Out of all of our preparations for cruising, deciding how to get our weather and stay in touch when offshore was one of our biggest debates. There are multiple options for this, with a wide range of price tags attached. The options we have been debating between are:
SSB (Single Side Band Radio)
Initial Cost: $5000-$6000
Recurring Cost: $0
This would be the biggest initial investment, as it requires the installation of a special radio, antenna installed in the backstay (which means you have to cut your backstay on your mast), an isolator for the antenna and a special “ham radio” operator license. Then, we would need to learn all about radio, which has been and will be around for a long time, but the community that surrounds it is aging, and with newer technologies quickly developing, we’re hesitant to make the big investment. The best part about this option is that it’s a one-time cost. When averaged out over many years, this could be an attractive option. However, with satellite technology advancing so quickly, and the SSB/ham radio community slowly dwindling, we are hesitant to believe that SSB will be the best option several years in the future – not to discount SSB at all, we know there are close-knit ham networks that share extremely valuable information. SSB gives a great option for two-way communication from basically anywhere in the world, including receiving weather data and even having extremely slow (WAY slower than the old dial-up) internet connection to send emails.
Shortwave Receiver with SSB Reception
Initial Cost: $140
Recurring Cost: $0
This is a pretty cheap option that we will use as a backup, if nothing else. We purchased a Sony Receiver for about $140. This let’s us tune in and listen to the high frequency stations and receive the same weatherfax information that we would receive if we had SSB. This information is broadcasted out at scheduled intervals from locations around the world, and sounds like a fax machine. By plugging the receiver into a phone/tablet/laptop, you can use an app to convert the crazy beeps and whistles into a weather chart. Although there’s lots of interference in the marina (there shouldn’t be in the open ocean), we’ve had success receiving these from Kodiak, Alaska and Point Reyes, California. We’re excited we got this to work and plan to use it as a back up and alternate to compare weather charts. You can find a list of all the stations and broadcast times here.
Satellite connection – Iridium Go!
Initial Cost: $1100
Recurring Cost: Monthly payments of $50-$200/month
The Iridium Go! would provide the most comprehensive and easiest to access information, allowing us to access weather data, charts, forecasts and even regular internet from anywhere in the world. The downside is it’s extremely slow (think 20x slower than dial up) and it comes with a monthly fee. The good part is, we can purchase additional SIM cards and only activate it when we’re on a passage or in a remote area, and then discontinue the service when we’re doing more costal cruising, where we will be closer to shore and phone or wifi access. To properly use the Go, you really need one of the plans that comes with unlimited data (since you pay by the minute and it is so slow), so that would put us at $125/month, but it would give us real peace of mind. It also allows you to send out tracking points to friends and family, so they can follow along and see where you’re located at any given time, send and receive text messages, and even make a phone call!
Weather Planning/Routing – PredictWind
Initial Cost: $0
Recurring Cost: $199/year
There is a very cool-sounding subscription-based service called PredictWind that provides weather data and forecasts that are optimized to be received through the Iridium Go, and not take hours to load over the slow satellite data connection. We’ve been trialing the PredictWind software, and it seems to work extremely well. It also comes with some really cool features such as departure planning (which tells you the optimum day to leave on a passage), routing and rerouting based on changing conditions, and the option to view multiple forecasts and route options.
We have decided to try the Iridium Go! along with Predict Wind to start our journey with. We have a flexible plan with the Iridium, and can upgrade to unlimited data (and messaging) for long passages, and then downgrade or discontinue satellite coverage when we’re closer to shore. When we’re not using the higher data package, we can download the PredictWind weather charting from wifi on shore or over a phone connection (with a local sim card), before setting off on a short passage, and have it saved in our charting software for the trip. We can then use the SSB receiver to download the weather charts and compare them to the PredictWind forecasts.
Overall, we are happy an confident with our selections. There are a lot of people who have a wide range of opinions on this topic, all of which I’m sure have merit and are based on personal experience. We think, at the end of the day, it just comes down to what you’re comfortable with and what works for you. For us, we have all of the equipment and software now, and plan to play with it and get as familiar as we can with it before heading offshore. We’ll also keep reevaluating as more and newer technologies become available.