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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Efficient Sailing: passage routing

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There’s a problem: many cruisers think that sailing performance isn’t important. Hey, cruising is about slowing down, right?! But dismissing performance is poor seamanship. Part two in a series.

Efficient sailing is partly about sail trim and sail handling (that’s covered here), and partly about routing. With a few rules, routing from A to B can be faster (and safer).

dsc_3791Big picture routing—should we take the northern or southern route across the Indian Ocean?—is fun and easy. String together an efficient and safe path to the places that you want to visit. Take into account big considerations: seasonal weather patterns, time limitations, access to fuel/food/etc. The scientific formula for big picture routing is: fun – harm = intentions. What you actually do depends on a millions variables that happen as you step along the path.

Zoom in on details of sailing to the next place and you’re into A to B routing. Sometimes this is easy; a straight path without complicating factors. Often subtle variables can cost you time or diesel, and elevate risk.

Going from Seattle to Friday Harbor, you look at the weather and the tide for when you expect to be at Cattle Pass. This is A to B routing. Practical experience from attempting Cattle Pass on the wrong tide (as we once did) indelibly marks this detail as one not to forget. There are many “Cattle Pass” lessons that you learn to incorporate in A to B routing. This is local knowledge and it saves time, money, and lowers risk. Venture to a new area and local knowledge is gone.

Fortunately, wherever you’re going, somebody went there and wrote about it. Many blue water cruisers reference Jimmy Cornell’s World Cruising Routes. It’s a fine book for big picture routing and guidance on A to B routing, but it’s not a roadmap.

Our passage in April from Ascension Island to Barbados was 3,100 miles long. The small group of boats doing this passage referenced Cornell, and set out with the author’s advice on crossing the equator between 28 and 30 degrees west longitude. Crossing further west into northeast trade winds can make the Caribbean upwind and hard to reach. This advice has the downside of being into a wider band of ITCZ, meaning more squalls. Off the boats went, one by one, aimed at 28 degrees west. We chose a different route.

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Landfall: Ascension Island

In A to B routing, the longer or more complicated the route, the more days in advance I study weather and variables. For weeks I studied several different GRIB models. Day after day, trade winds were not northeast as Cornell said, but east north east and just fine for getting to the Caribbean. Investigating a route along the coast of Brazil, 900 miles west of Cornell’s route, I found reference to a strong current flowing northward along the coast. Fine wind, less lightning (narrower band of ITCZ), and positive current was too good to ignore. PredictWind’s routing algorithms (that’s our track in their viewer below, automatically generated with pings from our Iridium GO underway) in the Offshore app concurred, and bingo, we were off to the Brazilian coast. It was beautiful sailing with very few squalls, averaging 180 NM per day over 17.2 days. The “book route” took boats 5 to 7 days longer, experienced more squalls, and burned a lot more diesel. Budget sailors can get similar routing through FastSeas, a free/donation tool based on NOAA data for GFS and ocean currents.

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After this passage I happened to reread Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around the World. In 1898, Slocum sailed Spray on the same route along the coast of Brazil to reach the Caribbean in good time, noting, “the current, now at its height, amounted to forty miles a day.” Eighty-nine years later, Jimmy Cornell missed or disregarded this current. His book is still a great resource, but scenarios like this are a good reminder that it’s only one static resource.

From this lesson and others, here are six rules for A to B routing.

  1. Use multiple data sources.
  2. Schedules are inconvenient.
  3. When weather sources disagree, don’t pick one as best.
  4. Consider tidal and current flow.
  5. “Group think” weather analysis is always one opinion to many.
  6. Forecast accuracy varies regionally; compare forecasted and actual weather over time.

Efficient sailing will get you there faster, safer, and with less wear and tear. Just don’t confuse it with performance sailing! That can lead to soggy spinnaker and sour party mood.

This post was contributed by Jamie, who shares his more technical sailing experience from time to time. It’s really two legs on a three-legged stool, because routing is as important to efficient passagemaking as sail trim and sail handling…that post will have to come later.

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