This post is number 7 in our series on offshore safety in small boats. Previous posts covered: “Getting Out and Back”, “Staying Afloat“, “Man Overboard“, “Fishing Hazards“, “Is There a Doctor in the House?“, and “Being Seen“. In this post, we cover:
Another on of our recurring offshore nightmares is to be in trouble, and not be able to contact anyone for help. Here are some of the things we saw as potential problems, and what we decided to do to reduce the risk. We’ve also included some information on other ways to communicate while offshore.
A VHF radio is our primary means of contacting someone for help. Obvious issues would be a broken radio or antenna, or a dead battery. Some offshore fishermen carry a spare 25-watt (full size) radio, and a second regular antenna. However, in a skiff, there just isn’t room.
What are some other options? We decided to try a Shakespeare 5911 Stowaway antenna (which is only 10″ long) as our backup antenna, and a 5-watt handheld VHF (a Standard Horizon floating unit) as our backup radio. Here’s the logic:
- VHF transmissions are line-of-sight. As a result, antenna height contributes more to range than any other factor, including transmission power.
- If the antenna malfunctions, the Stowaway would be strapped to the defunct antenna shaft or a gaff handle to get more height.
- If the main radio malfunctions, the handheld’s rubber stub antenna could be removed and the handheld connected to whichever antenna was working.
Here in Southern California, the US Coast Guard locates their antennas well above the waterline – several hundred feet in most cases. Under these circumstances they can hear and talk over a very wide area, even if the vessel’s radio is weak, and their antenna is not very high off the water.
Digital Selective Calling (DSC):
If you are not familiar with DSC, check out our article “What the Heck is DSC?”. DSC technology is required on all new VHF radios, and we strongly urge you to register your vessel, and receive a Maritime Mobile Service ID (MMSID) for use with DSC.
In the not-too-distant past, DSC seemed like a waste of time in the US. The Coast Guard in most areas did not monitor DSC, and none of the towing companies did either. So why should you care now?
- The monitoring situation has changed. The USCG monitoring network for DSC came on-line in 2006, and while the USCG has stated that they will continue to monitor Channel 16 for the foreseeable future, DSC will become the primary way to hail the Coast Guard and towing services for assistance. Commercial vessels over 300 tons are already required to monitor channel 70 (the DSC hailing channel), and other vessels with DSC-capable radios will pick up your DSC distress call as well.
- DSC is a good way to get priority hailing and transmit your coordinates in the event of an emergency. DSC hailing on channel 70 is not subject to traffic congestion, and if you have your radio connected to a GPS, your position will be relayed to other DSC radios.
- Once started, emergency hailing using DSC continues without additional operator intervention until another DSC radio is contacted. This relieves the operator from having to repeatedly send out a Mayday call.
- Besides the emergency communications benefits, DSC can be a neat way to contact people. Using DSC relieves you of having to manually hail someone, and as mentioned earlier, is not subject to congestion problems A few GPS units, such as those from Standard Horizon, if connected to a DSC radio, will plot the position of someone hailing you via DSC.
For the most part, modern cell phones are not that useful offshore. Digital technologies are limited to a couple of miles from a transmitter tower. In addition, the US Coast Guard has no way to home in on cell phone transmissions, like they can with VHF. Still, even with these limitations, we take our cell phone out with us all the time anyway. Here’s why:
Smart phones have pretty decent GPS units, and companies like Navionics offer cell phone GPS mapping apps. Your smart phone definitely makes a decent backup GPS unit, even if you can’t use it to make a call offshore. And if you are within range of a cell, your phone’s GPS capabilities can help 911 dispatchers locate you, even though the USCG can not. There have been at least a couple of cases on the East Coast where near-shore boaters called 911 on their cell phones, and were located using the GPS feature.
Portable Satellite Phones:
On the surface, one of the newer, low-cost satellite phones seems like the right type of technology for offshore skiffs:
- Effectively unlimited range
- Relatively small form factor (large cell phone, other than the cigar-sized antenna)
- Low power requirements.
- Some phones include GPS-based locator systems that can be tied to private emergency service providers
But if you dig a little deeper, there seem to be a number of potential “gotchas”:
- Satellite phones can take a long time (as in minutes) to connect
- Dropped calls seem to be frequent complaints
- Like cell phones, they can’t be tracked with conventional radio direction finders (although you can always call and leave coordinates as we described above)
- Satellite devices require a clear view of the sky, or an external antenna (although this shouldn’t be a problem in an open skiff)
Satellite Service Carrier Woes:
Erratic or poor performance are most likely tied to satellite coverage and technology used by the phone carrier. Like cell phones, there are several carriers, with the leaders in the small, handheld field being Iridium and Globalstar (recent entry Spot is a rebranded Globalstar GSP-1700 phone with additional services).
Globalstar does not offer true worldwide service, but for distances up to 200 miles offshore from major land masses (like the US mainland and Hawaii) coverage is good. Iridium has true worldwide coverage, but suffers from an aging satellite network that some felt was on its last legs. HOWEVER, Iridium has embarked on a huge program to replace their old satellites, with new units due on-line by the end of 2017. So…it is likely these problems will go away by the end of the year.
Which carrier is better? We tried wading through the technical specs for comparable systems, but as a layman, found the information difficult to digest. On-line store reviews tend to support the brands they sell, and “white papers” we found on-line were all funded by one or the other of the carriers. We did manage to find several bloggers who did their own comparison tests, but none were specifically for marine use.
We tend to put the most weight on the blogger results, which seemed to agree that Globalstar had the best overall performance in terms of connect time and dropped calls. But this is all anecdotal information, so we recommend that you check out one of the satellite phone rental agencies and give the phones a real hands-on test in your environment before you decide.
Phone prices were very different between the two manufacturers, with Globalstar having an edge. Their GSP-1700 portable phone costs approximately $500, compared to Iridium’s 9555 phone at around $1,000.
Airtime charges are in the dollar-per-minute range for both companies, so you don’t want to chit-chat on one of these babies . Prices and plans vary, but for comparison purposes, here are some example plans that include voicemail and some number of minutes:
|As of Feb. 18,2017||Globalstar/Spot||Iridium|
|Plan Name||Orbit 100||Monthly 100|
|Included minutes (monthly)||100||100|
|Charge for additional minutes||$0.99||$1.09|
|SMS (per message)||Included but specialized feature limited to inbound 35 chars||$0.60|
|Long-term contract required||12 months||No|
|SOS Rescue Service||$17.95/year, GEOS service linked to 911 on phone||$17.95/year, GEOS service, available only on Iridium Extreme 9575 with integrated GPS|
Both Globalstar and Iridium have retailers who offer rental phones, and calling-card programs are also available. Like cell phone plans, these offers are constantly changing, so you are best off consulting with the vendors in question for up-to-the-minute pricing. And like we said earlier, a short rental is probably the best way to see if a satellite phone meets your needs.
Satellite WiFi Hubs:
For the ultimate in personal recreational geek, Iridium offers the Iridium Go!, which is essentially a WiFi hub that uses the Iridium satellite system to connect to the Internet. Globalstar offers a similar (but less portable) device coining the term “Sat Fi“. What does this technology buy you?
- Voice calls using an app on your smart phone
- Emergency signaling services
- Messenging services
- Limited internet bandwidth
- Up to 5 devices can be supported at a time.
Overall, a very appealing package, although it can still suffer from the usual satellite communications issues: long connect times and dropped connections. The pricing is less than an Iridium satellite phone, since you have to provide your own smartphone. The voice app only runs on iOS and Android devices, so you can use your iPad or Android tablet, but not your PC or Mac.
Low-cost Satellite Messaging Systems:
Another alternative for low-cost global communications is a satellite messenger system (essentially satellite pagers or dedicated texting devices, with more features). With a small hand-held device you get global non-voice communications (text messaging, or something like it, some systems include e-mail), position location capabilities, an SOS alert feature, and integration with internet-based mapping systems (so people can find you on a web-based global map). Battery life is much better than with cell or satellite phones, and since it is text-based, you don’t notice connection delays or dropped connections.
We said “text messaging, or something like it” because services range from full two-way SMS text messaging to 35 character one-way messages/predefined messages. In the latter case, does the short outbound message pose a problem?
Maybe not. If you view these devices primarily as emergency position beacons, the need for full bi-directional text messaging is not a big concern – there aren’t that many letters in “HELP!” But if you want true 2-way texting capability, the more limited units are not for you.
While the concept of satellite texting has been around with other satellite technologies (such as SSB and Inmarsat, see below), the first company to offer a fairly low-cost platform and service was Spot, which offers the limited texting services mentioned earlier. Since Spot’s original introduction, they have been joined by Delorme, which offers full bi-directional text and email services. Delorme was recently acquired by GPS giant Garmin.
Keep in mind that these devices also require service plans which are not cheap compared to cell phone plans. A Spot Gen 3 costs approximately $170, with a $150 / year service plan. Spot uses the Globalstar satellite network. The Delorme InReach SE+ costs $449.00, with a basic service plan costing about $300/year (40 text messages/month, $0.50/message). Delorme uses Iridium.
Single Side Band (SSB), Inmarsat Radio:
Global in range, SSB and the various Inmarsat offerings (Inmarsat is a private satellite radio company) are usually not an option on skiffs due to power and antenna requirements, and cost. SSB has strict operator training and licensing requirements as well. SSB / Inmarsat radio setups are also very expensive (over $1,500). In our opinion, portable satellite phones are a better choice.