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Low-tech weather solution finds niche in high-tech world

May 3, 2017

The Saildocs service continues as a valuable resource for voyagers

Grib weather data available via Saildocs.

Grib weather data available via Saildocs.

Technology moves fast these days, but SailMail and its accompanying weather service Saildocs have developed a devoted following despite their distinctly low-tech solution.

SailMail, which turns 20 this year, has about 2,000 subscribers for its email service accessible through a Pactor modem linked with a high-frequency single sideband radio and various satellite terminals and handsets. In 2000, three years after launching SailMail, company founders Stan Honey and Jim Corenman established Saildocs, which offers access to custom National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather forecasts in text or gridded binary (grib) format.

SailMail subscribers can tailor the forecasts to specific areas to meet their needs. While many standard charting programs can display weather from a grib format, the company also offers a program that translates grib data into a detailed weather map. Saildocs is primarily used by SailMail subscribers and others with low-bandwidth Internet seeking weather and text bulletins without having to download huge files, Corenman said.

“One of the things we do is strip that down and just make it concise for the weather itself,” he said in a recent interview. “The problem with the grib stuff is, as NOAA provides it, the files are huge … and it is difficult to get the data you want.”

“What we did, and what a couple others now offer, is we let users access NOAA raw data and parse out the data they want,” Corenman continued. “You can set the lat and long and choose which parameters you want.”

Corenman and Honey developed SailMail to run on single-sideband radio because that was the technology available in the mid-1990s. As maritime satellite services have become more widely used and prices have gone down, the Palo Alto, Calif., company has adapted the service to run on Iridium, Inmarsat, Globalstar and other widely available satellite products. SailMail launched in 1997 with 10 subscribers. Over time, that number grew to about 3,000 people in 2008 when the recession hit. Since then, the company has maintained a fairly steady following of 2,000 subscribers. Corenman attributes the decline to several factors, including fewer people on the water and more communication options becoming available at lower costs. 

Saildocs is available with an annual $275 SailMail subscription fee that allows unlimited access to email and weather. Satellite-based subscribers pay for airtime, while radio users can access the service with no additional charges. The program has evolved over the years as NOAA forecasts have become more detailed. Within the last decade or so, NOAA began offering data on sea states, ocean currents, ocean temperatures and other information, in addition to standard forecasts. Saildocs responded by tweaking its program to keep up with those changes.

Grib weather data displayed via a grib viewer.

“What we have tried to do is expand our capability without obsoleting the stuff that still works. For our users, particularly those on a budget, high-frequency SSB radio email has a lot of attraction because of the low operating cost,” Corenman said. “The equipment is a pain in the neck to set up, but once you get it set up, you’re there.”

Corenman acknowledged that people have different expectations about Internet use these days, even while cruising offshore. He expects satellite usage will continue to grow and radio use will continue its gradual decline. That said, he believes SailMail and Saildocs will continue to have a niche with cost-conscious mariners. 

Single sideband radio also has the advantage of daily “nets” — radio meet-ups at set times on set frequencies that let sailors stay in touch on the water at no charge. Free email communication over the radio system is another big perk. 

“The thing people find, particularly in the cruise segment ... nobody is going to pay $1 a minute to chat with their buddies to find out what is going on,” Corenman said, referring to satellite airtime rates. 

While he doesn’t expect any revolutionary changes in radio technology, Pactor modems are getting faster, which is allowing faster download speeds. In many cases, radio downloads are faster than those on satellite. Meanwhile, the weather data that forecasting agencies are making available are getting better, too. 

“I expect you’ll see satellite use continue to increase and our hope is we can continue to develop and remain competitive in that business,” Corenman said.

Casey Conley is a staff writer for Ocean Navigator and Professional Mariner magazines and is the editor of American Tugboat Review.

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