eMail Afloat [legacy 2001 version]

Note: as this is a legacy page, we are no longer checking the links periodically. The information and links (if they still work) are here for interest only.

As our lifestyle gradually moved from the ashore to onboard, email started to become more useful (and desirable) aboard. While we were cruising in population areas access to email via the internet was not generally a problem. The costs encountered (cyber cafes or library charges) were balanced by the convenience of arriving in a town and being able to continue our correspondence. While in harbour for long periods of time such as during the winter months the costs seemed to be similar to that of bringing a low cost email system onboard. However that there is a vast range of email systems available with a corresponding range of capabilities and prices. We had kept an eye on the costs of the various systems via boat shows and magazine articles but in general costs seemed to be staying high. Our query was whether there was an email system that was essentially the same cost as the existing library and internet cafe charges we were encountering. It should be remembered that our selection was based on a cruising area of coastal Europe.


There are four main types of commercially available email systems:


Propagation /Receiver Cost Speed (bandwidth) Coverage Comments
1A satellite and fixed antenna high medium to high very good intended for large commercial vessels
1B satellite and mobile phone high medium varies intended for commercial use
2 shortwave radio medium low varies requires special hardware and a shortwave transceiver and license
3 mobile phone medium/low medium coastal lowest cost and simplest (for Europe)
4 land based hybrids low low shore based available throughout North America and into the Caribbean; also Australia and the UK


Type 1A is generally targeted at large commercial vessels plying the oceans of the world and is also associated with efforts for search and rescue. A large cargo vessel may not even notice a 1 meter diameter antenna and in fact may have a second one as a standby where as we are not sure where we would put a 1 meter antenna aboard. There are different system configurations with Inmarsat offering different configurations of fax, data, voice and weather information services. Coverage is essentially worldwide although certain areas near the poles are not covered. We have not met anyone using this system although as it is used widely aboard commercial ships we expect that it is reliable. Data rates seem to be 2400 baud, possibly 9600 also.

Type 1B is the high end mobile phone systems such as Iridium and GlobalStar. The target customer for these seems to be multi-national companies such as construction and oil workers. The prices we have seen usually have a monthly service fee which is not noticeable for a commercial concern using the phone daily where as a budget minded cruiser may view such a commitment as robbing from the beer and chocolate funds. The coverage is intentionally land based with some coverage for the oceans but no intention seems to exist to provide uniform coverage across the oceans of the world. Data transmission rates seem to be around 9600.

Type 2 is a hybrid of sorts as it uses the shortwave radio transceivers that many long term cruising yachts have to carry email. Two organisations offering these services are PineOak and SailNet. Subscriber comments in sailing publications seem to alternately rave and complain about the coverage and reliability of the systems. One requirement is to have a shortwave transceiver which implies sitting the license exams (and in most countries this still includes learning Morse code to a specified level of proficiency). This system is susceptible to all the vagaries of shortwave radio transmission and reception. Data speeds are dependent on transmission and reception conditions but are not as high as dedicated relay satellite.

Type 3 is the most easily procured in Europe due to the universal availability of GSM phone services. This choice implies a GSM mobile phone (although a car-based model would work equally well) and additionally that the phone have a modem built in or attachable. As more and more services in Europe move onto the GSM network, having a mobile phone aboard is becoming more and more common. In Scandinavia many marinas now list channel 16 or a GSM mobile phone number as the contact point for the harbour master. As the VHF is usually desk based the GSM mobile phone is more likely to reach him. The nominal data transmission rate is 9600.

Type 4 is possibly the most easily procured in North America. Although shore based there is a box that fits into your hand that you carry from your computer aboard to a shore phone, either a pay phone or a normal house or office phone. By calling a toll free number you exchange emails with a central computer facility. As the subscription is based on a monthly fee (no charge for volume of email handled) and the phone calls are always to toll free numbers this can be a very inexpensive option. This option has come to the UK recently but all phone calls must be paid for which changes the cost effectiveness. Magazine articles have said that using low cost phone lines this system is also usable in the Caribbean.

Our Selection

Referring back to the table above we ruled out options 1A and 1B due to the expense involved. In order to use option 2 a shortwave transceiver is required (Maringret only has a Sony 7600D shortwave receiver). Option 4 would have worked technically but first we would have been paying long distance calls each time and as we made our way north into remote areas shore phones became rarer and rarer. This left option 3 of using a GSM mobile phone. Being the home of GSM, Europe is very well covered by the service. The range is about 7 miles out to sea which is adequate for coastal cruising. Crossings such as the Baltic, Mediterranean, North Sea etc. will quickly leave the areas of coverage which means that no assumption of reception should be made with regards to any need for timely or emergency services. There are some days when we may be near centers of population but still can not receive a GSM signal.

Click here for a description of our system.

Click here for some notes on GSM phone services.

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