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  #1  
Old 05-27-2009
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The SPOT Messenger

This past Christmas, I received a SPOT Messenger. I didn't activate it until just recently, when I was helping deliver a sailboat from Annapolis to Marion, Mass. The reason I decided to activate the SPOT service was so that several of the families and friends of two of my fellow delivery crew would be able to keep an eye on them, since this would be their first major passage.

The SPOT Messenger is a small GPS-based satellite transponder that uses the GlobalStar satellite network to transmit location and time data as well as one of four types of messages. The four message types are:
  1. I'm OK
  2. Help
  3. 911—send help
  4. Tracking update
The first three message types are included in the basic $99 annual service.

The "I'm OK" message is basically just that... to let people know where you are and that you're okay.

The "Help" message can be tailored via the SPOT Messenger website to be a "call me" or "send money" or some other type of message, that requires some action on the part of the persons monitoring you.

The "911" message will result in the SPOT Message service center calling the authorities to respond... and should only be used in a true emergency.

Please note: While some people think that the "911" feature will replace an EPIRB, I disagree. First, the SPOT Messenger relies on the Globalstar satellite network, which has some serious issues. Second, an EPIRB or PLB acts as a SAR Transponder and broadcasts a 121.5 MHz signal to help SAR personnel locate you. Third, the run time on the EPIRB or PLB and durability of the units is probably much greater.

The fourth type of message is a tracking message, and it requires the real-time tracking service, which costs an additional $49 per year. To send these messages, you put the SPOT into tracking mode. These can then be seen on a SPOT tracking page.

There are a few issues IMHO with the SPOT and its tracking mode. First, tracking mode is only active for 24 hours, and then it needs to be re-activated. Second, tracking mode sends a message out every ten minutes, which is a bit too short a time interval for most sailboat tracks.

Personally, I think that tracking mode should stay active until it is deactivated. I also think that there should be some other intervals for tracking messages, say 10 minutes, 1 hour, and 6 hours or something similar. This would make tracking boats much simpler, since the SPOT would operate for about a month if it was allowed to send messages every hour instead of every 10 minutes.
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You know what the first rule of sailing is? ...Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take
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her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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Last edited by sailingdog; 05-27-2009 at 05:42 PM.
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  #2  
Old 05-27-2009
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Dawg,

Good write up and summary.

I'm getting a SPOT for our upcoming Bahamas cruise.

Thanks again.
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Old 05-27-2009
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I really like SPOT because I can let friends and family know I'm doing fine and provides my position. It gives my wife some comfort while I'm at sea - if she's happy, I'm happy. In fact she's more agreeable to my sailing adventures, which is a good thing.

I don't use the tracking mode, but rather I just send a OK signal every so often.

I wouldn't go to sea without and EPIRB but then again, an EPRIB does do what I described above.
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Old 05-27-2009
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Does the SPOT have world wide coverage? If they are using Globalstar's satellite network, that might not be the case. Anyone know?
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  #5  
Old 05-27-2009
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The main reason I set up the SPOT in tracking mode was because our route wasn't set in stone when we departed. We had a choice of going up to NYC and through Long Island Sound, or off shore from Cape May to Block Island. We decided on the off-shore route, and avoided the really heavy weather that clobbered LIS.
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You know what the first rule of sailing is? ...Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse, but you take
a boat to the sea you don't love, she'll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps
her going when she oughta fall down, tells you she's hurting 'fore she keens. Makes her a home.

—Cpt. Mal Reynolds, Serenity (edited)

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Old 05-27-2009
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Quote:
Originally Posted by sailingdog View Post
Please note: While some people think that the "911" feature will replace an EPIRB, I disagree. First, the SPOT Messenger relies on the Globalstar satellite network, which has some serious issues. Second, an EPIRB or PLB acts as a SAR Transponder and broadcasts a 121.5 MHz signal to help SAR personnel locate you. Third, the run time on the EPIRB or PLB and durability of the units is probably much greater.
I think this is not entirely true.

1) 121.5Mhz EPIRBs have been completely phased out afaik, and current EPIRBS produce no local signal of any kind. The SAR relies on the 406Mhz signal and, preferably, the GPS location sent with it.

2) EPIRB signal registration with Coast Guard is not instantaneous. In fact, according to people that run Boston center that listens to EPIRB signals, it may take up to 12(!!) hours for them to get the signal. Don't ask me why, but thats what they say. Perhaps there is some handoff between the satellite network and their equipment.

3) EPIRB coverage has its own gaps. On the other hand, Globalstar simplex network that is used by SPOT is in good shape and has no known issues.

4) There is no way to know whether your EPIRB works until you actually use it, when it may be too late. As an engineer, I can't rely on any "self test". The only test of the device is actual activation and receipt of signal, end to end. SPOT is tested virtually all the time.

5) SPOT in tracking mode provides past history of your movement, as opposed to EPIRB which is essentially a single point. This may be very important in SAR because if they know where you've been they may have easier time finding where you are going.

So, personally, I think SPOT has a number of advantages over EPIRB. That said, I would prefer to have both for any offshore sailing - you never know what gives Locally SPOT is my choice.
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Old 05-27-2009
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SD, thanks so much for posting this message.

Few questions ...

1) When you send an "I'm Okay" message, do you get any feedback that the message has actually hit the satellite, or even better that it was received by the center that processes the messages ? Or do you just push the button and hope for the best ?

2) What kind of batteries does it take, just regular "AA" type batteries or does it have special batteries in it and special charging requirements ?

3) Do you know if there are any third-party devices that use the network or is it exclusively the one SPOT device ? Not that there is anything wrong with the one SPOT device, I am just curious if there are options.

Thanks again.
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Old 05-27-2009
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I know I am not SD, but I'll answer anyway.

1) the uplink used by SPOT is "simplex" - i.e. one way. SPOT has no idea whether its message is actually received by anyone.

2) SPOT people insist on lithium batteries. They are AA in size. The manual says using regular (non-lithium) AA will cause all sorts of bad things to happen. I guess at a very least they will run out a lot sooner than lithium.

3) There are many other devices that use Globalstar simplex uplink but none of them are "end user" devices and they don't come with any usable "backend" (i.e. they are "modems" and if you have your own telemetry application you can probably build one using it). SPOT is Globalstar's own product and I would guess they are not likely to let anyone else sell similar devices - they need the money
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Old 05-27-2009
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A month or two ago my buddie hopped on my boat for a little 2 hour sail in the Long Island Sound from one marina to the next for me to have my boat hauled. He brought his SPOT messenger to test it out and also even though the weather was nice, it was so early in the season that no other boats were out.

Anyway he said he hit what ever button sends messages out to whoever he had set up in his account to receive them which included him and I, yet no messages came up on our phones. After we got back he found out that due to a billing error that wasn't fault his service got turned off. So no problem with the device but I guess its best to make sure your service is still working prior to a long trip.

We did wonder though what would happen if we hit the 911 button if in an emergency they would alert SAR personnel or say screw those cheapos for not re-newing the service!
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This is also interesting, the SPOT coverage map.



It has a legend on the website showing what the colors mean, but the short version is that yellowish = good, greyish = bad.

Source: SPOT COVERAGE
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