Affordable Cruise Communications

I thought we would highlight three gadgets which are changing the way we communicate on our cruising yachts. From affordable, convenient Internet access to economical satellite communications.

Prepaid Mobile Broadband

Internet at sea has become an essential part of cruising. Some of us might like to get away from emails, but easily accessed weather information and the ability to keep in touch with friends and family sways most of us. On our boat, Te Moana,  we have a permanent Wireless Broadband installation, with which we’re very happy. However, not everyone is prepared to spend $1000+ or have a permanently installed system.

A nifty alternative is Telstra’s pre-paid Mobile Broadband [1] with a “Mobile WiFi Hot Spot” modem, supporting up to 5 devices, which only costs $129. It supports an external antenna for extended coverage (or in remote locations you could hoist the unit itself up the mast). I like the 12 month prepaid plan (10GB for $150), which avoids monthly charges when we’re not away sailing and allows high usage when we are. The WiFi connectivity means internet access anywhere on the boat, while the modem can be placed in a convenient, out of the way spot.

Low Cost AIS

AIS is quickly becoming increasingly common on cruising boats. One night recently, on our way North near Port Stephens, a bulk carrier came up behind us, going along at 17 knots, apparently on course to run right over the top of us. Because of AIS, we knew the ship’s course, speed and call sign. A quick call on channel 16 verified that they had indeed seen us and asked us to simply maintain our course, passing on our starboard side. The system not only provided for our safety, but also for our peace of mind.

Em-Trak dual channel AIS receiverCompetition in the AIS market and new technology is driving the price of AIS down. SRT [2], a UK manufacturer which provides “white label” AIS products which are re-badged by many marine suppliers just launched a whole new range of AIS receivers and transceivers. Early indications are that the price of AIS equipment is set to halve! West Marine in the US now sells the Em-Trak two channel AIS receiver for $190 [3]. Don’t leave home without one.

By the way, another interesting interesting application of AIS is as a Man Overboard  transceiver [4]. The compact AIS unit attaches to a PFD similar to a personal EPIRB.  Any boat nearby with an AIS receiver can therefore accurately determine (and track!) the location of the MOB.

Economical Satellite Messaging and Tracking

DeLorme inReach Satellite Communicator and TrackerWe’ve been spoilt in Australia with an excellent mobile phone network. But there are always places without coverage, particularly for the more adventurous among us. Satellite phones are expensive for intermittent, long term use like coastal cruising. The inReach Satellite Communicator by DeLorme [5] takes a different “tack”. It uses a recent development to use what is, in effect, text messaging via Satellite. The nifty communicator (expected price in the US $250) allows you to use your normal mobile phone to send (and receive!) text messages via Satellite. It can also be used to automatically send your position to a website like webcommunications.com.au [6], so friends and family know where you are.

While it is not for sale yet (expected by October this year), it looks to be a much more practical unit that the currently available Spot Messenger, which operates one way only. With the ability to send and receive messages, track your yacht at preset intervals and its support for two way alarms (think of being able to be reached in a family emergency), the DeLorme unit looks hard to beat. Industry rumours suggest that there will be similar units from other manufacturers and cruising sailors will be the winners!

All in all, we’re looking at some useful technology coming within reach of our “every day” cruising boats rather than just being of interest to “geeks” or accessible only by the elite. Most of us appreciate the primitive, technology free approach afforded by sailing, but we now also have economical ways to keep in touch with the world around us.

And I also know what I’m asking for on Fathers Day…

Links:

[1] Telstra Wireless Broadband [link]

[2] SRT AIS products [link]

[3] Em-Trak AIS receiver [link]

[4] MOB AIS transponder [link]

[5] Delorme inReach Communicator [link]

[6] Track your boat on webcommunications.com.au  [link]