Sabbatical Upgrades: Satellite Communications at Sea

As we prepare for our extended cruise we have been making a list of equipment purchases and repairs that we need to do to outfit Bear, our Tayana 37, for more extensive cruising.  Though we have lived aboard for the past 4 summers and sailed extensively between Maine and Georgia, our cruising has been mostly coastal, save a few offshore hops.  During our sabbatical we plan to take Bear on her longest offshore voyage – from Norfolk to the BVI – and would like to upgrade our communication capabilities, especially for this passage.

Tayana 37 Nav Station

Jeff at the Nav Station. Our VHF is in view and the SSB is just under the table to Jeff’s left.

Currently, we have a VHF radio (which is great for communication within line of sight or about 3 miles in calm seas).  We also have an SSB (single sideband) radio, which, if it was in good operating order (which it is not) could allow us to communicate with other SSB radio owners up to 4000 miles away.  Aside from being able to broadcast far and wide, the SSB is also nice because it allows an unlimited number of people to listen to a transmission at the same time.  This is great for listening to nets or weather forecasting. Though Bear came with a good SSB radio, we have not had it working since we took ownership.  We hope to meet up with a cruiser that we met last summer – a marine communications specialist and former US Diplomat – who offered to help us get it tuned up and back online.

A new satellite communications device on board will allow us to stay in contact with friends and family while we are away and also make our 9-12 day passage safer.  There are several options available, from one-way text messaging to full-on voice and data receivers that can transmit your favorite Netflix shows.  While we have no interested in Satellite TV while on the boat, we do want to have a way to share our location and transmit messages in the event of an emergency.

Below are several of the options that we have looked into so far.  If you have experience with any of these or have recommendations for other options, please leave us a comment below.

  • SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger
Satellite Communications SPOT

SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger

PROS: The SPOT is a satellite-based messaging device that would allow us to send messages to our friends and family to let them know that we are okay as well as to transmit our location.  The device uses motion-activated tracking (in intervals of 5,10,30, or 60 minutes) which can be viewed on a website or sent as a message on Facebook or Twitter.   In the event of an emergency we can push a button to alert the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center of our GPS coordinates.

CONS: Messaging is only one-way meaning that we cannot receive messages from friends, family, or emergency responders.

PRICE: $149.99 plus $19.99/month for the Basic Service Plan

 

  • InReach Explorer+ Handheld Satellite Communicator
Satellite Communications InReach

InReach Explorer+ Satellite Communicator

PROS: The InReach Explorer+ is similar to the SE+ however this model provides GPS on-map guidance with preloaded TOPO mapping and waypoint routings as well as a digital compass, barometric altimeter and accelerometer.

CONS: Text message only, no voice.

PRICE: $449.99 plus service plan.  Plans range from $11.95 a month for a yearly subscription (10 text messages @ $.50 each, unlimited SOS texts, $.10 each for tracking points and pings) to $99.95 a month for a month to month subscription (unlimited texts, SOS, tracking, and pings at no extra charge)

 

  • Iridium GO!
Satellite Connectivity

Iridium GO!

PROS: The Iridium Go provides satellite connectivity for your personal cellphone or tablet (up to 5 devices).  Specialized apps allow for voice, data, text, weather, SOS, and GPS tracking.  Users can connect their phones and tablets within a 100 foot radius of the device. It is small enough to carry in a backpack or purse and can be used anywhere but functions best in a boat when installed with an additional external antenna.

CONS: The Iridium Go App allows users to text, call, tweet, send SOS, use GPS tracking, however a separate app is needed to use Facebook, download weather files, send email and upload photos.  The expensive monthly service plans are a big con to this device.

PRICE: $800 plus service plan. Iridium Go monthly subscription plans range from $49.95/month (5 minutes voice with additional minutes at $1.29, text messages for $.25 each) to $199.95/month (250 minutes voice $.99 each additional minute, unlimited data calls and text messages) or Pre-Paid Airtime Plans starting at $480 (200 voice minutes, 400 data minutes, 2000 text messages and 6 months to use the pre-paid minutes)

 

  • Inmarsat TracPhone Fleet One Satellite Communications System
Satellite Communications Inmarsat

Inmarsat TracPhone Fleet One Satellite Communications System

PROS: This is the closest to a traditional cellphone device in that it provides voice, text, and web access.  Users can use both voice and data services at the same time and if necessary can add a wireless router to connect mobile devices.

CONS: There really are no cons to this device except the price!

PRICE: $2800 plus service plan.  Fleet One Coastal plan for $49.99/month for coastal data and global voice (10MB data and 100 minutes of voice) or Fleet One Global plan for $129.99/month for global data and global voice (15MB data and 250 minutes of voice) approximately $.49 per minute for voice

We have not decided which form of satellite communication we will purchase yet but we  know that we would like to have something that allows us two-way texting at a minimum. It would be helpful, and reassuring, in an emergency situation to be able to communicate with someone.  (Don’t worry we will have our PLB’s and EPIRB too)  If money were no object, we would likely go with the Iridium Go! as we can use it off the boat when we are land cruising as well as at sea.

We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences with satellite communication devices.  Please leave us a comment below!

 

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One Response to Sabbatical Upgrades: Satellite Communications at Sea

  1. David says:

    I always forget iridium is still around. I’ve heard mixed reviews of their phones, but a boat seems like it would have the optimal conditions to make their service work well.

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