Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

The Ultimate Cruisers' Planning Tool


You are here: Home / Users / webmaster / Lessons from a Circumnavigation Part IV: Communications

Lessons from a Circumnavigation Part IV: Communications

By webmaster last modified Jun 21, 2005 01:32 PM

Published: 2005-06-21 13:32:09
Topics: Cruising Information


by Michael Frankel

Communications is revolutionizing long distance cruising as much as it has already revolutionized the information-crazed world. The relatively small Millennium Odyssey fleet of thirty-six boats had a wide array of communications gear. This included the standard VHF and HF-SSB radios and their upgrades with Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Many of the boats were equipped with Mini-M telephone transceivers, Inmarsat-C data links, and a few Iridium telephones. On shore, nearly everyone made a bee-line for the nearest Internet café or local telecom office to get on the world-wide-web with their e-mail messages and digital photographs.

Communication with the rest of the world, as well as with other boats in the fleet, was extremely important to me. It was probably more important than sail trimming and boat speed. We were well equipped to communicate and very resourceful in this area. HORNBLOWER had two mounted VHF radios, two handheld VHF radios, two HF-SSB radios, one Inmarsat-C transceiver, one all-band short-wave receiver, and several AM-FM radios.

The following is a brief description of our communications equipment and how we stayed in touch.

E-Mail The world-wide-web has made it infinitely easier to communicate by e-mail without having to lug computers ashore. In almost every port with a population over 10,000, there is bound to be an Internet café or some other facility offering Internet access at a per minute cost, usually around $3 to $12 an hour. At no additional cost, a membership can be obtained in Microsoft's service that provides an electronic address and a mailbox for e-mail messages. (Yahoo offers a similar free e-mail service at By logging on to Hotmail, a registered user can transmit e-mail messages and receive replies that have accumulated at his or her unique Internet e-mail address.

Another important hotmail feature for boaters is the ability to prepare messages on board with the ship's computer, save these messages on a floppy disk, and then bring only the disk (not the computer) to the on-shore Internet facility. The messages on the floppy disk can then be attached to the e-mail address, thus, saving considerable typing time (and the ire of those waiting in line).

Finally, there is the benefit of POP mail via one's unique Hotmail address. This is the ability to download and read e-mail messages received via any other online provider, such as Compuserve or AOL, while logged on to the Hotmail web page.

That's the good news. The bad news is that there are many excuses for why the Internet facility is down or slow at the time you arrive to use it. With increasing expectations of logging on, the excuses create frustrations and disappointments. We quickly forget that a few years ago none of this technology was available or even dreamt of.

The most popular problems and excuses heard on my Internet Odyssey were:

The telephones are down today. Come back tomorrow.

The lady with the password for the computer isn't in yet. Come back later.

Sorry, closed for lunch between 11:30 and 14:30. Come back later.

Connection is mysteriously terminated while in the middle of a long transmission. Sorry. Try again.

The facility uses Apple's Imac terminals with no floppy disk attachment. Sorry.

The facility is concerned about viruses, so they lock out the floppy disk drive. Sorry.

The facility uses foreign keyboards that take a long time to decipher and cause frequent errors in typing. Sorry.

The local Internet service has an extremely slow transmission rate increasing the computer rental cost and providing more time for errors to occur during transmission. Sorry.

The mailbox is full of junk mail (mostly pornographic or financial services) that has to be deleted. Sorry.

Correspondents send excruciatingly long jokes with endless cc address lists. Sorry.

With only one or two working computers, there is frequently a long line of yachties waiting to get on the computer. Each one can take upwards of an hour to read and send all their messages. Sorry. Come back later.

Inmarsat-C: For mid-ocean e-mail connections, I selected an Inmarsat-C unit (Trimble) over Mini-M, Iridium, and HF-SSB e-mail. I also selected the Stratos service provider operating out of Newfoundland, Canada, to avoid U.S. FCC taxes. The alternative Mini-M telephone service left non-coverage holes in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans and did not allow for e-mail. Similarly, Iridium was not ready for data transmission at departure time (February 1999). I rejected HF-SSB e-mail because of normal short-wave propagation uncertainties, and therefore not being 100 percent reliable. More than half the fleet had the Inmarsat-C units, another third had the Mini-M, and two boats had Iridium telephones. None had the HF-SSB e-mail system.

During the approximately 30 degrees of overlap in the Atlantic-West and Pacific satellite footprints, several Mini-M users experienced difficulties. The Inmarsat-C users had 100 percent reliability in all weather conditions and boat motion throughout the trip. One Iridium user reported being locked out over the Caribbean due to the lack of an agreement between a national telephone company and the Iridium company. It made me wonder whether there would truly be 100 percent Iridium coverage over time, even if the company came out of its financial troubles. (More on Iridium below.)

One improvement in Inmarsat-C usage that would have been useful is the application of compression techniques to the files being transmitted. This would have required that both the sender and recipient have access to compression software such as ZIP and UNZIP programs. The cost of Inmarsat usage would have dropped dramatically. Unfortunately, not all of my friends would have had the appropriate software, so I stayed with uncompressed files.

Another improvement on the way is Inmarsat-D. During our passage from Cape Town to Salvador, Brazil, the biennial Cape to Rio race was being held. Race officials had made arrangements to test Inmarsat-D with the race participants. Inmarsat-D is expected to run at a Baud rate of 56k, compared to the 2400 rate for Inmarsat-C. The faster Inmarsat-D would be a welcomed leap forward, one that would eventually see the availability of the world-wide-web on board in mid-ocean.

For me, e-mail by Inmarsat has revolutionized long ocean passages. It ranks right up there with the GPS as a technological marvel. I have crossed the Atlantic without a GPS, but I have never been able to communicate reliably with the world while being far out at sea. Too many magazine articles on the subject of Inmarsat communications have focused on the high cost per minute or per character of this system. Not enough has been said about safety messages, news broadcasts, family peace of mind, and the psychic rewards of instant communications.

Digital Selective Calling VHF Radio: HORNBLOWER and DISTANT DRUM both had Digital Selective Calling (DSC) VHF radios (Ross Engineering). We frequently used the DSC features of calling each other without the use of a voice hailing frequency, requesting automatic position reports on each other, and scrambling our conversations.

I tried to raise several freighters on the DSC "all ships" mode. Although DSC was required on commercial vessels by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) by February 1999, only a few freighter responded. I also learned that the U.S.Coast Guard will not respond to DSC emergency messages until 2005, or thereafter. When fully implemented, the DSC equipment will be a key component of the GMDSS - Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. One button on the VHF-DSC radio will then activate an emergency signal to all ships in the area with the strickened vessel's name, call sign, GPS position, and nature of the distress.

HF-Single-Sideband Radio: During the long Pacific leg - 3,000 mile passage between the Galapagos and Marquesas islands - I was one of the net controllers on a twice-daily schedule of HF-SSB contacts among our fleet of 30 boats. We were sometimes spread over 1,000 miles of ocean. I noticed a great deal of variation in signal quality among Furuno, SGC, SEA, Icom, Sailor, and other types of HF-SSB units in our fleet. There did not seem to be any correlation between signal quality and brand type. I suspected it was all in the quality of installation. A good layman's reference is needed on antenna installation and RF-grounding. Something to alert the non-electronic boatowner of critical RF-grounding and antenna lead wire issues and what to look for in professional help. For example, I greatly improved our signal when I replaced a section of copper foil connected to the engine ground that had become corroded by saltwater splashing from a leaking raw water pump. Even a layman can make this type of observation and repair.

HORNBLOWER had two identical HF-SSB units (SGC 2000). One of the units failed and was sent back for repairs. It then worked for about a month and failed again. The other unit worked well for the duration of the voyage.

Iridium: During one of the last legs of the circumnavigation, DISTANT DRUM had an Iridium telephone on board, courtesy of their crewmember. John was eager to stay in touch with his business in California by telephone. According to John, the Iridium telephone worked very well when there were no obstructions buildings, mountains between him and the sixty-six satellites overhead. Apparently the early problems with the company's bankruptcy were solved with Iridium being taken over by a national cellular telephone company.

One of the side features of Iridium, is the capability of receiving short (120 character) e-mail messages free of charge. Anyone with access to the Internet can send such a message to a numbered Iridium telephone via The message is stored in a mail box and then downloaded when the called Iridium telephone is turned on.

I used this feature to contact John while we were both at sea. It was mind-blowing to think that my message "Are we having fun yet?" was beamed to one of four stationary Inmarsat satellites 23,000 miles overhead, then returned to a land station in Quebec and routed by land lines to the Iridium offices in Arizona, where it was beamed up to one of sixty-six, 400 mile high, orbiting satellites waiting there for John to turn on his unit. Then the signal came down to DISTANT DRUM, only a few miles from HORNBLOWER.

Cell Phones: Out at sea cell phones are useless but near shore it's a different story. Again, thanks to DISTANT DRUM we had the use of an international cell phone registered in Singapore. With it we were able to call for marine services, check on the weather, seek out repairs, order parts. It was very expensive considering the international roaming costs, but it was worth the price to get good, up to date, local weather forecasts. We were particularly thankful for this weather service along South Africa's Agulhas Current where weather windows for passages south are short and storms are sudden and fierce.

Photography: Photographs are another important form of communication. Recent developments in digital photography have added a new dimension to the familiar process of taking pictures and then sharing them with friends when the traveler returns home. Now the sharing can take place during the trip, almost at the speed of light.

Duke on DISTANT DRUM was a professional photographer before retirement. He took thousands of slides on this trip because of their superior resolution in large format screening. However, he also had a digital camera. It had far less resolution than his slides, but it did offer the immediacy of modern communications. At several ports, I took his floppy disk, containing dozens of snapshots, and transmitted them to his daughter by Internet e-mail. She then incorporated the pictures into their logs, also transmitted by Internet e-mail, and distributed printed logs with photos to their family and friends.

As the pixel resolution of digital photography improves, this form of communication will grow. It may even become realistic to send videos via Internet cafés. "Hi, dear, This is me climbing Table Mountain."

Homepages: Several people maintained world-wide-web homepages with their logs and digital photographs. This enabled a wide range of friends to keep up with their adventure.






Unfortunately, homepages were still a novelty at the time of our departure. It would have been nice to query all the participants for their homepage intentions and then create links in each page to the other pages. That way onlookers back home could avail themselves to more information about this adventure. Some of these homepage sites may be active long after the Millennium Odyssey rally ends.

News: I am a news junkie. Out at sea, in the absence of a daily New York Times newspaper and nightly National Public Radio News, I relied heavily on the short-wave radio and a brief summary of news over the Inmarsat-C. Before leaving on the voyage, I prepared another of my famous lists, a compilation of times and frequencies for worldwide BBC World Service, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle (English) broadcasts. There are many opportunities for English news programs at almost any hour of the day. The broadcast schedule information is readily available from the news organizations' web sites.

As the trip neared the end, I was surprised at how little I paid attention to the news. It seemed as though the same wars, the same political fights, the same financial problems kept coming back time and again. News of our fleet's progress or the latest breakdown seemed a lot more interesting.

Weatherfax maps: Prior to the start of the voyage, I collected the frequencies, schedule, and coverage areas for weather facsimile maps broadcast on HF-SSB around the world. This information is available from Alden Electronics, Inc. Worldwide Marine Radiofacsimile. It is also available from Marcus Rensen on the Internet(

I selected only those stations broadcasting wefax maps along our route.

Early in the trip, I grew frustrated trying to tune in the appropriate station. Most of the time I heard only static and sometimes a very weak signal that did not produce useable weather maps. I was never sure whether the problem was in missing the scheduled broadcast, having the wrong frequency, or poor propagation of radio signals. I stopped listening and we relied instead on either Inmarsat-C weather broadcasts or information gathered by others in the fleet who subscribed to private weather forecasting services. One such service, from Meteo France, broadcasts an encrypted signal on Inmarsat-C that shows the wind patterns for a five-day period along a boater's selected route. The boat computer has a decryption program that overlays the wind patterns on an ocean chart of the course.

We were fortunate that the "coconut milk run" typically has no serious weather problems during our scheduled passages. That is probably why they call it a "milk run."