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Old 10-31-1998
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Communications from Aboard

Think you are going cruising and getting away from it all? Maybe, but don’t count on it. When cruisers get together, much of the talk centers around communication, and what works and what doesn’t. Whether your interest is safety, weather, or simply staying in touch with family, friends, and fellow cruisers, you may be surprised that the communication options on board are actually quite numerous.

Here are many of the ways we cruisers stay connected.

VHF radio

To effectively communicate with commercial vessels, bridge tenders, the Coast Guard, or other nearby cruisers, VHF radio is essential. On Safari, we have two permanent VHF radios. One is mounted at the steering station for quick access by the helmsman. We feel that this adds to our safety as it’s often necessary to communicate with commercial traffic when transiting certain waters. It also ensures that we don’t miss a call, or have to leave the helm in order to communicate with anyone.

Since VHF signals travel in a straight line, the height of your antenna will determine your range of communication. We can usually reach out 35 to 40 miles with our antenna, which is 60 feet above the water.

Single sideband radio (SSB)

For long-range communication, Safari is equipped with a single sideband radio. An SSB is similar to a HAM radio but uses different frequencies, and doesn’t require passing an exam to operate. With SSB, radio signals are capable of traveling 1,000 miles or more. (On our recent cruise in Maine, we were able to talk to another cruising boat anchored in Cuba.)

For safety offshore, this type of long-range communication is essential because you can summon assistance if needed or obtain current weather information from the Coast Guard or private meteorological sources.

The single sideband radio has also been a great way to keep in touch with our cruising friends. Frequently, we contact other boats who may be hundreds of miles away and coordinate a rendezvous.

An unexpected bonus has been an entertainment factor. We enjoy listening to sailors in all locations sharing their cruising experiences. Also, we can’t say enough about the short-wave stations from around the world. Voice of America, Radio Japan, BBC, Canadian Broadcast Corp., Voice of Russia, Radio Netherlands, these are some of them. Each provides us with a different perspective on world events interspersed with a touch of culture from each country—and is a refreshing change from the 6 o’clock news.

Cellular phone

After a year and a half of wrestling with just how connected we wanted to be, we now include a cellular phone as part of our communication equipment. As we are always "roaming", often at a charge of $1.20 per minute, we have designated the cell phone for emergency communications and e-mail access only. Today new "no-roaming" cell-phone plans are expanding. These may provide an economical option for the coastal cruiser seeking a means of regular communications. Generally speaking, you can expect coverage up to about 20 miles offshore.

E-mail

E-mail has quickly become many cruisers’ primary link to family and friends. Connections to the net are frequently made via borrowed land lines or cell phones. Another option that is popular with offshore cruisers is to use SSB or HAM radio to access e-mail.

On Safari, we access e-mail with our cellular phone when we can’t find a shore-side connection. This usually takes about two to three minutes of "air time" and requires a special cellular modem. With cellular access, data transfer speeds are reduced to 9600 and sometimes 4800 baud.

Mail forwarding services

Most full-time cruisers employ the services of a mail-forwarding company. These companies hold on to your mail until you contact them and tell them where to send it. Often run by ex-cruisers, these services are usually very reliable and offer a number of other helpful services.

Satellite phones

So far satellite phones are simply too expensive for the cruising sailor to include aboard. "Although a reliable way to communicate, satellite phones aren't often seen aboard boats that cost less than a million dollars." When prices eventually decrease, this will be a wonderful communication tool for cruising.

Phone calls through SSB / VHF

It is possible to place and receive phone calls on both SSB and VHF radios. The call is patched through a marine operator. This is an excellent, although a bit pricey, way to communicate. One plus is that usually no additional equipment needs to be purchased. Also, you pay by the call, so no monthly charge accrues as it does with cellular phone service. You do, however, lose privacy as anyone within radio range can eavesdrop on your call.

Cruiser nets

It seems that wherever you sail there is a cruiser’s net organized on either VHF, SSB, or HAM radio. These nets provide a vehicle for cruisers to exchange useful information and serve as a way to keep up with cruising friends. Often, sailors will file a float plan with the net, contact the net daily during their voyage and, upon successful landfall, close the float plan with the net. In other words, cruising sailors are looking out for one another. This is also a great way to meet new people.

So, as you can see, the cruising sailor has many avenues from which to communicate. Relearning how to use those semaphore flags from your Boy Scout or Girl Scout days will not be necessary. The trick is determining which communication methods will be best for you. Today, there is a lot to choose from.

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