SJ23 Tech Tip E14, (Updated 2016-05-18) Bob Schimmel


Cruising With a Personal GPS Tracker for Peace of Mind.

Many loved ones have raced to the dock to wave good bye to an intrepid solo sailor as he shoved off into the great unknown.  The tear soaked handkerchiefs are evidence to the fact that the well wishers are concerned for the sailor's safety.  The sailor, on the other hand, doesn't share the same emotion because he has assessed the risks and taken all possible precautions to equip the SJ23 with survival gear, GPS navigation, a DSC-VHF radio, a radar reflector, working clearance lights, hand bearing compass, charged battery with working solar panels, 2 weeks of fuel/food/water, etc.  This is all backed up with current charts, a Rolex on his wrist, a calibrated magnetic compass and a bottle rum.  Heck, even a float plan was submitted to the harbour master, just in case.  So what's the problem?

Well the problem is that he hasn't taken the necessary step to provide a workable solution for the shore bound human element in this voyage, remember the sweet heart holding the soaked handkerchief on the dock?  She may not know it but once a vessel floats out of VHF range, the sailor can only talk to a passing vessel and hope they pass his position along to a loved one.  This is the only means he has to report his last known position and status, which is somewhat helpful if he needs to be found!  Granted the sailor can extend his radio range with an HF radio (few SJ23s have room for one) or carry a satellite phone (and wait for the orbiting satellite to be overhead before you can get service) or carry a VHF radio equipped with airline frequencies in the hopes you can make contact.  So, given the fact that there may be times when a vessel is out of radio range or the called party is not at their radio, it's no wonder that the worry from shore bound friends and relatives know no limits.  If you think that hospital floors have worn floors in the waiting room, you should see the worn soles of the weeping mistress.  Getting pretty dramatic huh?  Relax, there is a relatively inexpensive SPOT system to report your position automatically to keep your mistress from wearing out her expensive Gucci's!  You no longer have to stuff a message in a bottle in hopes that it survives the great circle route of the Atlantic to wash up on the beach, between her feet.  OK, I've been watching way too much TV.  Beyond this scenario you are going to have to use your imagination!  Also keep in mind that an SJ23 is not rated for sailing offshore, but there are still lots of places you can sail that take you out of VHF or cellular range.

There is a satellite based GPS tracking device (SPOT HUG) available that is relatively inexpensive and can report your position and status to an email address of your choice.  The network service covers the planet 24/7 and provides the same basic functionality as the sophisticated electronics installed on the offshore racing boats that scoot around the world at ballistic speeds.  While the racers have electronics capable of two way communications to instantly send status reports to race head quarters (uplink speed is fast enough to support live video, email and some browsing), you will have to live with the "peasant version" of this service by sending a coded "I'm OK message" once every 15 minutes.  This should suffice the "handkerchief" but capability may improve soon.  While, the solo racing gangs have a manufacturer sponsored professionally installed system approaching $10,000.00, your system will cost only $100.00, plus service fees.  Sounds a lot more tempting huh? 

Here is what the SPOT HUG device can do:

  • Check-in OK status with a programmed message.

  • Track Progress allows you to send (email or SMS) coordinates so your contacts can follow your progress using Google maps. This can also be used to track your boat if it is stolen or has broken away from the mooring. (requires a SPOT account). 

  • Call for help for none-life threatening condition, (SPOT service that costs extra).

  • Send an SOS message for a life threatening emergency.

  • Send a Sensor alert via email or SMS for up to 4 monitors; battery voltage, high water or other external contacts.

 Portable, hand held unit.
 Bulkhead mounted.
 Battery powered.
 Powered from external battery.
 Capable of GPS coordinate related alarms or send a 911 emergency message.
 Satellite based GPS security to protect your boat from theft.  Capable of GPS coordinate related alarms plus 4 external monitors; high water, battery, ignition, etc to alert you via SMS or email.
 SPOT Web site
 SPOT HUG web site


SLICK USE OF SPOT - The predecessor to the SPOT HUG is the SPOT (shown above) which I've used in the Canadian Arctic while supplying communications to seismic crews on the open tundra in the winter.  I can attest to its functionality and accuracy on trackless terrain.  The tracking is so accurate that despite our careful plotting on a chart we finally conceded that the SPOT was way more accurate than our manual navigation.  The marks we pricked off on the chart had translation errors and we had to constantly stop our track machine to write corrections on the chart.  The stopping was frustrating and time consuming.  In the end it was more accurate to simply print the Google map with our "cookie crumbs" (electronic track) it.  This was our first time with the unit and we had to confirm its accuracy at >660N.  With experience we expanded our daily trips from camp well beyond VHF radio range because having a functioning SPOT extended our communications and safety range.  The camp radio operator followed our track on his PC with better feedback than the verbal reports from the walking crews when they were within portable VHF range.  In fact, it saved money because the expensive VHF repeater was not required since the operation of one SPOT unit protected 12 people.  All around, it was quite cost effective and time saving given our situation.  The accuracy is phenomenal.  (I give a lot of credit to Captains Cook and Vancouver for their cartography work.  This work is far more complicated than you think)

SLICK USE OF DELORME Roardpost (formally inReach) - This a later version of a two-way satellite communicator that I used a year later in the Canadian Arctic.  The advantage of this unit is that you can send text messages between two units via satellite.  With the correct mapping application installed on your PC, you can follow a unit moving along the water/ground.  I found this to be extremely convenient to track my buddy in the absence of all communications, which is still the norm in the Arctic and a good part of the rest of Canada. 

The capabilities and services of both units have improved since I used them in 2010.  Both services now have global coverage which is great for a wandering sailor who wants to assure friends and family back home.

NOTE:  To the best of my knowledge neither the US nor Canadian Coast Guard incorporate SPOT (or equivalent) to track a person.  They monitor distress calls via DSC-VHF/HF or EPIRB, voice calls via VHF/HF radio, and occasionally a cell phone call.  Data communications from a DSC-VHF radio or an EPIRB can be displayed on a chart plotter.  Morse Code was shut down in the early 1990s in favour of voice communications.  Currently you can talk, browse, email or text message your way around the world with Starlink, (Space-X based internet service).

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