We’re lucky that our French buddy boat, Senara, wanted to travel with us from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic for a few reasons; (1) Captain Morgan was great company, and (2) he had a satellite phone.
And if it weren’t for Morgan’s sat-phone, we wouldn’t have had any access to weather reports in Little Inagua, where we waited for the right weather window for our crossing to the Dominican Republic.
Throughout the U.S. and the Bahamas, we’d had regular access to weather information via the internet and sources like PassageWeather.com, Zygrib, Pocket Grib and Wunderground.com, to name a few of our favorites. Mostly, though, we’ve preferred to download weather gribs using Zygrib on the computer, or Pocket Grib on the iPad because (1) we can update the reports any time we want, granted there’s internet, (2) we get fairly accurate forecasts for up to five days, (3) we can study the gribs offline, and (4) they don’t require a degree in meteorology to read.
But in the back of our minds, we knew we’d find ourselves in a situation eventually where we’d need to get weather forecasts and couldn’t get internet access. We just didn’t know what the best tool would be to have in those situations.
Most cruisers have recommended that we buy a single-sideband (SSB) receiver, which costs about $100 and would supposedly give us weather forecasts anywhere in the world, as long as we are tuned into the right frequency at the right time. And, being susceptible to peer pressure, we followed their advice. But in all honesty, with the technological advances of the last few decades, we couldn’t understand how the SSB hadn’t become obsolete. After all, GPS had so quickly become an essential household tool, existing in phones, watches and computers. So, surely, in the years since World War I, someone must have developed something more advanced than the SSB?
It turns out, they had. It’s called a satellite phone. And yet the SSB lingers on as an old-school necessity. For some reason, cruisers cling to the SSB the way my father clung to the vision of Beta-Max video players, long after the rest of the world had converted to VHS. Gosh-darned-it, he’d spent good money on that Beta-Max, so as long as we had “Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future” on Beta-Max tapes, I would watch those movies until someone either invented DVDs, or I left home. Whichever came first. End of discussion.
But unlike our Beta-Max machine when I was a kid, our SSB has never actually worked, though we persisted in trying to get Chris Parker’s weather reports in every port from New York to Nassau. And all we got was something that sounded like muffled Morse code transmitted from the moon.
A couple we met in Nassau even tried to help us out by using their SSB transceiver to transmit to our radio from just two boat lengths away. But all we heard was, “Bzzzz wah WAH wah WAAAHHHH bzzzzzz.”
I was so determined to make it work, though, that I threw out our first SSB and bought a second one after reading the Amazon.com reviews for the Kaito KA1103 SSB receiver. According to the reviews, “even ham radio operators love it.”
But ham radio operators must have some kind of secret decoder to understand transmissions like, “ssshhhh northwest ssshhh Sunday bzzzzzz front ssshhh west at bzzzz knots.” Because it didn’t matter if we ran the antenna up our mast, if we stood on the bow pointing our radio at the sky, or if we smacked the SSB on the deck whilst cursing 20th century technology like SSBs and fax machines, wondering why they refused to die like their relatives, the cassette tape and the rotary phone.
It was clear the only thing our SSB was good for was raising our blood pressure at 6:30 in the morning, the ridiculous hour at which Chris Parker supposedly transmits forecasts…though we wouldn’t know for sure, since we’ve never heard him.
Our SSB-certified friends in Nassau encouraged us to keep trying, though, arguing that no cruiser should travel without an SSB. “We heard this story once…” the wife said. “…About a captain who’d had a stroke on his boat off the coast of Mexico. His wife used the SSB to ask for help on the net and a ham radio operator in Vancouver picked it up and got them the number of a doctor in Mexico. The SSB saved his life,” she said earnestly.
But, all I could think was, “What, do we live in the age of telegrams? If that woman had had a sat-phone, she wouldn’t have had to bounce some message off the atmosphere hoping that someone on the other side of the world might hear it in the middle of night and help her. She could’ve just Googled a doctor and called him. Right from her sat phone. Pronto.”
But what about the cost, you ask? It’s true, satellite phones aren’t cheap at $1500 new with an additional $750 for a year’s worth of minutes. But it both receives and transmits, whereas an SSB receiver only receives. If you want an SSB transceiver (which can transmit and receive), it’ll cost around $4,000 including the installation and a boat-specific set-up, not to mention that you need special certification just to use your transceiver.
So when Morgan showed us his Iridium satellite phone, which he uses to make phone calls and download weather grib files in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world, whenever he wants, we nearly fed our SSB to the sharks on the spot. And we decided to look into getting a sat-phone for ourselves.
After all, a sat-phone isn’t fixed to a particular boat; you can take it with you backpacking, fishing or onto your next boat. Plus, it’s portable and it’s from the 21st century.
What more could you ask for?