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Keeping in touch on Traversay III

Feb 27, 2015
Laurence Roberts uses the boat’s handheld VHF in the cockpit.

Laurence Roberts uses the boat’s handheld VHF in the cockpit.

Laurence Roberts

The days are long past when sailors disappeared from the grid on leaving shore and reappeared with their first sight of land. Most voyagers today want full-time access to weather information inshore and offshore as well as uninterrupted communications with friends and family. More and more authorities too, such as the Australians and New Zealanders, are asking for such things as “advance notice of arrival” reports as many as four days out at sea. The Chilean and Argentine navies require cruisers to forward position reports daily from remote areas. Wireless communications have become a necessity for voyagers. As few as 40 years ago they were a luxury.

Both economics and bandwidth considerations dictate that different equipment be used when near the land than when in the middle of the ocean.
 
Coastal sailors will already be familiar with what works in or near port. VHF, these days with DSC and AIS, provides instant maritime communications. It allows us to talk to harbor authorities, coast guards, marinas and even buddy-boats. For distress communications, VHF is a world standard. A spare portable unit, preferably waterproof, is a good idea as well. This will cover failure of the main unit as well as provide an additional measure of security in the dinghy or on shore excursions in remote locations.

On Traversay III we get almost all our weather information these days from the Internet. This is due to a preference for text and maps, which can be referred back to, rather than voice weather information, which is forgotten almost the instant the channel is changed. 

Traversay III’s Iridium phone lives at the chart table for convenient data connections, see various USB/serial/NMEA convertors in background. The Iridium has a cable that runs to an exterior antenna.

Laurence Roberts

In many marinas and anchorages worldwide, Wi-Fi may be available. In this regard, an external USB Wi-Fi antenna is useful at anchor or if you have a metal boat, which weak signals won’t penetrate. Absent Wi-Fi, a USB dongle or a smartphone’s “portable hot spot” feature will provide Internet through the mobile phone network — and, obviously, a cellphone (or mobile phone, in most countries) provides phone service as well. When you leave home, you will save a lot of money by not roaming using your home network and number! Instead, in each different country, use an unlocked phone with a locally purchased SIM chip and/or a local USB dongle to access the network. Local people will not be as reluctant to call an in-country number as they might your home number. You will also save a bundle on all your calls, near and far.

Far from land, different tools come into play. The VHF still has its uses, such as calling a passing ship or trading ideas with a nearby sailboat, but for distress communications an EPIRB is a must.
 
Telephone service will only be available through a satellite phone. Our choice is Iridium but others are available at various price points for equipment and airtime. Satphone calls may be expensive but are very helpful for prearranging spare parts to avoid delays in port and, as an occasional treat, to talk to relatives. Texting is quite inexpensive as an alternative.

Internet access is available offshore but the cost, both for equipment and usage, can be discouraging. On Traversay III we make do with email access through an SSB transceiver and Pactor modem using the Sailmail system (see www.sailmail.com). On the rare occasions, such as the High Arctic, where radio propagation is not good enough for SSB communications, the data feature of the satellite phone allows email access to continue. Sailmail even allows access to shore-based email accounts through its Shadowmail feature. 

Though we do not have complete Internet access offshore, by finding web pages we are interested in while in port — such as text weather information — and recording the URL address of the page, the text on the page can be fetched mid-ocean using the “Saildocs” part of Sailmail. Saildocs also provides a complete range of text weather and GRIB weather maps through an easy-to-use interface.

Roberts chose this combined VHF radio/AIS receiver in order to save some space at the nav station. The Pactor modem, for sending email via HF SSB, and all the data connections are hidden behind the radio panel.

Laurence Roberts

Even bloggers need not despair over this limited email-only Internet access. Google’s Blogger/Blogspot site allows blog postings, including pictures, by email. Some other blogging engines probably do as well.

The SSB is a marvelous tool. Sailmail and other software provide access to weatherfax maps through the SSB receiver. Also, on many oceans and remote coastlines there are cruiser nets on which voyagers on different boats share experiences and ideas at particular frequencies and times of day using the voice capability of the SSB.
 
The offshore sailor may be far from land but with VHF, SSB and Pactor, satphone and cellular ,along with a laptop computer or two, he or she is no longer in any sense out-of-touch.

After reaching the Pacific from Europe via the Northwest Passage in 2013, Larry Roberts and wife Mary Anne Unrau spent the summer of 2014 cruising to California, Mexico, Hawaii, the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak Island then to Victoria, B.C.

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