It’s funny, all of this talk about how this ocean voyage would be a great chance for us to get away, disconnect, unplug and one of the first things Phillip and I talked about and looked into was a way to stay connected. Such is life these days. But, we did want to explore options for a satellite phone primarily: a) for safety (to call emergency responders or medical personnel if someone got injured on the boat or we were in distress); but also b) for communication (to stay in touch with our family, partners and staff while we were underway). Two very cool discoveries came out of our research. First, one I already knew but am always eager to share again: The overwhelming generosity of this incredible woman: Cruising and Sailing Consultant, Pam Wall.
The minute I even mentioned that I was going to be making this voyage (and honestly before Phillip and I even had time to think about a sat phone), Pam offered to send me hers so I could use it for the crossing. WOW. The woman has a heart a warm, buttery heart of gold, I swear. I didn’t even know you could use someone else’s phone, but Pam enlightened me there as well, ensuring me I could borrow her phone for the trip, take over her contract or activate my own contract using her phone, then send the phone back to her when I made it back to the states so she could still have it for hurricane season this July and on. This way I would only be out the cost of the service, not the phone itself (most of which exceed $1,000).
You see? Super generous. This is why she was my first Gift of Cruising giveaway and will forever remain a fantastic friend and trusted cruising consultant in my book. I can’t say this enough: “THANK YOU PAM!” If you have not yet checked out Pam’s wealth of circumnavigation, ocean-crossing, cruiser friendly knowledge via her blog or in person at the many boat shows where she speaks and shares her exceptional wealth of cruising nuggets, please enlighten yourself: PamWall.com.
The second discovery? The awesome, incredibly helpful team at OCENS Satellite Systems and Service, whom Pam recommended Phillip and I contact in order to get service set up for us on Pam’s satellite phone.
I worked with three folks at OCENS — Matt Haase, Robin Olson and Jeff Thomassen — and each of them went above and beyond to speak with me over the phone and respond to my many (many!) emails asking my many (many!) questions about how all of this satellite service stuff works. The blonde is real people, I definitely needed to be walked through this! They were all incredibly patient, well-informed and always at the ready to help us make the best decision for the service that was right for us. OCENS was also very generous in offering me a discount on several of the hardware and software packages in exchange for offering testimonial, photos and write-ups via my platforms once we return discussing our experience using OCENS services for weather, email and voice calls while crossing the Atlantic. Grateful little sailor here, so I will say it again: “THANK YOU OCENS!”
Here is what Phillip and I decided to procure from OCENS and why:
Where the satellite phone is great for voice calls, what do many of us want to do these days? Email. Text. As well as receive GRIB files for weather. (And, selfishly, I would like to send at least one photo or two if we can while crossing!) This little gismo, the Wifi SideKick basically makes the satellite phone a hotspot for wifi. Also, it enables you to use your personal phone, as opposed to the satellite phone, to check email, text, etc. It is not super fast (think roughly dial-up speed), but you can get GRIB files, send a photo, etc. in only a few minutes.
Now, while Pam’s phone is fantastic, it is an older model (the Iridium 9505A), which means the connection port is a little older and will not readily fit the wifi sidekick.
However, this was something the OCENS folks quickly discerned by asking me the model number of my phone in order to make sure they sent me the necessary adapters so that the wifi sidekick would work with Pam’s 9505A model. Thank you OCENS. So, now we have a hotspot, not just a telephone. What’s next?
The more I keep reading and learning about this service, it really impresses me. As Phillip initially explained to me (and I believe this is how many other satellite providers work), instead of unfettered access to your personal email account, the “email service” you are provided is access to one singular email account. So you would have a particular address created, “AtlanticCRX@gmail.com” for example that you could tell folks about and send/receive emails at that address only through the sat phone. That is my understanding anyway.
With OneMail, you get access to your own (the one you use every day that everyone already knows, “email@example.com” for example) address. So you get to see what fires are burning in your box while you’re making your crossing. I also found this particular feature to be highly intuitive and useful — the inbox snapshot I’m going to call it. Once you connect to wifi, OneMail auto-dials through your satellite link, takes a snapshot of the From, Subject and Size of the messages waiting for you in your Gmail inbox and downloads them to your connected smartphone or tablet in just seconds and then auto-disconnects to give you time to read through those valuable “From, Subject” pieces of information while you are OFF-line. Then, when you’ve chosen which burning emails you want to respond to (by swiping or tapping them to highlight them), you then re-connect and respond through OneMail. Pretty cool, huh?
And (and!) notice that little notation at the top of that screenshot — “See how OneMail compresses your photos, click HERE.” That is another really cool feature that I, in particular, as someone who makes a living documenting and sharing my travels, was interested in. So, the SideKick can send approximately 15KB of data a minute. Not super fast, but certainly not slow from the middle of the ocean. Photos we take on our schnazzy little smartphones, however, are often multiple megabytes. (This is where the rocking camera on the iPhone comes back to byte you … get it? Anyone? Anyone? ; ) But, with the OneMail app, the program will automatically truncate your photo in a way that does not drastically reduce the quality but enables you to send the photo in 3 minutes, as opposed to 145. Check it out!
Yeah … I know. Super cool. Like I said, much to Phillip’s dismay, this little blogger would LOVE to send just a few photos real-time during the crossing to my fans. I’ll go into detail below about the Airtime package we purchased, but know that it only provides 150 minutes for the month. If I sent one picture at the 2.1 MB size, we’d be out of airtime minutes immediately. So, sending photos … may be more possible than I thought. What’s next?
GRIB Explorer Plus for the iPad
We’re getting GRIB files people. This is some serious weather data to really help us navigate safely and effectively across a big body of often unpredictable water. With the GRIB package we will be able to pull up current, rich data on ocean and global winds, waves, ocean currents, surface pressure, temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, etc. and download the file to the iPad. The OCENS folks tell me it takes approximately 2-3 minutes to download a GRIB file and, much like the OneMail service, once the data is on the iPad, it automatically disconnects to help preserve your all-important airtime minutes. What are those? you may be thinking. I’ll tell you.
Once you have all the cool hardware (sat phone, wifi Sidekick and adapters) and software packages (OneMail and GRIB Explorer Plus), you then purchase “Airtime” (data plans) to allow you to do all of the awesome stuff you want to do with the phone, i.e., make calls, send emails, get GRIB files, etc. It’s kind of like those old phones you used to buy and then “add minutes” to. Phillip and I opted for the PostPaid plans where (like phone minutes) you prepay and once the airtime plan is activated, you have a certain number of minutes available to use on the phone for your 30-day period. The minutes do not roll over.
Looking at the chart above, Phillip and I opted for the 150 Airtime package to allow sufficient voice minutes for Phillip to be able to handle any potential office emergencies and check in with his partners every 4-5 days or week. We expect the Atlantic-crossing will take 3-4 weeks, could be shorter, could be longer, but this package will ensure we have enough voice call minutes for a 30-day window and it will automatically begin anew if we are still out there at the end of the 30 days. While we hope to make it to France within the 30-day window and cancel as soon as we dock so as to avoid another thirty-day charge, it’s good that the airtime will automatically kick in as we wouldn’t want to lose service unknowingly just days from shore in case of an emergency. You’ll see the 150 minutes plan offers unlimited texting. So, texting does not cut into the minutes at all. Voice calls do and use of the internet (sending receiving emails, internet research and downloading of GRIB files) do. Meaning, we will be charged accordingly each 30-day window:
Voice Calls: The $119 Airtime fee gets us 150 minutes, any overages will cost $1.39/minute.
Text Messages: The same $119 Airtime fee offers unlimited texting (160 character limit per text).
Wifi (email, GRIB downloads, internet in general, etc.): $1.39/minute.
From my research and conversations with the OCENS folks, it appears checking and responding to emails (that do not have attachments) will likely take 3-4 minutes (depending how fast you type and how much you say — keep it short!), GRIB file downloads take 2-3 minutes, sending photos takes approx. 3 minutes. So, each time you connect to the wifi, you need to keep a mental ticker going at a rate of $1.39/minute, and as you make calls, you need to be cognizant of your 150 minute limit.
In all, after activation fees (as Pam’s previous contract on the Iridium had run, so service had to be re-initiated), hardware prices (the Sidekick and necessary adapters for our 9505A model), software prices (GRIB Explorer and OneMail), as well as our 150-minute airtime package, we were looking at about a $400 charge overall for exceptional sat phone service for a month offering unlimited texting, plentiful voice calls, as well as exceptional weather data and email capabilities. It certainly beat buying a new phone ourselves and initiating all of these services, which likely would have run us over $1,500. Once again, thank you Pam!
As I mentioned, the folks at OCENS were all exceptionally informed, immediately responsive to my numerous questions and have proven top-notch in the customer service department thus far. Not to mention the various discounts they offered me as sailing and cruising blogger with a highly-public profile upon which to share word of their awesome services. If you are interested in learning more about OCENS many services for your own blue water travels, I recommend you give them a call and speak with Jeff Thomassen. Tell him Annie with HaveWindWillTravel.com sent you!
And … there’s a reason we’re getting sat phone service you know. In part, for YOU! Would you like to receive photos and Atlantic-crossing write-ups from us while we’re underway? Get inspired and get on Patreon for the Atlantic-crossing journey!