Significant falls in the cost of worldwide tracking have made it viable for anyone who sails to share their position and status with a contact ashore. Pip Hare looks at what is available and what it costs.
And trackers can do a lot more for you than just share your adventure. They allow owners to monitor their vessel when they are not on board. Unlike AIS, which broadcasts your position, custom trackers will only share your location with the people you choose.
GSM or satellite?
The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) is equivalent to a mobile phone signal of 2G or above, and I was surprised to find how much coverage I managed to get during my testing on this network.
I carried out tests on the south coast of the UK, the west coast of Scotland and in the Swedish and Finnish archipelagos, and got total coverage everywhere except Scotland, where I had a GSM signal for around half the time on a two-day passage, enabling me to make the equivalent of four or five updates a day.
If you mostly sail around Europe, with the odd passage offshore, these could offer low-cost tracking and security solutions. For ocean sailing or in more remote or less developed locations, satellite trackers are a better bet.
I tested satellite trackers on two networks: Globalstar simplex and Iridium.
Globalstar has a 24-satellite network that reportedly achieves over 80 per cent coverage of the world’s surface. Globalstar solutions can provide a lower-cost satellite service for trackers, but because they use the simplex network this offers only one-way messaging.
Iridium’s 66 satellites guarantee total global coverage, including in polar regions and mid-ocean. If you are heading further afield or
if you require two-way communications Iridium should be your choice.
Airtime costs continue to come down and all the products I tested offered monthly pay-as-you-go packages, making satellite tracking a lot cheaper than you might think.
Fixed or portable?
Fixed trackers can be securely mounted, wired into a 12V supply and hidden from view. Without screens, they are the most robust units, but require an interface to administer. Remote monitoring of fixed devices could be useful if you leave the boat for long periods and if you are worried about security in a remote anchorage.
Portable trackers for the active person are a lifestyle purchase, useful for crews rather than boat owners. When buying a tracker for a big trip, think what charging options will be available to you – if these are limited, consider one of the units that takes regular batteries instead of requiring a plug-in to recharge and be certain to configure your device for minimum transmissions before you head off.
Advice for buyers
The tracker market is bursting with options. It can be quite difficult not to be the proverbial ‘kid in the sweet shop’ and opt for a unit that can just do everything. To make a sensible investment, consider carefully what functions will actually add new value to your whole boat set-up and where and how often you will be cruising.
Fixed trackers can lower insurance premiums. Portable trackers could be used in other sports or for charters abroad, so offer value in different ways. Certainly don’t write off the GSM option without considering your cruising ground first.
We should also see the cost of satellite comms dropping further. Last year saw the launch of OneWeb, backed by Richard Branson. The goal of this constellation of over 600 satellites is to provide low-cost broadband and mobile phone coverage with global coverage in the next couple of years, opening up the world of remote monitoring and operation even further.
Take a look at the comparison listing (and downloadable spreadsheet) on the next page to make up your own mind.