SPOT gone mega, and FLIBS


Check out the full screen shot for a modern take on the noon position. The world’s largest NMEA 2000 network, i.e. the yacht Sandrine, is experimenting with a Spot Messenger while on passage to Fort Lauderdale. Instead of using Spot’s tracking feature, like Flash of Beauty did, Captain Jay Kimmal (below) is using Spot’s OK message to send an email/text to friends and family every three hours, and the messages are also collected on Sandrine’s share page above. The cost, of course, is trivial on a yacht like this, but Kimmal may have had to put the messenger on deck somewhere to get a consistently functional sky view. Wouldn’t it be nice for boaters if Spot II had a bracket and ports for an external antenna and power feed? 

I know nothing about future Spot developments, but do think the current model is a bit awkward on boats, particularly bigger ones. I just passed my second Spot sample unit to Panbot Russ Irwin, hoping he’ll show us his tracks as he wanders off on New Morning, but I don’t think he’s found a good home on deck for it or the time to figure it out (please encourage him!).
   Sandrine, by the way, will be amongst the Hargrave fleet showing at the Fort Lauderdale show. But if you want an informed tour of its Octoplex system, I’m told it’s best to first check in at the Moritz/Maretron booth. Which electronics aficionados will want to visit anyway, as Maretron is introducing some really interesting NMEA 2000 products, evidenced in its 2009 Catalog, downloadable here. I don’t know a better place to see where N2K is headed.
   As I write I can see via Spot (which, Navagear reminds us, is not a PLB) that Sandrine had Wilmington, NC, on her starboard beam at 9 pm, a few minutes ago. Tomorrow she might turn up on the SiiTech AIS Viewer. Capt. Kimmal, by the way, had some good ideas about extended AIS usage. He wants his charting program to allow him optional longterm target tracking so he can use it to monitor how well nearby vessels are swinging to their anchors in a blow and also to follow friendlies on tricky passages like the Bahamas Banks. 



Ben Ellison

Ben Ellison

Panbo editor, publisher & chief bottlewasher from 4/2005 until 8/2018, and now pleased to have Ben Stein as a very able publisher, webmaster, and editing colleague. Please don't regard him as an "expert"; he's getting quite old and thinks that "fadiddling fumble-putz" is a more accurate description.

10 Responses

  1. Microship says:

    Licensed hams have a free alternative to SPOT in the form of APRS… there are sites that collect position packets relayed via ham radio and show them in a Google map context (one even auto-refreshes, displays tracks, and saves 6 months of history.
    I use a small off-the-shelf tracker called the Rtrak, which transmits a .5 watt signal on 2-meter VHF… though I also have a homebrew one that puts out 25 watts. Often the packets do not make it to any digipeaters, but the servers show when the last report was received and I advise friends not to be too alarmed if I seem to be stuck somewhere. An HF frequency is used when people wander outside the range of VHF; still no guarantee, but it can work worldwide.
    Cheers and 73,

  2. Phil Koken says:

    Great point about APRS Steve, but the coverage becomes an issue once you are cruising abroad 🙂
    Using HF is not trivial, certainly not compared to punching a button on a hand held device.
    Phil N6VKJ
    S/V Samadhi V

  3. spot user says:

    I have a spot messenger and used it on my 1000mile sailing trip this summer. Family and friends loved the ability to follow my trip in real time.
    I’m happy to pre-order the Spot XL device, and happy to specify it as well:
    requirements for Spot XL
    -external antenna
    -external 12v power input
    -user configurable “ok” status frequency:
    a) hourly
    b) every 10 mins
    c) “ok” status triggered when threshold of distance travelled from previous location, e.g. 0,10 miles / 1 mile / 10 miles
    -PC USB port to configure options

  4. Ben Ellison Ben Ellison says:

    Do you mean the tracking option turned on by holding the OK button down for 4 seconds? I don’t think Spot will give up the extra revenue of that option (have you seen the GSAT stock price!) by making a plain OK message into auto tracking.
    But they sure could improve the tracking option by letting the user configure track times and distance threshold as you suggest. Actually it could be done now at their Web site (where they could just throw out 5 of 6 track positions if you wanted). They could also add speed/heading calculations to the Web presentation.

  5. Microship says:

    Phil – you’re right; HF is not trivial… though I think of this sort of ship “facility” as something that can be built into the boat with a dedicated whip cut/tuned to the correct frequency, and a rig used only for this. Firing up the 802 and reconfiguring for APRS would be way too fiddly for something that should just happen quietly in the background.
    It boils down to a matter of philosophy, I think. I tend to shy away from things that embody the “latte factor” – a steady drain of money – as well as things that require a corporate infrastructure that can simply be turned off. Of course, a boat is already a steady drain of money, so maybe I should let go of that idealism! 😉
    The counter-argument is correct as well – SPOT is an appliance, easy to use and supported. APRS is geeky and an open-loop crap shoot, especially on HF (with connectionless packet lacking even FEC, packet length is sometimes pushing the fading interval in nasty propo conditions).
    By the way, I blogged on my APRS use aboard with the little half-watt rig (scroll down to “tracker magic”)… but this was admittedly in a populated area with pretty good coverage (nice image here. Upping the power and using a decent antenna would significantly increase performance, but even that would become pointless offshore without changing to HF, which is definitely much harder.
    73 de N4RVE

  6. Phil Koken says:

    As someone who is living and cruising upon a boat 100% of the time I am not sure I agree with your “Latte Factor”. I have a finite amount of time, and I could spend it fidding with the 802 to get APRS reports, or I could buy a SPOT and pay the fees. The fees are high in my opinion, but what is my time worth? Wouldn’t I rather spend that time doing something else (rebuilding the head as an example)? LOL
    I guess my idea of a “Latte Factor” has changed greatly since starting cruising. The costs associated with reducing stress are worth more than I had anticipated prior to leaving.
    We don’t own a SPOT. We do have an Iridium phone with a data kit. So far we have gotten by with Wifi and Winlink for e-mail. We keep our loved ones up to date with e-mail position reports for now.

  7. Microship says:

    Yeah, you’re right… it has to be hassle-free or it won’t happen after the novelty wears off. I would not mess with the big-gun 802 for that, except for fun; I’d use a canned tracker. But I just remembered that location data piggybacks on Winlink 2000, and those positions are all gated into the APRS network. So there’s another channel.
    The VHF tracker was a steady companion on my recent trip because it was an appliance, with the only user interface being a circuit breaker. The HF one would have to be likewise, but that *is* technically do-able with a dedicated rig and whip antenna tuned to 10.151 MHz, with an old TNC running 300 baud. But the rig has to have very precise tuning, since it’s SSB, not FM.
    A bit too much of a bother, I admit.

  8. rxc says:

    On my transatlantic trip in the spring, we tied the Spot to the cockpit table, and every change of the watch, the offgoing watch “pushed the button”, to send a signal every 3 or 4 hours to friends and family that we were OK. I thought the cost was fine for such a reassuring device. The only problems was a dead “spot” in the middle of the Atlantic where the Spot satellites did not pick up the signal for 22 hours.
    I also had a HF rig on board, to receive WEFAXes and talk to Herb, and it worked past the Azores, but I would worry about being able to talk to a ham from that sort of distance. I know it can be done, but the satellite comms seem to be better for simple “OK” messages.
    And, of course the EPIRB was there in case of real difficulties.

  9. rxc says:

    One more thing. I changed the batteries in the Azoers, but it was just because I was producent, not because I needed to. I think the batteries I originally installed(Li cells) could have worked for 7 weeks, all the way across the Atlantic. And the SPOT device was on all the time that we were underway, probably 5 weeks, in total.

  10. Russ {I think --- ed} says:

    Well I did turn it on and it generated a few tracking messages, but since I’m tied to the dock for another two weeks I’ve shut it down. I’ll do some more configuring when I get a chance.
    From what I’ve seen, it’s not very yacht friendly from a mounting or operational stand point. I’ll probably end up taping it to the pushpit which is a pretty lousy installation. This device was made for a hiker, not a boat. For installation in a boat I would expect:
    – external power
    – external antenna
    – configurable tracking frequency (triggered by distance OR time – e.g., every 20 miles or 3 hours) that tracks until it is told to stop.

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