South Pacific Cruising Communications

by David McKay

[Feb 2009 -This is an updated version of of the item originally published in November 2008]

Andrea and I have just completed a six month cruise through the south west Pacific Ocean in “Diomedea”, our 48 foot steel Van de Stadt. We sailed from Sydney to New Zealand and then onto Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia as part of the Island Cruising Association Pacific Circuit rally. We returned to Australia. During that time we were able to use a variety of communication mediums to keep in touch with those nearby and those far away.

Radio and Satphone

We maintained a blog, which was created using either email or internet. About 99% of the time it was done by email as internet access was very infrequent.

Email entries can be done anywhere and anytime so long as you have either HF/SSB radio with Pactor modem and computer, or, as we did, Iridium satellite phone and computer. One can upload text easily via email but pictures are much slower and more expensive on the satphone. We found the Iridium to be excellent.

We used two ISP’s for email: Sailmail and UUPlus. The former was good to start with but it became increasingly difficult to maintain connections as time went on. The latter was very reliable. The Iridium phone was used extensively to obtain weather information, mostly in the form of GRIB files but also in text forecasts in various countries. Of course, regular emails were sent and received. Occasional voice calls were done as well.(One can also take the phone into the liferaft as the occasion demands.)

Diomedea has an ICOM 802 HF radio and this used primarily to sked with Des Renner of Opua Offshore Communications (formerly Russell Radio) and was good for our entire trip from Sydney. Naturally, steel boats provide an outstanding ground plane for HF transmission. HF was also used to chat with other yachts on passage, and to obtain voice weather forecasts in Tonga and Fiji. We did not use DSC at anytime but it could have been used to contact commercial shipping on the open ocean, say in a collision avoidance situation.
HF radio can also be used to download weather fax from various met stations. We have a software product by Xaxero for this purpose but found the GRIB files much more useful. The BOM weather fax schedule is at the end of the article. Yachts heading offshore from Australia can also sked with Kordia radio so long as the vessel has HF with DSC. It is a free service within Navarea X. VHF radio was useful to chat to other yachts in harbour or if nearby on passage. VHF radio nets were common in the major ports. One yacht received a mayday call on VHF four days out from Fiji, much to their surprise. It turned out to be the only radio on the distressed yacht! VHF was used to contact marinas or other random shore parties. Generally the marinas were sometimes difficult to contact. There are no VMR’s in the SW Pacific other than Radio Noumea in New Caledonia, or Taupo Maritime in NZ. You would have to speak French well to communicate with the former. Taupo is responsible for Navarea XIV.

We had some UHF walkie talkies on board but never used them. We had two handheld VHF’s on board but found their batteries ran out every time we wanted to talk on them (Oregon Scientific and an old ICOM). Newer ICOM and GME handhelds are reported to be better.

Phones and Internet

Mobile phones were not particularly useful. In New Zealand, our Telstra phones were very expensive to use but Vodafone was cheap. We used prepaid phone cards in public phones instead whilst in Opua. In Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu one could purchase SIM cards from the local mobile phone supplier, a company called Digicel. These could be used in your own phone or in one of their handsets. The cards and phones were cheap and it seemed too good to be true. It was! The success of the marketing and the relative paucity of infrastructure meant that the networks could not cope with the traffic and getting a connection was an ordeal. Some networks did not have “agreements” with overseas telcos so you could not always call home to say, Britain. Digicel also did not have any facility for data transmission so you could not use the phone as a modem for a computer. In the end we used the Iridium phone.

Interestingly, in the Pacific we found that the Bigpond email system was a major headache. We could receive emails at internet cafes but could not send them through the Bigpond server, no matter what tricks we tried. We eventually used either our UUPlus email or Gmail to send emails from cafes on land. This was extremely annoying. Due to slow internet access, the mailbox also filled up and we probably never received all emails. Internet access was available in internet cafes and marinas but overall was of a far lower standard than we are now used to with broadband.

In the islands, internet was much slower than the old dial up connections. It would typically take 20 minutes to upload a single 200kb picture to the blog. In New Zealand we used wireless internet in Opua, provided by Pacific Wi-Fi. Without an external booster antenna it was a bit slow and subject to dropout but with the cheap antenna (Alfa USB 802.11 turbo adaptor) it is much more reliable. A wi-fi network was also available in Port Moselle marina Noumea but was of poor quality. In internet cafes we took our own laptop to do banking. I would not use the provided computers for such activity for security concerns. One should also take other precautions in these cafes as well such as avoiding having the screen filmed by security cameras, and changing passwords after banking. Skype was quite popular in the cafes. We used it on some occasions but only on the audio setting due to narrow bandwidth.

We do not have internet on board unless at a wi-fi marina facility, and we have no plans to get internet on board as it is prohibitively expensive for mere mortals like us. Satellite domes for internet appeared on yachts from 56 foot upwards. One 62 footer had Thrane and Thrane and the owners were very pleased with its performance. See below for a review of this product. Satcom C was rarely present on any yachts that I saw but is still an industry standard. Free weather broadcasts are available throughout the world with this system.


Overall, I thought the Iridium system was fantastic and would not cruise without one. You should obtain a fixed mast antenna as the “hockey puck” antenna is not very useful in bad weather (You, the phone, and the antenna all get wet). I would also not cruise without an HF transceiver. For an extended cruise, one definitely needs to sort out coms before departure as it is too late once you are gone. You should practice with the systems and check that the computer does what you want. You should have ISP’s set up and radio frequencies installed, and know how to do it yourself. RTFM.

Resources for a blog site for Iridium satphone is a supplier of Iridium in Australia for Pactor modems for weatherfax software for weatherfax schedule for ISP for email for ISP for email for GRIB files for Taupo Maritime info. for radios for vhf handheld radio to contact Des Renner for Kordia radio information for Digicel mobile phones for Pacific wi-fi for Skype for review of internet access on board for info on Satcom C broadcast for info on sailing rallies

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