For the first five years of cruising aboard Ceilydh our 40 foot catamaran, we used a combination of a single sideband, Pactor III modem and Sailmail to access weather and stay in touch while underway. The combination had its problems, propagation varied depending on our location and the time of day, but on the whole it covered our needs.
This changed while travelling in South East Asia when we began having trouble connecting to Sailmail’s Brunei station. The experience was frustrating so, when we started researching the route to South Africa, our frustration turned to concern; we read there was a significant gap in Sailmail’s SSB mid-Indian Ocean coverage around Chagos and that there was only intermittent coverage in other critical areas off of Madagascar.
One option was to simply make do, another option was to purchase a satellite phone, but we had resisted both the airtime expense and the complexity of adding another system to our boat.
Choosing the Go
The Iridium Go has been billed as a game changing device for cruisers.
It is a new satellite hotspot that uses a smartphone, tablet, or PC to act as the user interface, it does not have a keypad, or a handset.
It offers a relatively simple setup, an unlimited data and low initial cost.
It also lets Facebook addicts like me keep in touch from the middle of the ocean, an unanticipated bonus.
Once we decided we wanted the Iridium Go we started to look for a source. Because we were having the device shipped to Malaysia we opted to go with a complete package from cruiser-friendly PredictWind.com. The bundle included the Iridium Go an external antenna and the required cable, as well as an unlimited data plan and 150 voice minutes for $125 per month. Packages in Australia start around AU$1100 but unlimited data plans seem to be harder to come by.
Installation on our boat was simple. Because the device has a built in GPS, the first step was locating a place to mount it where the GPS had reception.
Then we attached the mounting bracket to a bulkhead and powered it with a USB power cable from a 12 volt cigarette lighter plug with the included adapter. The next step was to connect it to the external antenna, the Go has a built-in antenna but it will not work from inside a boat. The external antenna requires a location that sees the sky with as little blockage as possible, down to eight degrees above the horizon. In our case we added a vertical post to our solar panel arch.
After the hardware is in place it is a matter of setting up your device. We installed the Iridium software on our Android smart phones and tablet from the Google Play store, Apple users need to use the Apple Store. Somewhat oddly, the Go has two separate apps and a stripped down web browser you need to install: XWeb for Android, Opera Mini for iOS.
After installing the software we still needed to register the device with Iridium. Then we assigned a specific SOS contact person through GEOS, a third party safety service provider.
Once that was done we paired the phones and tablet with the Go, which shows up as a Wifi device.
The Go is simple to use and uses only miniscule amounts of power: 0.2 amp. We do not have to wait for specific times of day when propagation is best and e-mails almost always go through on the first or second try.
The big bonus is the Go gives us more options for both weather and for safety.
Our main goal with the Go was to ensure reliable and up-to-date weather reports and for this we have had a better range of alternatives than ever before.
We use the Iridium Go with our PC and Sailmail’s Airmail version 3.5 to access GRIB files through e-mail. The result has been the best weather data we have ever had access to.
The Go has also given us more ways to communicate. Our generous 150 minutes of voice a month we recently used when we had a complex 45 minute banking call, it had the expected satphone delay but never dropped out.
We are also able to send free text messages and tracking information to friends and family. For e-mail it is a step up from using the Pactor III modem.
On the receiving end it does have the capacity for ‘big mail’ of up to 1000Kb. This came in quite handy when a boat went up on the reef in Chagos and I was able to contact Wauquiez and arrange to have design drawings sent.
One of the more misunderstood aspects of the Iridium Go is its internet access. It only has a data rate of 2.4 kilobytes per second and uses a specialised web browser. So it can not be considered a broadband internet access device.
Finding the right device
Currently the biggest complaint with the Go is it not working consistently across all platforms.
There are known problems with Apple iOS7 and not being able to surf the web without a range of fixes. Apple IOS iPhone models 4, 3GS, 3 and under, do not seem work with the Iridium Go at all. While Android is even more inconsistent. Currently our Android 5 tablet cannot surf the web, but e-mail and weather are fine. While one of our two Android 4.3 phones works perfectly and the other does not work at all.
Beyond these teething pains, the Iridium Go has lived up to the hype. We have reliable and effective communication and excellent access to weather. The device does have a range of finicky bugs but it seems that Iridium and the third party apps have been responsive to the problems and updates regularly occur.
This article first appeared on MySailing.com.au…