Email & Communication
Bill, this is a large topic and you would do best to visit the archives both here and at the SSCA site (http://ssca.org/sscabb/index.php for the new postings, but also http://ssca.org/discus/index.htm for some good previous threads on email). I''m sorry that sounds like a lot of homework, when you were probably hoping for someone to just deliver a ''bottom line'' of sorts, so I''ll give it a shot to deliver the short version below.
1. First, consider your budget and how serious you are (meaning: destinations and period you plan to be out cruising). I don''t think there''s any question, even today (more properly stated, *especially today*) that a SSB is your basic comms tool. Most boats today are SSB equipped, which makes staying in touch with friends'' boats, getting arrival info before you arrive, benefitting by wx nets and so forth all very feasbile with today''s SSB sets. (Don''t assume this means a $3-4K bill; more on that to follow...) If wintering in the Bahamas, no you don''t need a SSB; it''s a ''nice to have''. If going down island or further afield, it''s very useful for a variety of reasons.
2. Email is not a ''requirement'' on the boat. (I''ve been doing email aboard via our SSB since 1999, so I''m as biased in favor of it as anyone...). There''s always internet access available these days, even w-a-y out in distant Oceania. BUT...if you can access the ham Winlink system from onboard, it''s a huge safety benefit, provided you take the time and make the effort to use the wx files. Sailmail (and other, far less useful vendors) can not offer the diversity and thoroughness of the weather files offered on Winlink. So I would place SSB-based email into one of two categories: a ''convenience'' option if using Sailmail or a for-profit vendor (unless you have business reasons for Sailmail) or a ''safety + convenience'' option if your plans take you further afield and you can access Winlink.
3. With a departure date in 2006, there is no reason you can''t become a ham well in advance of that. Plus, if you do so, you''ll be in the minority of cruising sailors who actually know something about SSB radio - which makes the SSB more of a tool and less of a social amenity.
4. Just to assure you there are less expensive but first-class SSB options, you should be able to purchase a brand new Icom 706 SSB (one of the few SSBs for which Sailmail and Airmail/Winlink were intended), an SG-230 tuner (excellent for boat installations), a IIex TNC plus all the chokes, insulators, ground foil and misc. installation equipment - plus a little rigging work to swage on the backstay insulators - for about $2500 USD. That presumes you install the system yourself, which is a reasonable goal if you seek out a local ham club for instructional help before taking your ham tests, because you''ll meet some helpful souls who will be more than happy to coach you thru the installation. Also, don''t overlook the fact that the Winlink folks have an excellent presentation available on Powerpoint that covers a good installation and SSCA publishes a small handbook on this same topic. Also, Marti Brown offers two books on putting a SSB aboard and putting SSB Email aboard, both published by Seaworthy Pubs.
A SSB installation is not that difficult; learning how to use the radio is harder than the install for some people. A SSB-based email system is not turnkey, and the learning curve in getting everything to work well is noticeable unless you have some good coaching. BUT both these choices are ones that keep on giving...and using Winlink for two years will pay for your TNC (over Sailmail, or one of the more expensive for-profit vendors).
SatComms are great systems. But they aren''t foolproof (since ground stations have been presenting some problems), and they are costly. I''ve found it very common for most boats with SatComm systems to use a SSB most often, simply in order to control cost - even if they have a ''plush'' cruising kitty. Some folks don''t like SSB at all, and keep it at arm''s length. But in the end, out on the cruising trail, I find very few people who don''t have it and are glad they don''t have it, and won''t ask you for a wx f''cast! A SSB rig can be a very useful tool.
You''re welcome to contact me directly if you have more questions.