Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

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Cruisers anchored off a small beach in the Exumas dinghy in for cocktails and chat while the sun sinks behind a distant cay. Most evenings in this idyllic spot new cruisers and old salts alike meet over plans to go fishing in the sound, the best time to avoid day-trippers in the Thunderball grotto, when the mail/grocery ship is due in this week, or just talk story.

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

Decaying government dock, Staniel Cay

We picked this location for the kids and I to hang out while Jamie was away based on the trifecta of people, provisions, and connectivity. Well, theoretical connectivity. We have line of sight to the Staniel Cay cell tower, but it’s been so dysfunctional I used our IridiumGO to load offshore GRIBs via PredictWind three out of the last four days!

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Weather conditions warrant monitoring, like the volatility that set up this little weather bomb a couple of days ago; I do not want to skip a day because I couldn’t connect.

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At beach sundowners the other night, one of the new cruisers commented that he “needed an SSB before cruising farther.” Thinking how I’d been using our Iridium in our near-shore location this week, it prompted me to ask why he expected to add radio and not satellite comms on board. Totem has both, but if we were starting from scratch, we’d pick IridiumGO over the SSB: no question. He seemed genuinely surprised by this, and unfamiliar with the pros/cons and trends in the cruising community. These are reasons I see for the shift (and our preference).pinterest satellite or ssb

With the Iridium, we can update weather any time—offshore, or in the shadow of an uncooperative Bahamian cell tower. With our SSB, it depends on the timing for good propagation , which is generally two windows per day. Even then, it may still be tricky: I tried, but couldn’t hear all of Chris Parker’s forecast yesterday morning. To download a weather product requires a good connection to a land-based station for the internet handshake. Is “any time” such a big deal? I think so.

Setup costs for an SSB run $4-5,000 for radio, tuner, grounding, cables, and pactor modem with DIY installation. An IridiumGO with the couple of extras (an external antenna and quality cable—PredictWind bundles this, and it’s worth every penny) is only about $1,200.

There are ongoing costs, and radio users will tell you theirs is $0, but most cruisers still subscribe to Sailmail (annual fee). It’s cheaper than satellite airtime, but that’s coming down. When you buy an Iridium GO kit from PredictWind, the airtime service partner is SatPhoneStore. We continue to get our airtime from them today: unlike others, you’re not locked in a lengthy contract and it’s possible to change service levels from one month to the next to help contain costs (pay as you go, “unlimited data”, different levels of talk time, etc.). Manage it well, and it’s reasonable to have years of use from an IridiumGO before it exceeds the cost of an SSB kit. Seeing signs of coming volatility in the forecast: priceless. (SatPhoneStore has a discount for Totem readers: skip to bottom of the post for details!)

European model rain wind forecast

Getting a radio install right is a topic of extensive discussion that I won’t touch except to say—it can be complicated. Installing a satellite is only complicated by the fact that getting the cable to the external antenna may feel like wrestling an uncooperative python. Ask Jamie how he feels about this.

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What’s also not complicated about a satellite device vs. radio setup? Using it! Whether that means it gets used more often, or better, this translates to SAFETY. Easier to understand, easier to use, more familiar mode of communication, arcane knowledge not required.

Radio nets were heralded for building cruiser community and providing a safety net. Their ability for 1:many reach (vs satellite’s 1:1) helps. I value the radio conversations with boats in loose company on a passage and in remote areas, but there are fewer voices now. A family who has crossed the Atlantic a several times over the last five years noted the trend: “it was quiet this last trip.” The overwhelming majority of Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) boats do not use HF radio. We had our radio sked with other cruisers, and texted with boats that used sat systems.

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Looking right…

The Garmin InReach offers an interesting, affordable alternative for getting weather and sending position updates from offshore. Back in Florida, we had a great visit with Dave & Carolyn (“The Boat Galley”) Shearlock. Previously SSB users, I knew they relied on a Garmin InReach for much of their Caribbean cruising, and asked her to give me a demo. Paired with a smartphone to improve the user interface, it is an affordable alternative for weather and texting—weather routers like Chris Parker can fit weather updates into the text limitations to send subscribers their customized route guidance. Read more about InReach on her informative site.

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Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

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…and left. Even the wide angle couldn’t fit it all in!

Discussion and marketing materials tout value all of the above options for offshore comms in an emergency (although that’s fading with HF, because you need people to be out there listening if you want to be heard), but none is a substitute for having an EPIRB on board. In fact: we have TWO on Totem—and recently added a PLB as well! Our older EPIRB is installed on the bulkhead, and a new ACR unit is in the ditch kit.

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Mairen reads off the UID to register our new EPIRB from ACR. 10 year battery!

To be clear, Jamie and I have amateur radio licenses and Totem has always had a marine SSB. I used to fall solidly in the “HF is best” camp, but after two oceans / 2.5 years with the Iridium it’s a no-brainer. Here in the Exumas, the mail/grocery boat may not have shown up this last week (Bahamian national elections interrupting service) and the internet may be mostly down, but pretty Big Majors has delivered with people, and I’m doing just fine staying on top of weather without ‘normal’ internet.

I’m a fan of SatPhoneStore service and asked if they’d consider passing a discount to readers, and they said yes! Now through July 31, use SAILINGTOTEM in their shopping cart for 5% off your order. Our IridiumGo airtime is through SPS; they carry the full spectrum of satellite devices from a handheld InReach tracker to KVH domes for the truly bandwidth addicted.

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Gifts that give a little more

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Among the lessons cruising has taught me: that a frugal life brings returns in personal happiness, and that seeking simplicity results not in deprivation but in a feeling of abundance. Living in our floating Tiny Home, “stuff” is the enemy. Still… once the tryptophan effect wears off after Thanksgiving, there’s an undeniable pull for a lot of folks to start looking for gifts.

In that vein, I have a different take on ideas for gifts to give your favorite cruiser this year. First, consider donating to a nonprofit that’s making a difference instead. I’m highlighting a few here that are focused on the health of our marine environment or communities that rely upon it. Second, since most of us are on the hunt for something tangible to give, I have a shortlist of gift ideas for gear that’s not just truly useful…it supports a greater good. Also: codes for discounts!

Here’s a selection of organizations (and an individual) doing good work in support of a healthier marine environment, or better lives for the people that rely upon it.

Louisiade Solar Light Project. AKA- SeaGoon. We met the driving force behind this remarkable one-boat show in Papua New Guinea in 2012. Hans brings donated solar panels, LED lights, and the materials on his sailboat, SeaGoon, to islands in PNG where he installs them in local villages where there is no electricity. He works with islanders to teach them to maintain the systems, and has brought much needed donations to support health and education to islands lacking the most basic of utilities. PayPal donations can be sent to svseagoon@gmail.com; Read more about Hans in this Australian article. (see also: his website / Facebook page)

International Rescue Group. Delivering aid by sea, IRG is currently sending boats to Haiti and using watermakers purchased with donated funds to bring potable water to communities suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Donate here to contribute to an immediate need where every dollar helps. (And because Haitians need help: Good Samaritan of Haiti, and Friends of Ile a Vache, and Waves for Water)

Sea Mercy. Sea Mercy provides health care workers, equipment, and services by boat when these events occur (like tsunami and hurricanes) and local governments are stretched to meet existing emergency needs in remote islands. We know a few cruisers who have enlisted their vessels to support Sea Mercy’s mission to provide aid when disasters occur; you can donate to support this 501 (c) (3) charity on their website.

OceansWatch. Working with island communities in the South Pacific, NZ-based OceansWatch uses their vessels (cruising boats can help, too) to develop and enact conservation plans. Educating communities to help them be self-sufficient through better management of their fisheries is just one example.  More information and a donation link is on their website.

Niparaja. ANiparaja works to protect natural environments along the massive coastline and species diversity of Baja California Sur (among other projecs!). Called “one of the most effective and locally well-loved non-profits” by a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs. More on their website.

Most of us are going to buy some “thing” instead of donating to a cause: here’s a range of options that aren’t just perfect for cruisers, but also support fair trade products, a family business, more sustainable living, or otherwise contribute to a greater good.

Marmara Imports. Many cruisers rave about Turkish towels, the flat cotton weave that dries you…then dries quickly (leave the terrycloth at home…and beware the musty/stinky microfiber!). But not all brands are created equal: Marmara’s organic cotton / fair trade towel quality is exceptional, where others sourced via Amazon weren’t soft and had tassels fall apart. Feel good: this small business’ mission is tied to sustaining artisans who are supporting families and keeping traditional hand-looming skills alive. See the full range on MarmaraImports.com: Use the discount code “Holidays” at checkout to get 20% off through November 30th.

One of the weavers for Marmara Imports; image courtesy of the company

One of the weavers for Marmara Imports; image courtesy of the company

Sport-a-seat. These innovative portable seats have provided the first TRULY COMFORTABLE seating in Totem’s cockpit since, well, ever. Aside from the significant increase in butt happiness on board, the easily adjustable seats use SunBrella, so I know that pretty navy cover will hold up for years. Feel good: support this family enterprise, a husband-and-wife team who are overcoming low quality knockoffs from big marine brands while continuing to provide a superior product. Order from sportaseat.com and use TOTEM15 at checkout for a 15% discount.

Solavore. It’s no secret I love using our solar oven: cooking with the sun helps us go farther, live lighter, and eat well. It’s a perfect match for the cruising life. Feel good: this company actively works to incubate solar-powered entrepreneurs in developing countries. Their Solavore Works arm is making a real difference for families in Kenya, India, and Cambodia…working with local organizations to empower individuals and change lives. Buy your oven from Solavore.com.

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Cooking corn…the very, very easy way!

Outdoor Foundry waterproof backpack. A dependable drybag is essential kit for cruisers, but a backpack style with features beyond “keeping things dry” eluded us. This bag finally does it with a laptop sleeve (remember our laptop/dinghy mishap?) and other functional pockets inside, outside pockets for water bottles, bungees to strap odd-shaped extras on the back, and COMFORTABLE adjustable/padded straps. Feel good: this better backpack is the brainchild and small-biz flagship product of future cruisers Chis and Andi, who are looking for new location-independent ways to support their family for a life afloat. They’re offering another 10% off the holiday discount if you use the code TOTEMFAN at checkout. Your purchase on Amazon with this link sends us a tip.

Luci. This solar-powered portable LED lantern has brightened many evenings on Totem. I love the soft filter and colors of the “party light,” and being the only Purple cockpit light in the anchorage makes it easy to distinguish Totem from other boats after dark too! Feel good: while you bring light to your life…you can help bring it to others. This company seeks to provide clean, safe, affordable lights to people in developing countries: more retail sales = lower manufacturing costs = more affordable lights to developing world. You can give a Luci light to someone in need directly through MPOWERED, or buy one for yourself on Amazon that will tip the Totem kitty.

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This fuzzy, Luci-lit cockpit picture was brought to you by too much rum.

Check out my posts for 2014 gift ideas, the 2015 guide, see my recent post of new books for cruisers, or choose a book from our list of recommended reading…because books are never the wrong answer!

Special offer for Voyaging with Kids: I’ll personalize a book with a message based on your desires, wherever you want. Now there’s a gift you can’t get on Amazon! Book plus shipping in the continental US is $40; other destinations, just ask (shipping costs passed through 1:1). Contact me to purchase.

Jamie wearing Outdoor Foundry's backpack on during a dayhike in Maryland last month

Jamie sporting the Nootka backpack during a dayhike in Maryland last month…tossing Siobhan into the marsh…

There are so many worth nonprofits working to make a difference for marine environments! Calling out more here, in case particular missions speak to you.

  • Hello Ocean! Coordinating scientific expeditions for marine research. Good work that the Hello Ocean! crew turns into films that can educate people about conservation needs: the kind of outreach that desperately needs better funding to help inform the public.
  • Rozalia Project. Programs and ideas for individual action in support of goals for a clean ocean, a protected ocean, and a thriving ocean.
  • Ocean Research Project. Science, education and exploration to direct the sustainability of the oceans. Also, Matt Rutherford!
  • Sailors for the Sea.  Work including green boating guides, educational lesson plans, and more. On #GivingTuesday they launched a new video about their mission.
  • OceanCare. Projects supporting ocean conservation, whale protection, biodiversity, and awareness for marine health issues.

Local organizations:

  • Exumas Foundation. A small and effective organization supporting education, sustainability and more in the Exumas.
  • Science Under Sail. Bahamas-focused projects on climate change, ocean acidification, plastic pollution and invasive species. Now with  MATCHING DONATIONS! Campaign to double your gift underway – plus, cool shackle bracelet.
  • Blind Sailing UK. Helping the visually impaired sail at all levels.
  • Coastal Conservation Association. Dedicated to conserve, promote, and enhance coastal resources in the USA.
  • New England Science and Sailing Foundation (NESS): year round educational programs promoting marine stewardship.
  • Sound Experience. Envisioning “a future where everyone values Puget Sound and chooses to act as stewards of its treasured waters.”
  • Deep Green Wilderness and SV Orion. Marine science and stewardship programs in the Salish Sea.
  • Call of the Sea has been successfully operating on-the-water programs for San Francisco bay area youth since 1984. They’re building another ship, a 124′ brigantine– Educational Tall Ship project — to expand their work.
  • Sailing Angels. Getting veterans and kids with disabilities out on the bay from Kemah, TX.
  • Downtown Sailing.  Providing sailing opportunities for people and families who don’t otherwise have the opportunity- in Baltimore, MD.
  • Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (yes, that’s CRAB). Bringing boating experiences to the mobility impaired.
  • Community Boating. Boston organization providing sailing experiences to people of all ages, abilities, and means.
  • Shake a Leg Miami. Sailing for disabled kids and adults in Biscayne Bay.
  • KATS. Serving underprivileged youth in the virgin islands by providing instruction and experiences under sail.
  • Whale Time. South African database for whale tracking and guides in the Indian Ocean.
  • Warrior Sailing. St. Pete-based program getting wounded warrior men and women on the water and sailing.
  • Tall Ships America. Youth education, leadership development and the preservation of the maritime heritage of North America