On-board communication: satellite phone or SSB?

Debating satellite vs SSB? Times change: this post has been superseded by an update in May 2017. Spoiler: a few years and a couple of oceans later, I can’t imagine not having our Iridium GO on board…and most cruisers now are skewing the same way, diminishing the 1:many value of radio.
What’s better on board: a satellite phone or an SSB? If you have to choose only one, what should you do? I talked through this a few times during morning jogs with a new cruiser recently. She and her family bought a catamaran that had been a charter boat and didn’t come with anything more than a VHF. They don’t have a clear plan for how long they’ll be out, but they anticipate offshore sailing – perhaps several oceans worth – and want to get something in place. What should they do? How should they get critical weather data, and communicate?
Totem has always been HF radio centric, and I don’t expect this to change. No, it’s not because I recently watched Gravity and had the horrible vision of massive satellite network failure! In the world of pros and cons, it’s our personal choice. That said, we are very, very glad to have a sat phone on board. Our SSB failed not once, but twice, at critical points in our Pacific crossing. As we look towards continuing across the Indian Ocean next year, it feels like an important piece of safety gear. We’ve never used the Iridium phone that was given Totem on an open loan from friends who had stopped cruising, but plan to activate it before our IO passages and continue dutifully top up the battery charge every month in the meantime.
Fun with Panoramas!
sorry, no internet link here, unless you have a radio or sat phone

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.

Totem in paradise
this slice of paradise requires a long distance comms system for weather info

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.

Net control at the Chilly Hilly
our local ham radio club was a great community, and a big help before we left

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.

14 Responses

  1. Ham radio FTW- it was always so neat to contact folks in the Pacific or Caribbean while sitting in Cleveland, somehow more magical than the Internet is. Alas I haven’t had the chance to use my license since moving abroad.

    73 de KB3HTS

  2. I’d never want to leave home without our SSB–for all the reasons you cited, Behan: community, help, entertainment, weather. We rented a sat phone after Sea Venture had some very scary issues when I couldn’t be on board with Michael, because I never want to be that out of touch again. If and when we return to sea, we’ll probably spring for another sat phone–just to have that quick and intimate connection. But we’d also use our ham radio nets and other maritime groupings to stay in touch with other boaters.

  3. I agree SSB is still needed. WX fax is available all the time and free as you pointed out. I would compare SSB to VHF and SatPhone to a cell phone today. One is for keeping a group together and the second for one on one. SSB is good for getting help near you as well vs. who knows where another SatPhone user could be. harrumph u say!

  4. I was definitely in the “SSB is good enough” category until we received a Mayday call off the coast of Bonaire last November. With the SSB I was completely and utterly unable to raise any authorities.

    The best I could do was reach some Hams in the midwest that were jawing on about radios. I reached a passing freighter on VHF that could relay the call before I reached anyone on SSB. But there was no response on any emergency frequency I tried on SSB.

    We’ve since added an INMARSAT phone to our boat, though it is only for emergencies at least I should be able to reach somebody in case there is another emergency.

  5. Thanks for this posting. I am soon to sail my Crealock ’34 from the Salish Sea to the Sea of Cortez and I’ve been debating the SSB v. Sat Phone issue for months. I don’t think SSB is necessary for coastal cruising, despite what the Ha Ha gurus say, though I see how important it will be for longer passages and appreciate its ‘community’ aspects. What I don’t understand is WHY the cost of SSB is so damned high, and the installation so awfully complex. For some reason, I feel ripped off by the whole thing. Why aren’t prices coming down fast on this technology?

  6. My wife and I are amicably on opposite sides of this debate. Our family is hoping to cruise south, then offshore this fall and none of us want to miss out on “the community.” How much, if any, of this ever happens vis VHF??

    1. There’s still community via VHF. It’s just highly localized, so when you’re on the move- or the boats you want to stay tuned into are more spread out- you’re out of touch. VHF nets were very active in Mexico. I don’t know how active they are in the Caribbean. They dropped off to almost nothing in the South Pac (just a few ports) and we’ve only seen them in a handful of places since. Nets in the South Pac were almost exclusively SSB not VHF because you spread out and distances are too great. And while we used the GO! for most comms on our last two passages, we still had an SSB net to keep in touch with other boats along the way.

        1. The truth is I am very glad to have both – and, while they serve the same ultimate purpose of comms for weather and safety, we use them differently. But if we were starting over from scratch with nothing and had to pick just one, I’d get the GO instead the SSB. I don’t even have to think twice about that answer!

  7. I love you Totem guys. But…Decline of Ham radio? FCC reports all time high of Ham radio use. Hams invented the cell phone so its far from dead or dying new and interesting digital modes are on the way. Including Digital Voice for HF…VHF digital voice has been here for a long time predating digital voice for cell phones btw. Full software defined radio is now mainstream …….I could go on for an hour. Decline of ham radio? Nope!

    1. Our experience says differently: I guess the FCC isn’t paying attention to cruisers (shocker!). It wouldn’t surprise me to know it’s growing on land (survivalists etc), but there is no question it’s declining in the ways that matter cruisers. And that’s kind of the point. It’s declined as we see the number of available stations to for a pactor connection shrink. It’s declined as the usage among cruisers themselves shrinks (for example, in SE Asia, not a single one of the multiple nets described in past years is functioninging – they stopped because –wait for it!– nobody used them). Digital VHF, the root of ham in cell phone invention, software radio… yeah, all good but completely beside the point. HF in the ways it matters for folks who want to sail the oceans is declining. On the other hand- I’m glad, really glad, to hear that it must not be dying systemically! Thanks parrotdude, we love you too.

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