Voyaging e-mail choices

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E-mail is probably the most important means for staying in touch with family and friends that voyaging sailors have ever had. E-mail and the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds among voyagers just as it is all over the world. E-mail may soon be second only to the telephone as a means of communications. Nearly all offshore voyaging boats have a high-frequency (HF) transceiver of one type or another, a notebook computer, and possibly even a cellular phone.

While marine and ham HF SSB retains its value as a communications tool for talking between voyaging boats, it also has found new life as a low-cost method for transmitting e-mail to friends and family on shore. Both marine SSB and ham SSB e-mail coverage has increased in the past year.
   Image Credit: Wayne and Lee Straubaugh

Voyagers have particular problems, however, sending and receiving e-mail from their boats when they are offshore or in remote locations. Accessing e-mail and the Internet is one thing on shore but very different when on a voyaging boat. Like the plethora of land-line telephone services currently available, there are a growing number of e-mail options for voyaging sailors; some more cost-effective and practical than others.

Voyagers want simple, reliable, quick, text-only, low-power-use e-mail service. They wish to send and receive health and welfare messages between friends and family and occasionally a message to business associates, equipment suppliers, and the like. Brief, relatively slow text-only messages are usually sufficient; no jokes, no pictures, no long articles, and no junk e-mail. While secure, full Internet service would be desirable, it's not practical from boats away from high-speed landlines, at least for now. Only satellite communications holds any promise of Internet service from a boat. Most voyagers check their e-mail every few days and will likely send and receive several messages. Outgoing messages are composed "off line" and sent once a connection is established. Reliable, cost-effective e-mail service will not replace HF and VHF radio communications (both ham and marine SSB) between boats. For the first time e-mail provides a low-cost service that is infinitely better than reaching a telephone answering machine from a busy, noisy phone booth or dinghying a notebook computer ashore in a lumpy harbor in an effort to find a workable phone connection.

There are two variations of e-mail service for voyaging boats: inshore and offshore. As a rule, inshore shore service can be used ashore and at sea within cellular phone range whereas offshore service can be used everywhere. Offshore service requires more complex equipment and procedures and is generally more expensive and slower than inshore service. Voyagers planning to be within cellular phone range or who have frequent access to a reliable landline will find that offshore e-mail service is not necessary. Offshore service requires communications equipment coupled to a notebook computer. At least one inshore e-mail option, PocketMail, does not require a computer.Inshore

Inshore refers to Internet e-mail using a landline or cellular phone five to 10 miles offshore in the U.S. and Canada depending on the service provider. Range and cost of cellular phone service varies dramatically from country to country. A $500 deposit, for example, is required for Batelco cellular phone service in the Bahamas. Landline telephone service is generally available everywhere. For those who plan on being within cellular phone range or can get ashore to a landline every few days, inshore e-mail is just fine.

A cellular phone with a modem connection coupled to a notebook computer works well with either digital or analog cellular phones. We live in an analog world, however, and landlines around the world are analog. Digital cellular phones are great for e-mail service if you operate in a seamless seaboard-long service area (like the U.S. East Coast). Some digital cellular phones have an e-mail attachment as an accessory. Analog cellular phones are usually better suited to voyagers because they have a longer range (more power) and are not dedicated to one cellular phone service provider. Since voyagers move all the time they have to shop carefully for cellular service. Impossible claims by cellular phone salesmen are notorious. Service in foreign countries, modem jacks, roaming charges, seamless service areas, and analog vs. digital cellular phone service range are issues that should be understood by the voyager.

Sending and receiving e-mail from a cellular phone is generally economical because only a few seconds of "air time" is used providing there are no other one-time daily charges. Inshore e-mail is less expensive, using a cellular phone or landline, and need not be a technically daunting enterprise when compared with offshore e-mail.

At today's cellular phone usage rates of 30¢ per minute, voyagers can't afford to surf the Internet using a cellular phone. Of course, as telephone service providers continue to merge, who knows what will happen in the future; service options change every day. The objective for voyagers is to make a reasonable investment in inshore e-mail service recognizing it will likely be obsolete before the check has cleared. There is a new analog, text-only e-mail service called PocketMail (www.pocketmail.com) that is inexpensive, fast, and reliable, and it can be used anywhere in the world where either a landline or analog cellular phone service is available you don't need a computer!

PocketMail is a worldwide option for those who can reach shore using an analog cellular phone or can get ashore every few days to a landline. The pocket-sized, calculator-type device (Sharp TM-20, $100 to $150) uses a built-in acoustic coupler to send and receive e-mail. An external computer can be used for storage of messages, etc., but a computer isn't required. The service is $9.95/month for unlimited use. Voyagers will need to find other means to receive weather bulletins and the like since PocketMail is e-mail only.Offshore

Satellite e-mail.

There are several satellite e-mail options available for ships at sea that may be cost effective for some offshore voyagers. Most voyagers choosing satellite e-mail will likely have a HF SSB radio on board for voice communications. The handheld Magellan GSC 100 Personal Satellite Communicator (www.magellangps.com), which uses the Orbcomm satellite network, does send and receive e-mail very much like the inshore-only PocketMail. The GSC 100 may be the e-mail system of choice for those voyagers who want a text-only, secure, independent e-mail system and who have no interest in adding e-mail capability to their current HF SSB radio and computer system. The GSC 100 is a 2,400-bps (bits per second) handheld device a little larger than the Sharp TM-20. The GSC 100 is digital e-mail only. It does not require a computer. Cost is $999 plus an activation fee of $50, a monthly fee of $30, and a usage fee of $0.01 for more than 2,000 characters each month. Your GPS position is tagged to your e-mail. The GSC 100 is legal in international waters but subject to type approval in specific countries. Approved countries (which change frequently) are listed on the web site www.orbcomm.com. The GSC 100 is a good choice for voyagers not wishing to become involved in a HF SSB/modem/notebook computer e-mail nstallation.

Inmarsat's Mini-M also uses satellite technology for voice and data communications. It currently costs $3,000 to $5,000 to set up plus a $2.99/minute usage fee. Another option is the Iridium Satellite telephone. Equipment costs about $1,500 with an activation fee of $100, a monthly charge of $60 to $70 and $1.79 to $3.29/minute for a call from the high seas to North America. Both services have a much wider voice bandwidth then necessary for narrow-band digital e-mail. To access Internet e-mail the PocketMail service can be used with either Inmarsat or Iridium satellite phones. Both have relatively fast (by offshore standards) 2,400-bps data rates that mean reduced air time will be required for e-mail alone. Another handheld satcom choice is Globalstar (www.Globalstar.com). This system uses low-earth-orbit satellites and satphones for worldwide communication.

While the devices listed above are handheld, it's also possible to get more communications capability by stepping up to a satcom system with a larger, ixed antenna. For example, a satellite-based, text-only system is Inmarsat C. This system uses a small antenna (about twice the size of a GPS antenna) that you mount on your stern rail. Down below is a transceiver box that you plug your laptop into. With this rig you can send e-mail messages and digital files. Inmarsat C is a worldwide service (except for the high polar areas) and has excellent emergency capability. Costs vary depending on the equipment and service providers, but they run around $4,000 to $6,000 to set up and around $1.50 per kilobyte of information.

Moving up in size, complexity, and cost, the Inmarsat Mini-M satcom system gives you e-mail, Worldwide Web access, and voice call capability. The system uses a 30-pound antenna dome about the size of a basketball. There is a variety of places to go to get both Inmarsat C and Mini-M hardware and the blocks of air time you must buy in order to use the system. For example, one complete provider of Mini-M service is a San Diego company called Boatracs (www.boatracs.com). It can provide a voyager with both the Mini-M antenna and transceiver hardware as well as sell messaging packages. While it gives you higher-speed Internet access capability and allows you to make voice calls, Mini-M service is more expensive.

Satellite options will change and costs will come down, particularly as voice satellite service providers offer narrow-band, less expensive digital e-mail. Within a couple of years, satellite e-mail service will very likely become the option of choice for both inshore and offshore sailors. HF SSB radio e-mail.

Offshore e-mail connection can be established anywhere in the world where shipboard HF SSB radio can reach a land station connection to the Internet. There is a distinction, however, between commercial marine traffic and voyager traffic. Generally, commercial vessels require worldwide fast, reliable, secure, seamless, comprehensive service with which they can send and receive high volumes of business-orientated messages between ship and shore. Health and welfare e-mail is a small portion of commercial traffic. Commercial ships have plenty of electric power and commercial HF SSB equipment. Voyagers, on the other hand, are happy if they can send and receive several e-mail messages once or twice a week in one ocean at a time.

HF SSB radio e-mail is usable offshore from a voyaging boat. HF SSB radio communications to and from ships at sea have no territorial boundaries; only a ship's radio license is required. Amateur (ham) radio operators must usually have a reciprocal license, issued by the foreign government, to operate in their waters. Offshore HF SSB e-mail requires a notebook computer, HF modem, and HF SSB transceiver. Communications distance is a function of the time-of-day and frequency chosen to make the connection, plus the power of the HF SSB transceiver. Fortunately, voyager health and welfare e-mail messages are digital, text only and relatively short, fewer than 1,000 characters per message. Digital e-mail is reliable and requires less power than analog voice communications and uses a much smaller portion of the radio spectrum. Digital e-mail radio is very much like radio teletype of days gone by except that modern digital data transmission equipment and protocols are faster with fewer errors. Air time to send and receive four or five messages takes five or 10 minutes at the slow 300-bps speed available using the most popular HF transceivers and modems. Faster speeds are possible using faster, secure, and more expensive modems, like the SCS PTC2, and commercial HF SSB transceivers. PinOak Digital, for example, specifies a modified SCS PTC2 modem to transmit and receive at 1,200-bps speeds. Globe Wireless uses its own 1,200-bps modems. Five to 10 minutes airtime at slower 300 bps to send and receive four to five messages is acceptable to most voyaging boats given typical on-board battery capacity.

While each HF modem manufacturer and both PinOak Digital and Globe Wireless have their own software, one of the best and most popular on board e-mail terminal programs, usable with Windows 95/98 and selected HF modems and transceivers, is AirMail. AirMail is a software program developed for amateur radio using the PACTOR protocol. The author, Jim Corenman, and others were quick to note that AirMail could be used with certain non-ham, HF SSB equipment on non-ham marine frequencies. AirMail is free software available from the Internet (www.winlink.org/airmail) that supports other digital communications protocols such as AMTOR and SITOR and can now be used with the SailMail service and Globe Wireless as well as ham radio. Few, if any, commercial vessels use AirMail since they subscribe to either PinOak Digital or Globe Wireless, which have their own terminal software. Commercial e-mail systems are designed to transact business whereas ham radio e-mail cannot.Technical considerations

The first consideration is the location and capability of the land-based Internet server, called Gateways by amateur radio operators. PinOak Digital and Globe Wireless offer worldwide comprehensive, digital e-mailhigh-speed, secure service on specific HF SSB marine frequencies. They are orientated toward commercial marine traffic and have their own HF modems, dedicated software, and detailed operating instructions. The offshore voyager on a budget with occasional e-mail requirements has two choices: ham radio HF SSB WinLink and non-ham SailMail.

Recently I visited with the guru of high frequency (HF) e-mail, Jim Corenman, aboard his boat Heart of Gold in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Jim wrote the AirMail software that is being used by nearly all voyagers doing e-mail from their boats. He initially devised the software as a free service to ham radio operators. He kept adding features until now version 2.8 of the AirMail software can be used by either ham shore stations or non-ham commercial stations like SailMail. Sending and receiving e-mail from our boat has changed cruising for many of us, and Jim Corenman deserves the credit.

Not all HF SSB transceivers can send and receive digital e-mail messages through a HF modem, particularly at high speeds. HF SSB equipment used by most voyagers is primarily designed for analog voice transmissions and is adapted for digital e-mail using a HF modem and a notebook computer. Globe Wireless lists approved commercial equipment manufacturers and installers. Some of the approved transceiver models are unfamiliar to most cruisers. In fact, Globe Wireless cannot be used with ham radios or non-approved SSB equipment. PinOak Digital, on the other hand, can use HF SSB equipment, like Kenwood, ICOM, SGC and other manufacturers more familiar to cruisers. Most Kenwood, ICOM, and SGC HF SSB transceivers will work but the transceiver must have both upper (USB) and lower (LSB) sideband capability with the ability to switch between transmit and receive quickly without overheating. Some of the newer ransceivers are said to be e-mail ready. The best way to select a transceiver is to talk with others who have used that particular model successfully for HF SSB e-mail. Transceiver equipment salesmen may not know since few have ever actually used HF SSB e-mail at sea.Modems

Just as there are differences between HF SSB transceivers, there is a similar distinction between 1,200- to 2,000-bps commercial marine HF modems and lower speed 300-bps non-commercial modems. Both PinOak Digital and Globe Wireless provide their own modems in order to achieve higher data rates required by maritime business. Most voyagers have a lower volume of traffic and can accept a lower data rate. PinOak Digital uses a modified version of the 1,200-bps SCS PTC2, which is also available to voyagers. Globe Wireless uses their own GL 4100 and GL 4000 modems to provide full service. Globe Wireless will, however, work with voyagers using the slower-speed modems such as the 300-bps KAM+ and MFJ 1278B, among others as long as they use an approved HF SSB transceiver.

Having a amateur (ham) radio license gives voyagers more e-mail options: free worldwide WinLink NetLink Gateways, weather bulletins, and additional marine HF SSB nets. Non-hams need not despair, however. The addition of non-ham land-based HF SSB Internet servers like SailMail using the SITOR protocol, selectable with the AirMail software, allows non-hams to use standard ICOM and SGC transceivers with 300-bps HF modems and IBM PC compatible notebook computers running Windows 95/98.E-mail services

PinOak Digital (www.pinoak.com) offers worldwide, secure service. It requires a transceiver able to transmit and receive on marine SSB frequencies, a modified 1,200- to 2,000-bps SCS PTC2 modem, and a computer running Windows 95/98. PinOak provides its own terminal software. The modem, software, and manuals cost $1,395. The monthly fee is $23 plus $0.95/kilobyte. A kilobyte is equal to one page of double-spaced text. The service includes e-mail, e-mail forwarding, position-specific weather bulletins, weather maps, graphics, and a variety of maps and forecasting tools. It can handle binary Zip files. PinOak Digital is not a ham radio gateway to the Internet, but it does support the newer HF SSB transceivers that can transmit and receive on both ham and marine frequencies. The service is used by a number of voyagers. The PinOak Digital web site has many more details.

Globe Wireless (www.globewireless.com) provides comprehensive worldwide data communications service including GlobeEmail. It requires an approved HF SSB transceiver able to transmit and receive on marine frequencies, a GL 4100 external or GL 4000 internal 2,000-bps HF modem, and an IBM PC compatible computer. It uses its own proprietary software designed primarily for maritime business traffic. Globe Wireless also supports the 1,200-bps SCS PTC2 and 300-bps KAM modems using the SITOR protocol available with AirMail. The cost for GlobeEmail is $1,500, including the GL modem, software, manuals, and cables. Monthly subscription rate is $100 for 126 kilobites of data, equal to 126 pages of double-spaced text. Ham radios and non-approved transceivers will not work with GlobeEmail. Providing a voyager has an approved transceiver and notebook computer running Windows 95/98 on board, GlobeEmail service can be subscribed by adding a SCS PTC2 or KAM+ modem running under the AirMail terminal program. While AirMail and Globe Wireless are not yet seamless services worldwide, the AirMail connection does provide a new lower-price, slower, and less comprehensive offshore e-mail option for voyagers. In addition to HF SSB, Globe is offering an expanded service via Inmarsat A, B, and C satellites. The Globe Wireless web site provides an e-mail address for more details about services and costs for voyagers and the list of approved GlobeEmail transceivers.

SailMail (www.sailmail.com) is a U.S. West Coast and Australia-based e-mail service for yachts using marine HF SSB transceivers on marine non-ham frequencies. It is a non-profit association of yacht owners. SailMail operates at 110 to 1,200 bps depending on the propagation and the speed of the HF modem. SailMail has its own software or it can work with AirMail. The cost is $200 per vessel per year with a limit of 10 minutes of airtime per day. SailMail will work with the $1,000 SCS PTC2 at 1,200 bps or with the $300 KAM+ at 300 bps. With a 10-minute daily time limit it pays to purchase the faster SCS PTC2 modem. The SCS PTC2, KAM+, and other HF SSB modems can be purchased from Amateur Electronic Supply (www.aesham.com) or other ham radio outlets. Once the software is downloaded and connections are made between the transceiver, the modem, and the notebook computer, the new user should be prepared to spend time sorting it all out. SailMail is the least-cost non-commercial offshore e-mail service available to non-hams. SailMail primarily serves the West Coast of the U.S. with a station in Australia. SailMail is not a worldwide service as are PinOak Digital, Globe Wireless and the ham radio WinLink NetLink systems. SailMail has a new site in Rockhill, S.C., serving East Coast voyagers along with its West Coast station in Palo Alto, Calif. Non-ham SailMail is handling e-mail for more than 200 users now and is planning to add shore sites in Europe and the South Pacific.

The big news for ham operators is that WinLink 2000 (WL2000, www.winlink.org/airmail) is on the air with two to three stations in the U.S. and will eventually offer seamless e-mail service to hams around the world. In other words, a ham can call any WL2000 station to send and receive e-mail. The amateur radio WinLink NetLink e-mail system consists of a group of about 60 shore-based HF SSB amateur radio operators around the world set up to handle Internet e-mail, weather bulletins, and other items of interest to licensed hams on boats. The system is designed to use the PACTOR I and II protocols with the AirMail terminal software program being the most popular. A ham radio HF SSB transceiver, HF modem (called a terminal node controller TNC by hams), e-mail terminal software and an IBM-compatible computer is required. The principal difference between the ham radio WinLink system and the others noted above is the required ham radio general (or higher) license and the ham radio HF SSB transceiver. HF SSB transceivers like the ICOM and SGC that transmit on both ham and marine frequencies can be used providing the WinLink user is a licensed ham radio operator. The HF modem determines the speed: 1,200-bps SCS PTC2, 300-bps KAM+, or MFJ 1278B. The only cost to the ham radio operator with a HF SSB on board is the HF modem. As with SailMail, WinLink takes a few days to get sorted out and working. It pays to be a ham radio operator.

Offshore e-mail is a complicated, rapidly changing, but very important means for staying in touch with friends and family. Voyagers considering e-mail are encouraged to access the various Internet web sites and talk with other voyagers who are now sending and receiving e-mail.

Dick de Grasse is a long-time voyaging sailor, ham radio operator (K1AMV), Commodore of the Seven Seas Cruising Association, and frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator magazine. He and his wife Kathy live in Islesboro, Maine, when not voyaging and hosting the SSCA "Down East" Rendezvous.

By Ocean Navigator