Here are some thoughts on the satphone vs HF/SSB radio question, based on over twenty years as a yacht owner, forty five years as a sailor, twenty years as a Yachtmaster Instructor, and as an educator who's spent twenty five years working in not-for-profit organisations, accountable for others' safety
in high-risk adventure activities, and defending the ability to conduct such beneficial educational programmes. Apologies in advance for the length. I hope this is useful for peoples' deliberations and decision making.
A sat phone is certainly cheaper to buy; like a mobile phone contract
. But they get you further down the track with the call costs. Satellite
phones use high financial risk technologies and leading edge technical expertise. This all costs big time and you'll be paying for it in the call costs and hidden arrangements. For example:
is a great system as far as the available, portable, satellite
comms options are concerned. But it is also well known for call drop outs, especially in warm low latitude areas where we like to go cruising and where the polar orbiting Iridium satellites are spaced furthest apart. The drop out rate is exacerbated by the fact Iridium calls are routed from one satellite to another before being brought down to earth. And because the satellites are moving, this routing must constantly change from one string of satellites to another string. An absolutely magical piece of technology when all those bits work perfectly.
If you use Iridium for data - emails, weather
info etc - you can expect to pay a lot. Because - unlike the really high cost satellite systems with big dishes that fit on cruise
ships - when you are 95% through sending an email
or receiving a weather
chart on your Iridium phone, and get one of those routine dropped connections, you begin the entire message transfer all over again, from the start. If the transfer succeeds on the second try, you pay almost double to get the message through. You can do the maths if it takes the 3rd of 4th attempt before your entire message gets through.
2. On the other hand, SailMail – based on HF/SSB radio transmission
to a worldwide network of 20 linked stations - has smart message management. If your connection is lost
, or you drop the connection to change to a different frequency to get a faster link, the system remembers where you got to previously, and you begin from that point. The satellite systems with significantly higher equipment
and connection costs can offer that feature too.
With SailMail, you have a limited amount of daily connection time. And you pay a fixed fee once a year; no nasty monthly connection time bills. So everyone - users and the not-for-profit Association – are interested in optimising the use of the service
resources, to lower the operating cost and maximise equipment
efficiency for everyone. SailMail wants you operating efficiently, so you are off the shared system resources as quickly as possible, so it's available for another member
to use. With the satellite operators, it is in their financial interest that you are inefficient, spending as much time connected as possible.
A satellite phone
simply cannot substitute for a Marine HF/SSB radio. It lacks the broadcast capability that is so important for safety
and shared information distribution which helps facilitate low-cost cruising. If there are 20 yachts out there in a self-help or rally group, distributing common information requires either 20 satellite phone
calls at significant expense and time use, or one short HF/SSB radio voice broadcast for free.
If you have an emergency
, - such as a broken skin fitting or a damaged rudder
– and you need to call an MRCC to summon assistance, remember that in the middle of the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian Oceans there are no Coast Guard cutters or inshore rescue
craft. Getting help to you depends on the MRCC being able to contact commercial
vessels (ie: via the marine HF/SSB radio with DSC
which they are required to carry, and maintain a 24/7 watch for DSC emergency
alert calls) or other cruising yachts that have taken the trouble to install a modern marine band HF/SSB radio, and are maintaining a 24/7 watch for emergency DSC alerts.
If you have only the satellite phone, MRCCs and other yachts or ships will not necessarily know you are nearby the yacht in distress
and will not necessarily know your satellite phone number to call you to ask your help for those in distress
. If you have a modern marine HF/SSB radio with DSC, neither the MRCC or the yacht in distress needs to know you are nearby, or your individual MMSI number; they can send an all-call DSC emergency alert and ask anyone in the vicinity to help.
Maritime authorities, commercial
ship owners and crew, government
trawlers and other maritime professionals routinely dedicate their time and money
and put themselves at risk, to help private yachts in difficulty. There is a professional understanding that all who go to sea will do their utmost to help any other mariner in distress. This notion is part of the training and spirit of professional seamen. It is also implemented in aspects of commercial shipping regulations
– such as maintaining a radio watch for DSC emergency calls on HF/SSB radio. If a vessel in survey
does not have the equipment and follow the watch keeping regulations
, the operating permit
of the commercial vessel can be cancelled.
Assisting other sailors is also built into the yacht racing
rules of every national yachting association. It is rule
No1 of yacht racing
in every nation under the ISAF (International Sailing Federation), and ranks way above winning the race
: “A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any boat or person in danger”. This fundamental ideal that underpin the safety of yacht racing is equally as applicable to yacht cruising.
Communications that enables a yacht to listen for a call for assistance from others is essential to implement these commercial shipping
and recreational yachting commitments to help fellow mariners in distress. A satellite phone simply does not facilitate that process. A marine HF/SSB radio with DSC does, because the vessel in distress can quickly broadcast an emergency alarm
to anyone nearby, without needing to pay, regardless of the credit in their phone account or credit card status, and without knowing the individual sat phone number of all the nearby yachts, ships, fishing
trawlers etc. Any of those vessels maintaining a listening watch on their HF/SB radio with DSC can receive that alarm
You could be the closest source of potential help to a family
on a sinking or disabled yacht. But because you only have a satellite phone, you'll be a potential but useless resource; just like the nearby ships when the Titanic sank in calm seas. Because you are not contactable.
Cruising yachts are afforded great freedom by maritime authorities to choose their equipment, and to go to sea without a seaworthiness survey
. It strains that relationship to carry only a communication system that requires additional – satellite phone call – expense on the part of the authorities, fishing trawlers, commercial vessels, rescue
agencies etc who are obliged and committed to help you – as a fellow mariner – if you have a problem, or make a mistake. And it strains the relationship because with only a satphone, you are not contactable to help others in distress; commercial or recreational mariners or passengers.
When you fit out your yacht, you make decisions that impact not only yourself, your crew and your family
, but the people who you will expect to come to your assistance. Make it a little easier and less costly for them; allocate the money
in your boat budget
for a modern marine HF/SSB radio with DSC (or marine VHF
radio with DSC if only cruising coastal areas).
In my high seas cruising areas:
- The last time I checked, I was advised the MRCC has no budget for sat phone calls in the vast area where they are responsible for search and rescue. If you want their help - and support from the million $ resources and professional mariners they can direct to assist you - for free, you need to talk to them using the communication system they operate – marine HF/SSB; with DSC alarm to alert their operators.
- If you phone them on your satphone to ask for help, they will tell you they will call you back on your marine HF/SSB radio; because that costs them nothing extra. If they spend their limited budget on sat phone calls to help you, what gets chopped and who misses out on their help in the future? And what recommendations might they feel the need to make regarding controlling future expenditures on yacht rescues?
- MRCC Australia makes it clear on their website that “While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.
Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority.
Whilst there may be other Governments establishing HF facilities in the Indian and Pacific Ocean areas, Australia aims to cover the Australian Search and Rescue Region (SRR) to a high level of probability with its own stations.”
Maritime authorities are changing their attitudes to the freedoms extended to recreational yachting. For example, and just from my knowledge in this region alone:
1. A few years ago, New Zealand
introduced what were seen as draconian and unfair inspections on visiting international cruising yachts to verify they had suitable equipment; before they were given a port clearance and allowed to depart New Zealand
. The frequency, cost and risk to other mariners of yacht rescues in their search and rescue area had triggered a response.
2. Marine authorities in Australia decided a few years ago to ignore further claims by yachts that they have no space and it is unnecessary to carry life-jackets and other safety related gear
in their tenders. The tender
is proven to be the most dangerous component of yachting; especially when returning to an anchored yacht at night, after dinner and drinks ashore. People just disappear, or bodies are sometimes found a few days later.
Now it's compulsory to wear a life-jacket in a tender
and you can be fined if you ignore the rule
. The frequency and cost of mounting searches for yacht crews missing following a short tender trip – along with the loss of life – became unacceptable.
With these developments in mind, its worth considering this modern-day definition of freedom, in the context of a drama driven TV news environment
, nations administered by butt-covering and ladder climbing bureaucrats, harassed by ambulance chasing lawyers backed by empire building accountants who need to create government
budget savings to justify their salaries:
“Freedom is the opportunity to police yourself, before someone else – who cares absolutely nothing for the community or personal benefits your activity might create – does it for you.”
It's true, a satphone is far easier to get into the liferaft
than a HF radio
. And it can be used for personal and private calls to family, work etc. So a satphone certainly has its unique benefits.
It's also true, from a short term perspective, that a satphone is cheaper than an effective marine HF/SSB radio with DSC. But the long term costs can be quite expensive; for calls, for emails, for the safety at sea of all mariners (not just yourself), and for cruising yacht freedoms.
Something to consider.