Off-Grid Communication While Sailing Remotely

Offgrid communication in remote places like Agua Verde. Baja
Remote cruising in one of our favorite anchorages, Agua Verde.

What Defines Off-Grid Communication?

The remote nature of sailing might entail being miles away from cell towers or infrastructure, making traditional modes of communication unreliable. Off-grid communication devices, however, rely on alternative methods such as satellite signals or radio frequencies, enabling sailors to communicate, send distress signals, and access vital information even in the most remote corners of the ocean.

This article explores off-grid communication devices for sailors and cruisers, offering insights, guidance, and practical tips on staying connected while navigating remote environments.

Starlink makes offgrid communication much easier.
NEW Starlink mount. High-speed Internet is a game changer in the world of cruising.

Communication Prior to Starlink

 As I shared in my article “Working Remotely on a Sailboat Using Starlink,” prior to Elon Musk’s high-speed, low-latency Internet satellite technology, we would anchor S/V Flying Free with a major city in sight. This way, I could still communicate with students and faculty where I work (usually via email) without having to stay in the marina. I would use either my cellular service hotspot or my sim card, which I only purchased our first year of cruising in Mexico (Spring 2021).

Importance of Reliable Signals

However, reliable communication isn’t merely about convenience and helping sailing nomads like me continue to work; it’s a matter of safety and preparedness. Cruisers depend on these off-grid communication devices to relay distress signals, access weather updates, and stay connected in case of emergencies.

 Understanding the nuances of these devices, their capabilities, limitations, and choosing the right ones tailored to specific sailing needs is pivotal. The mythos of the remote sailor disconnected from civilization as she sails the wide blue ocean no longer applies to the cruising world.

Iridium Go! pairs with Android or Apple phones.
Iridium Go! is a wifi hotspot we used on our maiden voyage to Mexico. We will activate it again when we sail to the South Pacific

The Role of Devices in Remote Communication

Now that we use Starlink, many people have asked whether we continue to use our Iridium Go!, a satellite wifi hotspot. After all, off-grid communication devices like satellite phones, emergency beacons like EPIRBs and PLBs, HF radios, and satellite messengers are among the key devices that empower sailors to establish and sustain communication beyond the reach of standard networks. 

The answer to their question is a resounding yes—but before I address why this is, let me briefly review how technology facilitates off-grid communication and why it’s important to have duplication of systems.

The Most Common Types of Off-Grid Communication Devices

A. Satellite Phones (a bit of a misnomer)

Satellite phones are like landline telephones in our recent domestic past. Operating through satellites orbiting the Earth, these devices enable voice calls, text messaging, the ability to download accurate weather forecasts, and the ability to track someone’s position on the ocean. They bridge the gap where cellular networks falter, offering sailors a lifeline to stay connected with the outside world, emergency services, and fellow sailors in remote locations.

However, the name “satellite phone” is a bit misleading. It turns out that devices like Iridium Go! and Garmin Inreach are labeled “terminals” rather than “phones.” If you do a Google search for “satellite phones for sailing,” for instance, you will see these two primary companies dominating the search. The devices look like walkie-talkies rather than phones. Confusing, I know.

Iridium Go! can be used with a pre-paid Sim card with “air” time you pay for based on how much or how little time you plan to use it. Or you can pay a monthly subscription price for either Iridium Go! or Garmin. As the article from Yachting World titled “Best Satellite Phone: Nine Devices for the Adventurous Sailor,” explains about the popular Iridium Go!, “Simply flip up the integrated antenna and the battery-powered unit will connect quickly and automatically to the Iridium satellite constellation. You can then connect and operate up to 5 devices at a time using the Iridium GO! App.” The device is compatible with Apple and Android.

B. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon

EPIRBs transmit distress signals in emergencies. These devices, when activated manually or automatically, send a distress signal via satellite to rescue coordination centers, pinpointing the vessel’s precise location. They are crucial for triggering search and rescue operations, ensuring a swift response during critical situations like vessel sinking or medical emergencies.

Our Ocean Signal EPIRB sits closest to our companionway steps so that if we must abandon ship, we grab this, our “ditch” kit (which holds essential survival gear), and our pocket-sized Iridium Go! satellite Wi-Fi hotspot. (But note: we also keep at least one cell phone fully charged at all times because Iridium Go! doesn’t do us any good unless it works with our cell phone or tablet.)

Picture of how an EPIRB communicates with seach and rescue.
Ocean Signal, which sells EPIRBs like ours, offers helpful pictures like this one to explain how the technology works.
Our Ocean Signal EPIRB
This is our Ocean Signal EPIRB, which normally sits off our companionway steps.

C. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Similar to EPIRBs but smaller and intended for individual use, PLBs are compact distress signaling devices worn by sailors. When activated, they transmit distress signals via satellite to alert search and rescue authorities of a sailor’s exact location. PLBs are ideal for personal emergencies or situations where a sailor becomes separated from the vessel.

Kevin and I have something similar to this, but ours is called an AIS link. Operating like a man-overboard device or miniature EPIRB, it will transmit an AIS signal to surrounding boats within a limited range (as long as other boats have an AIS receiver). Kevin and I each have one of these devices attached to our inflatable PFDs (aka, life jackets). 

We wear our PFDs in inclement weather and on night passages. So if I happen to fall overboard during my watch while Kevin is down below sleeping, an alarm will sound. Kevin would be able to turn the boat around and, using the AIS locator, find me in the water (or vice versa, I would find him if he went overboard). When it is only the two of us doing night passages, this device provides us the best peace of mind.

Our ACR AIS link device is attached to our PFDs.
Our ACR AIS link device is attached to our PFD life jackets.

D. High-Frequency (HF) or SSB Radios

HF or SSB radios are long-range communication tools often used in maritime settings. They operate on specific radio frequencies capable of transmitting signals across vast distances. While requiring more expertise to operate than some other devices, HF radios enable sailors to communicate with other vessels, maritime authorities, or seek assistance when other forms of communication are unavailable. 

According to the Pacific Cup website article titled “SSB/HF Radios Application in Modern Sailing Vessels,” the “. . .SSB is most often used for vessel-to-vessel communications when the 30 to 40 mile range of a VHF transceiver is insufficient to cover the distance between the two vessels. You can’t beat it for things like ‘Hey Jim, how’s the weather over there?’”

Of course, if you have a satellite phone, you can easily ask this question. But the SSB has one primary advantage: it doesn’t cost money like the “air” time you would use to ask Jim that simple question on your satellite-enabled device.

CB World SSB radio device
CB World SSB radio is an example of how cruisers communicate across long distances.

Choosing the Right Off-Grid Communication Device

Assessing Needs: Tailoring Device Choices Based on Sailing Plans and Preferences

Selecting the ideal off-grid communication device hinges on understanding individual sailing requirements, preferences, and the intended voyage. Here’s how to tailor device choices to align with specific sailing plans:

1. Understanding Sailing Plans and Routes

Device selection corresponds with sailing plans. Are you embarking on short coastal trips, long offshore passages, or transoceanic voyages? Understanding the intended routes helps identify the type of off-grid communication devices best suited for coverage, range, and durability required for each journey.

2. Analyzing Frequency of Use and Communication Needs

Consider the frequency and nature of communication required during the voyage. Is occasional contact sufficient, or is constant connectivity essential? For sailors preferring periodic check-ins, devices like satellite phones or messenger systems may suffice. However, those needing regular contact or real-time updates might lean towards satellite internet devices. If you want to download large Grib files (weather forecasts) or watch a Youtube video, then satellite devices like Iridium Go! will not be sufficient. This is why so many sailors are turning to high-speed Internet like Starlink.

3. Evaluating Budget Constraints and Device Costs

However, budget considerations play a pivotal role in device selection. Some off-grid communication devices may entail upfront costs, subscription fees, or usage charges. Sailors must weigh the initial investment against ongoing expenses and evaluate the cost-effectiveness of devices concerning their sailing plans and financial constraints.

As of December 2023, an Iridium Go! on Amazon costs anywhere between $850 and $950. The Garmin is cheaper, but it offers fewer services, overall.

4. Prioritizing Safety and Emergency Preparedness

Safety remains paramount at sea. For sailors prioritizing safety, investing in emergency signaling devices like EPIRBs or PLBs is indispensable. These devices act as vital lifelines during distress situations, ensuring prompt assistance in emergencies.

5. Factoring In Ease of Use and Familiarity

Another critical aspect is the ease of operation and familiarity with the chosen devices. Opting for devices with user-friendly interfaces or those aligning with a sailor’s existing skill set can streamline communication processes and minimize operational challenges at sea. 

6. Considering Redundancy in Communication Tools

Redundancy in communication devices is prudent for backup and reliability. Sailors often opt for a combination of devices, ensuring they have multiple means of communication in case one system fails or encounters technical issues.

As I mentioned, Kevin and I have kept our satellite device and intend to pay for Iridium Go’s expensive ($154/mo for 150 min of calling, unlimited texting, and slow download speed) plan when we set off on our 3000 mile voyage from Mexico to the South Pacific in Spring, 2024.

The primary reason, beyond needing to work and maintain communication, is that if something happens and we need to abandon ship, we cannot simply grab the Starlink. But we can grab our Iridium Go hot spot and have the ability to communicate with another vessel and search and rescue.

Our EPRIB simply sends an emergency distress signal without providing any details of the distress. Whereas our Iridium Go! would allow us to provide more specific information about the type of emergency and better coordinate with others. Having all three of these communication devices is vital because we intend to cross oceans.

This doesn’t mean every cruiser or sailor needs to have all three devices. In fact, because Starlink works so well and offers so many different plans, most cruisers we know have given up their more expensive and slower capability satellite phones.

Predict Wind has a excellent chart, which shows the breakdown in costs between a device like Iridium Go! and Starlink’s internet service. But I cannot emphasize enough that comparing these devices is like comparing tents to RVs. Yes,they both provide communication, but the types of communication vary drastically based on the intended use.

Off-Grid Communication: Peace of Mind for Loved Ones

At the end of the day, Kevin and I feel confident about how we have prepared ourselves and our boat for a major ocean crossing. We both understand the risks involved, but our various communication devices provide peace of mind to us–and hopefully to our loved ones who can follow every step of our voyage because of these devices.

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