Email from Onboard

How is this Dan ?

I was V lucky to have a SSB onboard, after I purchased my BCC in Honolulu, circa 1996.

As a single hander , I was invited to join the SSS (single handed sailing society) SSB radio net, when they were returning to San Francisco from their trans-pac race in July 1996 .

I was bound Seattle , they bound S F . They had v good weather info to share with the fleet, and I got the advantage they shared of that as well, Phew !

Later I purchased the Sailmail subscription and modem (Pactor IIe) and found that email connection especially helpful, when on the forced 52 day passage from Bundaberg Oz, to Bali, and then on to S’pore, another 22 days.

Bil , of BCC Zygote was a life saver for me , giving me updated email coms of weather, ahead, day after day, on that passage !

From that info , I was able to keep my spindrifter up flying and sailing in v light off season winds for hours and even night time hours, Thanks to Bil’s weather emails.

My pactor IIe needed a serial port to connect it to my puter. I heard rumor that artifically adapted serial making port equipment wouldn’t work well .

So that is why I was asking Ben , how he got that problem sorted out, as most new L/T’s don’t have serial ports anymore, and of course , now I am in the market to purchase a new L/T , drats !

I never got around to buying the Pactor – ran out of money for that.

Douglas: Hi!

True it is that very very few laptop PCs have genuine serial ports these days. A few specialist laptops do, but they are quite expensive.

USB-to-Serial adaptors do okay for some functions, but not for controlling a Pactor modem. One alternative is to buy a new USB Pactor modem, of course.

Zygote’s navigation laptop, a Dell with a genuine COM1 port, died early this year. Dell still make a business model (in the Latitude line) with a COM1 port, but they’re not inexpensive.

My solution was to buy a laptop PC that was, shall we say ‘more mainstream’, meaning that the manufacturer and retailers are prepared to discount it. The important part was to make sure that the laptop had an ‘ExpressCard’ slot (ExpressCard being a slim version of what used to be the ‘PCMCIA card’ or ‘PC card’ slot).

Google StarTech ExpressCard 16950 Serial Card and you’ll find that makes ExpressCard devices that give one, two or more genuine COM serial D9 ports. And stateside retailers who do so at reasonable prices and will dispatch to adddresses stateside and elsewhere.

A Startech 16950 is now a crucial bit of Zygote’s electronics, giving 2 genuine COM ports. Although I’ve let our Sailmail membership lapse, a Pactor modem is useful for lots of jobs.


Bil (who’s about to haul out Zygote for routine maintenance to deal with the season’s crop of barnacles)

You can obtain the StarTech express card here: 00017640&cm_mmc=explore--search--td_results--serial port--EC1S952&src=EXPL

ON buying laptops: Although there is a perception that all laptops are similar, as a professional geek, I have to tell you that this is not the case.

Product sold by the major outlets, Best Buy, Walmart, Offfice Depot, etc., are manufactured down to a price, and are not necessarily the same as one ordered direct from a registered dealer, even though the model number might be identical.

The critical items for use on board are:

Chip: Do not use AMD, they run hot and consume a lot of power. With Windows 7 I would recommend the i3 or 15 Intel chip. The i7 is a little too power hungry, and is over specified for most work on a sailboat.

Memory: With Windows 7 you should have at least 8GB of RAM

Hard Drive: Do NOT accept a system with a Western Digital hard drive. They have a tendancy to fail, often within the first year or two, and although we can do it, it costs a smallc fortune to recover data from a failed drive.


A Big T Y , Bil and John , this is excellent info for me, especially at this time, because my first mate is dragging me back to the US for the month of November, and there we will be purchasing 2 new L/T’s .

My beloved 5 year old, IBM T41 Think Pad and her Lenovo Z61t are dieing.

She being a I C Design engineer, is my puter guru , but she doesn’t yet have the info that you guys have shared with us.

She wanted to make the two purchases in the US because they are less expensive there , but I don’t think she knew about the cheeper components coming with those lower price tags, ie: " being manufactured down to a price " !

She asks you , "How would you compare a Sat Broadband to using a Pactor Modem ?

B T W , that Japan Flagged sailboat named " Fang " , is berthed here at Keppel now .

Thanks for the new thread. We’ve been Pactor IIe users since about 1998, first with Winlink (the ham system) and then with Sailmail (works on marine SSB freqs). When our old laptop with a serial port died about 5 yrs ago, our new laptop had no serial port, but did have 4 USB ports.

We have used a standard serial-USB adaptor (a Belkin) between the pactor and the laptop and it has worked fine. I recommend the Sailmail Primer (at for info on this topic. See the FAQ. We didn’t get the Keyspan adaptor that Sailmail recommends, but it’s probably a good idea. We have friends that had serious computer problems that turned out to be due to problem software that came with their adaptor (not a Keyspan), and Sailmail says this happens all to often.

Bil, I haven’t heard of the Express Card serial adaptor but it sounds interesting. What are its advantages over the USB serial adaptor? I guess both types of adaptors can be purchased that can handle 2 or more serial devices. The Sailmail folks have a huge amount of experience with equipment and I’d be tempted to play it safe and go with their recommendation if I was choosing an adaptor.

John, thanks for bringing up the importance of the power draw of the laptop. The top of the line model that might be the best for watching DVD’s or game playing can draw 2 or 3 times as many amps as a more modest but adequate model. Thanks also for the tip on hard drives!
Regards, Dan

For Dan

Dan: Hi!

I’m not a hardware guru like John, so I cannot fully answer your question about the advantages of the StarTech ExpressCard serial adaptor compared to a USB-Serial adaptor (especially a Belkin adaptor).

On Zygote, we use two serial ports, one to accept electronic nav data (GPS, wind speed and direction, water speed, etc) and one to control the Pactor modem (including allowing the software to change the tx/rx channel on the SSB).

We first tried two USB-serial adaptors. Not Belkin brand, that’s for sure. I found the USB-serial adaptor could handle the electronic nav data flow, but not the other crucial function of handling whatever communication goes on between the Pactor modem and the iCom SSB (and which includes the aforesaid changing of tx/rx channels).

Our StarTech ExpressCard COM ports do everything we want, without any hiccup. I figure that if your Belkin USB-Serial adaptor works for you, you’ve no need to change.

I acknowledge that USB ports (and USB-Serial adaptors) are more sophisticated than even just two or three years ago. USB 3 is much faster at data transfer than USB 1, for example.

For Douglas

Douglas: Hi!

Is Lang wanting to compare Sailmail + Pactor setup with an Iridium satellite receiver? Or some other sat receiver system?

We initially thought that Iridium would be useful. Our Iridium kit cost us (several years ago) about the same as our Pactor modem. And if you guess that the reason we later bought our Pactor modem was because of our dissatisfaction with Iridium, then you’re right.

Our experience with Iridium was before the US military became a heavy user of Iridium (ie before the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan convinced Iridium to move sats to give better coverage in the tropics).

When we used Iridium, we found that its use for data comms (ie e-mail, GRIB download, weather fax etc) everywhere (ie tropical and temperate latitudes) was too slow to be useful. Seriously - just too frustating to use.

I have a personal history of starting in PC comms using the CP/M operating system, ie at about the same time that MS-DOS started, using modems that boasted of compliance with the Hayes smartmodem command set, when 300 kbits/sec was acceptably good and 512 kbits/sec was something to boast about on the BBS. That’s bits, not bytes/sec! And my experience with Iridium data was at about that speed level, because of frequent check-bit failure, meaning that a set of data packets were sent and re-sent multiple times before one set got through cleanly.

We found that Iridium voice comms was acceptable in temperate latitudes (it was great at 27 South), but hopeless in the tropics (in our case, that was from the Equator to 19 deg South). We also found that in RF-busy locations, the Iridium was useless (we were in Botany Bay, near Kingsford Smith Airport in Sydney, Australia, and so obviously being swept by air traffic control radar occasionally and close to transmitters of whatever HF or VHF commercial heavy airliners use - and could just manage to make a telephony connection to a landline, but not to make sense of the speech).

Let me point out that I was not naive and had equipped Zygote with a software program that calculated where the Iridium sats were and so could tell me when I could expect better comms (and I refreshed the sat data for that program too - but data comms was still too slow and uncertain to do e-mail). SSB HF has its time/frequency limitations and optimums too (eg trying to shoot a signal to a destination with the setting sun behind that destination is a recipe for sure failure), but I never failed in any 24 hour period to do e-mail and download GRIBs etc via Pactor over SSB HF).

I acknowledge that Iridium coverage is now much better in the tropics and sub-tropics than 5 years or so ago. And that the price of stabilised antenna for sat comms from boats is much lower than in the past (but I’m not sure than any of the stabilised sat comms antenna gear is really meant for a BCC-sized vessel with the battery power available to us).

I won’t comment on the cost of Iridium services - I’m out of date with what’s on offer now.

What convinced me to switch to Pactor and Sailmail was, of course, the excellent contact I maintained with you on BCC Calliste. We proved that for ourselves on Zygote and confirmed that apart from the excellent service from Sailmail (GRIBs, e-mail) we had better Weather Fax with the Pactor than when we used either the PC sound card or a proprietary hardware device to demodulate weather fax.

In US waters, you will have many more sat comms options than just Iridium, of course. That probably goes for the N Pacific too.



Although I am an HP dealer, I would recommend Toshiba, but make sure it has an intel chip, i3 or i5.

USB-Serial adaptors

Unfortunately, they are not all the same.I have 3 of them, two work with almost anything, one fails on about 75% of applications.

My favorite is the Keyspan.

Hi John,

I intend to run C-Maps for navigation, would you recommend an external hard drive to store all of the electronic charts on? Also, what are your thoughts on i-pads vs net-books vs laptops in regard to power consumption while running the navigation software? I know with the pad you can purchase a dock with keyboard, so my thoughts are you could easily take the pad out to the cockpit if desired, not to mention the pads will probably be the dominate hardware in the very near future. At any rate, would you be willing to recommend a particular Toshiba model that would work best for my navigation needs?


Before plunging into C-Maps, you might consider Ozy Explorer. $109

It is a lousy website, but the sofware is great. It has been my only chart system for over 10 years.

All US coastal charts are available free from Page Not Found | Office of Coast Survey

You can also create your own charts; I generally borrow a chart, photocopy it in sections, and put it bach together on the computer. All you need is 3 accurate fixes to be able to calibrate the chart.

Thanks John! I greatly appreciate and value the information you so kindly share with us…

Thanks John! I greatly appreciate & value the information that everyone posts on this forum…

Also might try the free open source chart software at Its getting better all the time as guys tinker with it.

Hi John , would you be able to suggest a way to find out if a new L/T has that unreliable western digital drive ?

If you already own the laptop, flip it over an take off the plate covering the hard drive. Western Digital drive models all start with WD.

If you are purshasing a system, you will need to ask.