Updated on May 4, 2016
Communication systems onboard
Pretty used to that cell phone, aren’t you? I think we’ve already established that our family is terrible when it comes to cell phone use, or pretty much all technology; either way, a cell phone is probably not the best way to communicate from a sailboat. Not the best coverage in the middle of the ocean. Instead, we have a few different ways to get in touch that don’t rely on cell phone towers.
Our biggest way to communicate from the boat is our VHF radio. It sends (and receives) a signal for about 25 miles, and allows us to communicate with other boats, plus the guy in the bridge house and the gas dock attendant at the marina. If we need the Coast Guard, we’ve got an “oh crap” button that sends out a constant help signal; this signal will bounce off of any other VHF radios in the area, boosting the signal way beyond 25 miles.
Our new Standard Horizon GX2200 has two other features that we love: AIS, which allows us to see the heading and speed of an approaching boat before we hit it; and DSC–digital selective calling–which allows other boats to communicate with just our radio instead of broadcasting to the world (our MMSI number is 367692570, if you see us out there…). Our VHF is mounted down below in the nav station, but we’re installing a remote mic at the helm so we can chat and still see where we’re going. Two waterproof handheld VHF radios are also available for a kid in a kayak, or a parent with a stalled dinghy outboard, to communicate with the mothership.
We’ve also got a crazy-town digital antenna (Radio Labs Wave XL) going on the stern to scoop up all the free WiFi in the land. This antenna claims to be able to pick up line-of-sight unlocked signals within an 8-mile radius. We’ll be pretty happy if we get three miles; that ought to put us in touch with most marinas, coffee shops and restaurants lining a harbor. Email! Skype! Facetime! Facebook! Plugged in without any plugs.
Not a lot of unlocked signals when you’re really offshore, though; or in Cuba, or the San Blas. Despite the enormous hours I’ve been racking up online lately, I think this would be fine–I could probably use a break from the Interwebs–but we noticed one disturbing dependency on the boat last summer. We’re fine without Netflix and YouTube, but we get a little skeeved out if we can’t check the weather every few hours. In the US, NOAA broadcasts over the VHF constantly, but we probably won’t be picking that up offshore, and I’m not really sure what the weather report availability is outside the US. We’ve decided to address this by investing in an Iridium GO! sat phone system. That’s a huge advantage for the folks back home–unlimited texting and a certain amount of satellite voice and data minutes, depending on your plan–but we’re mostly in it for their partnership with Predict Wind. We follow a few boats who’ve had great experiences with their weather prediction and routing info, and we really, really want that level of information. It can be a big monthly expense, and we’re clearly budget cruisers, so we don’t plan to turn it on until we leave Florida.
And then there’s that ultimate communication device–the Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon, or EPIRB. Using this thing is basically the same as yelling “HELP US!!!!!” over and over to the Coast Guard. It sends them our co-ordinates and tells them who we are, but we can’t discuss our problem or get advice. It is the Communication Of Last Resort, and using it means agreeing to be rescued and scuttling the boat. We very much hope never to use it.
Sounds like we have all the things, right? Believe it or not–no. Lots of boats carry Single Side Band radios, or SSBs; they allow you to talk to boats well out of sight, and receive weather and send email over the airwaves. They are super-cool, and quite expensive. They also require a ham radio license to operate. Once you’re all set up, though, they’re free–you pay no monthly fee, as you do for Iridium GO. If we had plans to cruise for a decade–or even five years–we would have looked closer at SSBs; but for our time frame, and with the additional level of service provided by Predict Wind, we felt like the GO was a better choice for us.
Finally, my luddite heart cringes, but we’ve upped our cell phone game. Not by much! But our land line is tied to our cable internet service, and we’ll be giving that up June first. We’ll still have two weeks of back and forth to the boat, though, and we figure it’ll be pretty important for Michu and I to be able to get a hold of each other, so we decided to invest in a second cell phone. As we are human and not soulless robots, we succumbed to a cheap-o unlocked smartphone. Clear advantages to having cell service in other countries with the purchase of a SIM card, we said. GPS navigation on the phone, because there is never enough GPS, we said. We are totally not seduced by the sleek design, the games, or the video capacity, we said.
We are total liars.