Staying in Touch

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2016 • all rights reserved

There just aren't cell towers out on the water -- or in many great cruising anchorages. So how do we stay connected with family and friends?

How do you stay in touch with friends and family when you’re out of cell phone range?

  • Internet – email, Facebook, Facetime or Skype, among others — if and when you can find a wifi signal that’s fast enough and strong enough . . .
  • SSB or ham radio – email or a ham phone patch – but the equipment and installation is costly and there’s quite a learning curve (and a test for a ham license). Can’t be moved from boat to boat for charters.
  • Satellite phone – email, text, voice, limited Facebook – but the phone is expensive as is the airtime. Less of a learning curve and also very portable.

Aboard our first boat, Que Tal, we relied on internet cafes, a few paid wifi subscriptions in anchorages and SSB and ham radio. I’ve known many people with sat phones, too. All of those are good options, but what if you want more than just “finding wifi” but don’t really want, need or have the budget for SSB/Ham or a satellite phone?

That’s where the DeLorme inReach fits in. It’s a satellite tracker and text communicator that’s small, portable and very low power consumption. The learning curve is almost non-existent: if you are comfortable texting and using simple apps on a smart phone, you’ll pick it up in no time. While not cheap, it is definitely less expensive than an SSB, ham radio or sat phone and is very portable – you can take it on shore excursions, too!

UPDATE June 9, 2016: You can now get weather forecasts (land and marine) via the inReach at very affordable prices. Read more here.

We got one just last week for our trip to the Bahamas. It’s great for a lot of reasons:

  • 100% global coverage – you’re never out of range.  It uses the Iridium satellite network. You can, however, turn it off when you desire (and you can choose what, where and when messages are sent).
  • Start the tracker whenever you get underway and friends and family can see your progress. You’ll be given a link to share your tracking map and you can decide to just give it to a few people or as many as you want (ours is very public, as I have a link in the sidebar and on Facebook). You can even make it so that it’s password-only.
    • Great for friends and family who might not be familiar with your cruising grounds as it shows your location on a map that can be zoomed in and out.
    • Peace of mind for family who are worried for your safety.
  • Post a message on the map when you start and end a journey to let others know your plans and that you’ve arrived safely. We usually post something along the lines of “Heading to _______ (__ miles away)” and “Anchor down at ______”. I try to include towns, islands and distances.
  • You can also post messages along the way – “Just caught a 36” mahi – dinner’s going to be good!”
  • You can post messages to Facebook (your personal account and a maximum of one Page that you manage) and Twitter – the link that accompanies the message will show where you were when you sent the message, but NOT your whole track. Again, I try to include towns, islands and distances so that people with limited bandwidth don’t have to click on the link to see where we are.
  • You can send private messages – basically a text message – to any text-enabled phone or to any email account, and they can reply to you via text or a browser on their computer.  Perfect for keeping that promise of “I’ll let you know that we arrived safely.” There’s a limit of 160 characters per message. (Dave likes the private messaging for asking his son how his favorite teams are doing, too!)
  • Family and friends can also initiate private messages to you if you have given them your link.
  • Finally, there’s an SOS feature that puts you in immediate contact with DeLorme’s search and rescue center, which will both notify authorities covering your location and confirm back to you that they received your call for help. It doesn’t replace an EPIRB but with the two-way texting capability, you’ll be able to give more details of the situation and know that help is on the way. Two-way text messaging could be life-saving in a medical emergency, as doctors could give immediate advice. Want more info on the search and rescue capabilities? Read here.

A few more details . . .

You can pair the inReach with a Bluetooth-enabled smart phone or tablet (Apple or Android) and use the larger keyboard to compose and send messages (you can do everything from the inReach unit, it’s just a lot easier to do it on a device with a larger screen!). Documentation with the unit will tell you how to download the EarthMate app to your phone or tablet and how to connect the two.

You need a computer with browser and internet access to set up your account. It’ll take you anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours depending on how familiar you are with setting up apps, how much testing you do to try the tracking and checking that others are getting your messages, etc. DeLorme has excellent videos showing how to set it up.

You buy the inReach device and then set up the account, which has various month-to-month and annual plans to choose from.

Two inReach models: the Explorer, which has the capability to have waypoints and routes, and the SE which does not (tracking, messaging and SOS capabilities are the same). Since we already have multiple GPS units, a chartplotter, GPS enabled phones, tablets and laptops, we opted for the less-expensive SE. I think that’s probably a good choice for other boaters – the Explorer is designed more for backpackers and the like who don’t want the weight or space of multiple gadgets. You can buy the unit at many marine stores, outdoor stores and from Amazon (purchases from Amazon through this link do pay a slight commission to The Boat Galley at no extra cost to you):

Service plans: once you get the unit, you sign up for a service plan on the Delorme site (documentation with the unit explains how to do it; you can’t sign up for the plan until you have the unit as you need various numbers off it so the unit is associated with your account). You can get a monthly service agreement (higher fees but turn service off when you’re not using it) or annual plan (lower charges but one year minimum commitment).

Within each category, there are various levels of service. We opted for the Expedition plan, which offers unlimited text messages as well as tracking and SOS messages for $50 a month; the next lower level offers 40 text messages for $25 a month on the annual plan. We think we want the unlimited messaging so that I can post messages to The Boat Galley’s Facebook page when we’re out of cell and internet range, but frankly it’s impossible to tell until we’ve used it in remote areas.

  • See all plans here – everyone’s needs are different and I really can’t recommend which will best serve you!

And here’s the link to see where we are and where we’ve been since leaving Marathon!

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  1. That is really interesting!! I wonder if this would work in the mountains. …….

    • Yes, it will. Anywhere that you have a good view of the sky. The only place where I know coverage can be spotty is at the bottom of deep canyons where you only see a slice of sky. But even there, if you climb up just a bit, coverage improves dramatically.

    • Awesome!! I work at a camp in the Adiorondacks where there is NO cell service for miles around. When a group of girls go out for their backpacking trip, this could be invaluable for safety and communication!

    • Ann Snider Absolutely. That’s one of the things it was designed for.

    • I did some more research and this is EXACTLY what we need! Thanks for posting this!

    • We used ours on a 13,000 road trip across the US last summer and throughout the Bahama this cruising season. Our family liked being able to see where we were and that we could text anytime. We take it with us hiking as well in the boat for access to help when tgere is no cell service. One of the best investments we have made.

  2. Merran Sierakowski, this may be what we need.

  3. Rei has them 25% off sometime soon

  4. I get there there are emergencies. And I get that there are some people who are REALLY tight with their families.

    But NOT being in touch is one of the reasons I haul anchor.

  5. Timely!! Thanks for great tip.

  6. Karon Conkling says:

    Thank you for sharing this, please keep us updated as you use it. My husband is a merchant marine, who right now is on a ship which just left St. Thomas with horrible satellite service. I have to admit I did a bit of a happy dance to hear about this product. We have a mobile home park in Forks, WA which has poor to no cell service, hmm, I think I figured out how to use this as a tax right off!

    • Will do! I’ll be posting on the Facebook page with it and will also report on texting people, too. The biggest thing I’ve noticed so far is that the unit has to sit upright for good service (they tell you that in the book). Laying it down on a counter doesn’t work!

      • KARON Conkling says:

        I just ordered and again I am so thrilled you posted about this. I also sent a .pdf version of this post to the Admin. for the Captain of the Golden Bear, CSUM’s training ship. Sure hope that you get a nice commission. FYI the State of California has a maritime academy in Vallejo, CA and I think that having one of these on their training ship is an excellent idea for a “just in case” scenario.

        • Thank you! And yes, I think it’s a great emergency device. While not cheap, it IS affordable unlike many other satellite communication options — and I love the ease of setting it up compared to other devices!

  7. If we hadn’t had the sat phone for one email a day while my husband was sailing from the BVI to Long Island, I would have been a complete and total mess. Being able to follow his dots on the map and communicate daily helped tremendously. Highly recommend for peace of mind.

  8. Weather? The main reasson we have winlink and sailmail is to receive weather reports — the most important communications we receive. This doesn’t seem to provide access to GRIBs and the weather reports it does provide can get pricey, I believe.

    • No, it does NOT include weather unless someone will relay it to you. This is a lesser/different type of service. In the Bahamas, for example, we can get good weather info via SSB receiver and VHF and many times via internet too. This is a way to stay in touch with family and friends but if you need more robust weather info, this is not the device for you. That said, we know many people who use one crossing oceans (in addition to SSB/ham and/or sat phone) so that more people can see where you are and see short messages on the tracking map, plus it’s one more communication device if say your SSB goes down (lose your mast, for example, or the radio just goes on the fritz).

  9. We are trying to decide between this unit and the Iridium Go. I wonder if you considered the Go and if so, why you chose the Delorme instead?

    • We didn’t really consider the Go for our purposes. I’ve looked at them a little in the past, am certainly not an expert, but it seems to me that they’re more powerful (can get weather, send longer messages, voice calls, etc.) but work best when paired with a good tablet (we have a small tablet that’s trying to die, it won’t pair with the laptop), it’s more expensive, doesn’t have the easy tracking feature that we wanted to use and in general has a much steeper learning curve.

      For what we’re doing — just in the Bahamas — the inReach seemed better suited to our needs. Heading out across the Pacific, I’d take a much harder look at the Go.

  10. Al and Tina Schmidt says:

    We love your site. Thanks so much for the info on the Delorme. Al and Tina

  11. Pere Riera Vicens says:

    Dear Carolyn, great article! The more complete I find in the need about the Delorme. I have some questions :
    1-The preset message price price list say “unlimited”. This is that can I send “preset” message without cost or also need pay to send it?
    2- when you receive a message from someone, you need pay for it or it’s free and only pay for “send” ones?.
    Thanks in advance!
    Pere Riera
    SV Caracol.

    • 1-yes, the preset messages (which you must set up on a computer ahead of time) are free.
      2-when you receive a message from someone, it uses up one of the “text messages” that you have in your plan. If you have unlimited text messages, of course, it’s not a problem. If you have a plan with 10 or 40 text messages, you have to pay for any messages over that number each month.

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