Our annual survey of participants in the ARC and ARC+, a total of 259 skippers, concentrated on the vital issue of communications. Toby Hodges reports on the findings
The majority of ARC participants use satcoms for email, followed closely by weather forecasting, then calls. It was comforting to see that very few used their precious airtime minutes for web browsing! One-third used fixed sets, but by far the majority shipped mobile handsets.
The larger the boat and crew, the greater the dependence on screens. In the case of Swan 56 Why Not, for instance, there were reportedly nine laptops and nine tablets aboard. And a rather frightening 20 tablets were shipped aboard the 104ft Southern Wind Farfalla.
Once again the largest independent supplier of both equipment and airtime purchased was Mailasail in the UK. Comments on the after-sales service and support consistently include expressions like ‘excellent’, ‘fantastic’, ‘terrific’. However, there were, as ever, some grumbles.
“Whereas previously a majority of longer distance cruisers would build a boat and their experience over a longish period of time, it’s more common now for cruisers to build a boat more quickly and hence approach an Atlantic crossing as a more ‘temporary change’ in circumstances,” said Mailasail’s director Ed Wildgoose. He put forward the point that the modern sailor is more likely to compare equipment relative to a baseline of home comforts, which can lead to disappointment.
Satcom is a big expense. The sense of disappointment, resentment even, is tangible in a lot of the skipper’s comments – they expect this equipment to perform. The majority of complaints were, as always, centred around the poor connection and slow speed of communication.
Two-thirds of the yachts carried a handheld set so it is worth stressing that an external antenna fixed permanently on deck (priced around £130) can help solve connection issues and allow for operation below decks.
It is also worth highlighting the fact that, whether on land or at sea, the performance and speed of connection on a computer will always be hindered by the amount of memory and applications it is burdened with. Consider shipping a laptop purely for weather forecasts and emails at sea. “Make sure the primary computer connected to sat is dedicated, and will not download anything not regulated!” said ARC veteran Ross Applebey from his Oyster Lightwave 48 Scarlet Oyster.
Typical moans about satcoms from last year’s ARC skippers included: “Cancelled data download due to connection,” from those aboard Ohio, an Oceanis 46, about their Iridium 9555 handset. “Coverage issues as to be expected with Iridium,” warned a Hanse 575 crew. “Data speed so slow it is unusable – I call home and have emails read to me,” said Proteus, a Hunter Passage 42.
And the skipper of Carpe Diem, a Fountaine Pajot Belize 43 carrying both an Isatphone2 running Inmarsat and a KVH minisat on the Iridium network, was appalled when “both systems dropped all communication, from KVH to Inmarsat,” despite the “very high fees”.
The skipper of Beneteau Sense 50 Grace, however, had no problems during the ARC, but advised that “you need a lot of practising”. Oyster 53 Crackerjack agreed, saying: “Setting up was a nightmare,” about their Iridium 9555, adding “just use Yellowbrick”.
Many others also reported having no problems, once their system had been set up and tested correctly. Indeed Lagoon 450 Sea Rose was “amazingly surprised by the voice and data quality” running FleetBroadband from their KVH V3IP, but advised to locate the satdome on the spreader and not the pushpit.
Rustler 42 Pantalaimon II said they had no problems and that their fixed Iridium set worked well throughout, but cautioned that you need to “get used to using it well before departure”. And Arcona 430 Loupan’s report read: “Almost flawless – Iridium phone and red port optimiser is very easy to use. GMN (service provider) is a very professional company.”
What would they do differently?
Typically Iridium users said change to Inmarsat, and Inmarsat users vice versa! But where does that leave those of us in the market for a satellite phone?
The main comment that always shines through with satcoms in the ARC is not about being brand-loyal, but to test the equipment completely and thoroughly before you leave. “Spend more time earlier perfecting the set-up, particularly software issues,” advised the owners of the Island Packet 440, Seraphina of Chichester. “Get it working six months in advance and keep using it before leaving,” said Bavaria 41 Slipper 1.
Iridium GO!, a new compact satellite router that works like a MiFi hub drew common praise. Jeanneau SO45DS Tantrum advised that in hindsight they would use Iridium GO! as primary satcoms. “Don’t invest in a Pactor modem, get Iridim GO!” declared Belafonte’s skipper.
The skipper of the Hunter Passage 42 Proteus, on the other hand, said: “I could have saved money and used ONLY my Delorme InReach.”
The majority of the comments regarding SSB seem to contain the word ‘slow’. Or as Belafonte’s skipper put it: “The reliability is not good enough when compared to sat.” This is somewhat backed up by the numbers of SSB sets we have noticed being replaced by satcoms over recent years. Yachtsmen are taking less time to prepare newer, larger yachts for a crossing, yet they want the equipment to be as intelligible as possible and function without fault.
Most SSB users had something negative to say about the experience, it seems – either that or SSB is simply the victim of negative feedback outshining the will to post positive comments. The gripes centred on antenna issues, lengthy installation problems, poor reception or propagation and, ultimately, slow speeds.
“Propagation/static quality of voice comms with other boats at sea very variable,” reported Island Packet 440, Seraphina of Chichester.
Power was an issue for some. “Could receive, but not transmit at less than 6000kHz,’ said Oyster 545 Shelena, echoed by others with low battery or charging problems.
“Don’t use the SSB because of terrible quality, system is completely outdated and should be replaced by digital system,” grumbled a frustrated crew aboard X612 Nix.
Perhaps more helpful was the advice from Timshel, a Westerly Oceanlord 41: “Spend more time setting it up correctly and practising.” Belafonte thought it was best to use SSB for voice and satcoms for data, while Van de Stadt Alexandra advised yachtsmen to “get SSB programmed to Ham frequencies”.
Once again the take-home advice is to make sure the equipment is installed properly and is well-tested before departure. Discovery 58 Aqualuna advised that leaving testing until Las Palmas is too late as there is much interference there.
Last (and most positive) thoughts go to the skipper of Swan 55 Cesarina, who proved that SSB will always have a fanbase: “After two years cruising: the very best you can get! I’m deep in love with SSB and it’s the absolute perfect solution for emails/GRIBs at sea for our long-term cruising! Use it and you’ll love it!!”
Skippers’ satcom tips
Buy it, set it up and test it early is the biggest advice. Other than that the tips centred around thrifty use of satcoms:
“Having a back up weather routeing person in UK to confirm our local weather knowledge was really useful.” Jeanneau SO45DS Tantrum
“Have a land-based support service for SMS weather updates.” Beneteau Sense 50 Cheery Bye
“Have someone ashore to monitor emails and only send through relevant text to a dedicated boat email.” Skye 51 Skyelark of London
“Don’t get more than 100 to 400mb/month – we had too much.” Moody 54DS Mojeka
“Don’t use open internet connection.” BD80 Bliss II
“Use satcom just as back-up because of extremely high costs of airtime. Use SSB for long-term crossing and sat for short-term cruising.” Swan 55 Cesarina
“Software/OS/driver dependence is a pain… keep it simple (Mac OS) and use a smart router.” Bowman 48 Lydia
“Use Mailasail or similar. Practise a lot and learn to use it at sea. Lot of issues if you do not know the workings.” Beneteau Sense 50 Grace
“Contact Mailasail.” GS43 Quokka 8
“Satcom is more reliable than SSB for data.” Discovery 55 Eupraxia
“Have either a second satphone or SSB. We plan to install an SSB in the Caribbean. Just feel too unsafe to rely on our satphone!” Leopard 44 Sea Bear