Friday, April 9, 2010

Communications on a Sailboat

Since our decision to become full-time cruisers on a sailboat, we've asked ourselves so many questions about what the cruising lifestyle will be like.  One of the many questions regards communications on a sailboat.  From reading fellow cruiser's blogs and forums,  it seems that a hand-held VHF radio is essential.  We like this one. A back-up VHF radio seems to be a good idea as well.  A VHF radio will allow instant communication between ourselves and other boats, as well as marinas, bridges, and the US Coast Guard.  The main channel on the VHF radio is Channel 9, and Channel 16 is used for emergency calls.  To communicate with the bridges, ferries, and other large vessels use Channel 13, and Channel 22A is for Coast Guard use.  Their are other channels available for non-commercial boats, such as Channels 68, 69, 71 and 72.  Once contact is established on Channel 9, the main channel, it is our understanding that it's best to switch to one of the above channels.  Also, storm warnings and weather forecasts are available on most VHF radios.
Another form of communication is the Single Side Band (SSB) radio, which allows for a much broader area of coverage than the VHF radio does.   SSBs can sometimes reach up to several thousand miles.  A HAM license or marine SSB license is required to use the SSB to communicate on specific frequencies.  It is our understanding that obtaining a marine SSB license or a HAM license is not very difficult, and HAM license information can be found at  SSB also provides the ability to send and receive e-mails on the computer, and a popular service is Sail Mail, which is currently $250 per year.

It seems that these days we can even make telephone calls from our sailboat when we're out somewhere in the Caribbean.  Skype seems to be the most popular program, and it is used with a computer.  Skype can be downloaded for free and it would use our broadband connection to make free calls over the internet.  It would allow us to call other Skype users free of charge and also call phones in many areas around the world for about 2 cents per minute.  With Skype we can even set up a local phone number before we "set sail" so that our friends and family can call us on a local number and reach us at our computer while island hopping.

Another new product is Magic Jack, which my dad recently purchased and is very pleased with.  We would plug our telephone into Magic Jack, which is also used with a computer.  We would then plug Magic Jack into the computer's USB port and it would give us a U.S. phone number, no matter where we are in the world.  This means that calls to and from our family and friends back home would be local calls.  Magic Jack is only about $40 with one year of free service.  After that, it's only $19.95 a year!  We've already decided to purchase Magic Jack, as we can start using it right away at our home and eliminate our monthly phone bill.

We are so fortunate compared to cruisers just a decade ago!  With all of the new technology, we'll have no troubles keeping in touch with our friends and family. Hasta luego ... until then.  Mid-life Cruising!!


Capt. Puffy said...

I would be a little concerned about the range of a handheld VHF for out on the ocean. VHF range is all about antenna height as VHF works on line of sight, higher up, longer range. Certainly the handheld is useful as a backup radio or to take with you in the life raft if need be. West Marine has a good article concerning VHF antennas. Good luck in your adventure. We hope do the same some day.

Ken n Cheryl said...

We love your name, Capt. Puffy Pants. Yes, we figure we'll need more than just a VHF radio, although we don't plan on long passages. The SSB sounds like a good option. Thanks for your advice. We always appreciate it!

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