Electronic charts & SSB weather
Doug, let''s start with your last question first: a ''TNC'' or Terminal Node Controller is the ''modem'' that converts the analog radio signal to a digital signal for use on your laptop...and vice versa. It''s an integral box for doing Pactor transmissions (the kind that ALL SSB-based email systems use).
Re: the ''notorious hook ups'', I''m not sure they''re very notorious these days, now that both the laptop software (''client'' software, like Airmail or Sailmail), the Winlink & Sailmail systems, and the radios are all some distance up the learning curve. My Plain Jane SSB, an Icom 706 (not even a ''G'' model) is less than One Boat Unit new and works fine, and once the SSB installation is done with some attention to the rf issues, I''m confident your SSB would, too.
BTW if you haven''t, I''d encourage you to visit http://airmail2000.com/rfi.htm and read thru Jim Corenman''s description of how a SSB can introduce rf problems into a boat and how they can be avoided. ne of Jim''s many gifts is that he writes and talks simply about quite unsimple things, and you might find that helpful to you. A poor SSB installation and the rf ground loops that result from it are key causes of dissatisfaction out in the cruising fleet when you find it.
Your needs (email & real-time wx products) are exactly what Winlink offers. Sailmail offers much less in the way of wx info and so, if you don''t have or see yourself getting a ham license, I''d suggest step #1 is to look at the wx products available via Sailmail and determine if it will meet your needs. Even if it doesn''t, you still have two additional choices: Use that same hardware plus Jim''s Getfax software to download Navtex, WxFax and other broadcast wx products (they exist all over the world; more on this below) -OR- move on to a Sat Comm system.
I''m pretty illiterate on SatComm systems because we''ve never needed one, so I sat in on that SSCA seminar this year. The major learning for me was that, while the satellites may be highly reliable, the ground stations limit the actual level of service received by the user (due to station location, station down time, and the footprint that''s needed for commercial viability vs. the one we''d like as sailors). Plus I guess I''m now spoiled and a bit of a tightwad when it comes to wx info (since all mine has been free for the last 5 years). I found the price of the service to add up considerably at the rate I tend to want wx info at times. So needless to say, price out whatever Sat Comm system you have an interest in by being realistic about your frequency of downloading. ($50/month was the starting point for minimal use of Global Star, it seemed to me, with an actual cost up to double that amount when actively cruising). Not many months of successful SSB/TNC use will buy you that TNC.
That first ''other'' option, the one not involving Winlink but using a TNC with Sailmail and wanting more wx info, is to use Getfax, JVComm or another similar software program and receive wx product broadcasts that you have an interest in. I find this a poor second choice because it means the laptop has to be booted up, the radio on freq & the TNC ready at a time when the products of interest to you are being broadcast. Plus there''s a bit of electrical overhead with this approach, because you are likely to set things up and then walk away and let the hardware do its collective thing while you''re busy being crew, navigator, cook, etc. Early in the a.m. (you also have to get up when the wx products dictate it!) when you''re making the Go/No Go decision, this isn''t so bad. But underway, short-handed crews get pretty busy at times and squeezing this task in is an extra burden. IMO much better to grab the download that''s waiting for you, automatically, in a few short minutes when your sked permits it, which is what happens with Winlink, Sailmail and the Sat systems.
What kind of radio do you have? Both Jim''s Pactor Primer and also his Airmail/Sailmail ''Help'' files offer hook-up info, even for radios without all the right plugs on the back, so you might see if your radio is mentioned. At the least, if it''s a 700, 706, 710, 715 or 802, all Icom, they are what the system was designed for. Beyond that, Plain Jane SSBs are better IMO - a bit easier to operate and a lot less expensive.
So why is there frustration expressed by some cruisers trying to get wx info via their SSB''s? Here''s my sense of it. Pactor type SSB-based systems are just not simple to get set up right. It''s not rocket science, and a decent (if not best in class) system is within anyone''s reach...but there are a series of niggly steps you have to take and few shortcuts are allowed. And then thee''s the operation of the radio itself to learn. The simple truth is that most of our boat systems these days, and especially electronics, are so intelligent and simple to install that folks can be forgiven for thinking this SSB/TNC install should be like hooking up an autopilot or a furling system. It isn''t, for at least two main reasons: each boat (and therefore, each installation) is going to be a bit unique, and most sailors know very little about MF/HF radio technology and a SSB''s proper operation. Buying the gear gets you started, but some initial tenacity and research plus some diligent effort is required to get you satisfied. (Imagine how many cruisers carry a SSB for its ''safety benefit'' and, of those, how many really could use it effectively in an emergency. That''s one of the side benefits of doing Pactor HF email; you''ll know how to use your system much better because you use it all the time).
When I''ve tried to help other cruisers with their SSB & email systems, it''s been a bit wild at times. The mouse is clicked and the whole frigging DC/AC panel starts blinking and beeping, or the radio gets keyed and the laptop goes funky and the cursor spastic. That would drive me nutty, too! But these are due to installation problems, not due to the software, operation of the hardware, or the physical skills needed to hook things up being difficult.
Hope this helps connect the dots a bit between the gripes you''ve heard from some SSB users and the la-dee-da Life is Grand reports you hear from others, like me. Perhaps what would help you the most is to beg a little Nav Station time with a satisfied user, watch her/him pull down a fistful of wx reports, see how long it takes and how hard/easy it is to connect (in an aluminum forest/marina, it can sometimes be difficult), and then ask to peek under the bedsheets and see how the hardware is set up. That way, you''d be operating on what YOU think and not what others tell you, me included.
Let me know if you have any more questions.