Television on board

An ideal voyage for some boaters is characterized by the isolation and bliss they experience away from the clamor and responsibilities of life on land. To be on the wateraway from the news, the office, the markets, and the scandalsis to be at peace.

There are many voyagers, however, who would like to watch television wherever we are. And now, thanks to a few new products and a traffic jam of satellites around the planet, it’s possible for the average voyager to dip into the river of programming. Some mobile marine satellite television systems cost less than a large-sized television set and take up less space than a radar unit.

The technology to view 200 channels of digital television and CD-quality sound while afloat has its roots in military applications. The object of some of the first mobile tracking platforms was to allow combat groups in a war theater to keep in touch with their commanders.

For voyagers, the fruit of these military contracts was the technology for a small, agile, satellite-tracking antenna. When installed on your boat, these high-end units automatically acquire a satellite television signal, lock on, and track through the roughest of conditions. Thanks to these systems, while we pitch, roll, and yaw on our boats through wind, waves, and weather, the units will continue to track satellites, adjusting for changes in azimuth, elevation, and rotation as needed.

As conditions at sea worsen, a mobile marine satellite television system’s work load increases with the movement of the boat. In contrast, in light conditions, a vessel’s movement can be virtually linear, demanding little adjustment of a system’s antenna. Since it’s unlikely that you will be below in rough weather watching Homer Simpson, some systems are not designed to function in more adverse conditions. And forget about watching Weather Channel updates while sailing through a class-five hurricane: no system can compensate for that much movement. You’re too late to dodge the storm anyway.

The products on the market break down into three categories.

Products for use offshore and in all conditions: These systems are designed to work anywhere a satellite television signal can be received. A product’s ability to track a satellite is measured by its response rate, or the number of degrees per second correction the unit can make when adjusting to the movement of a vessel. Offshore products can correct for at least 25°/sec. As an option, most offshore products also have larger and more sensitive antennas, an important feature as satellite signals weaken as a boat gets farther from the coastline. Prices for these systems range from $6,000 to $14,000 and the units have been installed on vessels ranging from small pleasure yachts to the QE2. Speculating that his guests would appreciate a good ball game while cruising the Chesapeake Bay, Tony Fotos, owner of the Annapolis-based charter yacht Lady Anna, recently installed an offshore system.

Products for use inshore, at anchor and in light conditions: Designed for use in mild conditions or at anchor when movement of the boat is limited, these units have response rates that range from 3° to 15°/sec., and prices vary from $1,800 to $5,800. For the boater who is just looking to catch the game or a movie while on the hook, an inshore system is the best option. In addition, even these systems have been documented to work in rougher seas, said Casey Schuler, marine marketing manager for Datron, the manufacturer of the DBS 4000.

Products for dockside use: Almost identical to what you would buy for your home from a local electronics store, these products will not work while the boat is in motion, at anchor, or anywhere except in the slip and is motionless. One approach is to mount the units to a piling. The benefit of a dockside, or slipside system is its components should be able to withstand the marine environment better than if they are subjected to the full force of the weather offshore. What to look for when shopping

One important question to ask before you buy a mobile satellite system is will it work in the area you live or plan to visit? The satellite systems you may be familiar with, like DirecTV, the Dish Network, and Primestar, will not work more than 200 miles off either U.S. coastline. Nor will their signals likely extend far into Canada or South of Georgetown, Bahamas. This is because direct broadcast satellites are in what’s called geostationary orbit around the Earth’s equator; they are motionless in relation to a spot on the ground, rotating as the planet does. If you travel too far off the coast, you will lose the signal entirely as you travel out of its coverage area.

That said, you should consider the following. If you’re voyaging Canadian waters, can a particular unit receive Canada’s Star Choice ( and ExpressVu (1-888-SKY-DISH/ programming? In Europe, will the product work with the ASTRA ( and HotBird ( satellite systems? And if you plan on going south of the Bahamas, can you get DirecTV’s Latin America Galaxy system? This is not a concern for some systems, like Sea-Tel’s offshore products, which receive any satellite television signal, provided you get the correct receiver, according to Peter R. Gruol, general manager of the company. Future Trak’s Space Scanner is equally versatile. But most systems are only compatible with one provider and will work only in U.S. waters. Also bear in mind that, regardless of the satellite television you use, none of the systems comes with a satellite receiver.

A freeze frame feature is also a big plus for instances when the antenna’s view is temporarily obstructed. When this happens the television will freeze on the last image until the unit reacquires the satellite’s signal. Most of the systems on the market do have this feature, but be sure to ask.

When you are calculating the total cost of a system, also be sure to check into the manufacturer’s recommended installation. Sea-Tel and KVH Industries highly recommend professional installation of their products.

On the other hand, most inshore products are a snap to install yourself. Budget at least four hoursmaybe more if you have a complicated wiring job ahead of you.

Some of the mobile marine satellite television systems on the market are compatible with a variety of phone, fax, and data systems. If you have any intention of bringing a phone or data service to your boat, be sure the system will work with it.

Most voyagers do not need the robust performance and hefty price-tag of an offshore product. After all, when the weather gets too rough for the television, most of us will be at the helm, not in front of the tube. In any event, dense precipitationwhether it’s rain, snow, or fogwill degrade signal quality. As indicated before, however, to ensure you get the best reception possible, you should select the largest antenna that you can get with a given system. That is, unless you have limited space on your deck.

Dockside or "slipside" systems, in contrast to their offshore and inshore counterparts, do not automatically track satellites. In fact, they are no different in operation than the off-the-shelf satellite dishes sold at your neighborhood electronics store or on the Internet. They are, however, more expensive. The benefit of a dockside unit, like Sea Sharp’s Sportsman model, is that it is weather proof, corrosion resistant, mostly plastic, and has only one aluminum plate, said Joe Kozicki, president of Sea Sharp, Inc. The unit also fits neatly in a briefcase so you can share one satellite receiver between your boat and your home.

Whatever system you buy, remember that you are paying only for the antenna equipment and not for a satellite television subscriptionmonthly charges for service vary. Dish Network packages, for example, start at $19.95 per month. Some of DirecTV’s premium packages, which offer every channel under the sun, exceed $75 per month. Both of these subscription services offer dozens of pay-per-view options as well.

The pay-per-view issue brings up another point. If you have a DBS system at home, you know ordering movies and sporting events is fast and simple. This is not the case at sea. Since your boat’s satellite receiver is not plugged into a phone line, you can’t order pay-per-view with your remote control and will need to call your satellite television provider directly. They, in turn, will charge you extra for the privilege of waiting 25 minutes to talk to a customer service representative. Whether you’re calling from a satellite or a cellular phone, that’s not a cheap conversation. My recommendation is to order your pay-per-view before you leave the dock where toll-free numbers are really toll free.

Before you buy, also be sure to consider the warranty that comes with each unit. Marine mobile satellite television systems are expensive and complex instruments that operate in a variety of wind and weather conditions. Since some companies are already offering two- and there-year warranties, buyers may be successful in negotiating longer warranties if a product only comes with a one-year. Chances you may also may be able to negotiate on price.

With one of these systems you can catch the Super Bowl, watch all the Seinfeld reruns, and, most important, check the Weather Channel.

By Ocean Navigator