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Old 11-07-2010, 12:35   #1
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Ham, $$B, Iridium ?

I'm in the process of developing a more detailed budget and cash flow for buying my next boat, outfitting it, and a cruising kitty. One area I am having a problem is getting a feel for the cost of high seas communication gear and services that I might need.

It appears that the best practice these days is having all or something as follows:

- Iridium - main source for downloading GRIB files and weather data, emails ( ex: using Globalmarine subscription + xgate), calling home, and as an emergency communication device.

- SSB + modem - ship to ship / ship to shore; sailmail (as a primary or secondary email); saildocs (secondary for GRIB files since these files can be quite large) ; WEFAX

In addition, cruisers use weather services for GRIB files and sailing directions such as WeatherNet, PredictWind, Weather Routing Inc, Commanders Weather, MaxSea Time Zero's incl subscription and back it up with WEFAX, NAVTEX and like services.

If I were to add up the list and cherry pick its easy to see that the costs could easily reach $7-8k or more just to get in the game. So with this in mind, I'd like to ask a few questions to experienced and new users in an effort to figure out a more approximated and discounted estimate.

- What hardware do you currently have on your boat for offshore communications, email, and weather?

- How did you attain your hardware (particular vendors, websites, for sale ads, etc)?

- What "paid" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?

- What "free" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?

- What is your workflow and how are they integrated in your day to day work?

and finally...

- Any advice you might have for getting discounts or whole sale prices when outfitting and refitting a used boat - e.g. methods or vendors?

Thanks

SaltyMonkey
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Old 11-07-2010, 13:52   #2
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In my somewhat cantankerously old-fashioned opinion, a long-range cruising boat must have a radio station -- an SSB. Theoretically, this is an obsolete form of communication, what with cheap satphones. They are expensive -- not the radio, but everything around it. And they require a certain amount of arcane art to use effectively. But there are so many things you can do with them, from listening to the BBC in the middle of the ocean, to talking with airliners flying overhead, to participating in the nets, to downloading GRIB files and weatherfax. The radio shack has been the heart of any ship since Marconi; I wouldn't want my own ship to be any different.

The PO of our boat was a practical, modern type, and fitted a satphone but no SSB. High on the list of equipment to be added is an SSB with ham capability, probably an Icom M802. I'll have to get the ham license, but that's become quite easy after the latest reforms.
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Old 11-07-2010, 14:19   #3
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Thanks Dockhead. I quite agree. But it seems to me everything is top of the edge in costs. In the HAM world of ingenuity, people took great pride in being able to get a rig going relatively cheap - at least in the TTY world of yesteryear. But in the marine world these days with SSB/Pactor modem, it sure looks expensive. That Icom M802 is one $$$'y rig.

I'm wondering if there is a way to get a SSB rig setup that won't be costing me 4-5k.

And also what weather services people use to download data
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Old 11-07-2010, 14:42   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
Thanks Dockhead. I quite agree. But it seems to me everything is top of the edge in costs. In the HAM world of ingenuity, people took great pride in being able to get a rig going relatively cheap - at least in the TTY world of yesteryear. But in the marine world these days with SSB/Pactor modem, it sure looks expensive. That Icom M802 is one $$$'y rig.

I'm wondering if there is a way to get a SSB rig setup that won't be costing me 4-5k.

And also what weather services people use to download data
Well, the M802 only costs about $1800 or so. You can get a perfectly good used radio for half that or less. But the radio is not the main expense -- you still have to do something about the antenna and ground plate. I'm currently struggling with that myself. Insulators for my 16mm backstay will cost more than the radio, and will introduce weak points in my rig. Hmmm. That's the big problem with it. I'll let you know if I come up with anything. But even if it costs $4k to $5k, I will have to do it, before I set off on longer trips.
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Old 11-07-2010, 14:58   #5
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Yes, there are a number of different options out there for an antenna that will allow you to keep your backstay intact - antennas that run externally up the backstay; on another line, or you might consider an extra backstay or a whip.

The grounding plates are indeed expensive and I believe two are needed.

The radio is 1800, but the modem is an additional 1200 or more.

Then you need a tuner

And cable etc.

All these little items add up.

Finding "used" stuff is difficult.
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Old 11-07-2010, 14:58   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What hardware do you currently have on your boat for offshore communications, email, and weather?

An Iridium and a sony 'all-band' receiver

- How did you attain your hardware (particular vendors, websites, for sale ads, etc)?

Both purchased by internet order

- What "paid" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?

Xgate for e-mail compression, all the weather info is free

- What "free" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?

Its not a 'subscribtion', but we get our gribs for free from saildocs

- What is your workflow and how are they integrated in your day to day work?

We listen to weather nets on the all band receiver, and get (free) weather faxes with it connected to the computer via an audio cable, and get Gribs (free) via saildocs.
We think the iridium is a very useful piece of kit, obviously for getting e-mails and gribs; but also for staying in touch with our families and in an emergency it is generally more useful than an epirb (or an SSB).
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Old 11-07-2010, 15:01   #7
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estarzinger thanks - how do you have your iridium rig'd? What software and services do you use with it? Will give me an idea of how much I can expect to spend on peripheral items, and what good services are available = both FREE and $$$.
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Old 11-07-2010, 15:04   #8
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Oh my.

By way of background I have been a ham radio operator for 35 years (longer than I have been sailing) so that may color my opinions. I do a far amount of delivery work and have a chance therefore to work with a range of radios and sat-phones, often in side-by-side comparisons.

In brief, I wouldn't go without SSB. Sat-phones - not so much.

The following opinions are based on my personal experience offshore. My definition of offshore is a continuous passage longer than the best weather forecast I can get on departure (so Florida to Bimini is NOT "offshore" but Beaufort NC to Marsh Harbour is "offshore" YMMV).

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- Iridium - main source for downloading GRIB files and weather data, emails ( ex: using Globalmarine subscription + xgate), calling home, and as an emergency communication device.
Running costs stack up quickly. Poor as an emergency communications device since you lose the opportunity for someone nearby to hear your call for help when you call the authorities, and the authorities may not have a grip on everyone close by to you.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- SSB + modem - ship to ship / ship to shore; sailmail (as a primary or secondary email); saildocs (secondary for GRIB files since these files can be quite large) ; WEFAX
I think you misunderstand the difference between grib files and other graphic weather products. Once of the few advantages of gribs is that they are quite small.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What hardware do you currently have on your boat for offshore communications, email, and weather?
Putting my own money where my mouth is and used regularly:

SSB w/ data modem (Icom M802 (although there are lots of alternatives) and SCS PTC-IIpro (although for most folks I'd recommend a PTC-IIusb)). I use Airmail set up with GetFax for automatic reception of weather faxes (synoptics and text forecasts) from NWS/USCG and UKMet (depending on where I am) and Navtex for text. The same setup provides e-mail through Sailmail (commercial) and Winlink (ham). Offshore I participate in nets (like the Waterway Net (ham) and Cruiseheimers (marine)) that provide a communication link and a backup for weather information. I also have an account with ShipCom (nee WLO) for ship-to-shore phone calls.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- How did you attain your hardware (particular vendors, websites, for sale ads, etc)?
Combination of factory build and self-installed. I think highly based on personal experience of Don at hfradio.com and Gary at docksideradio.com. In addition to his businesses, Don runs a Sailmail shore station. Gary provides a wealth of information on his website and is very real supporter of SSCA events on the US East Coast.

Google for Frank Singleton and read his outstanding website. Frank is a retired UK Met meteorologist.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What "paid" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?

- What "free" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?
Sailmail ($250US/year), Winlink (free), NWS/USCG weather fax and Navtex (free), UK Met (free).

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What is your workflow and how are they integrated in your day to day work?
Truly an outstanding question.

I keep my SSB and laptop running continuously offshore. This does have power consumption implications, but is third behind refrigeration and incandescent nav lights/instruments. Airmail runs on the laptop and is configured to automatically tune the radio for weather fax and Navtex reception. Generally I can tweak my configuration file for a pending passage and not touch it underway. Crossing oceans there are generally a couple of changes as we progress. I use ITSHF as a propagation model to rough out the choices. This isn't particularly hard, but there might be an article in it for Ocean Navigator. Hmm. *grin*

Workflow: Shortly before my first daylight watch (if I'm watchstanding) or after breakfast (if I'm cooking) I use Viewfax to go through the weather info I've received since the day before. I look out through the 96 hour forecast and compare to yesterday (is today's 72 hr forecast different from yesterday's 96 hr forecast? why?); I also keep track of who the forecaster is on the synoptic charts. With time I reach my own conclusions about who I have greatest confidence in. Then I go through the latest round of relevant text forecasts. All that takes between 20 minutes and 45 minutes depending on the quality of the wefax reception and how ugly the forecast is. I spend more time when the weather looks bad. Finally, I connect with Sailmail for gribs and any business e-mail that has been in queue since yesterday and with Winlink for personal e-mail for myself and crew. Depending on recent propagation I may switch the gribs to Winlink or blow them off. Sailmail and Winlink are both similarly reliable but propagation may favor one shore station over another. Within a thousand miles of shore (nearly any shore in my experience, but the far South Pacific has some challenges and the far South Atlantic can be a challenge also) both are dead on reliable and much more dependable than sat phones. YMMV. Depending on propagation and traffic from other stations e-mail may take from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, during which time I can do other things like breakfast dishes or logging. Everything takes a bit longer on my boat while on port tack as I have to brace myself to stay in the nav station and that slows down typing and makes mousing a PITA.

An additional benefit of keeping the laptop running all the time is the availability of Airmail to crew for composing e-mail home whenever they wish. This has a significant morale benefit, as does incoming e-mail each morning around breakfast time. This is less of factor on short 3 - 5 day hops, but makes a huge difference on longer passages.

Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- Any advice you might have for getting discounts or whole sale prices when outfitting and refitting a used boat - e.g. methods or vendors?
EBay for hardware; DIY for installation. Find a club for ham radio that teaches the material (as opposed to memorizing without understanding) and you will come out ready to install your own kit. You will have to learn to separate opinion from fact.

With regard to costs, my experience is that most new cruisers look at the cost of a sat phone only when comparing to SSB. Within a year of real sailing they have car kits, marine antennas, extra services for data compression and various bits and bobs that add up to real money. It's also worth noting that Pactor III over SSB is FASTER than data on Iridium. The numbers are:

Pactor I - 140 bps
Pactor II - 1200 bps
WINMOR - 2167 bps
Iridium - 2400 bps
Pactor III - 5200 bps
Globalstar - 9600 bps

The comparison is more complex because some modes (Pactor and WINMOR for example) slow down and keep going when conditions are poor while others (Iridium and Globalstar) drop out completely. Globalstar is an exercise in frustration due to constellation shortfalls.

73 es sail fast, dave KO4MI
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Old 11-07-2010, 15:22   #9
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estarzinger thanks - how do you have your iridium rig'd? What software and services do you use with it? Will give me an idea of how much I can expect to spend on peripheral items, and what good services are available = both FREE and $$$.
Salt,

If you go to the weather and systems FAQ's on our website this is all explained in gory detail. But in short . . .

The Sony we have rigged to a backstay antenna.

Our Iridium usage is a bit unconventional . . . we have an 'external antenna' but neither it nor the phone is fixed mounted. The handset is stowed in a padded watertight case. The antenna has a 10m coil of wire on it. When we want to use the phone, we get it out and screw in the antenna wire and a power cord (goes to a small inverter in the nav station). We tie the antenna out on the binnacle. If we are talking that's it. If we are doing data (e-mail/gribs) we secure (bungee cord) it down next to the nav computer and hook them together with the USB cable.

On the computer I have four basic programs - (1) xgate, which is a compression client, which reduces the cost of e-mail by about a factor of 5, (2) Viewfax/Airmail which is a free grib viewer, and also formats free grib requests to saildocs, (3) expedition, which is a more sophisticated weather routing program, which can also view and request saildoc gribs. This is not necessary for cruising, (4) one of several (free) weather fax programs I have been using metoscan most recently.

For pay, you can use Ocean's but I don't see any value vs the saildoc gribs. Predictwinds claims to have proprietary, more accurate, coastal gribs than saildocs, but my analysis suggests the 'extra accuracy' is speculative and may be of value to racers but probably not to cruisers. And as you mentioned you can use a shore router like Commanders, but if you take the time to learn about weather you will do a better job yourself than they do.

So, for costs, we bought the iridium ($1200 I think) and the external antenna ($300 I think), the Sony ($300), and we pay Xgate $200/year for the compression service. Your Iridium costs just depend on how much e-mail and voice you do . . . It could range from $400/month to just $2/week. I guess we do about $2-3/day.
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Old 11-07-2010, 16:16   #10
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We use Ham Radio and Wink Link for nearly all emails and weather.

We use the Iridium once a month to pay our credit card bill, and the iridium is an emergency back up in the event of an offshore problem that is of epic proportions.

The Iridium cost about 36 dollars a month plus the cost of one five minute phone call to our credit card company.

The Win Link is free.
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Old 11-07-2010, 20:05   #11
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Hi-Seas Communications

Salty,
1) First off, let me confess that I'm a "radio nut"....been one my whole life.....longtime ham radio op, shortwave listener, marine HF-SSB
user/installer, etc.....for more than 35 years!!!

And, I've made my living in commercial satellite communications for the past 25+ years......

So, I can (and do) see things from both perspectives....
Just want you to know all of this upfront....

{I'd recommend that you DO install a efficient HF radio system....whether M-802 or other unit......some might disagree, but most will agree that this is almost a "must-have"....}


2) Secondly, it is still surprising to me that many sailors who wish to access offshore / Hi-Seas weather, assume you must use either a PACTOR modem w/SSB (or Ham) radio, or a satphone.....

This is NOT the case at all....
And, unless you spend $$$$$ for an INMARSAT Fleet system, HF-WeFax is still considered to be the "Gold Standard" for offshore / hi-sea marine weather.....

a) As Evens (and many others) do, you can use any decent HF receiver (or an Icom M-802, M-700, etc.) to RECEIVE offshore and hi-seas weather data and forecasts......
Most who use this approach, use a computer (laptop, etc.) connected to the receiver, to view weather charts and satellite photos transmitted by many nations (the US, UK, Canada, Australia, NZ, Germany, China, Japan, Korea, Brazil, Chile, Thailand, etc.) worldwide (WeFax).......

b) There are also offshore / hi-seas "text" weather braodcasts transmitted over HF-SSB from many of those nations above...
And, although, there are still decent Voice weather data forecasts covering most of the N. Atl, Caribbean, and most of the central / eastern Pacific, from the US.....most find a weather chart (WeFax) to be the most useful piece of electronically derived weather data / forecast, and, in addition to their sat gear, is still used by merchant and fishing vessels venturing offshore.....

c) There are also separate, dedicated We-Fax units (radio receiver built-in to We-Fax unit) which print out weather charts and sat photos.....
They're pricey, but VERY hi-quality......
(And, yes I use this method for most of my hi-seas weather data / forecasts.....)


3) HF Radio vs. Satellite comms????
Not a difficult question, but one whose answers are fraught with lots of opinions....

The question revolves around what are your needs for long-range communications, while offshore / on the hi-seas?????
Typically those "needs" are:
1- "Safety / Emergency Communications"
2- "Weather data / forecasts"
3- "Cruiser's Nets / Weather routiing comms"
4- "keeping in touch with family and friends"
5- "entertainment / news / sports / etc."


a) Some feel a decent HF receiver, an EPIRB, and a VHF-marine radio, are all they need for communications / weather when offshore / hi-seas......
(and they use a locally purchased cellphone or SIM card, when in port to keep in touch with friends and family....)
Although most most find this approach lacking....

b) If you don't feel a need for e-mail access while at sea (I myself, have decided that I do NOT need e-mail at sea), then the answer can become less expensive, since there's no need for a PACTOR modem (if using HF radio), nor a need for a "value-added service" / "compression service" such as X-gate, etc. (if you've got an Iridium phone)......

c) If you do without e-mail while at sea, and can live with phone calls via Hi-Seas Marine Radiotelphone (via Shipcom WLO / KLB for N. Atlantic, Caribbean, and eastern Pacific.....Brunei Bay Radio in SE Asia.....and AUS / NZ stations around their coverage areas), and/or using local cellphone or skype, when in port......then there's no need for an Iridium phone at all....

{This last option "c" is what I do......I use my Icom M-802 for occasional radiotelephone calls when at sea, and use local cellphone / SIM card when in port.....I also use the M-802 for Voice weather faorecasts, ham radio nets, cruisers nets, ship-to-ship comms, HF-DSC comms, etc...and use my Furuno FAX-408 WeFax unit for weather charts, etc....and my future plans also call for use of a laptop as back-up for WeFax charts....
Please have a look at how I've set-up my Nav Station, and you'll see how I've still got my whole chart table for CHARTS.... }
Here's the link to the photos:
Nav Station


I don't see (or hear of) very many cruisers making lots of phone calls.....although it all depends on YOUR exact plans / applications, the actual "telephone call" use of an Iridium phone by most cruisers that have them is quite low (especially since skype and local cellphones are much cheaper...)
So, assuming you're not going to need to make many phone calls when at sea, this "feature" is way down on the list of "needs"....
AND, if you make the assumption (as I do), that you WILL be installing a decent HF-radio set-up, then the question isn't HF-SSB Radio vs. Iridium, but rather PACTOR vs. Iridium....(for e-mail and/or GRIB charts)



4) PACTOR vs. Iridium.....
Since I don't currently use either (prefering other means detailed above), I'm not sure how proper it is for me to comment on this specifically.....
But, what the heck, I'll just give you a few of my thoughts....

a) A PACTOR modem is only needed if you wish to access Sailmail and/or Winlink stations......(for e-mail, etc. as well as downloading GRIB charts...)

b) Iridium is a very fine system!!!! And, although I don't use it on my boat, I have used it, and I DO like it......
And, some find Iridium to be a decent, workable option vs. a PACTOR modem and Sailmail / Winlink.....



Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
One area I am having a problem is getting a feel for the cost of high seas communication gear and services that I might need.
I actually appreciate how you wrote / worded this......I wish others were as concise!!!


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What hardware do you currently have on your boat for offshore communications, email, and weather?
See Nav Station, Cockpit Instrumnet, etc. photos
Nav Station
E120/Cockpit
Wi-Fi
Solar Panels

a) I have two Icom M-802's (one installed and one spare) w/ tuner (and spare), connected to insulated backstay....yes I AM a radio nut.....and I use this for ship-ship comms, ship-shore comms, radiotelphone comms, DSC comms, ham radio, cruiser nets, detailed weather info (Herb), as well as voice weather forecasts, and BBC,
US-AFRN, Radio Canada, etc....
b) I use a Furuno FAX-408 WeFax unit, for weather charts, etc....(which shares a 23' vertical / insulated shroud antenna with the DSC receiver in the M-802)
c) I also have a portable HF receiver (as Evans has) with multiple antennas, as back-up for weather, etc....
d) I will add JVComm and Airmail software to my laptop, and using either the M-802, or back-up portable receiver. for back-up WeFax reception on my next Atlantic crossing....
e) When in port, I use local cellphone / SIM card for telephone comms....
f) I also have a decent wi-fi set-up, which allows me for decent internet connections when within a few miles of wi-fi.....


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- How did you attain your hardware (particular vendors, websites, for sale ads, etc)?
Bought some from Don at HF Radio, bought some on-line, bought some wholesale, built some.....


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What "paid" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?
NONE AT ALL.....
Everything is FREE, except for phone calls.....
Radiotelephone calls are $0.99 per minute....and local cell rates vary....
ShipCom LLC :: Marine HF Radiotelephone and HF Single SideBand Email


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What "free" services do you subscribe to for email, weather, other?
NONE at all....
Everything is freely broadcast, so no subscription is needed....


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- What is your workflow and how are they integrated in your day to day work?
a) Print out a couple of wefax charts, and look them over, and listen to a voice braodcast if available...while drinking an Iced Tea or Lemonade, etc....(morning or mid-day, depending on where I am)
b) Make my daily course decisions using the above data / forecasts.....
c) Later in the day, if making an Atlantic crossing, check-in (or just listen to) Herb on 12.359 mhz...
And, that's it.....no hassles, no "trying to connect", etc.....


Quote:
Originally Posted by SaltyMonkey View Post
- Any advice you might have for getting discounts or whole sale prices when outfitting and refitting a used boat - e.g. methods or vendors?
Assuming you're going to be doing all the work yourself (and learn whatever you need to, in order to make everything work properly), here's just a few thoughts....
a) Don, at HF Radio on Board.....
b) Google is your friend here.....look around and you can find some deals...
c) SSCA discussion boards (marine flea market, etc.)
d) Ebay and Craigslist...


I do hope this helps....

John
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Old 11-07-2010, 21:50   #12
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estarzinger - thanks for your latest post and the details. I totally missed your editing a quote from my original post and it contained some information you shared. I'll be sure to take a look at your site for the details you refer to.
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Old 11-07-2010, 21:54   #13
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Auspicious - great stuff there. Gonna take me a while to digest all that yummi information. You've mastered the details!
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Old 11-07-2010, 22:05   #14
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ka4wja - great great stuff! and 2 radios! I didn't even contemplate a backup. Really appreciate you "strong voiced" opinion which gives me confidence your methods are tested and you believe in them.

ps your nav station looks like a space ship! love it!
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Old 11-07-2010, 23:38   #15
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Plenty of different opinion on this...

I am completing a one and a half year south pacific cruise. My only offshore/ long range com is an Iridium satphone.

I am younger than almost every other cruiser out here, and that may give me a different view on technology. I am not a radio hobbiest. I am a sailor.

I would not equip ssb/hifi on a future boat. The satphone setup works great (for me)

I used Ocens Weathernet service, and email service. It all runs through xgate. I used it on my mac and pc. Super easy, low power draw setup.

I checked weather and email once a day while at sea.

Stuff you need

phone
charger
data cable
usb serial adapter
software
computer
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