Both systems allow you to send and receive texts and email. You can get weather updates on demand. You can make contact in an emergency. Satellite phones have had progressively lower upfront costs, but come with a higher ongoing cost to purchase minutes. Single sideband radio systems have a relatively higher upfront investment, but no ongoing cost.
On the surface, then, it’s a decision that’s hinges on whether you plan to be a long term or short term cruiser. For sabbatical cruisers planning a couple of years out, between hardware and data plans the cost is closer to a tossup. For boats that want to be out longer, the economy of HF may be more appealing…but if you’re not, the sat phone spares you the complex installation, the learning curve, the question of getting a ham license or just using marine bands, and you can walk away with it when your cruise is over.
That’s probably why it’s our impression (based on purely anecdotal observations) that there’s a shift generally occurring in the cruising community, as more people GO (which is great!) but go for shorter durations (hey, any time you can get cruising is good). With more sabbatical-length cruise durations, it probably feels easier to avoid the perceived challenges of radio systems and just buy a sat phone instead.
The problem with making a decision on that basis is it completely ignores the fundamental difference in communication modes between radio and sat phones- a really, really important distinction. Radio comms are one to many, and satellite phones are one to one. The nature of one to many communications fosters community among cruisers in a geographic area, or transiting along a similar passage, who check in with each other on scheduled nets and keep an eye out for each other. Among the family of cruisers, this supports the unwritten code that we help each other in need. Then there’s the fun of finally meeting cruisers in person who have long been voices on the radio. It’s a comfort to hear their check-ins and weather reports on a long passage. None of these are available if you’re limited to a sat phone. Having a sat phone only approach also eliminates what I feel is a critical safety net: the incredible network of land-based hams who support the mobiles out here. I know they’ve got our back.
Do the new cruisers really get that? Is it possible to grok the value of the nets and community before you live it? Or is this just all part of the continual movement towards more accessible cruising, for better or for worse, where combination of newer technology and a bank account make it easier for many more people to say “hey honey, let’s circumnavigate!” Is the decline of amateur radio going to make this all moot anyway?
Possibly I have just inched my way into the realm of “harrumph, don’t do it like they used to” cruisers. What do you think?
January 2015 update: we have just urchased an Iridium GO! unit for satellite network internet access on board. Reports from multiple boats crossing the Indian Ocean of the difficulty connecting with land-based radio stations – both Winlink and Sailmail – left us very concerned. This is a part of the world where we do not want to worry about access to accurate weather data – the #1 safety use of our onboard communications! Iridium Go! and Predict Wind’s Professional package solve this for Totem. Yes, we also had the Iridium handset on board. Looking at the costs and the limitations, we decided that GO! was a better system for our needs.
April 2016 update: the Iridium GO has pretty much taken over for our onboard comms. It was brilliant in the Indian Ocean. Our Pactor stopped working when we left South Africa, and halfway across the Atlantic from Cape Town to the Caribbean, we haven’t missed it yet.