New age communication

Can we open up a dialogue on the opportunities available for email and data transfer from an onboard computer based system. In the past we have seen SSB and sail mail and the like and now we have sat phones, WIFI from shore based transmission etc. I know that Ben is well up on this stuff, can we provoke you to get the ball rolling Ben and shine some light as to where all this stuff is going.

My sense is that nearly all the latest watercraft will likely have a laptop or similar in place. Sat radio and weather are well developed and are well integrated into many nav sysytems. The expense of a SSB may well now be more than the cost associated with a sat phone. (prudently used)

As I consider the set up of Hull 126, it would great to have some insight as to which way to go for the future.

There are only two practical mediums available, SSB and satellite.

SSB and satellite equipment cost much the same to install, but both have downsides:

Subject to weather conditions
Slow for mail and faxes
Very power consumptive
Can be affected by other equipment on the vessel,alternator, fridge, etc
Not internet capable

Subject to weather conditions
Requires an expensive monthly subscription to the satellite service
Cannot put out a general call seeking other vessels

On Itchen we have used SSB for weatherfax and email communication for several years with no significant problems, but of course an initial $$$ outlay was required plus a yearly subscription fee ($250 per year?)for the sailmail. Here’s a quick summary – there is a lot of info online, and I believe, also here in the archives.

We have an ICOM 802 SSB transceiver with ICOM AT140 antenna tuner and a backstay antenna described (with photo) in a previous post earlier this year. The ICOM 802 is controlled by a laptop running SAILMAIL software and USB-connected to a PACTOR III modem. We have been able to send and receive email coastwise and offshore between Maine and the Bahamas and have never had any complaints about the quality or strength of our signal. We have had no significant conflicts with other electronic or electrical equipment on board, but did try to pay attention to cable routing and used big ferrite chokes here and there as needed).

The main constraints are shortwave propagation conditions – which have never been much of an issue for us for very long – and battery capacity, and SAILMAIL’s restrictions on kilobytes used per week (never a problem for us) Images and attachments are forbidden, but weather GRIB charts are ok. If you want more detail on anything not easily available on the SAILMAIL/AIRMAIL or Seven Seas Cruising Association websites let me know and I’ll try to help. I am sure there are other BCC group members with more and longer-term experience, or with Ham radio expertise (which opens additional possibilities). Personally I think SSB is so useful for a variety of uses and reasons that I would hate to be without it, and sailmail’s email is just one extra advantage. Satellite phone service gets varying reviews depending on the locality and the variety used and I would only consider it as a potentially useful extra to have on board, particularly if justified by the need to stay in close and frequent touch with personal or business reasons and a page or two or three of email per day did not suffice.
All the best,

Hi all …

I think John laid it out … as far as I know, there is SSB for email and there is satellite for WAY TOO MUCH MONEY for us little boats… and it doesn’t really work on such an unstable/small platform as 28x10’ so isn’t a real option yet. is a good resource for electronics stuff, and they live in Camden ME to boot.

I use an at&t data plan right now, my hardware is a USB modem, it costs me $60/month, and I chose at&t solely for the iphone. It won’t work outside the US - part of my reason for sticking to US or USVI this winter. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I am ready to venture further off, as I hope to be able to keep working…which means I need to be online.

I did play around with various antennas to try and get free wifi from shore, but it was a hastle: required a lot of gear and wasn’t reliable. I gave up, and went mobile broadband card.

More of an issue for me then getting online now is keeping my laptop battery charged. My Macbook Pro (MBP) requires about 5-6 amps while charging, and I can’t get the MBP battery to last more then 2 hrs. That’s alot of amps combined with my refrigerator… so keep that in mind. Acer computers draw alot less I’ve heard, but wont work for me.

thanks for the reply guys and the speed. I am starting to get my mind round this a bit, gotta start making some decisions now and plan the nav stn.

well definitely make room for the SSB

I concur with the above, with a tiny wrinkle.

Satellite phones (Zygote uses or used Iridium) are sub-optimal. Coverage in the tropics is not as good as in temperate zones (although the tropical coverage improved with the US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan). Costs are still high, too high for me.

SSB + a Pactor modem = reliable e-mail and weather fax. E-mail is adequate for informing CIQ officials in advance, for those jurisdictions that insist on notification before entering port. Australian CIQ authorities have prosecuted cruisers whose only legal defence for not notifying their arrival in advance was that they were not equipped for e-mail.

In those jurisdictions with good 3G telephony, a 3G modem (eg a 3G mobile phone aka cell phone, or a USB 3G data modem) is wonderful for e-mail, Wx, web browsing etc. When cruising the coast of Australia, we soon learned which other cruisers had a 3G modem and relied on them for minute-by-minute Wx reports (eg during the passage of cyclone/hurricane). Catch is that jurisdictions can differ in the frequencies used for 3G, so a 3G modem that works in one doesn’t necessarily work in another.

Electronics are unreliable. So redundancy in communication is essential.



You could consider HAM radio for email and weather information. The ICOM 706IIG HF radio is compact and powerful. It’s been around awhile and is proven to be reliable. They also make the IC-7000 which replaces the 706IIG. Coupled with the Airmail software on the laptop it works great for Email and weather forcasts, particularly the GRIB files for wind forecast. The weather fax program never worked well for me as it was too blurred to understand. Ham radio also allows you to join the maritime nets which are great for making position reports and getting information. This is all available at no cost after the initial purchase of the radio and modem.

Of course you do need the General Ham Radio license. It just takes a bit of studying to pass the tests. The good news is the Morse Code requirement has been dropped.

Ron Thompson
Ho’okahiko 97

The SSB option would apply as well to a HAM radio setup without the annual expense plus the addition of the HAM radio community in the form of maritime mobile nets. You just need the General Ham license. That is easier than ever since they droppped the Morse code requirment. Also the radios are much cheaper and have a smaller footprint at the nav station. That works well on our boats.

Ron Thompson
Ho’okahiko 97

Ham/marine ssb with a pactor modem has worked well for Shaula’s email, offshore (NZ/AUS/Vanuatu) as well as here in the Pacific NW. Many of our best friends were met through the ham nets, so we think the hassle of getting a ham ticket is well worth it.

Ben, the pic of your boomkin shows your HF high-voltage wire (running from your tuner to the insulated backstay) passing close to lots of metal, some of which will be connected to ground (the ocean) when your underway.

Our Dell PC draws about 2A, and it’s a fairly big one. Several cruisers have found that they can reduce their laptops draw by pulling out its battery and running it directly on the power cube that converts 12V to +/-20V. We’ve done it when the battery finally died.

Dan sv Shaula BCC 59

Dan, what do you do for your antenna to keep it away from the metal back there… the Monitor and backstay would be the big offenders I assume.

Hey Ben , what are you using for your SSB ground plane to the antenna tuner ?

I considered having a 1’ square bronze plate on a copper lanyard that I could drop in the water off the boomkin, when doing SSB sailmail coms, even while underway, but only using it during coms .

BTW , my in cabin, Apenglow flourescent lights when turned on , cause SSB radio static during receive mode on distant stations .


I made 2" stand-offs from 1/2 CPVC pipe to hold the GTO 15 cable away from the Cape Horn windvane strut and the backstay.

  1. Every 2" drill a 1/4" holes in the 1/2" diameter CPVC pipe.

  2. Cut the pipe through the 1/4" holes in the pipe.

  3. At both ends of each 2" piece, drill a small hole 90 degrees to the 1/4" radius notch. This should be large enough to accept a cable tie (tie wrap).

  4. Cable tie one end of the 2" piece to the stay and the other end to the antenna wire.


Yeh I remember your stand offs Rod, too bad I didnt snap a pic… bizarre.

Rod’s standoffs sound great. I’ve used about 2" pieces of pvc tubing instead of pvc pipe–any hollow, notched nonconductor would probably work OK. I also use some 1/8" line running from the insulator to the boomkin, and wire-tie the GTO 15 to it every foot or so. The line part is necessary because I use Hal Roth’s topping lift setup (from his book “After 50,000 Miles”) and a block rides on the lower part of the backstay.

Yes, the Monitor and the uninsulated part of the backstay are the problems, as they are grounded in the ocean. However, I think any metal should be at least 2" away from the GTO.

I think that tossing a Cu plate overboard when you want to use your radio will not be satisfactory. Also, one sq ft is not big enough. You might want to take a look at the Sailmail Primer on this subject. There’s a good article by Stan Honey on HF and other grounds. Most cruisers I know use 2" copper foil, laid next to the hull (inside). I’ve run our foil under the cabin sole, next to the hull, and it’s attached to the lead keel with a lag bolt through the incapsulating FG. Some folks also attach the foil to the tanks, engine, stanchions, etc.
Dan BCC Shaula #59

I just looked at your boomkin pic again, and see that your outboard motor and the boomkin stay are also next to the GTO. Can you run the wire to the port side?