Sailing to the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean 1500


For a modern cruising sailor, communications is very important. From wherever they are in the world, cruisers like to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family. Cruisers also commonly need to carry out certain business or financial transactions remotely, such as to maintain a bank account or to pay bills. There's no lack of modern electronic equipment to facilitate communications.

The mainstay of Night Heron's long-distance communications was the ICOM M802 Marine SSB transceiver that Jeff had installed shortly after purchasing the boat. The radio system also included an ICOM AT-140 antenna tuner which fed an insulated backstay antenna.

An important addition to the communications system was an SCS PTC-II PACTOR DSP-based modem for sending and receiving email via SSB radio. Email also required the use of a laptop computer running a software application called "Airmail" that provided a simple but powerful user interface to set up and operate the radio/modem combination. This takes care of the maritime-mobile end of the email connection, but you also need to communicate with a shore station that can patch your email through to the internet. There are two commonly available shoreside networks. The popular and free Winlink network is an amateur radio network, so you need a "ham" radio license to use it and there are restrictions on the type of traffic you can send/receive. The other network is SailMail, a commercial network that uses standard marine frequencies. You don't need a ham license and can transact business via email, but you need a SailMail account and need to pay an annual fee. Both Jeff and I have ham radio licenses, so we could use the Winlink network.

One of my projects before we left was to get PACTOR email to work, which required installing all the software then configuring the hardware and software properly. The most difficult part was adjusting the audio levels between the radio and the modem. The levels needed to be as high as possible to provide a strong signal, but making them too high would cause distortion that would interfere with communications. Unfortunately, the radio on Night Heron didn't have a power meter and the DC power feed didn't go through the DC panel ammeter, so it required some hit-or-miss experimentation. I did get it to work (as demonstrated by sending/receiving PACTOR emails to Jeff and Greta), but we never used this capability during the voyage.

SSB Radio Usage

The Caribbean 1500 had a morning and evening roll call check-in via SSB, which took place at 7:00 am and 7:00 pm AST (Atlantic Standard Time, which is the time zone for BVI). At the skipper's meeting where all this was described, the organizers recommended that you run your engine to charge your batteries before the morning and evening radio sessions, turning off the engine just before the session started. That way, you would have fully-charged batteries, which according to the organizers, would help the SSB radio deliver maximum power when transmitting.

Just prior to the radio sessions, we would turn on the ICOM radio and select the desired frequency (usually 4036 kHz). As a "marine" transceiver the ICOM is supposed to be idiot-proof, so they don't let you select any arbitrary frequency by turning a regular tuning dial. Instead the radio has two knobs to select a frequency band and a channel number. The actual transmit/receive frequencies and operating modes are stored in the channel configuration memory. It's inconvenient to repeatedly turn the knobs to find the right band and channel number, so the ICOM has a shortcut method of selecting a band/channel, by keying in a special number on a numeric keypad. All the frequencies that we would ever use are on standard ITU channels, so before using the radio you need to look up the ITU band and channel number for each frequency, then write down the special number to be keyed-in to tune the radio. Here's a table of some commonly used frequencies:

ICOM M802 Numeric Keypad Entries
Frequency (kHz)ICOM Numeric Keypad EntryChannel Usage
40364 2 <Enter>Caribbean 1500 net (most often)
40424 4 <Enter>Caribbean 1500 net
40484 6 <Enter>Caribbean 1500 net
40544 8 <Enter>Caribbean 1500 net
81887 7 <Enter>Caribbean 1500 net
41252 <Enter>Coast Guard safety and distress
62153 <Enter>Coast Guard safety and distress
82914 <Enter>Coast Guard safety and distress
122905 <Enter>Coast Guard safety and distress
164206 <Enter>Coast Guard safety and distress
44269 6 <Enter>NMN high seas forecast
65019 8 <Enter>NMN high seas forecast
87641 0 0 <Enter>NMN high seas forecast
130891 0 2 <Enter>NMN high seas forecast
173141 0 3 <Enter>NMN high seas forecast

All these frequencies use USB (upper sideband) simplex communications. Upper sideband refers to a particular transmission mode; all parties communicating on a frequency must have their radios set to the same mode. Simplex means you transmit and receive on the same frequency, as opposed to duplex where you transmit on one frequency and receive on a different frequency. Once you select the frequency, you always need to push the "tune" button on the radio. This causes the antenna tuner to adjust for the current frequency, thus maximizing the energy transfer between the antenna and radio. This is especially important when you're going to transmit, but it's also important when you're only going to receive.

During each roll call check-in, the net control station would call each boat in turn, according to a predefined list. The boat would respond with a concise position fix and their current winds. Boats in the racing division would also report their cumulative engine use time. Before the morning roll call, Chris Parker would broadcast his weather forecast to the fleet, and after the roll call, he would take brief questions.

Unfortunately, during the voyage we were repeatedly told that we had a weak SSB signal, and many times we couldn't even be heard. Sometimes a closer boat could hear us and relay our information, but usually nobody heard us. The radio system obvious needs some work to improve its performance. Typically this involves improving the ground plane by installing lots of copper foil on the inside surface of the hull, then connecting the foil to the antenna tuner's ground connection. Night Heron also has a split backstay, with both backstays traveling close together from the stern to the masthead. One backstay has insulators and is used as the antenna, but the other backstay isn't connected. It's possible that the unconnected backstay might interfere with the performance of the antenna backstay.

There's one other thing I want to mention about the ICOM M802: it can also transmit/receive on amateur radio frequencies as well as the normal marine frequencies. However the amateur radio frequencies are normally disabled and you have to enter a special key sequence to unlock this feature. This caused some consternation at first, because the special "unlock code" is not mentioned in the manual. But I was able to find it on the internet: while holding down the buttons "2" + "Mode" + "Tx", turn on the power, and the ham bands are unlocked.

To use the radio on the amateur radio frequencies, you need an amateur radio license, which nowadays is quite easy to get. You no longer have to know Morse code, and all the technical questions on the license test are published in advance. Various organizations publish study guides so you can learn the material and take practice tests. The official test is administered by volunteers from amateur radio organizations around the country.

To use the radio on the marine radio frequencies, you need two licenses: the first is a ship's license for the boat and its equipment, the second is an operator's permit for you. You can get both of these licenses by filling out a couple of FCC forms and paying a fee; you don't have to take a test. If you want to send/receive PACTOR email using the commercial SailMail network, you must obtain these FCC licenses.

There's another obscure number that we needed from the FCC, an MMSI (Maritime Mobile Service Identity), which is required to use Digital Selective Calling (DSC). Although we didn't use this feature, both the SSB and VHF radio had a "Distress" button that could be pushed in an emergency. This would automatically broadcast a distress signal, but only if you had a valid MMSI programmed into the radio. This was another task for me before we left, to program the MMSI number into both radios, plus to get the GPS position information to show up on both radios. Once this was done, in theory, we could have pressed the Distress button and a signal would have been broadcast giving our ship's unique ID (the MMSI) and our exact location. The distress feature even has a menu to select what type of distress: sinking, fire, collision, pirate attack, etc. Thankfully, we never had to use this capability.

Other Communications Equipment

Night Heron had a brand-new Furuno FM3000 VHF radio mounted at the nav station below, with a full-featured remote control at the helm. The remote control was pretty neat—it looked like a big microphone, but it worked as both a microphone and speaker plus it had enough room for a few buttons and a small display. We used the VHF at the beginning (the Caribbean 1500 starting countdown was on channel 72) and at the end (to call Village Cay marina), but not much in-between. This is because the VHF range is only 10 miles or so, and most of the time there wasn't anybody close enough to talk to. The notable exception was when a big ship passed us quite closely one night; CiCi used the VHF radio to coordinate the passing.

Before leaving, Jeff had rented an Iridium satphone that arrived via FedEx at the last minute. The satphone was considered to be "safety equipment", and if we had to abandon ship, we would take it with us into the life raft. Because our ICOM SSB had problems with its transmit signal, Jeff wound up using the satphone a couple of times for regular communications (like calling the Caribbean 1500 organizers, downloading a GRIB forecast, etc.).

The Furuno weatherfax receiver was able to receive NAVTEX messages, but not at the same time as weatherfax. Although I received a few NAVTEX messages, we didn't really use this capability, since most of the time we wanted to receive weatherfaxes. NAVTEX messages are text messages giving local warnings for weather or navigation, and are mostly for coastal use.

We also had cell phones aboard, of course, and they worked a short distance offshore. Jeff's phone was designed to work in foreign countries, too, so he was able to adjust his calling plan to keep it working in Tortola. He had another cell-phone-like gadget that plugged into a USB connector on a computer to provide internet access, via the cell phone network or wi-fi, whichever was available. In Portsmouth, before we left, this feature worked very poorly. But comparing notes with other boaters, we found that everybody in the area got lousy wi-fi, which we attributed to interference from all the Navy ships in the area. Once we got to Tortola, Village Cay Marina had free wi-fi in the bar/restaurant area, which was handy for Jeff and CiCi (who had laptops). The marina also had a desktop computer hooked up to the internet, but you had to pay a fee to use it. To me, internet access seems so "everyday" and so useful that I really hope to find it wherever I go. For all practical purposes, it's essential. That said, you can live without it, but nowadays, you might not have to.

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