 10 minutes of connect time, with additional minutes at $1.78. WLO supports a variety of protocols and plans to add Pactor II support soon.

By Ocean Navigator