We ask 227 skippers in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers about the equipment and services they used for data communication and email. Mike Owen reports on the findings of our annual ARC survey
Yachting World’s annual gear survey of competitors in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) provides a unique insight into users’ experiences of onboard equipment during an ocean passage. The 2012 ARC was sailed by a record fleet of 227 boats, spanning a wide range of design types and sizes from 32ft to 92ft. There’s no better testbed for popular equipment.
We asked skippers about primary and secondary data communications systems to gain a more accurate picture of skippers’ choices of equipment. For primary comms, Iridium was first choice (50.3 per cent), Inmarsat second (35.3 per cent), SSB Modem third (13.4 per cent) and SSB fourth (1 per cent).
Initially this seems a drop for both leaders on last year, but it can be explained by extracting the secondary systems, which tallied Iridium at 60.3 per cent, Inmarsat 22.7 per cent, SSB 9 per cent and SSB Modem 8 per cent. With the resulting apparent levelling between the leading satellite systems, Iridium and Inmarsat, the key differentiator this time was a fall-off in SSB.
Whereas SSB accounted for 54 per cent of all communications equipment on the 2011 ARC, this has reduced to just 15.3 per cent overall (and of those 29 units it was interesting to note all but five systems were from ICOM).
In satisfaction, there’s a shift towards Inmarsat over Iridium, with SSB Modem actually scoring marginally better than Iridium with fewer ‘Poor’ results. The shuffling is across the range, premium and budget, and where the radome Inmarsat-delivered Fleet Broadband scores well, this system’s handsets fare less well. The Iridium 9,555 and 9,575 handsets continue to receive better scores.
If this balance between high and low end explains the swing, there are, as always, exceptions. While the crew of Oyster 575 Arbella said of its KVH V3 Fleet Broadband system “excellent support… outstanding reliability, good bandwidth and reasonable cost”, the same kit on S&S Marea “broke with no reason after three days at sea”. (“OK support” though, apparently).
On both Island Packet 465 Ailsa and Hanse 445 Charm Offensive the crews described the Sailor Fleet Broadband as “excellent, very reliable”. The crew of Oyster 56 El Mundo noted the Fleet Broadband 250 as “excellent,” but added “data was expensive”.
This is the most common gripe among respondees, supported by reports from Arcona 430 Loupan: “Very good for emails and voice quality, but high traffic rates.” The handheld IsatPhone Pro helps overcome the tariff issue, but it is frustrating too owing to inherent signal strength issues unless helped with an additional external antenna.
“Slow speed on download receiving mail. Not able to call other satphones,” said the skipper of Bavaria 40 Promise. And from Rival 32 Troskala: “The most useless kit on the boat, hardly worked. Shocking. MailaSail could not get it to work, cannot get a signal.”
The Iridium handhelds 9,555 and 9,575 drew a mix of praise and criticism: “perfect,” for their email and weather, said the skipper of Moody S38 Mad Fish; “really good,” wrote that of fellow Moody 39 Close Encounter; “excellent for emails”, from Wauquiez 43PS Baringo.
But then came the complaints: “0/10. Never have got a good explanation,” commented the skipper of Hunter 38.6 Heart Beat; “expensive to use satellite communication”, from Dufour 385 Lucky Lady; and from Sigma 38 Persephone of London: “Abysmal. The unit failed to get a signal after four days and was abandoned as a reliable source of communication.”
In truth, many skippers reported an experience that was not all bad when working, even though the system was a little contrary. “Could be faster, but good for the price it was,” the skipper of Skye 51 Skyelark of London said, while on Bénéteau First 47.7 Soledonna the handheld “worked perfectly, but too expensive for what it is”.
As the saying goes, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
There were similar mixed opinions about the installed equipment and over the quality of support from the providers – some reports were flattering, some were disappointed in the same firms and same support staff.
So, consistency appears to be a problem. It should be borne in mind, however, that fewer than half of those surveyed in this section added comment. It is possible that the negatives prevailed over unreported better results.
There has been a bit of a shake-up in email services. Although MailaSail’s subscription provision still dominates, with 89 users, it has fallen in service and support ratings.
In pole position this year was the free service Winlink. OK, so there were just five users, but it scored an extraordinary 86.7 per cent ‘Good’ and 13.3 per cent ‘OK’ ratings and not one ‘Poor’. This was followed by Sailmail with 73.1 per cent ‘Good’ and 26.9 per cent ‘OK’, again with no ‘Poor’. Gmail slid in with 60/40/0 per cent scores across 16 users followed by MailaSail and the freebie Skyfile.
Gripes are largely about setting up, which can be more complicated for specialist marine services, but support is also critical. It’s important to strip away clutter on your machine before installing, and to spend time using the system before a voyage. It’s easier, cheaper and far less frustrating to resolve problems using cheap home comms.
Experiences differed widely. Whereas on Oyster 56 Purusha they reported: “MailaSail were in too much of a hurry to spend time with a customer”, the crew on Hallberg-Rassy 45 Salsa af Stavsnäs said: “Feel like they are on your side”, and from Bavaria 50 Stella-Maris: “Extremely easy to use. Saves lots of Iridium minutes because of compression technology and built-in firewall.”
Winlink drew no comment at all, leaving the 13 ‘Good’ and two ‘OK’ scores to do the talking. Skyfile comments ranged from “Excellent” to “Could not get incoming emails for several days. Seems to be new bugs on systems”, and SailMail received generally positive comments.
Google, if you’ll excuse the pun, taxed few people.