As you run around the globe at 6 knots you need to stay in touch with other boats, onshore watchkeepers and your friends back home. There are several options for this with more options coming available all of the time. Here is a discussion of our experiences and the things we have learned:
I feel that a Marine Side band Radio is a required piece of equipment on a passage making yacht. This radio provides you with access to weather via weatherfaxes and voice weather broadcast and communication to other vessels and shore stations thousands of miles away. There are no tests to get the radio license and the protocol for usage is the same as the VHF radio. Proper installation is critical to effective operation of the radio so professional installation is recommended unless you are very handy. A radio and tuner can be a cheap as $1000 and as much as $2500 with installation running from $300 to $1500 depending on you boat. If this is too much then you can get a receiver for $300 and install it yourself but you wont be able to talk to others or call for help. This should be viewed like a liferaft but with the bonus that you will be able to use it almost every day.
Many Marine Side Band Radios may also be used as Ham radios. Though the radio may be easily tuned to a Ham frequency you are not allowed to use it unless you have a Ham License. The minimum useful Ham License is a General Class License. This requires a 3 part theory test and passage of a 13 word per minute Morse code test. It is not as bad as it sounds because you listen to Morse code then answer a multiple choice test so you dont need to get every letter.
I am not a Ham (depending who you ask) and I regret not getting my license. There are many services available to Hams and it is well worth getting your license. By using the same radio the extra cost is low so only effort is required. Get a Ham capable radio and a Ham General Class license, you wont regret it.
HF Radio E-Mail
E-Mail transmitted by your onboard HF radio is probably the most common form of text based communication by passage-making yachts. Though many yachts maintain e-mail accounts with services like aol for use in larger cities, it is only possible to send and receive e-mails in remote locations via some form of radio transmission off of the boat. There are a couple of satellite solutions discussed below but the cheapest and most common solution uses the HF radio.
To get started you need a computer and a special modem known as a TNC. There are 2 basic choices for the TNC, the less expensive Pactor capable modem and the more expensive Pactor II capable modem. A Pactor modem like the Kam + is around $300 and works well as long as the distances are not too long and your e-mails are relatively short. The SCS Pactor II modem is $1000 to $1200 and it offers better long distance communication and about 4 times the speed. The Pactor II modem is worth the money if you are venturing to distant ports like the South Pacific or South America but if you stay in Mexico or the Caribbean then you can get by with a KAM +.
Next you need to choose the service that will provide your land connection. If you have a Ham license there are many choices around the world and this is your best option. If you are relying on your marine license then your choices are limited at the moment. Pinoak Digital in New Jersey provides this service but the require that you buy a Pactor II modem from them at a premium and it has been modified so it may only be used with Pinoak. It is a rip-off so avoid it unless you are traveling to the windward Caribbean where they may be the only service in range. Sailmail is in Palo Alto California and they provide e-mail for a low annual fee and allow you to use standard Pactor II and Kam + modems. They are great and we connect to them well using a Pactor II modem from Tonga 5,000 miles away. See their web site at www.sailmail.com.
HF radio e-mail is inexpensive and effective but it takes some knowledge on frequencies and propagation to connect effectively. It can also take some patience and skill on wring the modem to the radio and setting up the software. Many people have become frustrated and given up. There are many fellow cruisers that can help but if you dont feel up to the technical challenge there are several more expensive but more reliable solutions,
If is a satellite service which allows the sending and receiving of short (~ less than a page) text messages which may be addressed over the Internet. They require that you specify who may send you e-mail so you wont receive unwanted junk e-mail. This is important because e-mails sent and received cost 1¢ per character which means that the average 500 character message costs $5. One of my Hot News updates is usually about 3000 characters which would cost me $30 via Immarsat. The equipment for this is also expensive. Last I heard it was around $3,500 for the system. You do get free services including good text weather.
If these prices dont shock you then this is a good system for you because it works well all over the world and it is small, the antenna looks like a GPS antenna, and it is easy to install.
Immarsat Mini M
If you like the sound of the Immarsat C but you want to talk then consider an Immarsat Mini-M. The Immarsat M systems are the 4 foot diameter domes you see on super-yachts but they have come out with a miniature version of the M called the Mini-M which is only 18" in diameter. It allows voice, fax and data at $3.00 per minute with data running about 4800 baud. A fold out base station may be purchased for less than an Immarsat C but on a boat someone needs to hold it and continue to point it South. More practical for a boat is a system with a stabilized antenna which costs around $6,000.
We have heard mixed reviews on this system and it seems to work poorly or not at all where the Immarsat signal is weak which tends to be in the middle of the ocean where you may need it most. Buy this one with care and get a money back guarantee on its performance in your intended cruising grounds.
Orbcomm is a satellite data network like Immarsat C. The good news is that the base station only costs about $1,500 and the antenna is a 2 foot long stainless steel whip which mounts on the stern pulpit. The bad news is that it costs 1.5¢ per character if you buy in advance a big slug of them and one of 2 satellites comes overhead only about twice a day which means you need to leave the system powered up. They only allow 500 character messages though I believe they are increasing this to 1500 and they are just now coming out with devices which will interface to your laptop so you can type on a real keyboard. This system will be better when they get more satellites up and their costs come down.
Iridium is the first satellite cell phone network and it came online just this fall. It compares to Immarsat Mini-M in usage but is cheaper for the base station because the satellites are in lower orbit so you dont need a stabilized antenna. I dont have a lot of info on this system nor do I know anyone using it but it is worth checking out.
As more systems like Iridium come online the cost of the base units and the cost of usage will come down. The best strategy is to keep your investment small at this point and let the market shake out. If HF radio e-mail is intimidating then I would suggest the Orbcomm system because of the low initial cost. I believe they will get in line on usage cost over the next year. Put off any decision as long as possible. This market is changing so quickly that 6 months will provide many new opportunities and lower costs so wait until the last minute to buy.