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How To eMail With A Pactor Modem and SSB On Sailboat
This article is one of a series for those considering living aboard a sailboat.
Using a Pactor modem with your SSB radio for email.
There are several ways to stay in touch while sailing abroad. Most are very costly. Satellite phone and data systems are very expensive to purchase and can cost over five dollars a minute out on the high seas. For this reason many live aboard cruisers and yachtsmen sailing abroad use other means of staying in touch.
One way to keep in touch while living aboard and cruising on a sailboat is with a SSB radio and a Pactor modem made by SCS of Germany. Pactor modems are digital modems specially made to tolerate noise and interference and weak signals found on the shortwave SSB bands used by mariners. The modem uses sophisticated error checking to transmit data when there is atmospheric static and other interference. A Pactor modem connects between an SSB receiver, such as an Icom, and your laptop.
Using A Pactor Modem With Sailmail or Amateur Radio
Image from sailmail.com
There are two ways to use a Pactor modem for email when you are sailing abroad. One way is to get an amateur radio license. With a ham license you can send and receive personal e-mail messages through volunteer stations operated by ham radio operators. This is done at considerable expense and you might consider sending a donation to the station you use the most. Since there are ham radio operators all over the world that participate you can often find a good connection.
To use a Pactor modem on the amateur radio bands you must have a General class ham license. General class ham licenses are available now without having to know Morse code. You will have to learn basic electronics and radio theory and operating rules and procedures. You can find out more about how to get an amateur radio license here; ARRL On the Amateur radio side the software you use is called Airmail. On our own boat, Rising Star, my wife and I used a Pactor modem with a Yaesu SSB amateur radio transceiver that featured a built in antenna tuner. We used an insulated backstay and the radio was grounded with a through hull grounding plate. In one instance we use the radio on shore during a hurricane for emergency communication with only a length of wire strung between two houses for an antenna. With this system we were able to use the Pactor modem to relay emergency messages to one of the Caribbean islands that had been hit by a hurricane.
The other method of using a Pactor modem for email is to subscribe to a service called Sailmail. Sailmail uses the commercial marine SSB frequencies. There are fewer stations to choose from and it might be slightly harder to establish a connection on Sailmail in some places versus the ham radio channels. This is changing as new Sailmail stations are added. (In some areas of the world Sailmail signal quality is better than amateur radio, thanks to new stations in places like the South Pacific.) Sailmail is a nonprofit corporation and offers other services utilizing satellite, WiFi, GSM, etc, for faster email access. It costs $250 a year to use Sailmail and you must have a valid ship's radio license. For more information on how to use Sailmail see: sailmail.com
Antennas For SSB, Pactor Email On A Sailboat
There are a couple of choices for antennas on a cruising yacht. One of the most popular ones is a an insulated backstay. An insulator is placed and the upper and lower ends of the backstay and an insulated wire (coax) leads to the SSB transceiver. The other method is a stand alone fiberglass antenna mounted on the transom. These are generally not as high gain as an insulated backstay, which offers a height advantage. You may find that your signal with the Pactor station varies depending on which way your boat is anchored. Using a Pactor modem for email is not for the impatient. There are times when you will not be able to send or receive and you cannot send large files like high resolution photos. However, you will find that for the most part Sailmail or Airmail will keep you in touch when combined with other forms of communication such as internet cafe's, Prepaid GSM phone chips, etc.
Finally, a good grounding system is required. Do your research and find a good marine electronics installer to outfit your boat with a good SSB transceiver to which you can add a Pactor modem for email.
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