Sat Phone vs SSB - how a family of liveaboard sailors communicate at sea
Here at GTC we are specialists in satellite communications including sat phones, satellite trackers and satellite internet solutions. A large portion of our customers are sailing enthusiasts who need to stay in touch at sea and download weather data. We were contacted by the crew of the good ship Mollymawk in June 2016 who being unhappy with their current provider were looking for an easier solution. As the Schinas family liveaboard the yacht it was an important decision to make.
Here's a very interesting and informative review on how they made the decision on which equipment to invest in and how it's used everyday on the yacht. All words that follow are the from Jill Schinas' full review which is available at
Twenty years ago, if you wanted to sail in the Southern Ocean you took your chances. Now, if you want to sail down there you get the weather forecast; and every day that you’re out there, on the ocean, you get it again. It’s as simple as that. Twenty years ago, we had no way of knowing that a storm was on its way, whereas now we can see them coming and can dive for cover.
This article, long requested by various correspondents, answers the question of precisely how to get hold of that vital information which can quite literally save your life.
Radio Gaga - SSB
There are two ways of keeping in touch with the steaming cauldron of civilisation while living on its outer rim: One can communicate either by the use of Short Wave radio or via satellites orbiting the earth in space.
In the past those who used Short Wave radio were known as ‘hams’ – which is somehow short for amateur radio operator. A sub-species of Homo sapiens, the ‘hammies’ used to enjoy nattering to complete strangers on the far side of the planet, their common ground and main topic of conversation being “the propagation”. In certain atmospheric conditions Short Wave radio signals can be bounced right around the world.
By the use of a radio antenna, installed like an ovipositor on the back of the boat, the hamming yotty could capture forecasts sent out at predetermined times by stations whose information covered the area where he was cruising. One famous example of this was Herb Hilgenberg’s forecast for yotties crossing from the Caribbean to the Azores. With their SSB radios the ‘hammies’ could even report their position to this guru and he would shepherd each one safely around the lows.
So much for history. Nowadays, although such weather-routing nets do still exist, most folks owning a Short Wave radio prefer to get their forecast via the internet.
SSB Pros and Cons
The advantage of the SSB system is that it is relatively cheap to use. Connection to the internet is not made directly; instead, the user sends an e-mail to one or other of two shorebased networks, and the intermediary then passes the message on and collects and transmits the reply. These two providers are called Winlink and SailMail. Winlink is operated by volunteer hammies and is a free service. SailMail is a cooperative venture and members pay $275 US per year for the right to use it. Because he can’t connect directly to the internet, the SSB user he can only send e-mails. The chief disadvantage of the system is that the kit is horrendously expensive. You need an SSB radio, an aerial five metres long, a tuner and – in order to send messages to the world-wide-web – you need a thing called a pactor modem. We calculated that the entire bundle would cost us at least $5,000 US.
For yotties planning to travel to the Uttermost End of the Earth, there are two further disadvantages: Firstly, there are no Winlink operators in South America, so SailMail is your only option. Secondly – and more importantly – this system still relies on the propagation of the Short Wave radio signal, and it relies on your ability to get the signal out into the atmosphere. And managing this from the high-walled coves in Patagonia is notoriously difficult.
Besides making it hard to get a forecast, the inability to connect with the wide world can lead to some interesting events. According to the rule of law, vessels travelling in Chilean waters are required to report their position every day. Now, in practice the authorities are pretty relaxed about this. Many yachts are only equipped with VHF, and since there are fewer than half a dozen shore-stations in the entire network of channels these travellers can generally only report their position via an intermediary. No intermediary – no passing ship or fishing boat – means no message; and the Armada people know this and they accept it. As I say, they’re actually quite laid back – until it comes to ETAs. Overdue ETAs are outside the authorities’ comprehension.
Now – some French friends travelling from Puerto Williams to Puerto Natales fell two days behind with their published schedule, and so they wanted to let the authorities know that they would be later than the ETA indicated on their cruising permit. But they couldn’t. They couldn’t get their radio to connect to the SailMail server. Within just half a day of their ETA having been and gone and our friends not having been and gone – (which is to say, not having gone to the Armada office and reported themselves safe and sound) – the navy leapt into action. They dispatched a search and rescue chopper. The chopper swiftly located the yacht in a quiet caleta – or rather, ’twas quiet until the navy rocked up…In the event all was well – no fine was issued – but this is not the sort of thing that the wilderness cruiser seeks.
Space Age Comms - Sat Phone
The amateur nature of the SSB system appeals, and we would use it as a matter of principle were it not for the fact that the rival, commercial method is both cheaper, in terms of the initial cost, and very much superior. To communicate via the satellites one needs a mobile phone the size of a hand-held VHF – and that’s it.
The Iridium system uses 66 satellites which are in polar orbit. Picture them, if you will, whizzing round and round the planet – some heading clockwise, as it were, and some anticlockwise (although you’d think that might make them more likely to bump into each other, wouldn’t you?) – and all cunningly dispersed so as to form, effectively, a net. Wherever you are in the world Iridium has you covered. If there weren’t any mountains in the way we’d have two or three in sight at any one time, and even when we’re down in the deepest, narrowest fjord we can always get in touch with the outside world. Impressive, hey?
The Iridium sat phone costs about $1,000 US. Now, that’s a lot of money – but it’s a lot less than the $5,000 for the SSB set-up. If all you want to do is make phone calls then this is all that you need. With a sat phone and a Pay-As-You-Go (pre-paid) SIM card, or with a contract and the SIM, you can telephone anyone, anywhere in the world. But if you want to be able to connect to the internet and download weather forecasts or report your position then you really need two other things: You need a Compression Service, and you need a Firewall.
The problem with satellite phone air-time is that it’s ruddy expensive. When you consider that it cost Motorola two billion dollars to build the satellites and a further 420 million to put them in orbit, this becomes less surprising. Oh, and lest you think that they surely must have paid for them by now, we hear that they’re now busy replacing the whole lot. So, it’s an expensive game. The exact cost depends who you buy from and what kind of package you choose, but ours (which is the cheapest small-scale scheme) costs £400 for 300 minutes and is valid for a year. Any remaining minutes expire at the end of the year. Your aim is always to be connected for as short a time as possible – or to be downloading as little stuff as possible, if you’re paying by data usage – and so you need something which will make the information smaller, and you need something which will block the junk.
Instead of connecting directly to the internet we connect via a proxy server – a door-keeper, as it were – which compresses the data as it is transferred between our computer and the internet or between us and our e-mail provider. (In the technical jargon this line of communication is referred to as a tunnel.)
Meanwhile, the job of the firewall is to stop your computer from doing anything except what it’s supposed to be doing. The last thing you want, while you’re connected to the internet via your sat phone, is to have Windows 10 gaily updating. The firewall can be another piece of software, or it can take the form of an additional piece of hardware. We have experimented with both systems.
Our current compression software is called XGate, but it’s also marketed by GTC under the name of RemoteMail – and under that name it’s significantly cheaper (£170 per year, as opposed to £240). Before we had the RemoteMail software we had something from some people called MailaSail – not to be confused with SailMail, above – but this system was much harder to use and it doesn’t work with Windows 10 or on a Mac or with Linux.
The RedPort Optimizer manages the connection of the phone to the internet, and this makes life much, much easier. Before we had this little device we could only connect via one pre-Windows-10 laptop – the one installed with the appropriate drivers – and we had to go through a whole rigmarole of turning on the firewall manually, and then manually connecting, and then, eventually, turning off the firewall again. Click on this; open that; click over there; select that… We had to have the whole song and dance written down in a notebook, it was so complicated – and it still took several fraught minutes to connect and get the forecast.
Now, with the RedPort Optimizer, we can instantly connect any computer or tablet. You just plug the little white box into the phone, plug the computer into the other side of the box (or connect via wifi) and you’re away.
Now that’s what I call service!
Since the provider is, in this case, as important as the object itself I should also give one last plug to GTC. We’ve been using their services for almost a year now and throughout this time we’ve never had any problems. (And I might say that this is not the case with all providers. For example, we know of people who never receive any unsolicited e-mails, their firewall software is just so damn effective!)
When we first signed up with GTC we had a problem signing in to our RemoteMail satellite e-mail account, because we’d changed our password. We only became aware of the problem on the morning of the day when we were planning to disappear into the wilderness of the Chilean channels, and when we sent an e-mail to GTC we got an automatic reply telling us that our message would be dealt with within 48 hours.
This would necessarily have delayed our departure by up to 48 hours… and so a general gloom settled over the vessel. However, just two hours later we got another e-mail resolving the issue. Now that’s what I call service!
All pictures copyright Jill Dickin Schinas / http://www.yachtmollymawk.com
Read the full review at http://www.yachtmollymawk.com/2017/03/ssb-v-sat-phone/