Many coastal cruisers get weather from their cell phone app or by VHF Radio. But these options usually aren’t available to the cruiser offshore or in foreign countries. So what’s an offshore sailor to do? Why, use that OTHER radio in the boat – the HF Radio that has thousands of miles of range instead of two to twenty miles range!
So if you have an HF radio supporting Ham and / or SSB bands (such as the ICOM m802) and you also have a Pactor Modem keep reading. You also need a PC computer running Windows 10 or below (or a Mac running Parallels or VMWare). What else do you need to do to get email and weather reports when you are offshore? This article will answer these questions. Since there are so many radio / modem model differences I don’t attempt to describe the hardware installation but contact a marine radio service company near you for help with this.
Required Memberships (USA)
First things first. To transmit on the ham stations you need an amateur radio General (2nd level) license. Contact your local ARRL for information on getting a ham license. To run on SSB/Marine band with Sailmail you need a Station License from the FCC and a one-year $275 membership from SailMail.com.
If you are a ham you might be tempted to use the free ham service exclusively, but please consider using Sailmail as well because of the legal restrictions on the Ham system. Here is a paragraph from the Winlink.org Terms and Conditions (emphasis below is mine) and note that most contacts with marinas, hotels, and marine stores are prohibited:
Examples of such prohibited message content include, but are not limited to: personal business conduct such as ordering any type of supplies or parts, arranging for slips, dockage and repair services, restaurant reservations, personal medical or business appointments, rental cars, airline tickets, or lodging, conducting commercial business, banking or investment negotiations and transactions, or messages supporting business arrangements of any kind, including receipt of subscribed or regularly sent digital information or automated message feeds including messages from paid weather tracking services, etc.From https://winlink.org/terms_conditions
Get the Software
The software package that you will use to communicate with the Pactor and your radio is called Airmail. It runs on Windows.
- If you have an amateur radio (Ham) license and a Ham-capable HF radio, download the complete Ham version
- If you have a SAILMAIL membership and an SSB-capable HF radio, download the complete SailMail version.
- Download both if you have access to both systems and review these notes about the combined Ham/Sailmail version.
Airmail has many features, I will tell you about the ones I know, but there are others I have not explored yet. The major functions I use are:
- WeatherFax – tunes to weatherfax stations and draws the graphic
- Tuning assistance with Propagation Engine
- Send and receive email, including requesting GRIB weather files from saildocs
- Catalogs – pre-formatted requests including updating the HAM frequencies
- GRIB file graphical request
- HF Terminal for connecting to the stations and making the data transfers
Set up the hardware with Setup Wizard
Every time I bring up Airmail I check that the hardware connections to the Radio, Pactor, and GPS are correctly hooked up by using the Setup Wizard under Tools on the menu. After this is completed you are ready to start!
Weather Faxes by Pactor
For years I played around with sound cards and other solutions for decoding weather faxes. As technology improved I downloaded one of the iPad apps for decoding the signals. Finally I realized I had far better technology already on my system! The Pactor solution doesn’t depend on sound quality of the signal but picks up the radio signal directly and sends it to Airmail to draw on your screen and save as a graphic file. So try it out and let me know how it works for you.
A variety of weather fax products are available through the National Weather service and around the world. These products are available at a given schedule each day of the year, around the clock. Download the Worldwide Weather fax schedule in pdf format or select the clock icon from the Airmail Weather Fax Screen (discussed below in more detail).
Weather Faxes are available at a selection of world wide weatherfax sites shown in the image here:
Unlike GRIB files which are raw weather data, Weather Faxes are the results of expert interpretation. They also are excellent for getting an overview of the weather factors – seeing the big picture – rather than just seeing that the wind is increasing over the next day. See the weather systems in play helps you understand where your weather is coming from and how its likely to change.
There are two ways to bring up the WeatherFax function in Airmail, either with the Modules, Get Fax item on the menu or the WeatherFax icon on the tool bar. Each of these messages is shown below.
Once you select the WeatherFax Module, preferably a few minutes BEFORE the scheduled time, the Airmail system will connect to the appropriate station (Point Reyes for Western US and Mexico) and start listening for the start signal of the fax. Make sure the Fax Mode icon button is selected (circled in orange at the upper left of the image below). Then it will automatically start drawing the weather fax once it hears the START signal (part of the fax signal). After the fax is complete and the system hears the STOP signal the graphic will be saved to the Inbox. You can also override the start and stop with the green and red buttons at the right.
Once the fax is complete and has stopped automatically, or by you selecting the red button, the fax image will be sent as a file attachment to a new message in your inbox. Select the main Airmail window and select the inbox.
Unlike your normal internet email program the Airmail message creation is separate from sending the message. This is because the process is much slower than connecting to the internet and sending a messages. So you want to have all your messages created and waiting in the Outbox before Connecting to the shore radio station using the HF Terminal to send the messages.
Once you are connected to the shore station messages others have sent to you will be picked up after your own messages are sent and will show up in the InBox.
The basic view you will usually see when you open the Airmail program is the email folder view – on the left will be folders like Inbox and Outbox and in the
- Address Book (holds the email addresses you use)
- New Message (to write an email)
- Post Message in OutBox (to close an email and prepare it for sending – all messages in Outbox will be sent when the HF Terminal is active.
The process for standard email messages is open a New Message, set the To address, write the message, Post the message. Once messages have been “Posted” they will still not go anywhere until you connect to a shore station using the HF Terminal. Then all messages in the Outbox will be Sent.
GRIB file Downloads by email
GRIB requests are just a special kind of email that goes to SailDocs (accessible from SailMail or Ham stations). SailDocs will respond with an email message back to you with the attached GRIB file. The weather data file can either be viewed stand-alone by double-clicking the attachment when it is received, or by moving it to your desktop and pointing your Navigation software, such as OpenCPN, to the file. Your navigation program will display the weather symbols overlaid on your chart system.
You can sent an email to query@Saildocs.com with a coded message body for the parameters you would like to select. Please see this PDF file for a full description of how to code this GRIB request.
Example: send gfs:40N,60N,0W,20W/0.5,0.5/0,24,48,72/WIND,WAVES
You will need to send out one email with the request, then get back on a few minutes later to receive the reply with the GRIB file. Note that these files can get VERY large so only request the data you need. Once the email with the attached result file is used you can open the file directly or move the file to your desktop and open it with your navigation program (like OpenCPN) if you want to see the weather displayed on top of your chart and current GPS position.
But there’s an easier way to specify the parameters you want – using Graphic Picker packaged in Airmail – read the section below.
Grib Files Using Graphic Picker
Airmail’s built-in graphical picker will create the GRIB-request email for you so that you don’t have to remember the order of the parameters or how to specify them. Click on the Graphical Picker Icon in the tool bar as shown in the image below.
First a map will come up centered on your current GPS position. Drag the corners of the blue box to specify the area that you want to receive weather data for. Then a dialog box will pop up that will allow you to set the rest of the parameters. When you have specified everything that you want, check the Approx size indicator in the bottom left of the dialog box. Then if that looks ok select the Send button. This creates an email and puts it in the Outbox. Then you will need to
Catalogs and Saildocs
Catalogs are pre-formatted data packages and there is lots of weather information available. Explore the possibilities by going to the Window menu, select Catalog and looking around.
Updating the Ham Frequency Lists
One of the useful things to use the catalog for is to update the ham frequency lists. Stations go inactive and others sign on, there are changes in the complete list from month to month. I try to remember to update several times a year.
To update the frequency list, go to the Window menu, select Catalog and select WL2K, Global, WL2K_RMS, and check the box for PUB_PACTOR.
When the reply is received, select it and then open Tools menu and select Make Frequency List.
The Frequency List window will show the Winlink bulletin under the Text tab, listing each station active in the system. If you opened the correct list then click the Update button (at the bottom) to start parsing the list.
Then the click the Freq List tab to view the list in tabular form.
Finally, click the Save button to store the list and make it available to the Terminal Window.
Updating the Catalog Lists
To update the Catalog list itself, go to the Window menu, select Catalog then WL2K, Global, and check the box for Update. Usually you will get the reply in the same connection that you sent the request, but if not just reconnect a minute or so later to get the reply. The catalog is updated automatically when the reply is received.
All the services above create an email request, but nothing will happen until you connect through the radio and send the message. Then if you have requested information you will have to connect a second time a few minutes later and receive the answers.
- Make sure your messages are in the Outbox
- Go to Tools, Propagation to bring up the Propagation Engine (which selects an appropriate station and tunes the radio)
- Go to Modules, HF Terminal to bring up the HF Terminal, listen for traffic and when quiet select GO (green button)
These steps are outlined below with screenshots.
Select a Station
Bringing up the Propagation Engine window will automatically select a preferred station. However you can change this if you like. First select either HAM or SAILMAIL with the folder selector at left. Then under HAM (or sailmail) select one of the stations from the left. They are arranged in preferred strength order. Once you select a station the right pane is filled with the propagation results for all the frequencies that station supports. Along the top runs the Zulu time bar with the current hour selected in blue (1600 or 4 pm is selected in the image above). Find a station that has a strength of 100 or the high 90s for the current Zulu time. Select that frequency at the left of the pane (3591.7, 7067.0 etc in the image above).
Make the Connection for the Data Transfer
Now that you have selected a preferred station you need to bring up the HF Terminal which will tune your radio and attempt a connection to the station. Bring up the Terminal Window by selecting Modules, HF Terminal in the menu or using the HF Terminal icon button. These options are shown in the images below.
When the HF Terminal Window opens (see image below) the frequency will be tuned automatically. Listen for a quiet frequency (avoid rhythmic or chirping sounds) and select the green start button at far left under the menu. A series of commands will print out in the window showing your progress: calling, connected, checking for messages, sending messages, receiving messages, disconnecting.
When the task is complete and all messages have been sent and/or received the connection will automatically close. Now you can return to the main Airmail window and the new messages (if any) will be shown with a fire symbol on the folder that has new messages. Click on the folder to see the messages in the main pane.
If you like the capabilities of Airmail as much as I do send the creator, Jim Corenman kudos and a contribution! And please let me know how you use your Pactor.
AirMail is written and supported by Jim Corenman, KE6RK, a long-time ham and cruising sailor. A computer professional in his former life, Jim and his wife and partner Sue (KB6FRF) live and travel aboard “Heart of Gold”, their 50′ sloop, and stay in touch with family and friends primarily via Pactor. They can be reached by sending email to Airmail Support (include “airmail” in the subject line) or by sending email to KE6RK followed by @winlink.org.http://siriuscyber.net/airmail/docs.htm