Keep in touch with the other boats, talk to family and friends back home, get weather forecasts, update a blog or a web-site, hail that passing ship which seems to be on a collision course and, touch wood, call the cavalry in case of an emergency: the modern communications systems have a solution (or maybe more than one!…) to all these requirements!
SSB RADIO: although the SSB radio is rapidly being superseded by satellite-based systems on board the big ships, it’s still the main long-distance communication means between yachts at sea, and the two daily radio appointments to collect each yacht’s position, followed by half an hour of good old-fashioned chat (how’s the weather, what did you fish/eat/read, whatever) were often the event of the day. Expecially in the longer passages, where the fleet was spread over several hundred miles, communication was sometimes difficult and in these conditions our Sailor 4500 turned out to be one of the best in the fleet (where Icom’s were the majority).
E-MAIL VIA SSB: once the expensive SSB radio is installed for other reasons, it makes sense to be equipped to send and receive e-mail through it; the more popular service was Sailmail, mainly due to its competitive price (250 USD per year), followed by Mailasail which was sponsored by the Rally organisation. To handle e-mail on the SSB you need an (expensive!) Pactor modem, and the connection is somewhat of a black art in which some crew had more problems than others. We had no big problems with Sailmail and were able to connect from almost everywhere; furthermore, the Airmail software works also with satphone or direct internet connections when available, which is handy to keep all mail in one place.
SATELLITE PHONE: many yachts, ourselves included, had a sat-phone on board, in most of the cases an Iridium, with Inmarsat a distant second. our handheld Iridium with the standard-issue external antenna worked reasonably well, although the voice quality was frequently awful and it was not uncommon to lose the signal on long calls due to the satellites’ motion.
Unfortunately the subscription is not cheap, but for a long voyage like this it’s a worthwhile expenditure, while it would be too expensive for coastal cruising with the occasional passage out of GSM passage.
GSM TELEPHONE: once near land, we almost always had GSM coverage (only exceptions the Tuamotus and the Maldives, plus few indonesian or thay island too far from land).
In a tour around the world it is essential to have a 4-band telephone (the 4th band being used mostly in the Caribbean) or rather 3 or 4 telephones, as they are very exposed to accidental damage!
Absolutely essential to buy local SIM-cards, usually available for few dollars and with a minimum of fuss, which give much cheaper tariffs for calls back to Europe compared to using our European subscriptions.
INTERNET: many crews’ first concern when arriving in port was to find an internet café from where to handle e-mails but mainly manage web-sites, blogs and photo-albums, or perform on-line transactions and other on-line activities requiring fast and unexpensive connections. In reality we seldom had to resort to internet cafes as most ports (or businesses near ports and harbours) make wi-fi available for a price (not always cheap!) and often with a poor connection quality, but nevertheless allowing to connect from the comfort of the boat. An amplified external aerial was often essential, though, and a lot of time has to be allocated to activities that at home would be done in minutes!
Updating a web-site from afar turned out to be an impossible task, while it’s much easier to keep updated a blog-site that accepts updates by e-mail. There are also yacht-specific position-reporting web-sites, like the Yachtplot one which was offered by the Rally.
VHF RADIO: useless at sea when the other yachts went quickly out of range, the VHF radio was used a lot for inter-yacht communications in harbour as well as to communicate between the boat and the crew ashore.
Our top-of-the-range Icom radio turned out to be rather poorly built, and even worse was the external command microphone, which wasn’t up to surviving the elements in the cockpit!…
NAVTEX: simple, relatively cheap, works by itself and draws little power, but unfortunately its usefulness is greatly impaired by the haphazard quality and timeliness of the information broadcast by several Countries. Pity, because reception offshore is normally good and it would be a very handy way of getting weather forecasts.
AIS: this system is mandatory only for ships above a certain size, which broadcast and may display ship’s name, position and course info on compatible radar screens (ours was not compatible). We did not have it so we had to rely only on radar, but anyway the biggest use of this systems is to learn the ship’s name to be able to call them by radio.
Given the reasonable price we would certainly install one in the future, preferably one of those that also transmits the yacht’s position to make sure to be seen on the ships’ radar screens!
SNAIL-MAIL: the good, old fashioned mail still has a use, not only for the huge number of postcards that we sent home (most of which did actually arrive…). On several occasions we packed and shipped home gadgets, presents and other small stuff that was accumulating onboard, both to free-up some space and also for the happyness of those at home!