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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Guns and cruising

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“What kind of guns do you have on board?” This was the opening question from a new acquaintance at a cocktail party. Loaded with assumptions from someone who doesn’t know us, and who has no intention of traveling the way we do. Walking down the dock the other day, a woman was overheard talking about practicing at the range because they were going to Mexico, and she’d need her gun there. It’s a big scary world out there, gotta protect yourself!

Or…it isn’t, and you just have to ditch the paranoia and think about it a little. The reality of our personal safety risks as cruisers is out of scale with those perceptions. But I guess in the “if it bleeds, it leads” media, a lot of people are lead to believe that the world outside the US borders is a dangerous place. It’s just not right. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve felt safer outside the USA during our years of travels than I do back at home. The scariest moment in our eight years of cruising came in California and had nothing to do with malicious intent…but that’s another story. What I wish the guy at the cocktail party had asked is “how do you stay safe?” This is something we think about all the time! Besides a healthy appreciation for our own lives, we carry our most precious cargo on board – our three kids. Any impression that we are cavalier about safety is misplaced.

Piracy hotspots are well known and easy to avoid. Our encounters at sea are so minimal they’re almost not worth mentioning. We were scouted in the South China Sea, a definite hotspot, but only for commercial vessels. There was a fishing boat in Sri Lanka that followed us for an entire day. We know it was a bunch of fishermen, and MAYBE it could have spun into something more than that, but that’s pure speculation. When the sun got low and they were still tailing us, we radioed our buddy boat and they basically beelined to our position… the fishermen left. (FWIW, these same guys traded us gorgeous fish!)

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Just countries get an unwarranted bad reputation; others simply need to be understood as more complex than just “bad” in general. O on couple of times we’ve chosen to travel in places that were so-called “dangerous” after our research concluded we’d be able to visit with minimal security risks. Papua New Guinea is one of those countries with a terrible reputation. It can be dangerous and has some crazy violent crime, just like the USA. But with a little bit of research, and understanding both where and why crime occurs, we made a plan to avoid problems and spent an unforgettable three months with few concerns. We had basic rules: we mapped locations with positive first-hand reports (I wrote about it here), we avoided places that were trouble hotspots (unique dynamics to PNG with extraction industries for mineral/timber/fish, or population centers), and we always trusted our gut: if a place didn’t feel right, we moved on.

Mexico is a more familiar for most Americans, like the woman down the dock who thought she’d need to arm herself. I chalk this up to lack of understanding and media influence. Staying safe in Mexico mostly comes down to “don’t be stupid” (walk around Tijuana drunk at 2am? Involved in drug trade of any kind?). We paid attention to the coconut telegraph and local reputations (watch your dinghy in Mazatlán, and your outboard in Barra.). Pretty sure most cruisers who have been to Mexico would agree with me: we feel safer there than we do in the US by a wide margin!

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Petty theft happens. If you think disguising your outboard to look beat up and old will make it less appealing, think again. It’s an outboard. Our US flag was probably stolen off the back of the boat in Seychelles, but we’re not even positive that was deliberate vs slippery line and knots coming undone. Our horseshoe was taken off the back of the boat in Labuan, Malaysia…probably. I think it was secure? Know the reputation of places you go, what to do or not do, and then be open. We’ve also noticed that folks who assume people are out to get them until proven otherwise are more likely to have problems with petty theft. There’s no statistical significance to the observation, but something demonstrated often enough.

With a return to the Caribbean ahead, we have a lot to learn about staying safe. Once again, it’s an area with risks to learn about and decide how to approach. Should we put bars across the hatches? Are there destinations to rule out? There’s a lot to figure out, but we’ll do our best, and we sure don’t think we’re safer by staying at home.

Back to the question we had at that cocktail party about how many guns are on Totem. Diplomatic me wants to say that guns on board are a personal choice and your choice is fine, but I’m not feeling very diplomatic. Guns aboard are a bad idea for a pile or reasons. Had the German boat recently boarded in the Philippines not had guns aboard, the woman aboard would probably still be alive. So would Sir Peter Blake.

While cruising in Mexico, we met a former green beret colonel out cruising with his family. His training is extensive, and his opinion- which I respect- was that the training needed for a gun on board is WAY outside the realm of the typical cruiser. It’s not just about going to the range, and how to handle it, but the microdecisions about when to use it. Even with all of his training, he felt he was safer without a gun on board than with one.

Aside from the fact that the best way to be shot by a gun aboard is to have a gun aboard, it’s a hassle. You have to declare them on entry in a new country. That country will almost certainly take them for you until you clear out, and your port of entry and intended port of clearance could be a long distance apart. Lying and hiding guns? Laws vary of course, but can mean incarceration or death if they’re found! Go ahead, cowboy. If someone is determined to target us and to take our stuff, I’d rather just let them take it than risk greater personal injury to my kids or myself.

Passage planning: the float plan

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Writing a float plan is a simple thing to do, may be critical in the event of an emergency, and is all too easily set aside and left undone in the stack of tasks that precede going offshore. Provisioning. Checking the weather. Vessel integrity checks. Checking the weather again.

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The bare minimum of a float plan is providing someone you know with basic information about your vessel, passengers, destination, timeline for departure and return, and contact information. That’s it. The USCG doesn’t take float plans; this is for someone you know and trust. If you don’t arrive within an expected timeframe, they’re tasked with notifying the Coast Guard if you do not meet your timeline to return.

Why do you need one? This is boating safety 101. It should not be lost in the false hubris of pride in self-sufficiency. If you don’t think you need one, consider friends/family at home who will suffer if you decide to skip this simple step and the unthinkable happens. A float plan includes the critical details that fall through the cracks of what you think they know…but might not.

Use your EPIRB registration

In addition to providing a float plan to trusted individuals, use your EPIRB registration to capture details. The registration form has an exceptionally important field – “Additional Information”. This free-form field is not required, but is a great place to share any other details which might possibly be helpful for SAR agencies in the event of an emergency.

We use it first to provide the email addresses for our emergency contacts, since the form only takes telephone numbers, and the link to a Dropbox folder that contains copies of our float plan, photos of Totem in and out of the water, and other information which could be useful in an emergency.

Back in Malaysia in late 2014, I got in touch with one of our designated contacts to confirm they’d be on point for our float plan and share details of our voyage. In the process I was asked a very reasonable question by our friend Dan: “so if they call me – what do I have to do?” This shouldn’t have pulled me up short, but for a moment, it did. We are so accustomed to considering emergency scenarios from our perspective, and not the shore side view, that I had not truly thought through about how to prepare those back at home. What should they expect to happen, if our EPIRB is triggered? What information did I need to make sure they had available?

Beyond the float plan: what we do on Totem

We create a detailed document that goes beyond the basics of a float plan.

This document starts with a crew list including the name, age, and passport numbers of everyone on board. It also includes shore side emergency contacts for any other crew joining our family.

Details about Totem come next: hull type and shape, rig type, color, any unique details that would identify her from the many other white sloops of the world. Having recently hauled, we have photos of Totem out of water showing the keel profile. I don’t want to think about her being identified upside down, but it could prove useful.

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Safety gear aboard is listed, from our life raft (make / color / description) and ditch bags (also with visual descriptions). Also included are registration copies for both of our EPIRBs.

If we’re traveling loosely in company with any other boats, those people may have the best information about our location or local conditions. Those boats, their names, and their contact details (including at-sea contacts such as sat phone or radio-based email addresses) are included in the folder, as are the details for any radio nets we take part in.

While I hate to think about it being necessary, copies of paperwork for our health/life insurance and boat insurance and the contact for our insurance agents are included. We also provide a spreadsheet with links, logins and passwords for critical accounts in case the unthinkable happens.

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Our last critical step is to provide a clear set of directions for our emergency contacts at home. They’re given our expected arrival time/place, and outside date after which we should be considered overdue. If we haven’t contacted them by the outside date, we provide a list of contacts for them to make. First, to try and reach us at sea (via the Iridium GO). Second, to attempt to reach boats we’re traveling in company with. Finally, to contact the appropriate Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center. I put numbers and links in the document to make it easy.

A related consideration: outside of float plan specifics is worth considering. I’ve seen friends subjected to abuse after disaster struck their families, and news of it hit the general media. To mitigate that, consider nominating a trusted friend to take over any online profiles you maintain in the event of an emergency: login to your blog, Facebook, any other profiles you use. If the unthinkable happens, a friend can shut down your blog to comments, deactive your Facebook profile, or take other steps to spare you the exposure and pain of judgement from the uninformed but righteous anonymous internet.

Templates help: google “Float Plan” for a pile of options. And look at the turquoise water in the picture below, because getting places like that (Hermit Islands, PNG) safely is the end game.

Jamie and I have re-opened our coaching service after a hiatus due to “too busy”! Do you have questions about cruising? Want some help figuring out how to realize the dream, choose the boat, prepare (without going broke!), stay safe, or just better understand what it’s really like? We’re mentoring people to answer those questions. Learn more about how to work with us, or get in touch to get started.

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