Any cruising yacht has a variety of communication equipment on board ranging from sat phones to SSB and VHF to the smart phone or tablet but selecting and installing the right combination of devices turned out to be a broader subject than I imagined. The following pages review what we have on board Camomile, the background, comments on it and what we might have done differently.
Smart (mobile) phone
I suppose that this must be the most common radio communication device to be found on a boat nowadays at least all the while it has a person on board it. Certainly, even in some of the most remote regions we have cruised, access to networks is widespread to the point where it may well be the only device carried by small vessels, VHF being more expensive and stations few and far between. We have even seen dugout canoes equipped with this technology!
On Camomile we have several handsets all of which we have unlocked so that we can buy local pay as you go sim cards when we arrive in a new cruising area. This works better in some places than others according to the tariffs and quality of the network coverage but has always turned out to be useful to have whenever we have taken up the option.
We retain, and always have switched on, ourUKcontract number so that we can be contacted in an emergency wherever we are within mobile signal range. Unfortunately the cost to both caller and called can be very expensive.
Mobile phone internet access
Broadband internet access is such a given in first world countries these days that it is hard to imagine what it is like to live without the instant response we have learned to expect. Frustrating is hardly a strong enough word for sitting in front of your PC for an hour waiting for it to do a 5 second job or having to get up at 2am to get bandwidth while other users are asleep. Happily those nice folk from the mobile network providers have been very busy mangling the beautiful landscape of far off places with hideously tall red and white towers sprouting mysterious objects from the top of them. This has spread internet access enormously just in the time we have been out cruising and has helped enormously with keeping in touch with loved ones at home in the UK
We are not techno geeks and have limited access to teenagers who intuitively know how to make you feel old and useless wrestling with technology which they seem to have adapted themselves to from birth. However it is getting easier and Skype, Facebook, Google and online banking are much easier to access leaving me wistfully wondering if they could please go away again and give me back that peace I came searching for in the first place
In nearly every port we have entered and at many anchorages located near hotels or resorts we have found wireless networks selling access mostly at reasonable rates. In a small number of cases these may even be free but this is balanced by an equally small number which are exorbitantly expensive.
We have found it far more useful to get access on board the boat because, being in a very different time zone to the UK, our need to use programmes like Skype is at odds with the opening times of the internet cafes or free wifi bars which can be found pretty much anywhere.
Unfortunately when anchored a distance away from the land antenna it is rare that good reception can be maintained from the PC’s built in device so we use a small external signal booster made by Alfa. This cost around £80GBP but has been successful in at least 80% of the cases where the PC can’t cope on it’s own, in boosting the signal to make it usable.
It’s sometimes nice to tune into the local FM station for some easy listening or even some difficult listening if you can find the BBC World Service as we sometimes manage. Our receiver is a bog standard car audio unit which has a USB port and Bluetooth so Sue and I can torment each other by connecting our Ipods and phones to play our favourite tracks into four speakers with a amplified subwoofer to do justice to those Caribbean, Bob Marley moments
Finally a piece of marine equipment I hear you cry! Well that’s progress for you. In fairness our fixed VHF set is our most used piece of radio equipment bar none. At anchor it is usually switched on from when we get up until when it gets dark and, on passage, is live all the time.
Ours is a Raymarine set and like nearly everything else Raymarine on board has its faults (like 6 keystrokes to get dual watch for instance).
It is also a DSC set and, although I’d still want DSC if I was doing it again, it seems that most of the southern hemisphere we have explored so far has absolutely no idea what it is about even though many of the cruising boats we encounter do actually have it.
Partly as a result of this and partly because I really can’t be fagged I have used the DSC function just a handful of times to call another yacht for a ship to ship chat. I do however draw comfort from the fact that, deep ocean where most of the commercial traffic has to carry DSC and AIS, I can get to make a lot of noise on their bridge if I feel moved to attract their attention.
We have 2 of these on board. An Icom M1 Euro because we bought it just before we won one at the Southampton boat show. This is a double irony the first being that we never win anything and the second being that it was, yes you guessed it, a Raymarine! Deep joy… not.
We have since used our handheld extensively for keeping in touch when we are away from the boat on our dinghy or ashore and in both cases it has been indispensible particularly when we are in remote locations. Waterproof is a must as I have already outlined and the possibility to use standard batteries is an advantage too. Unfortunately our Icom can only use a rechargeable battery unit and so does not have a place in our grab bag which is where our Raymarine one resides on the basis that, when it’s rechargeable batteries fail, we have several packs of AA alkalines to service it assuming it does not select that moment of crisis to fail from some other Ray ailment!
When I first started looking at installing SSB onto our boat as part of the equipment required by the Blue Water Rally organisation I was appalled at the all up cost of a new, complete system and there only seemed to be one serious contender in the market; ICOM.
I felt strongly that we had to have this broadcast capability as it made for easy and, at about £160GBP/annum for the email access, cheap communication with weather information sources as well as radio nets with other yachts. This latter turned out to be more important than I had imagined as Sue took to using the set like a duck to water making it possible to break up those otherwise (thankfully) dull long distance cruising days by chatting to friends on other boats to keep sanity intact. Invaluable; and not possible on a sat phone because of the cost and the difficulty with having a simultaneous conversation between a group of boats.
After some research I discovered that second hand equipment frequently changes hands on ebay. I also noticed that, from time to time in the bidding frenzy, equipment was sold for so near to the asking price that it made very little sense to buy it. However I had time on my side and waited until an older and apparently genuine ICOM M800 set came on the market and ended up paying around £400 for it. This older set did not meet the latest European standards and so in theory should not have been installed there however I had discovered that the Euro versions albeit beautifully waterproofed have their output de-rated compared to older or non euro spec sets and so equalled more money for less grunt. The only drawbacks with the M800, at what amounted to almost a tenth of the price of a new set, seemed to be that it would not be self tuning when connecting to an email station using a modem, it did not have a DSC function and the risk that it would be inadequate in some way. I decided that the inconvenience of turning a tuning knob for email was irrelevant, that I would live without the DSC since I have two fast GPS EPIRBs and that if there was some inadequacy with the set then I would buy a new, non euro set, tax free from say Gibraltar having got the rest of the installation in place and tested before setting out on our trip.
The full installation of the set included fitting an insulated backstay to the rig, installing ground plates under the hull and running copper straps through the bilge as well as the co-ax and control line cables. Along with the pactor modem all of this cost around £1,300 not to mention the fees for the long range certificate and licence.
For training and the Pactor modem I went to Bob Smith at Yachtcom. I can’t say enough good things about Bob, he was professional in his training, knowlegable on his subject and super helpful with technical support which included setting up my PC to operate the SSB and installing the Sailmail and Meteofax software to use with it. He also gave me installation support which was completely invaluable particularly when my PC kept falling over when attempting to transmit (which he solved by installing a Bluetooth link to the Pactor to prevent the RF energy travelling down the USB connector wire). Also, when I discovered that I could not get an answer to my test transmissions, he reassured me that it wasn’t my kit but only that I needed to get into clear water away from the marina which happened to be in a dead spot anyway. I would have pulled the boat and the SSB apart looking for loose wires were it not for this advice! His website also contained lots of helpful hints for the hardware installation and I am convinced that following these was responsible for the clarity and strength of our transmissions which earned our nickname of Radio Camomile.
In the end our faithful M800 was killed by a near lightning strike and replaced with a later M802 Icom DSC machine which also works well.
Not something we use every day but still nice to have on board, and again our original Nextbase unit was a lightning casualty and replaced by an Avtex which has all the latest high speed interfaces for data and also. This unit’s user interface is a bit clunky but it makes up for it by decoding digital or analogue signals for radio and TV, will read PAL & NTSC formats, has a CD drive (which admittedly sometimes tries to eat discs) , draws little current from the 12V system and all for a little over £300GBP.
A “don’t leave home without it” item. Ours is a class b transponder by Raymarine (yes I know) that we can “cloak” at will, removes the worry of what that commercial vessel is doing and lets him know you are there. It overlays ships onto our chartplotter so we can see what exactly what is happening and can also check the calibration of our radar with it. A big comfort deep ocean and in busy ports alike it’s drawback is that fishing boats are not obliged to carry one so they are most often invisible to it.
This is a small radio transmitter worn on the wrist which sends a periodic pulse to a receiver attached to a receiver that is in turn attached to our chart plotter. If the signal is not received i.e. the bracelet goes out of it’s short range than all hell breaks loose as a loud siren goes off and the chart plotter marks the spot providing a track back to where the signal was lost. Sue and I always wear these even on a short passage when the other is sleeping off watch. The bracelet also has a “panic” button which allows the wearer to summon the off watch crew member. In my opinion a really importantant safety device though I have been surprised how few boats seem to use them.
Ok, this is not communications but it does send and receive so I felt it worth mentioning that, although we don’t use it all that much in blue water, it is great for spotting and tracking squalls as well as checking that your charts are accurate in some of those remoter spots.
Our McMurdo ICS Nav 6 was really useful when we were travelling inEurope. Since then we have barely used it at all. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, if you ask someone well acquainted with acquiring weather forecasting data in the South Pacific you are likely to get the same blank look as when you ask them when they last used their DSC function. They simply don’t use it there. Secondly, whoever wrote the user interface managed to make it wholly counter-intuitive to the point where, if I have not altered the receiver parameters for a couple of weeks, I have to get the manual out and relearn it from scratch. This might just be me however I generally don’t have to do that with other equipment. For this reason, having used other sources of information, and assuming something else is not broken I will be surprised if ever use it again, even when I get back toEurope.
We do not carry a sat phone but rather a satellite modem, an Iridium GO! This allows us to pull data in the form or weather forecasts and emails down onto our PC (using either Predictwind or Sailmail). It can also interface with our smart phone which allows voice calls and texts to be sent. The tariff bands are switchable so we can move from the $50USD a month pay as you go deal to the $120USD per month unlimited data and 150 free minutes depending how much we expect to use it in that period.
It is only recently that this technology (at around 700GBP) and tariff has come become reasonable enough to invest in but before you rush out and buy one please don’t expect to use it to browse the web. Its download speed had disappointed many who have bought one however to me it fills an important gap.
I have to emphasise at this point that our primary communication device for safety traffic, mail and weather is the SSB on passage however the GO! provides a back-up in the event of poor radio propagation or losing our backstay antenna for example.
There is a variety of voice activated headset mounted walkie talkie which is referred to in yotty circles as the “marriage saver”. Anyone who drops anchor with their spouse on the bow while the other drives the boat will know exactly why it has acquired this name. Simple requests become howled threats, hand signals become intolerant gesticulations, information becomes insult and suggestion becomes slight. The tension mounts and mounts in direct proportion to the entertainment value being had by boats already sitting at anchor anxiously pretending never to have been in that situation on their boat!
I have yet to find one of these treasures for sale and am still searching at present.