Keeping Connected: Communications for Cruisers Page 2 - Sail Magazine

Keeping Connected: Communications for Cruisers Page 2

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
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SATELLITE SERVICE PROVIDERS


It makes good sense to sign up with one of several e-mail servers that speed up transmission of data by utilizing compression software and filtering of unnecessary information, such as address lines etc. Some offer GRIB weather file downloads as well, in a basic format that takes seconds to receive, and some offer to gather your e-mail from other POP mail accounts elsewhere. Attachments can usually be downloaded, but the user can put limits on their size.
The following are the servers found to be most popular among the ARC fleet.

MailASail


A popular Web/e-mail server with ARC entrants and bluewater cruisers alike. For e-mail and Internet browsing via an Iridium satphone, MailASail uses compression to keep data transmitted to a minimum, in a similar way that SailMail does for SSB users. It provides an e-mail system designed to work as fast as possible over the GSM, GPRS, and Iridium networks and offers fast, text-based Web browsing, GRIB weather file downloads, and even a Weblog facility.

MailASail converts incoming e-mail to text only, removing all the "padding," such as headers etc., then sends a message to your phone to inform you that an e-mail is waiting. Should you wish, the e-mail can be texted to your phone, thus requiring no actual connection to the Web. This is a cheaper option, but is usually limited to 120 characters for each message, so a longer e-mail arrives as several messages.

MailASail keeps a copy of the original for 30 days in case of problems, up to a maximum of 50 Mb, and these can be accessed using the webmail service. Those cruising close to the coast often use the SMS service and have larger files diverted to these archives for retrieval later from an Internet caf. The service can also access other POP e-mail accounts.
MailASail’s text-based, imageless Web browser takes some getting used to, but the general layout is similar and all hyperlinks are clickable as with any normal Web page.
If you also use "thin client" Web sites intended for mobile use, the speed of operation is better.

Ocens


Another comprehensive service provider for both satellite and radio is the Ocens network, whose wireless Web-hosting services enable streamlined Web-site management from offshore boats using Globalstar, Iridium, and SSB Pactor III equipment. Ocens.Mail serves as an e-mail accelerator by using transmission protocols that offer 20 times the speed of a regular wireless connection. The system works with existing proprietary e-mail software such as Microsoft Outlook and has no size limitations (user limited only), so attachments and HTML messaging are fully supported. It also allows SMS messages and will poll other POP addresses for mail, scanning each e-mail for viruses before forwarding. Ocens also provides fast Web browsing using a customized Firefox browser, and a wide-ranging weather service, WeatherNet, offering highly compressed text, images, charts, buoy data, radar, GRIB files, and many more formats.

Zap e-mail


As with the other servers mentioned, Zap is said to reduce airtime used, and thereby the cost by 50 percent, thanks to clever compression and filtering techniques. The server can be accessed by cell or satellite phone links and provides e-mail, fax, telex and SMS. The company charges 50 cents per Kb of data sent/received, up to a maximum of $130/month, which can be a considerable saving for the high-volume user. There are no start-up or monthly fees, so you won’t be charged if you don’t use it.

FastMail


Another e-mail server using compression and filtering to speed things up, only FastMail is free, within "Guest Level" limits, as with providers like Yahoo and Hotmail. Unlike the latter, however, FastMail allows you to access your e-mail using PC mail programs such as Outlook Express, Netscape Messenger, and Eudora. The free 10 Mb mailbox capacity will be fine for most—especially when accessing it by an expensive medium like a satellite link—but those who wish to receive larger attachments and use features such as e-mail forwarding and message gathering from other POP3 accounts, can pay one of three fee levels, starting at $15/month, depending on the service required.

FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCES

Charmel


Apart from a VHF for short-range work, the Californian owners of the Bavaria 46 Charmel, Tom and Patrick Miller, relied entirely on SSB radio for all their long-range communication needs—voice, e-mail, and weather information. They used a Standard Horizon set linked to a Pactor modem and laptop utilizing SailMail software. Patrick says, "Not only is it the lower cost option, you get so much more with radio that you don’t get with satellite." Referring to the plethora of nets they could hook up to for weather information and general cruising news, Patrick said, "As soon as we’re on the other side (of the Atlantic), we’ll get all we need from the nets, without having to subscribe to an expensive satellite setup."

Tintagel


Stuart and Sue Gough from Georgia equipped Tintagel, their Passport Vista 515, with everything they would need for long-term cruising, including a fixed Iridium phone with permanent external antenna and a SkyMate messaging system. After 8,000 nautical miles the only thing to fail was their Skymate satellite communications system.

During the Atlantic crossing Stuart and his crew kept in touch with home and rally HQ using his Iridium data link via the MailASail server. Stuart says, "The Iridium with MailASail has worked flawlessly. Since leaving I have sent or received over 500 messages and never had a problem. I did, however, ask to block attachments as they take too long to download, and I have never used it for browsing the Internet as it is too slow and would therefore be too expensive.

The SkyMate, on the other hand, is not working and never has worked from day one. I have contacted the manufacturer many times, and they have sent two new units, a new antenna, and new coaxial cable—all to no avail."

Flying Start


Nick Lewis, owner of the Moody 38, Flying Start, installed a new Icom SSB transceiver just a few days before the start. "The reason," Nick says, "is to keep in voice contact with all the fellow cruisers we meet as we cruise around the Caribbean without resorting to expensive GSM or satellite phones. It’s also a great way of picking up accurate weather reports." Nick experienced a few problems initially, due to a dodgy antenna cable installation, but the Icom service engineer on call in Las Palmas a week before the start soon traced, and rectified the problem. Nick, like many others in the fleet, also has a portable Iridium handset that could be linked to his laptop for e-mail or used for SMS messages should all else fail.

Kealoha VIII


One of the larger boats in the ARC was Kealoha VIII, an Oyster 72, which is extremely well equipped with electronics and communications equipment. Owner David Holliday says he used his Inmarsat Fleet 33 satellite system for updating his Web site and keeping in touch with those at home. He also has Iridium on board, which is mainly used for voice calls, although it can be linked to a data adaptor for sending/receiving e-mail if the Fleet is busy. He also has SSB with a Pactor modem, which he uses mainly for receiving weather information by fax and for calling other vessels out of VHF range.

Stealer VI


From another Oyster in the fleet, a 56 called Stealer VI, owner John Minton states, "We had available both Iridium and SSB. Primary communication—with office, home, and the ARC organizers—was by Iridium using zap e-mail. It was trouble-free except that it only wanted to receive a certain amount of data per connection. Our e-mail traffic was heavy, and we often had to reconnect up to 10 times to get it all to come though. I spoke to my service provider about this, and they considered it to be a software problem, which would be overcome by downloading an update. This was tried without success. Telephone calls were made on Iridium as necessary without any difficulty.

"We used SSB only to communicate with our group of boats in the daily rollcall, to listen to Herb the weather forecaster, and to listen to the general gossip. Reception was often difficult as our group spread out across the Atlantic to a marked degree. Relaying of messages from one boat to another to reach the group controller was the norm from halfway across. Herb was often difficult to hear, but good and useful when we did."

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