Keeping Connected: Communications for Cruisers

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The rapid evolution of communications technology in the last decade has meant that more of us are able to keep in range of a regular cell phone. We asked many of the entrants in the 2006 ARC transatlantic rally how they planned to stay in contact with those back home and received a variety of answers. Here we describe what systems were chosen and why, and explain some of the vagaries of each network used and how reliable it was during the crossing.

Radio or Satellite
Despite the plethora of modern equipment on the market, there are actually only two possible forms of long-range communications open to ocean-going yachtsmen—a high-frequency (HF) radio or a satellite link. The former is popular among long-term cruisers because it is less expensive; in fact, the airtime is actually free, once all the gear, software, and relevant licenses have been purchased. The latter, however, is more flexible and at the top end of the range is capable of considerably faster transmission and much greater bandwidth/capacity.

The ARC fleet seemed fairly evenly split between HF radio enthusiasts and those relying on satellite technology, such as the Iridium and Inmarsat networks. One hundred thirty-four boats had SSB, while 130 had Iridium, 21 had Inmarsat-C, 15 had Inmarsat Mini-M, 10 had Inmarsat Fleet33, and one each had Fleet 55, Thuraya, and Globalstar. Quite a few had both systems, with the single-sideband (SSB) HF radio being principally used for weather information, intership voice, and e-mail, while a satellite terminal provided voice, Internet, and e-mail communication with family and friends back home who weren’t radio hams.

If you're not familiar with HF radio, it can seem a bit daunting when you first look into it. There are a large number of enthusiasts in the HF radio network; many of them are very technically minded, but have trouble putting over the true benefits of radio to the layman in simple terms. While there is a mass of free information on the Internet (see Web site list below), you will need to talk person-to-person if you really want to understand how it works, rather than just be an operator. Most manufacturers are happy to give you telephone support if you are installing the equipment yourself, and many have Web sites with comprehensive FAQ lists.

Installing an HF radio on your boat will be a professional job for most, and unless you are very familiar with the technology I wouldn’t advise you even attempt it. For some reason newcomers to long-term cruising, especially Europeans, often shy away from SSB. Rumors abound about it being complicated to use, unreliable, and a real drain on the energy reserves. It's strange, then, that more-seasoned cruisers nearly all carry SSB. During the buildup to the ARC start, a large number of nonparticipating boatsusually those who have already crossed the world’s oceans—gather in the harbor nearby, waiting for the trade winds to build. I couldn’t help noticing that 90 percent of them had an SSB antenna. Speaking to a few of them, I learned that the main reason for this is cost. Once they have bought the equipment—and many have bought second-hand sets from guys who are upgrading—they can get all they need from the wide selection of networks and organizations associated with the HF radio community. The downside, they agree, is the power demand when transmitting, but as they spend the most time listening rather than transmitting, it can usually be justified.

Receiver or transceiver?
Low-cost HF receivers are available should you simply want to receive weatherfaxes and e-mail or just to tune into broadcasts worldwide, and these require no operator’s license. The single-wire antenna for a receiver is also much simpler to install as it carries very little current, unlike one used for transmitting.

To transmit voice using HF radio you will need to attain an operator’s license, which will require you to take a course to acquaint yourself thoroughly with the network protocol. Virtually all the boats carrying HF radio in the ARC had full 2-way transceivers, as they reasoned that, even if they didn’t yet have a license, they could simply listen in to relevant channels when they wanted and, if they found it useful or interesting, they could go for a license later. However, most had made the effort to become qualified, reckoning this to be the best way of getting the most from their investment. For intership communications SSB proved by far the most popular because of its long-distance capabilities and lack of charges. But another very important factor is that users learned a great deal more about the environment where they were headed from someone who was actually experiencing it and relaying it to the fleet. This way, information about any unusual weather patterns or particularly bad seas encountered could be passed on to those following, allowing them to take avoiding action.

There are also many invaluable dedicated marine networks, such as that run by Canadian sailing enthusiast and weather forecaster Herb Hilgenberg (VE3LML & VP9LM), which offer extremely useful advice and warnings about such dangers as tropical storms, hurricanes, piracy, local disturbances, and political unrest.

In addition to ship-to-ship and ship-to-base communications, it is also possible to use marine SSB to connect with the terrestrial telephone system via a radio station that has the facilities, such as ShipCom.

E-mail via HF radio

The Pactor network
Recent advances in technology and software have made it easier than ever before for cruisers to stay in touch via HF radio when sailing offshore. E-mail is proving one of the most popular forms of communication and, thanks to a group of boating/radio enthusiasts who have spent a great deal of time creating a workable system, it can now be carried out via HF radio quite easily. All that is required is a suitable radio setup and a method of getting the message to a terrestrial mailbox (MBO) station.

Pactor is a method of sending digital information via radio and was developed around 1990 by a group of German ham operators. Recent advances in technology and software improvements have made the system so reliable and dependable that it can be used as the primary source of communication on board. Messages take a similar form to land-based PC systems and incorporate personal and MBO station call signs in their address bar. As with your PC back home, you need to connect to the MBO to collect your mail.

There are dozens of MBOs worldwide, most running WinLink software designed for automatic message forwarding, either to other WinLink stations via Pactor on the HF bands or via the VHF packet network. The breakthrough for mobile users to be able to keep in touch was the development of Internet e-mail gateways, which most WinLink stations now operate. Each message carries two addresses, one for the HF network and one for the Internet. A program called NetLink polls the e-mail server, reformats the messages, and hands them off to the MBO’s WinLink program. There are, however, limitations on the messages that can be handled, due to the low bandwidth of the radio network. For short text messages this is rarely a problem, but longer messages might need a direct link to certain gateways.

To set up a Pactor station you will need a radio transceiver, an antenna with tuner, a data controller (aka a Terminal Note Controller, or TNC), and a computer with the appropriate software. The TNC is essentially a radio modem, similar to a computer modem used for landline connection to the Internet, only in this case the controller generates the audio signals from the digital PC data, transmitting them via the antenna, and vice-versa.

SSB radio networks

Specialist operator ShipCom is a provider of HF SSB radiotelephone services for ship-to-shore-to-ship voice calling. Obtaining a call to a terrestrial telephone line is simple; you just call on the correct frequency and give the name of your vessel and the number of the landline you want to connect to. Although there is a charge for this service, it is considerably cheaper than using a satellite phone. ShipCom also provides weather, e-mail, and satellite services.

SailMail is designed specifically for sailors to enable e-mail via radio and satellite equipment, such as the SSB radio sets and Iridium satellite devices typically found on board small to medium-size cruising boats. SailMail’s Web site states: "The SailMail e-mail system’s custom protocol substantially reduces the number of link-turn-arounds and implements compression, virus filtering, spam filtering, and attachment filtering. The combination of the protocol, compression, and filtering dramatically improves communications efficiency." Translated, this means it will make the most of the slow transmission speed of radio and satellite by getting rid of the unnecessary "fluff" that surrounds the usual e-mail message and compressing what’s left. It will also filter out spam and attachments if required.

SailMail has its own network of SSB Pactor radio stations for connecting its clients directly to the Internet via their HF radio or satellite device, so costs are kept to a minimum. Other than a membership fee and the initial hardware cost of a SSB and Pactor modem, there is no cost per message for use of the SailMail radio network.

Another provider of e-mail and Internet services for users of HF SSB radio, CruiseEmail has nine operating stations in the U.S. and the Caribbean, with extended service onto the North and South Pacific. With a bandwidth of 2.8kHz and an excess of 300 different frequencies for data, voice, JPGs, and attachments, the network provides fast e-mail, mail forwarding, weather analyses, and direct Internet access. The CruiseEmail software can be downloaded directly from its Web site.

PC mail programs

Similar to Microsoft’s Outlook program for PCs, AirMail is one of several low-transfer-speed mail programs available for use with HF radio that allows the operator to send and receive messages via a Pactor modem connected to an SSB or ham radio set. Once connected to a compatible station, message transfer is completely automatic. The program, available free of charge, was written by computer professional and long-term cruiser Jim Corenman to keep in touch with friends and family from onboard.

On the ham wavebands AirMail will automatically send/receive messages to/from any station supporting BBS or F6FBB protocols, such as Winlink, F6FBB, MSYS, and other Airmail stations. Airmail is also used as the client program by the SailMail system. touch with our friends, families, and businesses when we are out on the water and beyond the

Satellite Systems

Satellite communications used to be the domain of the mobile businessman or roving journalist, but these days it’s becoming very common to find long-term bluewater cruisers carrying some form of satellite device for keeping in touch. Smaller boats from 35 to 50 feet tend to stick with the well-proven Iridium system, using either a handheld phone or a fixed unit down below. This was the case with the 230 boats that completed the ARC in 2006, where 130 entrants, including the smallest boat in the fleet—David Ford’s British Hunter 31, Whimbre II—had an Iridium handset on board for voice and e-mail communications.

Although some, like Eric Faber on the Rival 38 Luna Quest, relied entirely on Iridium for both voice calling and e-mail via a laptop, there were many who had an Iridium handset as a backup to SSB, in the event they had a technical or atmospheric problem in mid-ocean. Brian Simm on the Sundeer 56 Scraatch was taking no chances and had both installed. His plan was to receive weather info from various sources, including Herb on the SSB, while using Iridium for e-mail via the SailMail system. He found the SSB invaluable for inter-ship voice calling and listening in to the daily ARC schedule, but used Iridium on his laptop for contacting friends and reporting his daily position update to the WCC by e-mail.

Another boat that had both was the Moody 38 Flying Start. Skipper Nick Lewis installed an Icom transceiver and Pactor modem before departure, and his Iridium handset could be also linked through MailASail for e-mail messaging. A few days out from Las Palmas Nick encountered a boat full of African immigrants in imminent danger of sinking and found it easier to communicate with the rescue services using the Iridium handset until they were within VHF distance.

Many had teething troubles with their satellite networks, mainly due to incorrect setup and software bugs, but once they had mastered the installation glitches, the Iridium phone proved very popular and, more important, reliable as well. The only real complaint I heard was of its slow data-transmission speed. For text e-mails this is quite acceptable, but you can't expect to surf the Web like you might at home as image downloads are painfully slow.

The Iridium network uses a constellation of 66 low-orbit satellites, which are now owned and maintained by Boeing. Iridium phones are available as a hand-held, rather like a large cell phone, or as a fixed unit with handset like a regular home phone. Portables seemed to be favored because they can be taken off the boat and used elsewhere. The portable phone costs around $1,500 plus a $50/month airtime contract. However, for Internet and e-mail from your chart table you will either need a docking station (around $1,400), which has its own handset, charger, and antenna, or a data adaptor to connect the handset to a computer, a USB/Serial converter lead, and an external antenna with adaptor and cable—at an additional cost of around $500. Along with the Iridium phone comes the connection software to use Iridium as an ISP for accessing the Internet. Call costs are approximately $1.50-$1.80/minute to anywhere in the world, and despite its rather sedate transmission speed of 9.6 Kbps it still works out to be reasonably inexpensive compared with Inmarsat systems for e-mail and weather data. Incoming calls are free.

For many of the larger boats with healthier budgets, Inmarsat was the preferred system for most communications. Some 21 boats had the well-proven, data-only Sat-C unit featuring GMDSS alerting and free weather and navigation updates similar to Navtex, e-mail, fax, and a polling feature for automatic position reporting. Usage costs are a little expensive, however, at around one cent per character.

Mini-C is similar to Sat-C, only without the GMDSS facilities or navigation and weather data updates. Both units require an onboard PC with the appropriate software to use the system. Fifteen boats used Mini-M, which is a fixed unit utilizing a very small mobile antenna (just 22cm in diameter) to pick up Inmarsat’s Spot Beam service. The unit has data and direct-dial voice abilities, but the former is reported to be slow and some reports state that it often drops calls halfway through.

Ten of the larger boats in the rally were fitted out with Inmarsat’s Fleet range of systems—the bee's knees in mobile sat comms. The simplest and most suitable for cruising boats, Fleet F33, offers full voice, e-mail, data, fax and weather communications, as well as being GMDSS compliant, all through a lightweight and compact 40cm-diameter antenna dome. Though it's data-transmission speed is only 9.6 Kbps, with sophisticated compression software this often equates to 40 Kbps. The system employs a Mobile Packet Data Service (MPDS) whereby you are charged only for the amount of data transmitted or received.

Users wanting higher speeds of 64 Kbps+ with more realistic Internet browsing would require a move up to the more-expensive F55 or F77 system, with larger antennae. Inmarsat is currently developing a full broadband system—B-Gan—using its new G4 satellites, which will offer high-speed, always-on connection to the Internet similar to broadband. Prices vary depending on supplier, contract, and licensing charges, but the approximate equipment prices are: Inmarsat-C, $3,500+, Mini-M $7,000, Fleet 33. Airtime charges are usually $1.80-$2.50/minute.

Globalstar is another low-orbit satellite network similar to Iridium, except that it can default to the GSM 900 network when in range of a cell. The network currently provides access throughout the U.S., Australia, and Europe only, but coverage is being continually expanded and will eventually be worldwide. The portable Ericsson handsets, like the Iridium phones, are rather bulky with long, folding antennae. At present, no data package is available for these units, though Globalstar can provide a weatherproof external antenna to convert its land mobile terminal for marine use. Better still, it will supply a permanently installed Seatel system that offers Internet access and e-mail at 9.6 Kbps. Hardware and airtime costs are very similar to Iridium.

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