Optimizing Iridium GO use on board

Desert mountains and sailboats

Desert and sea are the incongruous pairing when sailing along Baja, where cactus-studded mountain ranges plummet to a Gulf full of marine life. Miles of isolated coastline make for stunning cruising grounds. We love the remote, wild-west feel of the Sea of Cortez… but we need to stay connected. There are approximately 2,534,934 more cardón cactus than cell towers here so we rely upon our Iridium GO.

What do we use it for? Keeping up with email. Checking news. I get twitchy without dipping into social media. Most important is weather: in case we needed a reminder, an early-season hurricane threatened to come our way as we sailed up the Sea these last couple of weeks. These are much the same tasks/functions we use on passages, too. I’ve detailed how we make the GO work for us below to share from what we’ve learned, help with understanding what it can do, and maybe set some expectations. [Unless noted otherwise, the context for all this is an iPad, because that’s what we use!]

Pre-departure checklist

Effective use off the grid starts with preparation before sailing away.

  1. Prep for email:
    • Set up ‘normal’ emails to forward to the Iridium email address, leaving original on the server (so it will download to laptop later when we have wifi later). Prevents needing to pass out the dedicated Iridium email address. Email to that address only accessible with the satellite connection, which is very inconvenient once you’re back in wifi land.
    • Put ‘normal’ email as the reply-to address in Iridium Mail & Web app settings, to avoid replies getting locked in the Iridium inbox.
    • Purge the Iridium email inbox (or risk a painfully long download of the old messages you’ve forgotten). This purge is done on the Iridium website: visit http://iridium.com/mailandweb, login BELOW the Iridium logo (not at the top of the frame!), select Change Email (also on that line below the Iridium logo), and scroll down for buttons to purge Inbox and Big Mail (messages over a certain size are shunted here).

  2. Prep for browsing:
    • Use the Opera browser. Iridium defaults to Safari with recommended links for lower-bandwidth information access. I found these too slow to bother with.
    • Tune Opera browser: select the red ‘O’ – choose ‘Savings Enabled’ and select Mini. Under advanced settings, turn off images. I pre-set the home page, aka Speed Dial, with sites or pages I want to use while we’re remote
  3. Prep for social media:
    • Posting to a Facebook profile? Authenticate Facebook to connect and post with the Iridium Mail & Web app at http://fb.myiridium.net/. Facebook requires this handshake every 60 days. The Facebook app is not GO-friendly.
    • Posting to a Facebook page? Whoops, Iridium app feature only posts pics to profiles, not to pages! I prep by scheduling a few Totem page posts with favorite pictures while we’re away. [Edited: Whoops! on August 1, 2018, Facebook killed the API that lets Iridium (and a lot of other third-party apps) post. BUMMER.]
    • Using Twitter? You can connect a Twitter account to facilitate posting (the Twitter app is not GO-friendly). When we crossed the Indian Ocean in 2015, I set up Twitter to send texts for certain tweets to our Iridium messenger.

Managing email

We use the Iridium Mail & Web app to manage email. It’s… basic, and a lot of it still acts like beta software, but it’s functional and free. Emails are delivered in plain text format; most attachments will make a message too big to be practical for available bandwidth. For other (paid) email clients, see third-party apps listed on the Iridium site.

Composing email is a lot easier with a Bluetooth keyboard (I use this $19.99 keyboard from Arteck as an easy way to get it done). Sometimes I want to use my laptop and fullsize keyboard; I get those tomes into email by converting them into pdf files that can be transferred to the iPad, then copy/paste the contents into a message.

Sending / receiving email takes time. Here’s a snapshot of the download dialog while I retrieving messages one morning. It took almost 20 minutes! Crazy if you’re used to normal internet. When you can do it from somewhere remote and beautiful? Who cares!

Iridium GO email download

sailboat in remote anchorage

Remote and beautiful: a sea level view of the anchorage at top – Puerto Don Juan. No cell towers here!

Browsing the web

“Browsing the web,” blithely stated as if it were remotely like what you do on a typical wifi connection…. Oh, it’s not! It is like watching paint dry or grass grow, and if you have any hopes for speed remotely resembling what you have at home, it is an exercise in frustration. Shed those expectations! Just enjoy what you CAN do.

It usually takes a few minutes to load the text-version of a web page. Here’s a quick comparison of how Race to Alaska’s Facebook page compares in stripped-down Opera Mini vs. normal display. (Tangent: talk about a nail biter with R2AK! We know crew on two of the boats clawing their way north right now, Sail Like A Girl and Wild Card. Go go go teams!)

comparing Opera Mini and Turbo

I usually have my iPad (downloading *whatever* via the GO) next to me while reading on my Kindle… read a few pages, check GO progress, read a few more… you get the picture. It takes several minutes for a single page. The first one often requires multiple retries before something seems to click in, but once it does, you’re good. When we sailed from Puerto Vallarta to La Paz last month I browsed for cake recipes online via the GO, and found a fantastic berry trifle for Siobhan’s birthday (the same day as our landfall in Baja, graciously served by the Bahia de los Muertos palapa restaurant).

Social media

We use Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These apps are not accessible with a GO data connection, but Iridium’s app facilitates posting lower resolution images to a Facebook profile or Twitter account. [Edit: Facebook killed post-to functionality on August 1, 2018, for Iridium and other third-party apps. You can still post to Twitter, though.] Web pages for both can be accessed using Opera. The quality can be surprising: this image I posted from our last remote anchorage, off Isla Angel de la Guarda, was good enough to garner comments. The high-bandwidth nature of IG isn’t suited to the GO at all and T&Cs don’t allow scheduling, so our insta goes dark when we’re away from normal internet access.

Iridium GO post to Facebook

I’ve seen some pretty blurry pics posted via the Iridium. Our MO: take a preferred image, use a resize app on the iPad to shrink dimensions, and attach to the Facebook function in the Iridium Mail & Web app to post. Our image settings in Mail & Web are set to 100 (scale of 0-100) with ‘resample’ on; dimensions here for 600 pixels wide. The pic above came out at about 44k, which isn’t horribly onerous to squeeze through while looking decent.

It’s a bummer that the Iridium’s Facebook posting function only works with profiles; many boats, Totem included, maintain a Facebook page as an alternate kind of daily blog. But I can at least access a text version of the Totem page through Opera; I enjoy staying connected to dialogue with anyone good enough to give us their time by engaging there.

[Edit: a workaround Facebook’s new restrictions on third-party apps, which is likely to get worse not better as they try to own the channel, is to emailing images to a trusted friend that has admin permission on Totem’s Facebook Page to post directly on our behalf.]

Other cruisers!

The GO makes it easy to keep up with other cruisers, too. Texting between two GOs was the easiest way to stay in touch with friends on SV Manu Kai as we sailed towards a deserted bay in southern Mexico a few months back. This week, when we arrived in Puerto Peñasco, we reported back the marina situation (no berths!) SV Lea Scotia, waiting in Isla Angel de la Guarda by text from our GO to their InReach… an email to the GO account on SV Empyrean let us fill in more details to share.

Weather

This is the A-Number-One, Most Important By Far reason we have the GO: good weather data, dependably delivered. We primarily use PredictWind, which is tuned for the Iridium device (more about how we do that in this post). For this last overnight run up the Sea of Cortez, a look at the current patterns was helpful in directing our route to Peñasco.

Sea of Cortez current

A quick comparison of weather models indicated winds would be light or extra light. Cue the motorboat ride! In these examples, the GO is used on a Windows laptop.

Comparing different weather models – easy with PW – indicates probable forecast accuracy.

iOS quirk: there’s a proxy setting to tweak for the GO’s wifi connection. In the iPad settings, choosing the GO’s wifi network > click that circled i for information > Configure Proxy > switch setting to “off” for PredictWind downloads and set to “automatic” for… everything else. Minor.

Setup

None of what I wrote above matters if you don’t have a good Iridium setup to start. First, don’t cheap out on the hardware. The external antenna is essential, tempting as it is to cut that cost. So is quality cable to connect device to antenna. This bundle does the thinking for you.

Second, give yourself ample time for setup and do it while you have good internet connectivity in case you need to troubleshoot. This bears repeating: give yourself ample time for setup! I don’t mean a few days before you expect to need it – I mean a couple of weeks to make sure you’ve figured it out and eveyrthing’s working. Seriously. Most complaints/frustration stem from leaving it too late. PredictWind has good instructions (including video tutorials) to assist.

Finally, having the latest firmware update makes a significant difference! Download link and instructions here. Each update has provided a leap in functionality and/or connection speeds.

All good?

This post hopefully is useful for people wondering how they’d use an Iridium GO and if it’s worthwhile having on board. Did I do OK? Let me know, in the comments or through our contact form, if there are other questions I can help answer. After 3+ years and a couple of oceans, we’ve worked out a few kinks and found this an invaluable piece of kit for our cruising needs.

Totem and crew are on the hard among the shrimp fleet of Puerto Peñasco, making plans for a summer in the Pacific Northwest.

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19 Responses to Optimizing Iridium GO use on board

  1. Sarah June 22, 2018 at 1:57 pm #

    Thanks Behan! Very helpful. Definitely things to think about as we go down that road.

    • Behan June 23, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      Glad it helped with food for thought! I think it’s not necessary to pay the markup optional for the Caribbean unless you choose to spend time in out-of-the-way places (we had no coverage in most of Guna Yala / San Blas). But more than a few days off the grid and you need a way to have good weather info. For passages, though, awesome.

      • Sarah June 24, 2018 at 4:43 am #

        There is an extra fee/ markup for the Caribbean? We will be headed to Guna Yala/ San Blas next season and thought that we would like the GO there.

        • Behan June 24, 2018 at 8:30 am #

          I’m not sure which infinite typing monkey got my keyboard but my reply didn’t make sense – sorry Sarah! I meant to say: if you’re island hopping the Caribbean, I don’t think the added cost of GO and service plan makes sense…it’s so easy to get online. The exception is if you hang out in places little/no local internet (as you plan to, in Guna Yala). I was very glad for our unlimited plan there! The western San Blas has a few towers, but there’s nothing in the east. Just give yourself lots of time to get it installed and working before you leave good internet.

  2. Carla June 22, 2018 at 2:22 pm #

    Love our GO!, especially for weather. Thanks to you for the how to post updates offshore or away from WiFi!

  3. Cyrille June 22, 2018 at 7:12 pm #

    Thank you for this detailed post!

  4. Bradford Harley June 23, 2018 at 7:51 am #

    Great article!! We are also heavy users of our Iridium go. One item I would add is that the mail app for the Go is pretty primitive. Any communication errors and the connection fails and does not reconnect. This drove me to look at uuplus as an alternative, and I have to say it’s connection stability and features are superior..for a cost. There is a great article on attainable adventure cruising that goes into details.

    Brad, Sarah and Sydney. SV Perspective

    • Behan June 23, 2018 at 9:49 am #

      Hey Brad, glad that was helpful. I believe the problem you had doesn’t occur as before. How long has it been since you used the GO mail app? We stopped experiencing that after a firmware update quite a while ago. The mail app is as primitive as ever, though! Re: uuplus, it seems a fine solution, but the AAC article contains factual errors about the Iridium mail & web app functionality (the Iridium app handles things the AAC article says it can’t) which leave me preferring “free and works” vs. “paid and works” (which is what it all boils down to!).

      • Bradford Harley June 23, 2018 at 1:53 pm #

        We use the go apps daily as service is spotty up here in the sea of Cortez. My reference to the aac article was mostly about uuplus not the comments they make about the go apps. My experience is similar to yours, where the iridium mail and web apps are cludgy and feel like beta software. As satellite transmission software, I would expect simple things like connection retries and resuming transmissions where they failed. It’s all common stuff in the industry. In my previous life, I was a tech and have little patience for apps that are missing basic things.
        That drove me to look for alternatives. I agree that the free apps work, and it’s a choice of “free and works” vs “paid and works better/differently”. I chose the latter, but understand most people sticking with the free apps. Regardless, the Go is an excellent tool that we rely on for communications when out of cell phone range. I highly recommend it.

        • Behan June 24, 2018 at 8:32 am #

          Gotcha. And yes, uuplus gets raves! Still curious how long has it been since you used the GO mail app, as the retries/resuming tx problem simply isn’t a problem any more. Either way the GO is very useful for hanging out in the SOC!

  5. Dave Brennan (S/V Anila) June 25, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

    Good info!

    Some other helpful Iridium security is to log into the Iridium device we portal, and set a wifi password and maybe change your SSID. The defaults are well known and it would be easy for someone to lock you out of your Go! If they wanted to cause trouble.

    Another not so obvious “feature” of mail download is the barely visible blue progress band at the top of the log/download window.

    I’ve had very little success getting web browsing to work reliably even with Opera.

    • Behan June 26, 2018 at 10:39 am #

      Such a good point. That darn little blue line! So hard to see!! It’s the same with page loading in Opera – a wee little line. I’m sorry it’s not working for you. I do think patience (a lot of it) helps. In the beginning I feel like it almost NEVER works on the first attempt. But hit ‘retry’ when prompted a couple of times, and once it starts flowing – you’re good to go! Strange but thats how it’s been for us.

  6. Kim Brown on s/v Britican June 27, 2018 at 10:21 am #

    Excellent post Behan. For the past year I’ve been simply dabbling with the Iridium Go! I found it very frustrating that the FB and Twitter system needs renewal so often. When we’re out of contact with the world and I post to FB over the Go, it’s annoying when you discover that you’re token has expired (and the post failed). Especially when you want to post a picture of a 4′ tuna that you caught. Hehehehe. And I wonder when we’ll be able to post to a FB page?! That aside, the weather side of things is fantastic and I spend many voyages texting other boat friends with the Go. We use our iPhone so, like you I’ll read on my Kindle, send a message and then go back to reading. The Iridium Go has certainly helped us to feel less isolated… And it prevents me from shaking due to Internet withdrawal symptoms. Next I’ll work on Opera and posting pictures. Thank you for all the time you put into these amazing posts. Big smiles 🙂

    • Behan June 29, 2018 at 9:17 am #

      The renewal can be frustrating. What I do is have a pre-departure checklist of steps to take before we’ll be off the grid and Iridium-only for a while. You could do something like that and include renewing the FB handshake. To be honest I don’t even bother using FB for the most part, since it can’t post to FB Pages. I agree with you 100% that the IridiumGO is awesome for abating feelings of isolation! Glad you liked the post. <3

  7. Brunson Russum July 2, 2018 at 5:37 am #

    Thanks for another great article. We have been dabbling with our IridiumGO for about 6 months and are preparing for an offshore hop later this month. Do you have any problems with devices that are linked to the GO doing automatic updates of apps and/or software? I’ve heard horror stories about people getting surprisingly high monthly bills due to this. Any suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Susie & Brunson, SV Mystic

    • Behan July 2, 2018 at 8:59 am #

      No problem with this. I’m trying to understand how that would even happen. It’s difficult because only limited third party apps access the data at all. If it’s someone on an unlimited plan, that would likely be user error (someone not understanding how the service works, e.g. it’s a calendar month not a rolling month), or people using other Iridium products and not the GO. If it’s a metered data plan, then it’s not understanding how the few apps they use with it actually work (e.g., if you turn on tracking, you ping the tracker every 10 minutes and that’s a data draw which can add up over time – tally it up so you know ahead of time). There really shouldn’t be surprises. This is yet another reason why setting up the GO well in advance of departure, instead of rushing through the steps and maybe not reading/understanding them well, is a really good idea!

  8. Carlo van Niekerk July 2, 2018 at 5:54 am #

    Thank you for all your useful information to setup Iridium GO, it is a great help. Fair winds!

    • Behan July 2, 2018 at 8:51 am #

      thanks Carlo, glad that’s hepful for you!

  9. ohanasailingadventure July 5, 2018 at 3:04 pm #

    Thanks for the information – we just moved aboard and have used our Iridium Go to download Predict Wind, but will be using it for much more and good to know all of the above!

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