You are hereProject Retirement, ep 9

Project Retirement, ep 9

By Q-Bert - Posted on 12 May 2021

The one where I finally send out email.

Communication on the oceans and large bodies of water require some planning. If you are within sight of the shore, chances are that you will be able to reach a cell phone tower. You may need an extra cell antenna near the top of your mast, to extend your range. If you are not within reach of a cell tower, you may be within reach of another Ham operator; that's when VHF, HF, and satellites comes in.

Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS)

Ham operators around the world basically collect radios. As a Ham, if you have a "spare" radio, you can dedicate it to listening on frequency 144.390Mhz and connect it to a computer that can reach the Internet. Other Hams will send out their GPS position via a digital packet on that dedicated frequency, from their cars, or boats, or even homes (hopefully, the speed reported when they do so will be "0"). The Ham operator that has that listening radio connected to the Internet will be called an "I-gate" and will extract the position received and the callsign of the origin, and send it over to an Internet site called If your boat is within line of sight of one of these and you send out an APRS packet, your position will appear on that website.

APRS can also be used to receive weather information. Since APRS packets can also have a "destination" in the packet header, the APRS system will do its very best to use the internet or other I-gates to reach that recipient. You can think of it as SMS without cell phones. By "texting" callsign WXBOT with the ID of the closest airport or your lat/lon coordinates, you will receive an APRS packet with a short weather report. Speaking of SMS, you can also send an APRS packet to callsign SMSGTE with a phone number and a short message, and that phone will receive an SMS message. They cannot return a response, sadly.

There are a few other tricks that you can do with APRS that are just buckets of fun, such as sending an APRS packet to the International Space Station as it races above the horizon, and getting a "QSL" card from NASA if you are successful.

Winlink (VHF and HF)

But my main objective is to send out and receive emails via the airwaves. With a VHF radio and a PC, I just need a email server out there that I can interact with, listening for me on a frequency somewhere. Turns out that Ottawa has exactly that, VE3QBP, a station listening on VHF 145.010Mhz, and presenting a "Winlink" remote email delivery system. This way, I can send out and receive emails from anyone on the Internet that sends emails to my email address. If you are a Radio Amateur, you can apply for a email address. Then you can send and receive emails via a large network of volunteer-run array of winlink listeners all around the planet. Most are listening on VHF frequencies, mostly in populated areas. A few hundred more are listening on HF frequencies, all around the planet. And remember that HF frequencies can span a large portion of the planet. I have been able to reach the Halifax winlink gateway from my condo in downtown Ottawa, with my antenna, from *inside* the apartment.

There's a few gotchas about using Ham radio to deliver and receive your emails: 1- they have to be *small*, and 2- they cannot be "commercial". Can't send orders to your broker; can't negotiate with a potential client; can't purchase stuff off of Ebay, etc... Of course, you can just do that with your laptop on Wifi :-)

So, if you are a Ham, you can get data in and out for free, but extremely slowly.

How about "the regular people" ?


There's the non-Ham equivalent of Winlink, called Sailmail. It also uses HF radios to communicate back to shore, thousand of kilometers away. It is the same problems and speeds as Winlink, *but* it also costs $300USD per year for membership. I'm not even talking about the thousands of dollars of radio gear you need, since I have to spend that kind of money anyways, as a Ham operator... because.

Sailmail has pretty much gotten pushed into the dark corners of the bilge, because of the ease of use of satellite communications.

Iridium Satellites

The current "all-in-one" solution for cruisers is the Iridium Go. This little device just sits on your navigation desk and connects to a small external antenna; it takes very little power, and it provides a boat-wide hotspot as well. Connect your phone to it, and you can email out and use your phone as you would normally, from pretty much anywhere on the planet. The catch ? $$$$$ Monthly costs *start* at $80.00 USD per month for 10 minutes of voice or data. This is almost as bad a Canadian cell phone plan. If you want unlimited data, you will have to cough up $180USD per month, and you will still only get a maximum of 150 minutes of voice for that month. If you have any troubles on the boat and need to phone a specialist while you are doing a transatlantic passage, your phone bill will be huge. The other constraint, of course, is data speeds. Iridium Go uses geo-stationary satellites, which reside in high-earth-orbits. That's 35 THOUSAND kilometers away, so your data packets have to cross 70,000 kilometers before reaching you. Add to that the bandwidth, which is 2.4 kilobits per second. That's way slower than the modems we used to connect to BBS systems with, back in the day.

It used to be the only game in town. Not anymore.


Elon Musk may be the best thing to happen to cruisers since the invention of catamarans. SpaceX is putting up thousands of satellites in low-earth-orbit, all laser-interlinked, creating a global communication "shell". Current users of the prototype system, in rural areas, are reporting communication speeds of 150 megabits per second. That's as fast as the current "high speed internet" plans available in Canada. Elon has confirmed that "marine-grade" antennas that will track the sky and permit cruisers to link into the Starlink network. The current cost of the Starlink data plan is $100USD per month. It sounds like a lot, but it would be the price I would pay to be able to continue playing Call of Duty on Wednesday nights with the gang, while in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, or at anchor near Nassau.

So, by the time I actually buy a boat and get it in the water and go cruising, I may have the ability to send and receive large emails, and maybe even play network games, from anywhere in the world, for the same amount money that I am used to paying here in Canada for Internet connectivity. Thanks Bell and Rogers for keeping my expectations low and costs astronomical!

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