Friday, August 22, 2014

PACTOR + Navigatrix + WInlink. Just works

How do you send position reports, emails and get weather GRIB files when out at sea beyone phone range. There are two options a satellite phone, with high call charges, or a PACTOR modem and HF radio. Tui already has an ICOM M710 SSB radio so what I needed was a PACTOR. I bought mine second hand from the extremely helpful Paul Richards at Radio Exchange in Australia. It shipped with excellent comprehensive instructions and the right leads for my M710. As Tui is still in Denmark and I am at home I wanted to get it up and running  here first and get some experience.

So I connected it to my ICOM 706 ham radio. I also have a computer at home with the same software as the boat computer, the special cruising edition of Linux Navigatrix

The main problem was getting the right cable as it is different from the M710 a 13 pin DIN to 8 (or 5) pin DIN. I had the 13 and bought a 5 from Maplin, but with my 3rd best soldering iron, the poor quality of the plug and my poor soldering skills I destroyed it. I thought Maplin might sell a ready made 5pin DIN lead I could use.
Going in to Maplin asking for DIN plugs I felt like the guy in the not-the nine o' clock news sketch with the man buying the gramophone. "A DIN plug granddad, we only have HDMI cables these days"

So I went down the road to a famous guitar shop Johnny Roadhouse. I remembered musician's MIDI leads have 5 pin DIN plugs and musicians like really nice cables as their music obviously deserves to travel through superior cables and gold plated plugs. Result. Cut the cable and soldered a 13pin DIN plug.

I have to say the nice thing was it all just worked. Using Winlink I was able to send an email to myself and to retrieve a GRIB file. As a radio ham I can use Winlink (which is free but donations encouraged) but the alternative (as a a licensed marine radio operator) is to use SailMail (which is a not-for profit but you have to join $250/y).

I really like Navigatrix. It has exactly the software you need for sailing, all set up so it mainly just works out of the box and has an excellent support community (including special provision for supporting people at sea emailing over their PACTOR). One could of course install all the programs on any Linux distribution but you would spend several days getting it all to work and you would have to know what you are doing.

Its worth mentioning that if you are in the UK the first place to try for yacht HF/MF communications and Pactors is Bob Smith at Yachtcom/Sailcom. He could have sent me the right cable by return if he did not happen to be away sailing at the time, he will also sell you PACTORs and ICOM radios with excellent support. In this case it just happened I got a good deal on a second hand one from Radio Exchange. He also teaches the Long Range Certificate, and doing his course is the least traumatic way of passing your Long Range Certificate. Having done this and my full l amateur radio license the LRC is much easier and less work. If you love sailing but don't really like electronics and radios the LRC with Bob, buying the kit from Bob and getting him to set it up is the least painful route. Then use SailMail. If you love electronics and techy stuff and can just about solder on a good day (like me) the ham radio route is better as you end up with a better idea how to fix things yourself when they go wrong.


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