Cruising communications – part 1


February 14th, 2024



Written by

Richard Farrington

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By Richard. Posted on February 14th, 2024 in Equipment.

Most modern yachts have a pretty straightforward outfit of communications equipment. It might comprise:

  • a fixed VHF radio fitted with Digital Selective Calling (DSC)
  • a handheld VHF, which may be waterproof and may have DSC
  • the ubiquitous mobile phone, often accompanied by a tablet device such as an iPad.

Many yachtsmen, whether or not they would admit it in a court of law, rely to some extent on their mobile phone or tablet for their navigation too. After all, the Navionics App is a formidable ‘aid to navigation’ (and I use those words deliberately) and is delightfully inexpensive. Equipped with these basics, some sensible safety equipment and a reasonable chart outfit, most of us are pretty happy that we know where we are, can call the coastguard, deconflict rule of the road situations with other vessels, get up to date weather forecasts and order things on Amazon when we need to. What else do we need?

In this series of articles, I want to look at some of the options available. I’ll be looking at the subject from the perspective of a longer cruise, perhaps lasting a few months, almost certainly exploring waters some way from mobile phone networks and the wonders of the Internet.  What’s useful? What isn’t? What’s next?

Onboard Escapade of Rame, we have the following:

  • Raymarine Ray90 Fixed DSC VHF & Icom IC-M71 Handheld VHF
  • Icom IC-M710 HF/MF DSC Transmitter
  • ICS Nav4 DSC Controller
  • Iridium Pilot satellite phone
  • Raymarine Class B AIS Transceiver
  • iPad & mobile phone
  • Glomex 5G Mobile phone fixed antenna
  • Mailasail Redbox Wifi router
  • ACS 406Mhz EPIRB
  • Personal AIS transmitters in lifejackets
  • Raymarine Axiom chartplotters

Let’s go through these in turn.

The navigation station onboard Escapade. Top left – HF, DSC controller and GPS below; Ray 90 VHF handset in the centre; NAVTEX, chartplotter and a basic HF receiver to the right

Fixed VHF

The original Raymarine Ray 230 VHF fit onboard escapade had the base station hidden behind panelling at the chart table with two remotes: one at the chart table and one on deck at the helmsman’s position. When it died, the nearest replacement was the Ray 90 model. The major advantage was that the base station was still hidden away – minimum disruption to the chart table layout; the disadvantage is that the second remote at the helmsman’s position is now a wireless handheld device. It has limited functionality in a strong wind – occasionally the station we are calling cannot make out what we are saying and we have to go below deck to communicate. The wireless element also loses connectivity from time to time, which is frankly annoying. On balance, I’d love to have the old Ray 230 back, because it was better designed. On the other hand, having VHF comms on deck for instant use and at the chart table (where I can listen to it from my bunk) is very useful.

Perhaps the easiest way of achieving this is to have a handheld on deck. The disadvantages of the handheld are (1) the limited range) and (2) the battery life. In practice, the battery seems to last forever and most VHF comms take place when you are within hailing distance of the other person – so range isn’t too much of a factor. It’s definitely worth having a good waterproof handheld with more than one option for charging.

HF Communications

These days, HF in yachts is relatively rare. It is more common amongst the blue water cruising community. Whilst our radio is obsolete, it was built to last forever; the current version has more connection options. It comes with an automatic antenna tuner and the antenna is the backstay – or rather a 17.5m insulated section of it. We use ours for three main tasks:

  • Picking up ‘weatherfaxes’ using some free software on our computer. We like SeaTTY, but others are available.
  • Voice communications with other HF-capable yachts. We sailed in a self-organised mini-rally from Virginia down to the Caribbean in company with eight other yachts – everyone had HF and we would have an 1800 ‘schedule’ every day. Very useful for exchanging information on weather, defect rectification, recipes and general morale.
  • Exploring the airways – BBC World Service, Voice of America or Radio Moscow sound much more romantic over HF than on your phone and the art of picking up the right frequency at different times of the day and night is hugely rewarding.

If I had my time again, I would add a Pactor Modem to this radio, allowing us to transmit and receive HF email. Once you’ve paid for the equipment, the GREAT advantage of HF is that it is completely free to use. You need a suitable licence, of course.

Repairing the HF antenna at sea. Note the Iridium dome, Navtex and AIS antennae and the GMDSS VHF whip antenna

DSC Controller

When Escapade was built, the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) was a relatively new idea and the ICS system installed onboard was definitely ‘state of the art’. It even has a touchscreen display – one of the first. It allows one controller to send DSC distress messages on VHF, MF and HF frequencies simultaneously. There are some other functions too, but that’s basically what it was designed for. It’s connected to its own GPS and its own VHF whip aerial – just in case the mast comes down and you lose the masthead antenna. So…designed for the Cold War and on the bulky side, many would argue that it belongs in a museum. After all, we have a 406Mhz EPIRB device which communicates by satellite with the global coastguard network. I reckon that if we ever get into a situation where we need to call for help, I’ll use every system onboard that I think might work. So, all the time it works (and it does!) I shall flash it up occasionally and marvel at the 1980s technology.

Iridium Pilot Satellite Comms

Escapade was fitted with an Inmarsat C system when we bought her in 2014. That technology became obsolete shortly afterwards. Our initial requirement was to have reliable satellite communications in mid ocean, with the option of being able to work from the boat when away from mobile phone coverage. The key element onboard was the plinth for a decent antenna on a stump mast at the stern of the boat. Handheld devices have a very low data rate and, whilst purchase costs are affordable, running costs can be very high. The fixed Iridium Pilot system was expensive to buy, easy to install and ‘cheap to run’ – according to the team at Mailasail. They were mostly right, although in reality the running costs were too high to justify using the system to work from the boat. We could afford to send emails and regular blog posts without pictures, make the odd phonecall to arrange spare parts or engineering advice, and download GRIB weather files on a daily basis. But sending a 2Mb photograph cost about £10 in 2018…

The kit was reliable, although the antenna gave up after six months and we had to wait in Gibraltar for several weeks whilst a replacement was shipped out. Otherwise, nothing broke and the team at Mailasail supported us very well.


  • Well made kit.
  • Potentially high data rates (depending on the depth of your pocket).
  • Reliable, all weather system.


  • Expensive to purchase.
  • Not cheap to run (depending on what you want it for)
  • You can’t take it in the liferaft.

If I had my time again, I’d buy a handheld Satphone allowing us to send one-liners to friends and family, reassuring them that we were still alive. If we needed to communicate in an emergency, we could take the satphone with us in the liferaft. For everything else, I would use HF email. The only thing I’d lose would be the ability to access the internet from mid-ocean.


Tune in next week for more!