Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

_DSC6786

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!

Screenshot (882)

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.

_DSC6757

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

Flexibility

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.

Cost

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. Read airtime contracts carefully: what looks like a good deal on the surface may not be. Some lock in a lengthy contract. Better options allow you 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.

European model rain wind forecast

Installation

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.

_DSC6741

Everyday use

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.

Staying in touch with other cruisers

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.

_DSC6763 (2)

Looking right…

Sat Trackers

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.

phone weather InReach Garmin

Carolyn demonstrates the InReach on her linked smartphone

_DSC6764

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

You still need an EPIRB

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.

girl boat epirb beacon safety

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.

_DSC6648

, , , , , , , , , ,

38 Responses to Offshore Communications: Satellite or SSB?

  1. Michael May 18, 2017 at 9:14 am #

    I love hearing about the practical and real-world side of communications. This is so very important to everyone currently.

    I too have leaned toward the satellite option, even though it is costly and slow, and I absolutely hate it on land. However, you point out the initial cost savings which some of us might overlook, and it is significant.

    Thank you for all the good details.

    By the way, could you define the acronyms used?

    • Behan May 18, 2017 at 9:51 am #

      Satellite and radio are *both* slow–but the new Iridium constellation (hardware/airtime pricing TBD, but expected in service next year) promises 10x increase over current data throughput. STILL SLOW, but a big improvement. Acronyms… I do hate jargon or unclear language! Will check out the offenders when bandwidth here improves, but meanwhile, consider Googling anything unfamiliar to be a good learning exercise as I think any used would be commonly understood in the cruising community.

  2. Tace May 18, 2017 at 12:18 pm #

    This may be a good place/time to mention the rebelheart’s experience with failed satellite communications leading to their rescue a few years ago:

    http://www.therebelheart.com/blog/2014/7/28/more-satellitephonestorecom-stories.html and http://www.therebelheart.com/blog/2014/8/19/satellitephonestorecom-i-have-again-not-paid-my-bill.html

    When your satellite phone provider disconnects your service with no notice, you can be left high and dry, as they were….

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      There is always a risk of failure points. Our SSB failed about halfway from Mexico to the Marquesas (power amplifiers blew). Rebel Heart also had an SSB, on board which also was not working at the time of their emergency.

  3. Jason Haase May 18, 2017 at 12:34 pm #

    One interesting point that has come up over the last few years is that you can now buy quality Sat. technology on the secondary market. We picked up our Iridium go from a family that used it for 6 months and we got it for half price..

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 8:31 am #

      Absolutely! And of course, same goes for radio equipment. Although if I were looking at a purchase now, and could be patient, I’d wait to see the cost of the next-gen “Next” Iridium hardware and airtime pricing.

  4. Carla Barrett May 18, 2017 at 4:08 pm #

    Behan, on MAHI, we have Iridium GO!, SSB, and the In Reach. Plan to stop paying for the InReach product, not impressed compared to what we get with our Iridium Go! I would pick The Iridium Go over SSB, too.

    Great article as always!

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 8:34 am #

      That’s a lot of ways to communicate and get weather, Carla! I think InReach is handy as the affordable option for people who don’e want/need the extended capabilities of the IridiumGO, vs. an alternative…InReach is so much more limited.

  5. Kyra May 18, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

    We went through this dilemma before crossing the Pacific and have no regrets going the SAT phone route – worked very well for us!

  6. Jackie Parry May 18, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

    I have not used satellite, so cannot comment there, although I see it is well used and liked. However, I find the quoted costs for SSB radio excessive. We paid $800 for a second-hand radio (Icom) and about the same for a tuner and installed it ourselves, so it can’t be that complicated 😉
    Never had a propagation problem and very regular free weather information all over the world.
    Sched information invaluable – sad to hear it is being used less.

    Just my two-cents worth…. maybe when we next cruise we’d try satellite and write a different reply!

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 8:26 am #

      It’s possible to pay even less for sat gear, too, if you want to go second hand. But $800 sounds like not quite the full kit, even bargain used prices–possibly not quite the right comparison? The Pactor modem alone will run $1,300-$2,000+… no data without a Pactor. Noted elsewhere, you mentioned $800 was just the radio, so you also need to include the cost of the tuner–there’s the matter of an antenna, and grounding, and getting quality cable– you can tack on a lot to a $800 second hand radio! The extensive discussions in forums on radio installs and their complications for most mere mortals can make you feel good that you nailed it. 😉 And yes, there were fewer land-based stations to connect in the western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and South Atlantic. I do wonder if you’d feel differently had you used both and have the basis for comparison!

      • Jackie Parry May 19, 2017 at 5:57 pm #

        Yes, I said the tuner was about 800 as well. Perhaps it was in Panama that the costs were less? Although when we did our first boat (a few years ago) there was far more selection in Australia and much cheaper to buy a non-marine Icom and open it up. And you’re right there is more cost, and hauling out… but then it stops, we had no further outlay.

    • Jamie Gifford May 19, 2017 at 8:54 am #

      You’re right that buying second hand is less expensive. I know cruisers that have paid less than you did and had a great signal. But inventory on second hand market for a good marine SSB is often limited. And there’s more to costs than radio/tuner, such as cabling, counterpoise, and backstay isolators/rigging add up.

      I’ll also point out that all radios are not created equally. For example, some SSBs are not rated for the continuous use that Pactor modem subjects them to during transmission. Furuno 1503 is one such radio – we learned this this this hard way, burning-out a $500 voltage amplifier on the way to Marquesas and again on the way to Vanuatu. Only after getting to Australia did we learn the cause from a ham geek; and that there was no solution other than very light Pactor use.

      As for installation, most installs are more fiddly than yours (lucky you!). Gremlins usually get solved without great trouble, but we have a friends that had top quality equipment professionally installed and it had terrible Rx and Tx. They hired different professionals including Gordon West (well known SSB expert). All the equipment tested fine outside the boat, but it never did work on board.

      We replaced our Furuno with Icom, and continue to enjoy having the SSB communications in addition to satellite.

      • Jackie Parry May 19, 2017 at 6:02 pm #

        Interesting Jamie, to hear that there is less choice now. When we did our first boat there was a lot of choices and we purchased a non-marine SSB (Icom) and had it opened up. Mind you that was nearly 20 years ago! (where does the time go?) – There seemed very little choice in Panama, but we found a great Icom. Yes you are right with other costs too – and hauling out for grounding plate (so easy to forget) – but then the costs stop. We had no further costs at all after the installation.

        Many people don’t realise that ALL other electrics on board can affect the tx/rx – fridge, wind generators, solar panels, everything….

        I have to credit Noel (husband) for the install, I just played ‘bracket’ holding things here and there! 🙂

  7. Jay Campbell May 19, 2017 at 7:02 am #

    Good piece Behan! We had turned our Iridium GO! off (cancelled the service, its free, because we are relatively “fixed in place” for a time in the Bahamas) just in time to be over run by Hurricane Matthew in the Bahamas. While we survived the storm and kept communication with our redundant In Reach device, we ordered a new card and turned the Iridium GO! on again ($50) once the world returned to normal. At least for the next year, we will keep it as our back up device in the Bahamas. Voice communication in the out-islands is too unpredictable. Jay and Karen Campbell (and Widget)

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 8:51 am #

      Interesting example– and yes, it’s great for backup comms in an emergency like that. But here’s hoping there’s no repeat of a hurricane in your out-island home!

  8. Geoff McClure S/V Zen May 19, 2017 at 7:37 am #

    Great article. We currently have SSB but will be installing Iridium GO as soon as I can bring myself to run the antennae. We’re only just starting out as cruisers and haven’t used either yet but it’s good to get the feedback from those that with considerable experience.

  9. Marie Raney May 19, 2017 at 11:37 am #

    Our boat came with a Ham/marine band radio and we found a pactor for $150 at a marine swap. It hooks to our laptop which we use for nav and we have been very happy with it in the Pacific. We use it for grib downloads which load right into Coastal Explorer. With airmail I can send messages to family and keep my blog updated underway. We also participate in the nets. It may be old style but it works for us and keeps our monthly expenses down.

    • Behan May 19, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

      Nothing wrong with old skool and functional! Unless you inherit a system (enough cruisers still can), second hand is a great way to affordably meet offshore communications (you can get second hand sat equipment, too). The Pacific also had more active nets (and accessible land stations). There wasn’t a single functional net in SE Asia, they failed from lack of participation. We created our own skeds with boats in company for the Indian and Atlantic ocean.

      • Beth May 27, 2017 at 8:35 am #

        Great article! We’re coastal cruisers in the process of preparing for long distance passages. We have Iridium Go and SSB but don’t have much experience yet with SSB. We believe in options and want to be fluent with both. Can you please explain “skeds” or sched info, as one person used it? I think I have an idea what you mean but want to make sure. Please keep the how-to articles coming!

        • Behan May 28, 2017 at 10:42 am #

          Hi Beth– sked/schedules are just established times to meet and talk to others on the SSB. Sometimes it’s a net, e.g. regular time that generally includes vessels checking in on a roll call; it also refers to just an informal time to catch up on the radio with friends. Hope that helps!

  10. Jackie Parry May 19, 2017 at 6:05 pm #

    Great piece BTW – good to keep up to date with technology and what people are doing out there! I am awful at change, so I do try to keep an open mind, especially as I’ve not used satellite… yet! 🙂

    • Behan May 20, 2017 at 8:19 am #

      Thanks Jackie. This is also a more complex topic than a ~1,000 word post can really accommodate! FWIW, we are very glad to also have an SSB on board, and until we had a chance to get the Iridium on board and use it—I’d have had trouble appreciating what a game-changer it is. But it IS, and at the same time, the SSB world for cruisers is fading (even iCom has exited the market).

  11. Deb Jansma May 19, 2017 at 8:56 pm #

    Great article! We have neither so far and will soon be coming to a decision point. I am going to try and be patient and wait for the next gen of the Go! We would have made our purchase this year but none of the suppliers could guarantee us compatibility with the new satellite plans. Have you heard anything on that topic?

    • Behan May 20, 2017 at 8:18 am #

      My understanding is that the hardware for Next will be different, and current-gen GO will not be compatible — but there’s really very little clarity (like: how will airtime costs change, too?). If you can wait, I’d wait!

  12. Porter May 20, 2017 at 6:58 am #

    Great stuff Behan!
    Thank you! We just sailed IBIS from Martinique up here to Fort Lauderdale.
    I have the iridium Go. Loved the grib file predict wind, the texting etc but how do you get an actual weather report on the thing? I could never get the web browsing to work. Any tips?
    Many thanks and awesome photos and great post!
    Thank you!
    Porter and Helen McRoberts
    http://Www.fouribis.com

    • Behan May 20, 2017 at 8:28 am #

      Hi Porter and Helen–that’s such great news, your first big transit on Ibis! Re: getting weather on the Go, data from PredictWind is the gold standard! To see a meteorologist’s interpretation of forecast data for your area in PW, make sure you check ‘GMDSS’ in the second screen of download options. After updating GRIB– select GMDSS forecast from the menu of options on screen. Re: getting web browsing to work, I have found only the Opera Mini to be really functional. Make sure you tune it to minimize data use (text-only, no images, etc.)– and then, be very patient. 🙂 Look forward to following your family’s adventures!

      • Porter McRoberts May 20, 2017 at 4:37 pm #

        Thanks so much Behan.
        We’ll give it a go! I’ll try both pronto.
        Hope you guys are doing great!

  13. Richard May 20, 2017 at 9:51 am #

    Hi Behan,
    Good to see that that exact same beach is still there! We met sailors from half the globe at the nightly gams.
    Richard

  14. Yvette May 23, 2017 at 7:10 pm #

    See, it’s funny, I’m not a serious cruiser but I *am* a Ham radio geek who’s been licensed since she was 16. And I was also surprised to hear that someone would consider that mode over satellite- it’s definitely FUN, and I would totally do it on a boat, but also definitely complicated and I feel much more prone to random problems. (Not like I have serious experience in this beyond Ham radio, but I have had plenty of random problems on land with my rig to think there’s no reason it wouldn’t apply on a boat!)

    I mean, if I inherited a rig, or had an Elmer around to teach me the ropes, I’d probably say why not. But from scratch? I suspect on a boat there’s enough things vying for attention.

    I did always have a kick though being in Ohio and chatting to a boat enroute from the West Coast to Hawaii or what have you, though, so I do hope it isn’t ever abandoned altogether. 🙂 73 de KB3HTS

    • Behan May 28, 2017 at 10:44 am #

      You nailed it Yvette! It still works out better for a dwindling few, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, but SSB for cruisers doesn’t have a big future.

      • Jackie Parry May 28, 2017 at 11:54 pm #

        I still wouldn’t discount SSB after all these comments – 20 years of trouble-free / free usage, recreational and commercial (after installation and purchasing the equipment though, which is an expense) suited our budget cruising and not wanting internet on board (enjoyed the break from it!). That said, now, I would certainly try the Sat route and probably end up with both as I like back-ups – Even I can drag myself up to date with technology, eventually 😉 and things change, I may prefer to have internet on board if we set sail again.
        But then I am one that still does sun sights as well as having GPS/plotters.

        • Behan May 31, 2017 at 8:03 am #

          I’m not discounting SSB at all- we love ours and I’m grateful to have it! I just don’t think it makes sense for new crusiers outfitting offshore comms from scratch.

          • Jackie Parry May 31, 2017 at 4:48 pm #

            Agreed – I wasn’t referring what you should do (or anyone) – I was just stating what I would do. Everyone makes their own decisions and I’ve learned a lot from this thread – thank you!

  15. Victor Raymond June 2, 2017 at 2:15 pm #

    Hi Behan, Like you we have both SSB/Pactor as well as Iridium GO! On board, both are more complicated than logic and modern technology dictate but certainly SSB and Pactor have not changed much in the last 20 years. Iridium is behind too but only abou 5 years, I estimate. The apps that Iridium has put up are about as amateur as a 1st year programmer would create but I suppose they expect you to purchase “real” apps from their resellers, as most people do I gather.

    I thought I read once where you purchase your Iridium service. I have tried three vendors so far and they all fairly cutthroat so I am looking for other choices.

    Thank you and hope you all have a safe season.

    • Behan June 2, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

      Hi Victor– the best bet is to go through PredictWind, because then you access their gold-star customer support (you don’t have to purchase the hardware from them, since you already have a GO, just buy a SIM card on the PW site. $10 + activation. We use the $125/month “unlimited” plan). When you compare programs, read fine print carefully: the kicker is the term of the contract, you want to be able to change it monthly (you’ll get that with PW). I think all operate on a calendar month, not a rolling month. And yeah, the Iridium app has improved from poor to mediocre and has a really long way to go!

  16. Victor Raymond June 4, 2017 at 12:07 am #

    Thanks Behan. We have been, while cruising, PW customers over the past 4-5 years and spoken with John several times so we will go ahead and take your advice. We are in Juneau for a few days re-supplying at Costco so hopefully a card can be her in a few days via FEDEX

    Thanks again and fair winds

    Victor

  17. John Mahowald June 5, 2017 at 2:10 pm #

    I went through the PredictWind website to order the Marine Iridium Go hardware. No Totem discount when you do it that way, even though you are getting it from the StatPhone Store.

© 2007-2017 Sailing with Totem. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.