How do you choose which satellite communication device to use for ocean sailing? By learning from others! Toby Hodges crunches the data from 216 skippers on the latest Atlantic rally for cruisers
Our desire for almost constant communication and messaging, even when onboard, and our reliance on the internet continues to soar. Technology and the ability to stay in touch has allowed many sailors to take their work with them afloat and go ocean sailing while still employed or running a business. (That said, for many of us the joy of losing signal and truly switching off remains a key lure of sailing offshore!).
Indeed, an increasing number of cruisers make a living from showcasing their lifestyle afloat in vlog-style videos and social media posts. And for that you need high speed internet through wifi or 4G/cellular networks.
If you’re thinking of going further afield, to cross an ocean you’ll need longer range communication devices to remain just an email or phone call away.
Equally your needs should/will be paired down, probably to the odd email or weather forecast while on passage. However, balancing just what you need or want and how much you’re willing to spend to attain that is not as straightforward as you might think.
To help understand and decide on options, we sought the feedback of the 216 skippers who took part in the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) last year. We also spoke with industry experts about the current options for those wanting to buy or upgrade satellite communications.
If you’re looking for a guide for what’s available on the market right now, don’t miss our guide to the best satellite phones for sailors.
ARC organisers, the World Cruising Club (WCC), insist that all yachts sailing in their transocean rallies must carry long-range communication equipment. Yachting World has partnered with WCC for the last two decades to issue ARC participants with our ’Great Atlantic Gear Survey’. The 216 skippers of the combined ARC 2021 crossings shared their communications setups, while 70 respondents gave us feedback on 30 detailed questions all about their satellite devices, costs, airtime, apps etc…
From former ARC surveys we know the majority regularly choose Iridium as it has a full, intelligible range of options and is the only brand with full global coverage. But it’s not just about picking the satellite provider. Selecting which type of hardware suits your needs (handheld or fixed with separate antenna), what airtime package, whether you want a router and perhaps a dedicated marine service for setup, email compression, support, and weather forecasting, is all budget relevant and should be a factor in your decisions.
The pace of satellite communication technology is slow, nevertheless these are still phones we’re talking about here, so people always want the latest!
A full 90% of our survey respondents, for example, only had their data comms equipment installed since 2019 and many were still debugging their systems come the Las Palmas start.
Iridium’s new Certus system has been in the pipeline for some years now and there were a few yachts which carried its higher-end 700 system last year. The more compact and economic 200 and 100 systems launched last summer, though, and will doubtless be in demand for those crossing this year and in the near future.
Basic / handset satellite communication options
The choice at the most affordable end of the scale is to go for a portable or handheld style satphone, a compact unit with its own aerial, such as Inmarsat’s Isatphone or Iridium’s 9555 or 9575. The latter were carried by 15 of our 70 skippers.
Other than economy, the benefit of a handheld device with a keypad is arguably the ability to dial a number easily when in trouble and take it with you in a grab bag.
Walkabout, an Oceanis 45, has a second-hand 9555 (€800 from MailASail). “It worked okay but we found that text messages often got chopped off,” says Andrew Roantree. “Texting on an Iridium sat phone is really useful – but very painful to do!” he warns.
By far the most popular option carried last ARC was the Iridium GO (chosen by 47 out of 70 skippers).
A relatively economical portable device, this essentially has the same internal parts as Iridium’s handsets but without the numeric keypad. Instead they offer an easy way to create a wifi hub at sea for using mobile devices.
GO has been marketed at attractive prices in recent years, particularly through PredictWind. This, together with an original promise of ‘unlimited data’ for around US$125 per month made it appealing, although it is speed capped at the industry standard of 2.4kbps.
This means it’s as slow as a handheld, or less than 5% of the speed of 1990s dial-up internet! In practice, it’s enough to receive email and the odd GRIB file but can’t do chat apps. It needs a paired mobile phone to make voice calls and only certain apps work with it.
The majority of the 2021 ARC fleet were content with this though, and said they wouldn’t change their GO setup if doing it again.
There were many comments on data connection being slow and dropping off, but there was also a general assumption and acknowledgement that they knew that would probably be the case.
Make mine GO
Coco, a Lucia 40 catamaran, used GO with Iridium Mail and PredictWind: “The calls would briefly drop out, but only due to the device being situated inside,” skipper Alfie Moore reports. “It reconnected to the call quickly when signal was reestablished. The app would sometimes glitch, there are a few bugs that need ironing out within the app interface and the Offshore weather app could also do with a few upgrades. But in general it was a fantastic device and certainly helped us in the situations we were in during the crossing.” An external antenna is one of the only additions he would consider.
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Amanaki’s crew, using the same package, rates it for value for money. “Recommend people buy second-hand units on ebay and the PredictWind packages”. Equally, the Dutch on Hallberg-Rassy 46 Morgane of Sark were very happy with their GO and MailASail app, at a cost of €800 plus €170 per month for unlimited data and 150 mins.
The Norwegian skipper of Albicilla spent only €700 on his GO and €110 per month on airtime, running Iridium Mail and PredictWind and admitted: “Slow as hell, but works good for what you really need! GRIB + simple email.”
“Well, the speed was as low as expected, but we could live with it,” says Just4fun’s Thomas Klaus Henkelmann. “Sometimes it took up to 20 dial-in attempts before a connection was made… annoying.”
For others, it tested their patience. “The Iridium GO system is such old technology,” thinks Jim Davies on the First 40 Olympia’s Tigress. “It regularly dropped data calls, especially if run for long periods. The nature of the data service on the Certus system is much more user friendly in a modern world. I have no interest in streaming while at sea, but low text services like WhatsApp (with media downloads turned off) are useful…”
Davies adds: “The Ocens OneMail service is great as it allows you to check your own email address through GO. Also, the PredictWind Offshore app is superb for low data rate GRIB downloads.”
The Valgrens on their Hallberg-Rassy 44 Pleasure found they had to restart their GO on a regular basis (1-2 times a day). “Moving the laptop closer to device improved the connection. An Android mobile seemed to handle the connection in a better way [than using a laptop with Windows].”
Perhaps the best summary of GO, however, was from Bavaria 51 Favorita of Hamble’s Barnaby Green: “We might trade up to a faster connection but not sure why. GO was sold as a basic entry level with low expectations but I thought it was excellent. Reliable. Portable. Transferable. Affordable. Slow.”
The majority chose the simple option of an Iridium GO and no router, but, as Jeremy Willems on Shadow of Black, one of the smaller yachts, warns: “We did need to have the intervention of the chap from MailASail to get it working properly”. (It should be noted they only purchased their equipment two months before the ARC). MailASail is a marine communication specialist and WCC partner, which has had support staff at Las Palmas for the ARC start for the last two decades.
Over half didn’t use a smart router (41/70), while 21 skippers used MailASail’s RedBox. Data compression tools such as this and the rival Redport can save airtime charges by optimising email and web use, act as a wifi hub and can integrate cellular and wifi extenders.
Mid range satellite communication systems
For those not happy with the ultra slow speeds typically offered by the portable/handset style devices, the mid range choice can offer a step change in speeds (100-200kbps). Until now, this has meant a severe increase in price (from €5,000 for hardware). Again, Certus may now address that.
Some GO users (including Just4Fun and Sundance II) say they’d prefer a more broadband-based option such as Inmarsat’s Fleet One. Maalu IV, Joia and Tortuga ran this system through a Red Box router (equipment cost €3-5,000) and all commented that it worked ‘perfectly’ or ‘flawlessly’.
The German crew on CNB 60 Dumia, on the same setup, elaborated further: “We needed special help from MailASail – very professional and it led to a very stable and reliable installation. I followed the advice from WCC regarding installation in due time and we were very happy with this.”
Conversely, the Leests on Sandy Cay felt the expenditure (€5,000 equipment, €2,500 installation, €400 for airtime for crossing) didn’t merit the rewards… “from other sailors I understand that they had the same services with an Iridium GO, which is a lot less expensive to install.”
Airtime & communication apps
Similar to choosing a cellular/mobile phone, it’s not just about the hardware. Selecting the right amount of data and airtime to suit your needs is key.
Again, the most common set up was Iridium GO, Iridium Mail and PredictWind. Thirty skippers purchased airtime through PredictWind, 15 through MailASail.
“Loved PredictWind support and pricing,” says Amanaki’s Oliver Vauvelle. “No need for an external antenna and reasonable connectivity for the price. Decent voice calls as well”.
LIV agrees: “PredictWind Unlimited for €140 per month was great. Not only did we have unlimited data and 150 voice minutes, we also got a tracking with the Iridium GO sending a GPS position report using SMS (text message) once per hour.” However, Zelda warns: “PredictWind Offshore worked only by email not directly with Iridium GO. Xgate had multiple errors that stopped data transfer”.
Choosing a specialist email provider can also be quite subjective. Emily Morgan used GO to run Airmail (Sailmail) with Iridium apps as backup from Global Telesat Communications. “GRIB files downloaded from Saildocs via Airmail, viewed in OpenCPN. Airmail filters emails so we only download the ones we want (approximately 12 received but eight actually downloaded per day),” says Anna Black.
The Swedes on Arcona 400 LIV found the Iridium Mail app “poor and always had to restart sending large mails with photos.”
Tilda’s Fabrizio Mancini advises others to download Iridium apps “on more than one smartphone because it allows several users.” The view from Walkabout, meanwhile, was: “MailASail systems and services are great and the service is personal and outstanding”.
When asked for feedback and any technical problems, half the skippers were either very satisfied or didn’t experience issues, other than the occasional dropped call or slow speeds.
Sebastian Gylling, sailing his fifth ARC on Eira, doesn’t think you need satcomms, only fitting them “because it was mandatory equipment,” while Scar Cat was left frustrated by recommendations that “were far more expensive than what I found on my own.”
Highly experienced skipper Dan Bower on Skyelark 2 using an Iridium handset, was one of very few RedBox users not to rate the router, finding the data compression inefficient.
Grace LR was also on the same system: “Difficult and long connection times despite having bought everything MailASail advised. I gave up using their weather info and used forecasts only from ARC.”
Lengthy downloads on Free Spirit (also on an Iridium handset and RedBox) led them to use their backup Garmin inReach to keep airtime economical. Rather than download GRIBs they got a weather router to email them forecasts.
Like all marine equipment, satellite communications need to be reliable, so arguably the most important advice is to buy well in advance and test thoroughly before an ocean departure.
Don’t make decisions based purely on specification (seek a rounded combination of hardware/airtime/data optimisation and support plan if required) and don’t compare to land-based speeds (or expect anything close to them).
We have learned from the survey replies that there has been a shift to smaller/budget focussed setups. The majority of offshore sailors use Iridium and bought/used GO, primarily for its perceived ease and relative economy, and thanks to some good deals last year, particularly through PredictWind.
Hardware is only as good as its internal organs, and in the case of GO these are very similar to Iridium’s handsets as they have the same modules inside, MailASail’s Ed Wildgoose advises.
These are manufactured by various brands, but the supply pipeline started running out last year and satellite communication specialists warn of stock issues with many portable devices this year. As well as a global shortage of electronics, the invasion of Ukraine has also led to a huge demand there for handheld satphones.
A Certus future?
At the same time, we have seen the gradual evolution of a new crop of exciting new mid-range systems. While Inmarsat’s Fleet One is well established now, Iridium has been talking about implementing Certus for years and it was only in the second half of last year that the first yachts started carrying its 100 and 200 systems.
These represent a step change for sailors. The increase in speeds these provide is the equivalent of going from walking pace to flying on a jumbo jet, says Wildgoose.
All this leads to something of a no-brainer for those choosing new satcomms. Both MailASail’s Wildgoose and James Phipps from Global Telesat Communications now strongly advocate the Certus Skylink 100 system in particular as a sort of MkII version of GO. At around twice the hardware cost of GO (£2,000), it offers a global internet hotspot, with 4G, firewall and router built in.
“GO has been the entry level device we’d recommend, as you can send and receive email and the odd GRIB file, but you can’t do Whatsapp,” Phipps explains. “However, I think the Certus Skylink 100 is the way to go and will be a really popular service and hardware to replace GO.”
They think it particularly suits the sailing market as it provides fast enough data speeds for email and chat apps. It’s also more portable than the 200, which is more of a permanent installation, yet half the price and with a fraction of the power consumption (3W versus 25W).
“Personally, if I was going to do the ARC this year, I’d get the Certus 100 terminal. It would do everything I need it to with email, Whatsapp, images at an economical running cost plan,” Phipps concludes.
When considering airtime, the Certus 200 has the same chipset unit as the larger and costlier 700, but the same airtime tariff as the 100. So unless you need the increased upload speeds of the 200, the 100 will have roughly the same download speed but at half the cost.
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