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.
This article was originally published Nov 2016. It was last product and price checked 28 Feb 2023.
Some of the products in this article are no longer available but this article contains other useful information you may want to read. If you want to buy a new tracker or messenger then have a look at our new article buyer’s guide.
A newer article is available Best satellite messenger and tracker for sailing and boating
Advances in tracking technologies have had a significant impact on offshore sailing, both cruising and racing. Once something used exclusively by extreme adventurers and offshore racers – 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.
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.
12 yacht trackers compared
First a few words about what functions are on offer and what they are useful for. Don’t get distracted by the vast range of functionality on offer. Important things to consider are: what functions are actually useful to you; what is the real cost of using extra functions; and does it represent good value?
Below is an outline of some of the more important functions I tested.
Sharing your track with friends is one of the wonderful things about this technology, so consider the ease of access to these facilities. I enlisted the help of my mum to test the sharing facilities for each tracker – the end-user experience ratings in the table are hers.
Remember that sending an SOS message from any of these trackers will not link directly to the maritime rescue services, so they should never take the place of an EPIRB or a VHF/HF distress alert. The SOS buttons will link you to a commercial rescue co-ordination centre which will relay your position.
Setting a geographical boundary around your vessel which will generate an alert sent to specified contacts if broken. Mostly a security function, this could also be used as a remote anchor alarm if you head ashore.
Similar to geo fencing, but this will send an alert once the boat has started to move after a specified time spent stationary.
The tracker will stop transmitting if the boat stops moving for a specified period of time. In my tests this feature significantly improved battery life.
Shock sensor/collision sensor
Sends an alert if the unit receives a significant jolt, useful for theft or remote notification of a collision.
Created before a trip and uploaded to a device that has no keyboard. These can be sent to predefined contacts with one press of a button.
This could replace onboard email. Make sure you know if you are charged by the character or by the message. Inbound and outbound messages are charged.
How does your chosen tracker export and display your positions? Not all trackers come with their own mapping portal, so bear that in mind.
This will allow the alarm to be turned off and on via the network – only available for GSM and Iridium trackers.
Notification if the power source is cut or tampered with.
DeLorme inReach – portable – Iridium 8/10
The DeLorme inReach tracker has the whole package, including two-way messaging functions. Settings can be managed on the device itself via an online portal and also via Bluetooth to the EarthMate mobile phone app.
Messaging options include a selection of your own preloaded messages or free text, which can be typed in directly to the unit or created on a tablet or phone and sent using Bluetooth.
I recommend the app to manage this device as the screen is too small to navigate easily through menus or type text.
DeLorme is now offering enhanced, location-specific marine weather forecasts. There is no sleep function, so the battery lasted only 72 hours when the unit was set to transmit every five minutes – poor compared with the Spot (below).
The unit did not work at all indoors and it must be plugged in to recharge. Editing preloaded messages and preloading a contact list is essential to efficient use. The menus are not always intuitive, so it’s also worth reading the manual to make the most of all the functions.
My mum gave the DeLorme sharing pages the top rating for the end-user experience; she found it simple to navigate, felt the data was well represented and liked the high level of zoom.
Airtime plans vary, but you are charged around 8p for every location ‘ping’, which means my test of 72 hours at five-minute intervals cost £69. Ouch.
Monthly Fee: £12 (basic package: unlimited preloaded messaging +10 free text messages). Additional cost per ‘ping’ 8p
SuperSail – fixed – GSM 8/10
This is pitched as a security device, with all manner of add-on accessories for remote monitoring and operation, including float switches and door sensors.
I tested the basic model of tracker and GPS antenna only, which is managed through a mobile app. Getting an initial GPS lock took time; in the end I took the separate GPS antenna on deck to obtain a first fix and then installed it below decks with no disruption to GSM or GPS signals. LEDs on the front of the box indicate clearly if the unit has a signal – very useful for initial siting.
Tracking is not sharable through a public page, but if friends download the app they can track you on your own account (though they could also access the alarm configuration). The SuperSail obtains a position fix every ten minutes as standard, leaving a comprehensive trail to view. If you lose mobile signal the device will store up your position and transmit the backlog once a mobile signal has been regained.
Monthly airtime Europe £10
Monthly airtime worldwide £27
SmartOne C – fixed – Globalstar 7/10
The SmartOne C is similar in function to the Spot Trace, offering tracking and alerting, but with the versatility of a monthly contract. This device exports raw data and does not come with a bespoke mapping portal.
For my test I worked with GTC, a telecommunications company, and the GTC track platform for both the SmartOne C and G Sat Micro. If you are not technologically minded then working with a supplier could be a great solution as they would set up, configure and update any devices for you.
There is no separate public sharing page for the GTC track portal. Instead you register guests on to your main administration page then restrict their permissions. The site offers a good presentation of linked tracking data and is user-friendly.
Monthly fee – tracking only £5.00
Monthly fee – alerts and tracking £12.50
Monthly fee – GTC track £6.50 Activation fee £15.00
Spot Trace – fixed – Globalstar 7/10
The Spot Trace is a no-frills tracker in a rugged waterproof case that mounts inside a locker lid or just under the coachroof. It also worked down below when placed reasonably high up. If permanently mounting use the Spot waterproof lead to hardwire the unit to an external power source and it will still be rated as waterproof.
The Trace is set-up through the same portal as the Gen3, so requires internet access for configuration. It has the same tracking and alerting functions as the Gen 3, such as motions alerts and sleep mode, but without the messaging function, so airtime costs are slightly lower.
Annual fee – basic – including alerts to SMS £110
Spot Gen 3 – portable – Globalstar 8/10
The Spot Gen 3 provides an impressive battery life – I carried it around for over a month set to transmit every five minutes when moving and did not deplete the batteries.
The device will send alerts and a selection of five one-way messages to email or via SMS, but you pay extra for SMS messages. The entire unit is managed via an online portal where transmission frequencies, alerting and preloaded messages are set up. The Spot must be plugged into a computer connected to the internet to change configuration. Editing the standard preloaded message text is a must – one of them simply says ‘Help’.
Each Spot has its own mapping page that can be shared with friends and linked to social media. The sharing site is not particularly detailed and only displays seven days of tracking history – frustrating for those who would like to see the entire journey. You are now able to download the Spot app to display the full tracking history. However, this does not display a trail to link the different reports and is only available for IOS 8.
Annual fee: £125 (basic: including messages to email)
Enhanced tracking (more than 24hrs): +£30 per year
SOS support: +£15 per year
Messages to SMS: +10p per message
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GSat Micro – portable – Iridium 7/10
This device is the cutting-edge of tracker technology. It is the smallest Iridium tracker going, fitting comfortably in the palm of a hand. It also has incredibly advanced functionality, including the ability to receive and carry out advanced commands via satellite.
Its current uses are mainly commercial and military, but this is the space we should be watching to imagine what standard tracker technology will be offering us in years to come. The bad news is that you need to be a bit of a nerd to control the GSat micro. But with the right programmer you would be able to invent, write and test commands that could be carried out anywhere in the world – cutting the engine or turning instruments on or off would only be the start of its functionality.
Charges are monthly and relate to bytes and should be discussed with the provider – I’ve given prices for an entry-level package with the GTC track mapping portal.
Entry level package: £28 per month (12,000 bytes)
Activation fee: £37
YB tracking: YB3 – portable – Iridium 8/10 YB3i – fixed – Iridium 9/10
YB’s stand-out feature is its thoughtful sharing package. All YB trackers come with their own blog page as well as mapping application. Simply log on to your account and start writing – blogs will be attached to your tracking map and easily shared with contacts and on social media for free. The portal is easy to access, well presented and was another of mum’s favourites.
Both devices offer a full range of functions, including two-way messaging with free text. Just remember that you’re paying to receive messages, so train your friends to keep them short. Neither the portable or fixed device has a sleep mode; this is substituted by a ‘burst’ setting where the device transmits at a low frequency when stationary (12 hours maximum) then at a higher rate when moving.
The units are configured either via an online portal, Bluetooth to a mobile phone app, or on the screen of the YB3.
The app is essential for proficient use of the YB3i and of great benefit to the YB3 – I think it’s worth the extra money to buy the Bluetooth model.
The YB3 is a little large for a personal device – it comes with a pouch to mount it easily on the guardrail. However, the YB3i is waterproof to 5m, so could be mounted on deck.
I encountered a few problems with my YB3 unit failing to charge, which YB has now addressed. (The company offers good customer service to owners and viewers, one benefit of dealing directly with the manufacturer for the total package.)
Airtime costs are a pretty simple pay-as-you-go package and unused credits do not expire: one credit equals one position report and 50 characters of text sent or received.
Monthly line rental £8
Back2you Wired boat tracker – fixed and wired – GSM 7/10 & Personal tracker – portable – GSM 6/10
I tested the company’s wired boat tracker, self-contained longlife tracker and a small personal tracker. The Back2you trackers offer worldwide GSM coverage; the personal tracker is UK and Europe. They can be viewed and managed via an online portal.
The system is clearly set up for terrestrial vehicle monitoring, but with the satellite-based Google Maps base it works very well afloat.
The wired boat tracker showed an excellent level of track detail when set to transmit every 30 seconds. Back2you also has a mobile phone app that can send commands to the trackers, but I did not find this very user-friendly, so would recommend sticking with the portal.
The self-contained longlife tracker is purely for anti-theft. There is nothing to fit or install, no batteries to manage – just hide it away on your boat. It will switch on once a day and ping you a position, but if your boat is stolen you can switch it to live monitoring. Batterylife is three years.
This personal tracker is impressive in use, easy to stuff in a pocket, but it’s not waterproof and its functionality is designed more for the security of children and vulnerable adults.
First year free with purchase of device.
Subsequent annual fee: £60
Smartphone app: £2.99
Personal tracker (GiffGaff pay as you go): £5 per month
Yachtsafe – fixed – GSM 6/10
Yachtsafe is more of a security device than a public tracker. It checks its position every ten minutes, but doesn’t keep a historical log, so has limited appeal for position sharing with friends.
Position reports are on request from the mobile app and then shown on your phone’s mapping application.
There is a good range of alerts, including
a sabotage warning, and extra sensors can provide further input to the unit. The system only covers Europe and charges an annual fee that includes 500 messages. I used 20 messages in a four-day trial.
Annual fee: £69 (500 messages – valid for one year only)