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Old 11-02-2016, 12:22   #1
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Simple communications offshore

I do occasional cruising (LA to SF, planning a trip to Hawaii soon) and I have been thinking about a good setup for reliable communications at sea. My criteria are low cost, suitable for occasional use and safety (weather). Any thoughts and experiences would be appreciated.

Option 1
Portable SW receiver (PL-660 in my case) with an android app to decode weatherfax and navtex messages. This is what I have now and works well. Interestingly, I get much better reception when I turn off the cabin LED lights. It is also low power since both the radio and the tablet are very efficient during receive.

Option 2
Sirius Weather to my Raymarine C80. This works very well for coastal cruising and the weather info is nicely shown on the chartplotter. $30/month.

Option 3
Iridium. I have not tried this but it looks expensive for occasional use at $1000 setup, monthly fee and $1/minute. Does voice and data and I believe it is faster to download GRIBs (2-3 minutes) but I have not tried it.

Option 4
Delorme Inreach, also based on Iridium. It only does text (160 characters per message) costs only $250 and very easy to go to a higher or lower plan. You get unlimited messaging for $50/month so you can keep in touch with friends, send position reports, ask for advice, etc.

I have been wondering if it would be possible to request GRIBs via a message, then the GRIB to be split into 20-30 short messages that are later combined into one file on the tablet? It should not be too difficult to do and I could have a friend onshore do this manually for me but it would be much nicer to write a program to automate this.

Option 5
Traditional SSB. Either an Icom 802 or a 718 based on personal/legal preference (let's not go there). The benefit is high transmit power but the drawbacks are high cost, older technology and high current draw. Also, one still needs a laptop/tablet to receive weatherfax or do some of the advanced digital modes with it. It is good for voice communications but that is not a priority for me. $4000 all-in, slightly cheaper for the 718.

Option 6
Software SSB. The idea here is to get an SDR (software defined radio) that can do a lot more than a traditional SSB. You get cheap ham hardware (i.e. Flex-1500 for $600 or Elecraft KX3 for $800) that interfaces with the laptop for all control functions. On the laptop there are many features available such as decoding of all sorts of digital data including weather, pictures, high definition pictures, etc. even satellite info since these radio's go all the way up to 2 Ghz. Advanced DSP functions that are supposed to significantly improve reception and transmission. The downside is that the output power is 5-10W vs. 150W for the Icom 802. The cost is $1,000 for the receiver and tuner and the rest is done by the laptop (i.e. no need for Pactor).

Any thoughts if 5W would be enough at sea if matched with a top notch antenna setup? Another benefit I see of the lower power is that you can use it for much longer, i.e. send pictures or even slow scan TV to a ham friend onshore. Has anyone tried these advanced ham radios on a boat?

Thank you for your comments.

Vassil
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Old 11-02-2016, 13:00   #2
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Re: Simple communications offshore

It depends on what you'd like to do. You can send emails and receive emails with weather chart attachments via satellite phone, or you can continue to receive weatherfaxes via PL-660 and android app, or if you want to transmit/receive emails via HF SSB then you'll need a marine radio like the M-802 to get the full benefits, one of which is HF-DSC.


I will comment that I have a PL-880 plugged into a win10 laptop and it worked great for weatherfaxes back when it was a win8 machine, haven't played with it since it's ben upgraded to Win10. I also have a dual antenna SDR that I bought for $58 assembled, it covers 100KHz - 1.7GHz. I use a discone antenna to cover 25 MHz and up, and a simple random longwire for HF and below. This same long wire antenna (about 90 ft of 14 ga speaker wire) works great for my Eton E1, PL-880 and SDR, and the sensitivity is about the same as my Icom 7200 with a nice big inverted Vee antenna.

You can also receive weatherfax directly into OpenCpn, if you're so inclined.

Personally, I prefer backups for the backup, especially if they're cheap. You could use the Delorme as your primary, your PL-660 hooked to a laptop or android as your secondary, your SDR hooked to the laptop as your tertiary, the android as a backup for your laptop, etc.

If you have any desire to transmit SSB at all, then I'd urge you to get an M-802 if you have the funds for it. The Pactor modem is a major part of the expense, but you can get around that with sailmail. If you're willing to spend $1,000 for a 5 watt radio, I'd spend the other $800 and get the M-802, you can connect that to a laptop as well.
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Old 11-02-2016, 13:58   #3
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Quote:
Originally Posted by Pizzazz View Post

I have been wondering if it would be possible to request GRIBs via a message, then the GRIB to be split into 20-30 short messages that are later combined into one file on the tablet? It should not be too difficult to do and I could have a friend onshore do this manually for me but it would be much nicer to write a program to automate this.
Yes. But you must 1) write it, 2) be sure it does not pack up while you are offshore.

It is doable but not time efficient. Follow the yellow path instead and the time spent NOT WRITING SOFTWARE can be used towards actually sailing.

Cheers,
b.
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Old 11-02-2016, 14:45   #4
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Re: Simple communications offshore

I would get the InReach and a 2nd choice.

I wouldn't cruise offshore (even on someone else's boat) without my Inreach. It's a great backup/companion to an EPIRB since you can have two way communication with responders. Sending a helicopter isn't always the answer. I once used it to communicate by email with the Yanmar mechanic at my boatyard. It uses the Iridium network so it is worldwide.

It works fine below decks without an antenna (at least on my boat) and has never failed me - unlike my Satphone, Ham and SSB radios. I believe it connects so reliably because it doesn't need to hold a signal for long to send 160 characters. It keeps trying until it goes. So far, I've never waited more than 2 minutes (usually 30 seconds). I leave it on 24hrs a day so family can reach me in an emergency (a great family stress reliever).

160 characters is more than you should need (ask anyone under 30 years old) but it won't do GRIBs. My alternative is to send a message to a friend ashore and ask him to send me a 160 character weather report from the Internet. He can put 3 days into 160 characters by using something like 25SW1E (25 knot Southwest wind with 1 meter seas from the east). And if a storm is nearby, he just sends more detail in several messages.
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Old 11-02-2016, 16:03   #5
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Quote:
Originally Posted by Pizzazz View Post

Option 4
Delorme Inreach, also based on Iridium. It only does text (160 characters per message) costs only $250 and very easy to go to a higher or lower plan. You get unlimited messaging for $50/month so you can keep in touch with friends, send position reports, ask for advice, etc.

I have been wondering if it would be possible to request GRIBs via a message, then the GRIB to be split into 20-30 short messages that are later combined into one file on the tablet? It should not be too difficult to do and I could have a friend onshore do this manually for me but it would be much nicer to write a program to automate this.

The smallest practical GRIB is about 50KB in size. They are binary files and don't compress much at all. To send them as text messages, you would need to UUEncode them which will increase the size to closer to 70KB. You will need to include some form of serialisation code in each message, so it would be reasonable to figure on 80KB of total data to send a single GRIB via text message. That is 500 messages for a small GRIB!

IOW - not feasible.
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Old 11-02-2016, 16:08   #6
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Quote:
Originally Posted by CarlF View Post
My alternative is to send a message to a friend ashore and ask him to send me a 160 character weather report from the Internet. He can put 3 days into 160 characters by using something like 25SW1E (25 knot Southwest wind with 1 meter seas from the east). And if a storm is nearby, he just sends more detail in several messages.
A not too expensive way to get regular weather updates on your Inreach:

SpotCast Weather
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Old 11-02-2016, 19:57   #7
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Quote:
Originally Posted by StuM View Post
The smallest practical GRIB is about 50KB in size.
I would say you can get quite useful data with a 10KB GRIB. However, I agree that trying to use short text messages for GRIBs is not practical.
Quote:
IOW - not feasible.
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Old 11-02-2016, 21:30   #8
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Re: Simple communications offshore

You might also look into purchasing a portable Amateur radio and getting a license. Use this to get WINLINK emails decoded through Winmor. Don't know about ALE Automatic Link Establishment radios but that might be an option.
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Old 13-02-2016, 13:09   #9
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Quote:
Originally Posted by Pizzazz View Post
I do occasional cruising (LA to SF, planning a trip to Hawaii soon) and I have been thinking about a good setup for reliable communications at sea. My criteria are low cost, suitable for occasional use and safety (weather). Any thoughts and experiences would be appreciated.

Option 1
Portable SW receiver (PL-660 in my case) with an android app to decode weatherfax and navtex messages. This is what I have now and works well. Interestingly, I get much better reception when I turn off the cabin LED lights. It is also low power since both the radio and the tablet are very efficient during receive.

Option 2
Sirius Weather to my Raymarine C80. This works very well for coastal cruising and the weather info is nicely shown on the chartplotter. $30/month.

Option 3
Iridium. I have not tried this but it looks expensive for occasional use at $1000 setup, monthly fee and $1/minute. Does voice and data and I believe it is faster to download GRIBs (2-3 minutes) but I have not tried it.

Option 4
Delorme Inreach, also based on Iridium. It only does text (160 characters per message) costs only $250 and very easy to go to a higher or lower plan. You get unlimited messaging for $50/month so you can keep in touch with friends, send position reports, ask for advice, etc.

I have been wondering if it would be possible to request GRIBs via a message, then the GRIB to be split into 20-30 short messages that are later combined into one file on the tablet? It should not be too difficult to do and I could have a friend onshore do this manually for me but it would be much nicer to write a program to automate this.

Option 5
Traditional SSB. Either an Icom 802 or a 718 based on personal/legal preference (let's not go there). The benefit is high transmit power but the drawbacks are high cost, older technology and high current draw. Also, one still needs a laptop/tablet to receive weatherfax or do some of the advanced digital modes with it. It is good for voice communications but that is not a priority for me. $4000 all-in, slightly cheaper for the 718.

Option 6
Software SSB. The idea here is to get an SDR (software defined radio) that can do a lot more than a traditional SSB. You get cheap ham hardware (i.e. Flex-1500 for $600 or Elecraft KX3 for $800) that interfaces with the laptop for all control functions. On the laptop there are many features available such as decoding of all sorts of digital data including weather, pictures, high definition pictures, etc. even satellite info since these radio's go all the way up to 2 Ghz. Advanced DSP functions that are supposed to significantly improve reception and transmission. The downside is that the output power is 5-10W vs. 150W for the Icom 802. The cost is $1,000 for the receiver and tuner and the rest is done by the laptop (i.e. no need for Pactor).

Any thoughts if 5W would be enough at sea if matched with a top notch antenna setup? Another benefit I see of the lower power is that you can use it for much longer, i.e. send pictures or even slow scan TV to a ham friend onshore. Has anyone tried these advanced ham radios on a boat?

Thank you for your comments.

Vassil
Vassil,

Reading through your options, but not knowing all the different types of communications you will require, I wonder if you wouldn't benefit from an Iridium Go [IP hot spot using iOS or Android devices.]

The device pricing keeps coming down and the unlimited data is US$125/month. Purchase from a provider that allows you to change plans and you can reduce your monthly during periods of different use, or non-use. [Last I looked, Predict Wind had a good hardware bundle and data package.]

If it is going on your vessel, you will benefit from having an external antenna [see Predict Wind bundle...]

We currently have both an ICOM M802 and an Iridium Extreme [9575] sat phone we use in conjunction with UUplus email service [for the bandwidth impaired] to do all of our two way email, sms, and wx downloads.

We describe why this suits our current needs in this post on our blog.

For additional details and perspective, here are some additional posts on our blog on this topic.

Best wishes with your project, and safe travels.

Cheers!

Bill
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Old 13-02-2016, 13:39   #10
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Re: Simple communications offshore

There are a dozen or more different combinations which you will have to choose yourself after studying the question. This subject has been discussed recently and you would profit from reading through the archives.

My own subjective and short answer would be:

Delorme or Yellow Brick

and

SSB receiver and laptop for weather.


Because you said inexpensive and occasional.

The satellite text devices will allow you to send and receive SMS messages for a tiny cost, both in equipment and in running costs, compared to other means. And you can shut them off and stop the running costs at any moment when you don't need them. Ideal solution for "cheap" and "occasional".
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Old 16-02-2016, 09:02   #11
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Re: Simple communications offshore

I'd consider separating your cruising scenarios, especially since you emphasized "occasional use". What might ideally fill that need along the coast might not work at all offshore. A thousand miles out reliability and capability trumps everything else when you really need it, as do backup systems.

We cruise half time, but do long ocean passages only a couple times a season. Had a "modified" ham rig on the last boat, chose to go with the Icom 802 for this one primarily due to the DSC "Distress" function. (see other threads on the second antenna connection for DSC receive). This boat came with backstay antenna so SSB was not that expensive, plus the inner geek/ham wanted one. I use Winmor instead of Pactor to get emails, almost exclusively for grib files. We have an old 1st or 2nd gen Spot to let folks at home know where we are.

But for long passages I also rent a sat phone both for grib files and emergency comms, for instance medical emergency. The issue for me on long passages is that time becomes more precious, and whether it's Sailmail or Winmor, finding and connecting to an open shore station can take a while, time that would better be spent sleeping. Sat phone is much more time efficient. Same thing is true for weather fax. Sorting through the schedule, making sure your set up and recording at the right times, on the frequency that's coming in best at that particular time all takes time, plus is harder when you need it most - inclement weather. I would go for a rented sat phone for occasional offshore use, making sure it's all set up and working a week before departure.

I haven't cruised the West Coast, but often here on the east we're close enough to shore for cell phones to work, especially with an amplifier.

Just my $.02 worth

Jim
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Old 16-02-2016, 10:05   #12
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Re: Simple communications offshore

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Originally Posted by GrandpaJim View Post
[...]
I haven't cruised the West Coast, but often here on the east we're close enough to shore for cell phones to work, especially with an amplifier.
On the California west coast, the cell coverage gets real spotty north of Santa Barbara. Much of the coast is quite rugged and the cell sites don't bother trying to cover the ocean. North of San Francisco it's even worse. Heading out the Golden Gate, we lose coverage at about 10 miles (raw phones, no amplifiers or external antennas).
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Old 16-02-2016, 17:45   #13
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Good discussion. For now, I will follow Dockhead's advice: Delorme for messaging and an SSB receiver for fun. I also have the Sirius receiver installed and will activate this for occasional use up and down the coast. I really like how it overlays weather on the chart on the C80.


I expect that we shall get more robust and higher speed net access with the next batch of Iridium satellites scheduled to be deployed in 2017-18.


SSB transmit seems to be too much effort for too little gain today. It is power hungry, takes time to get longer emails and the installation from scratch is a pain.


Another option that came to mind is to have friends at local amateur clubs send me the info I need. In this way I can request the info over the Delorme (narrow band) and they can send it over SSB (broadband) at a specified frequency time. May be too much effort again. Will see. Thank you for the comprehensive inputs.
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Old 16-02-2016, 18:15   #14
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Re: Simple communications offshore

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On the California west coast, the cell coverage gets real spotty north of Santa Barbara. Much of the coast is quite rugged and the cell sites don't bother trying to cover the ocean. North of San Francisco it's even worse. Heading out the Golden Gate, we lose coverage at about 10 miles (raw phones, no amplifiers or external antennas).
Yes, this is so true and it's also much worse than this. I get no service in the middle of San Francisco Bay or at my home on the Coastside.

Apologies for the rant, but I wanted to post because I am very interested in following this thread. It's probably far-fetched, but I am considering similar options for a Hawaii trip while continuing to get work done It would be interesting to know how well the Iridium GO works in the middle of the ocean. Those few reviews I see make it sound a bit spotty at best.
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Old 16-02-2016, 18:39   #15
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Re: Simple communications offshore

Anything with Iridium will work in the middle of the ocean, or anywhere else that you have a relatively unobstructed view of the sky. There are other satellite systems that only try to cover the land areas, so their mid-ocean coverage is spotty.
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