Location: 32.19 N, 70.34 W, somewhere in the North Atlantic, three days out of Beaufort, North Carolina.
“Done.” Jeremy put the iPad face down on the towel under the dodger. “We’ll have a new set of GRIBs in a few minutes. And Chris’ weather should be in the next time we check too. Did Julian text back yet?”
Primary source weather, interpreted weather, and a quick text-based conversation with our son midocean? Mind blown.
Midocean communications (of all sorts) via a tablet is a new thing for us. When we first left to go cruising on our Bristol Channel Cutter, Calypso, in 1994, weather reports were something you hopefully caught by listening to shortwave SSB radio broadcasts. The garbled monotone of the robotic November Mike November (the National Weather Service’s voice forecasts) required some degree of competence and interpretation to make sure you were understanding it correctly. You could also listen to Herb Hilgenberg (aka Southbound II) who broadcast from Bermuda to vessels on passage.
Adding an SSB transceiver and hooking a Pactor modem to the computer allowed us a level of access with no transcription required, from plain text of NOAA forecasts to GRIB files, with graphical representation of the wind forecast. (GRIB stands for Gridded Information in Binary, and it’s a concise data format used to display raw model data. It uses arrows and fletches in combination to show wind speed and direction.)
Fast forward to 2022, when access to GRIBs and interpreted text forecasts is something many of us take almost for granted in the era of the internet. Want weather? Fire up windy.com and you’ve got all you need, right at your fingertips, whenever you want. Need a text forecast? Go to the NWS and home in on your area. This works reasonably reliably when you’re in the U.S. and hooked to either land-based internet or your cell plan.
But what are the options when you’re offshore or in new countries, far from internet access or cell data plans?
There’s an ongoing conversation about Starlink, a mythically perfect combination of always available internet no matter where you are. The marine version comes at a cost most cruisers cannot fathom: $10,000 for the equipment and $5,000 a month for coverage. So, many cruisers are opting for the RV version. Choosing this for offshore communications means you are using it outside of the terms of service, which also means you’re running the risk of being cut off at any time.
That alone is what put Starlink beyond our comfort zone, or at least would make it not viable as a standalone option. Other very real considerations, especially on a small boat like ours, include the size of the standard antenna (20.5 inches by 12 inches) and the power draw (50-75 watts, about double what our refrigerator uses). We had to look for something else.
Getting the Weather
Communications are key to what’s arguably the most critical piece of information you need offshore—the weather. Many sailors sign up for a weather service that interprets the raw data and develops forecast and routing based on them; Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Center is a well-known example that provides weather and routing for thousands of individuals as well as the Salty Dawg Sailing Association’s annual rallies.
We, on the other hand, are of the school that says redundancy is best, and as sailors living aboard and traveling on our boat full time, accessing this information with equipment we have on board is part of our self-sufficiency mantra. We prefer to pull in raw GRIB files, tune in to professional weather forecasting from Chris Parker, ask FastSeas to send a routing solution, and download forecasts from the NWS. How do we do all of this while miles offshore?
(Fastseas.com is a website that Jeremy built to help sailors access routing information while offshore. It’s not a weather resource per se, but since routing solutions are based on weather forecasts, and waypoint data comes with forecast wind information as a part of the solution, it’s one very basic way to get weather. With a subscription, you can access these solutions from simple satellite devices like the Garmin InReach as well as a more standard email query.)
Calypso carries two separate satellite communicators as well as a fully functional SSB radio and a smaller HF receive-only radio. We can get weather data from all four sources, but we don’t need to every day. The HF receiver is redundant, something we’d use if the SSB was out of commission and we needed to receive some transmission.
The two satellite communicators—Garmin InReach and Iridium GO—serve different purposes. The Garmin InReach is our primary tracker, allowing friends and family to see where we are in real time. It’s also part of our emergency kit. The Iridium GO offers dial-up speed email as well as high-latency voice connection.
We’ve had the Garmin InReach for a couple of years. We purchased it initially as a test device for Jeremy’s website development, and it’s been on board since we left to cruise New England in July of 2021. (There are other communicators on the market now; the Zoleo is a popular alternative.) Offering text communications in Tweet-sized bites of 160 characters max, the InReach also lets friends and family follow our progress through tracking.
We love the small-form factor and the ultimate portability of this unit. Waterproof, it needs no external antenna and uses rechargeable batteries for power, making it the perfect addition to an emergency kit. Though satellite-based, it can only send and receive text-based messages. There’s no voice possible, and no graphic files like GRIBs.
That latter issue—no access to GRIBs—prompted us to explore other options for our ocean passage to the Caribbean in fall of 2022, especially when we weren’t sure if we’d have time to hook up the SSB before heading offshore. (It had been down since we’d replaced the mast in 2021. In the end, weather delays gave us the time we needed to get it operational.)
The only real option seemed to be the Iridium GO; the other contender was the Inmarsat-based Fleet One, which provides much faster service but also at a much higher price point for the hardware and the monthly plan. We went with the budget option.
The Iridium GO behaves a little like a small personal cell tower. It allows for very slow (2.4 kbps) access to email files of all kinds. It also supports phone calls as long as both parties understand there’s a pretty long lag. Small as it is, it’s not a standalone piece of gear, so it’s unsuitable for a ditch kit. Sending and receiving mail is done via an app on a phone or tablet. It also requires a hard-wired external antenna. The antenna, about the size of a pint Thermos, is installed on our stern rail; the device itself is about the size of a double-pack of cards.
Important to note is that Iridium is just launching its next generation of satellites and equipment, which offers 40 times the speed capability from what it is now.
Reaching Out, Midocean-Style
On our recent passage from Beaufort, North Carolina, to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, we used three of our four devices regularly. The InReach was set to provide tracking, silently providing location details on a chart that anyone with the link could access. If we’d needed to, we could have sent off a routing request to FastSeas via this device and had a response in minutes. We used the SSB to listen to Chris Parker and also to call him in the evenings for more specific weather advice.
The GO provided detailed weather data from a number of sources. Daily regional emails from Chris Parker arrived in the morning. Jeremy set up a couple of SailDocs subscriptions to receive GRIB files from the GFS and the EURO forecast models; he also had one for NWS forecasts. We regularly sent routing requests to FastSeas. At one point in the passage, we used the GO to ask Chris Parker for detailed, vessel-specific routing; this request could also have been made through the InReach, with the information coming in multiple 160-character messages. The GO, though, supports regular long-form email and is more readable.
There’s not much that’s cheap about communications on board. Especially if you’re used to a data plan and fast internet even on your cell phone, the idea of spending $1,000 or more on a device like the Iridium GO, plus a monthly subscription fee of $140 for dial-up speed access to email messages seems ridiculous. The Garmin InReach Mini is a more affordable $350 plus a monthly plan of at least $25, but what you get is even more limited.
These not-great choices are the only economical options (barring taking the risk with the RV version of Starlink) available today for people venturing offshore and out of regular cell phone network range. Still, having the ability to access weather data first and foremost in many different ways is an essential component for us on board. If one device or one source goes down, we’re not out of luck.
The side benefit with a satellite communicator, as opposed to “just” having an SSB, is the ability to send text messages (and even more) to friends and family. Though my Wordle streak got busted, I could still check in with friends and family each morning. We spent some time handling financial matters this way; another day we organized arrival details into the BVI. On Thanksgiving, we managed a couple of voice calls, painfully slow though they might be, to family. Ten days in, Jeremy figured out how to send pictures via the GO; our daily emails to immediate family were enhanced by medium-resolution photos of sunsets or selfies.
And yes—the next time we checked the GO for emails? We had the GRIBs we wanted. Chris Parker’s forecast. And even a text from our son. Even offshore, life was complete.
Currently in the Eastern Caribbean, Nica Waters cruises with her husband, Jeremy, on Calypso, the 28-foot Bristol Channel Cutter they’ve owned since 1992. She podcasts about life afloat with Carolyn Shearlock at The Boat Galley Podcast, blogs at fit2sail.com, and more than occasionally posts to her Instagram page.
Photos by Nica Waters