Marine Electronics, September 2020
Weather Data by Satellite Phone
Receiving weather GRIB files offshore has become much easier through the easy access offered by handheld satellite phones. No longer do you need to install a huge satellite dome on your vessel to receive this critical data while under way.
For those sailors still using email via HAM or marine SSB radio for weather data, the costs involved in installing the Pactor Modem and using SailMail are reasonable enough, but gaining access to GRIB files over this system can be difficult and time-consuming, depending on the amount of message traffic at a given time.
By far the easiest means of receiving weather data for the cruising sailor is through a handheld Iridium satellite phone. Also, the up-front cost of the phone, plus the monthly cost depending on the plan, will take several years to reach or surpass the purchase and installation cost of a typical marine SSB or HAM radio. However, once you have installed the radio, tuner and antenna for roughly $5,000, there are no further costs for operation.
A leader in satellite phone technology for adventurers on and off the water, the inReach Explorer+ offers two-way text messaging, GPS and an “interactive SOS” system linked to a “24/7 search and rescue monitoring center,” all at a very affordable price package.
You can use your inReach to plan ocean crossings by following waypoints, integrating your route planning with preloaded TOPO maps and follow weather forecasts for your location through a separate monthly service. There are four levels of inReach plans, the highest of which provides data on wave height, ocean currents and atmospheric conditions for your area. With plans ranging from roughly $23 to $80 per month, inReach is very competitively priced for the services it offers.
The Iridium GO! is a WiFi hotspot for smartphones also allowing easy connection with a laptop computer for email and Internet searches. Though both Iridium GO! and inReach offer roughly similar capability in terms of weather data, GPS and route planning, the Iridium GO! also includes voice communication capability. So you get real phone capability along with all the other robust capabilities of the Iridium GO!.
With an Iridium GO!, depending on the monthly plan, you can even keep up with social media, and with the highest-level plan, you can enjoy unlimited data downloads and text transmissions along with 150 minutes of voice communication. Satellite phone service requires a SIM card and a monthly or prepaid airtime service plan.
Both inReach and Iridium GO! offer attractive plans with their own respective advantages. If you are looking for a device simply to keep up with weather forecasts while leaving voice communication to the HAM or marine SSB, the inReach will serve your needs adequately for a reasonable outlay of your cruising kitty. On the other hand, if you want weather data with all the bells and whistles of a satellite phone, the Iridium GO! offers those extra advantages but at a significantly higher monthly cost.
Those of us who have crossed oceans under sail generally accept — and even seek — some guaranteed distance, both literal and figurative, from friends and family back home. A device limited to only text and data reception certainly does not offer the luxury of being able to converse with folks back home, but out on open ocean, most of us are happy to converse with our fellow cruisers via HAM or marine SSB.
Circumnavigator-author Bill Morris is the author of The Captain’s Guide to Alternative Energy Afloat and is a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator.