Offshore Communication Comes of Age for the Occasional Passagemaker

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(published November 2016)

Whereas long-term cruisers develop various communication strategies over time, offshore communication has always been a challenge for occasional passagemakers trying to balance cost and need.

Once out of cell phone range, there have been three choices to maintain communication: single side band radio, purchase of various satellite communication systems (some quite costly), or renting simpler satellite systems.

COMMUNICATION OPTIONS

I made my first ocean passage in November 1999 on a new Beneteau 411 loaded with equipment including single sideband radio and a rental Iridium satellite phone. Our jumping off point was Little Creek/Norfolk, Virginia with an intended destination of Nanny Cay, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It’s another story, but due to a storm and related boat problems we made a stop in Bermuda en route. In some ways, this was one of my most memorable and enjoyable offshore passages. We had plenty of state of the art communication equipment for the time but none of us knew how to use it to its potential. Hence, once we departed Norfolk no one left behind expected to hear from us until we reached Tortola; there was a real feeling of breaking the shackles that tied us to our demanding modern worlds.

This was the era of Herb Hilgenberg and his famous free weather routing service (Herb retired in 2013). By the time we were ready to leave Bermuda, we had been tutored sufficiently so that we could listen to and even communicate with Herb aka South Bound II each day to get important weather information. This capability, when we left Norfolk, might have saved us from the storm that resulted in our Bermuda stopover.

By the next spring, I somehow got the job of “communications officer” on the Beneteau which simply meant that on the trip back to the Chesapeake Bay I got to sit below at the chart table in the tropical heat and listen to Herb for three hours each afternoon and talk with him for about 30 seconds. Herb was an immeasurable resource during these early years on our trips South and North. As the years passed we began to make occasional calls on our rented satellite phone. These were mainly to our commercial weather router, with occasional personal calls. In those days voice communication was not the greatest and this coupled with expense, limited satellite phone use.

During the ensuing years, I have seen little change in affordable communication options for the occasional passagemaker. There are articles on offshore communication in the various boating journals and surveys of the types of communication favored by rally participants such as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). SSB radio and satellite phones are always considered and in a recent article on the subject three additional satellite enabled devices were mentioned: SPOT, the DeLorme InReach, and the Iridium Go (see Blue Water Sailing February, 2016).

SSB preceded satellite communication by decades and doubtless continues to be the communication method of choice for many (if not most) long-term cruisers. A knowledgeable practitioner can do quite remarkable things with SSB. The advantages of SSB are generally assessed as two-fold: robustness when in frequent use and low cost of use after installation. The limitations are its initial cost (approximately $3000 to 4000), cost of installation (approximately $3000), lack of robustness when not in frequent use, and not very intuitive when used intermittently. This compared to renting a satellite phone for two weeks ($35 to $90/week) or a month ($150 to $200/month) twice a year makes it hard to justify the expense of SSB (even with its extensive capabilities) for many occasional passagemakers.

More recently, I have been doing the fall/spring Chesapeake/Virgin islands circuit sailing on a vessel without SSB. A rental satellite phone has permitted communication with our weather router, family and friends. My un-objective assessment is that voice communication has improved over the years. Recently, it has also been possible to send short 160 character text messages directly via the old-style satellite phones. This was cumbersome with generation 1 texting/T9ing, hitting of a key one to four times depending on the letter desired. An additional problem, is that Iridium (our rental) is considered a “foreign country” by cellular providers. These providers then may not accept the “foreign texts” or charge substantial amounts if they do. Lack of a thorough understanding of this policy often made it unclear why some individuals being sent texts did not receive them. There were also other anomalies with this texting approach where texts on one leg of a voyage, e.g. Norfolk-Bermuda, reached most intended recipients on a regular basis while on another leg, e.g. Bermuda-USVIs, the same individuals did not receive the texts most of the time.

IRIDIUM GO

Somewhat over a year ago a new device, the Iridium Go, came on the market. This coupled with some text messaging and email software has promised to move affordable occasional offshore communication into the 21st century. The gist of this technology is that the Iridium Go acts as a “hotspot” for up to five smartphones. If the phone has the Go app, one can initiate a voice call or send a text message in pretty much the same manner as if you were using the smartphone and a cellular network. The issues with Iridium being viewed as a “foreign country” etc. still exists as does the fact that all phones on the network can see all the texts sent through the Go. There is a cost for each text sent but texts received are free. The greater ease of texting as well as copying and pasting repetitious texts to different individuals makes texting via the smartphone/Go much easier.

Enter yet another advance enabled by the Go, the OneMessage app, developed by www.ocens.com. Briefly, this app allows for each phone on network to maintain privacy of texts from and to that phone and perhaps more importantly allows texts to be written to multiple individuals and be bundled together before connecting to the satellite for transmission. This should markedly reduce the air time used. OneMessage also eliminates the “foreign country” issue with Iridium. For the OneMessage app to function, the sender and recipient must subscribe to OneMessage at a cost of $1.99/month for the basic service (see the Ocens website for details). In a slight difference from general texting, one must go to the OneMessage app to see if there are messages in the in box.
The greatest potential advance brought about by the Go is the OneMail app by Ocens. Briefly, if one has a gmail email address, one can look at the senders of emails in that account. Upload of this information is rapid requiring only one to two minutes of satellite time. Then one can flag messages that appear urgent, e.g. something from the weather router, for download. The complexity of the message depends on how much satellite time is required for download. There is a cost to subscribe to OneMail and complex messages can take some time to download, but this straightforward access to email on a smartphone screen is something quite innovative. Another nice twist to OneMail is the ability to send pictures from the boat. A compressed photo of approximately 30 kilobytes can be sent in approximately five minutes, but a picture of a 30 pound Tuna or Mahi is way more impressive than a text saying “we caught a fish”.

The Iridium Go, although not weatherproof, seems quite robust. We found perching it under the dodger gave it sufficient protection and view of the sky for satellite acquisition. If weather is a concern, an external antenna is available. In conclusion, the Iridium Go is not designed to allow surfing the web at sea, but coupled with software being developed to be compatible with it and smartphones (including weather dataware) is a major leap in affordable offshore communication. My experience with the Go was for about a month and I believe there are at least two issues users should keep in mind. The ease of texting, seeing what emails exist in your folder, temptation to download and the desire to send a picture now and then may cause more use than anticipated. It may be advisable to buy a few more minutes of satellite time than you think you will need (prepaid minutes are much less expensive; if you rent talk to the agent to get their recommendation). Last, it appears that during a large file download or upload, if the satellite connection is lost, the data is lost. You are charged for the time that this partial download/upload took even though you got nothing and the whole process must be started over with the timer ticking again. It is possible that an external antenna may decrease this limitation. This said, I am of the opinion that a careful look at renting or even purchasing the Iridium Go is warranted if one is looking for intuitive and relatively inexpensive temporary offshore communication.

Tom Hamilton holds a PhD in Cell Biology. He is a USCG Master, BVI Boat master, and American Sailing Association instructor. He has over 45,000 offshore miles mainly between the East coast of the US and the Bahamas, Bermuda or the Caribbean. Tom sails out of Rock Hall MD aboard the Pearson 39, Gallivant, in the summer and Red Hook St Thomas USVI in the winter.