Satellite phone a necessity offshore?

To the editor: As a long time subscriber I read with great interest the communications articles in the November/December 2013 issue. It had excellent coverage of the many devices and services available to sailors. I would like to add one comment, however. As a retired radio electronics officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine, an active amateur radio operator, a boat owner and an instructor in marine communications, I noted one of the ideas is that emergency communications use is a hard sell.

I am very familiar with the concepts and operation of most of the devices mentioned in the two articles, but I would like to emphasize a situation not covered: It’s 0300 and you have a medical/mechanical emergency. This happened to me aboard a commercial vessel that was equipped with a commercial Inmarsat system. I picked up the handset and dialed the Inmarsat operator. Almost instantly she responded and asked, “What can I do for you, sir?” I explained that we had a medical emergency and she told me to “standby.” Probably 10 seconds later I was connected to a doctor. I explained our situation and was given advice as what to do until we arrived at our next port.

I would like to emphasize that this was voice communications. Texting and computer communications lacks this immediacy and the ability for long exchanges. Single sideband, which is used in voice communications, is only useful when radio propagation, usually around daylight, is favorable. Also, almost all SSB commercial stations no longer operate.

 What I tell my students and offshore seminar attendees is that regardless of what may be carried aboard for routine communications, there should be a satellite radio like an Iridium phone that is operationally available 24 hours a day for that “three o’clock in the morning emergency.”
—Art Holub has a Ph.D in electrical engineering and currently teaches Marine Electrical Systems for the Sailing Academy of Orange Coast College in Newport Beach, Calif. He retired as a radio electronics officer in the U.S. Merchant Marine and sails his Flicka, Swan, in Southern California.

Jeff Williams responds: I take Art’s point — we are accustomed to having access to instant, two-way communications 24/7 whether it’s for a medical emergency or ordering a pizza.

Offshore, however, the situation is different. There is no ambulance service that can respond within six minutes, nor a hospital emergency room that can attend to an “urgent” injury or illness.

This is part of the self-reliance philosophy that is an inherent part of offshore cruising. Naivety aside, every cruiser chooses a suite of equipment (sailing, cooking, communications, safety, etc.) they deem necessary and sufficient to accomplish their concept of cruising.

Merchant services are different. In Art’s example, there are people for whom offshore voyaging is a working career. A different set of standards apply, certainly. I appreciate that every time I go offshore on a job.

Art is quick to discount ham radio nets, e-mail medical services, and coast radio services. These are available worldwide and frequency schedules are built around the vagaries of radio propagation. We used an e-mail service during our circumnavigation to solve a medical problem.

And an EPIRB should be carried to say “Urgent! Rescue me now!”

There are alternatives to telephone communications. The prudent mariner will investigate all relevant options and choose for him or herself which to use.

By Ocean Navigator