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e-mailing at sea from boats CruzPro Ltd.
207 Whau Valley Road
Whangarei 0112
New Zealand
Tel: 64-9-459-1922

Internet: http://www.cruzpro.com

Cruisers, Electronic Mail, Ham Radio and Computers

Receiving mail has always been a problem for blue water cruisers. When your mail finally does catch up with you it is invariably weeks or even months-old news, not to mention the mail that never gets there. Commercial radiotelephone services are expensive and not totally reliable. Ham radio phone patches fill some of the gaps but many countries do not allow third party traffic and often phone patches are of poor quality. What cruisers need is an inexpensive, convenient, and reliable method to send and receive mail in a matter of hours or at most days. This capability exists and is called digital communications or "electronic mail". This mode of communication is described by exotic sounding acronyms such as AMTOR, APLINK, and PacTOR.

According to the 1992 Seven Seas Cruising Association Equipment Survey, over 50 percent of cruising boats now carry ham radio. This number is increasing as the necessity of this capability becomes more well- known. What used to be a novelty 20 years ago has become an important part of a cruiser's equipment inventory. Using shipboard ham radio for electronic mail is in it's infancy but growing quickly and within the next five years it will become common as the advantages become known. On Guinevere, we send and receive mail several times a day through electronic mailboxes located worldwide. We keep in contact with friends and relatives and other boats with a minimal investment in equipment. This method has proven to be totally reliable over the past 10 months as we sailed from San Diego to Mexico, the South Pacific, and finally New Zealand. We have never been out of contact with the U.S.A. and average one or two letters a day.

The equipment required to implement digital communications is a ham radio, just about any type of computer, and a Terminal Node Controller (TNC). TNC's costs about US$250 and connect the ham radio to your computer. Other benefits of the TNC are that in addition to AMTOR, APLINK and PacTOR capability, most TNC's also provide Weather FAX capability. Some TNC's provide for other modes of communication such as Slow Scan Television (SSTV), PACKET, CW, and Navtex. The only modes we will discuss are AMTOR, APLINK, and PacTOR.

AMateur Teletype Over Radio (AMTOR) communication is not difficult and can be learned in just a few hours. Instead of talking to someone else over your ham radio, AMTOR connects your computer to another ham's computer and you type on your keyboard and see the response on your computer screen. The advantage of AMTOR over talking on the microphone is that AMTOR works well ćeven when propagation is poor and signals are weak. AMTOR will get through when no other means will work and you can use worldwide relay stations to accomplish this automatically with hardly any effort on your part. This is where the word APLINK comes in.

Amtor Packet LINK (APLINK) stations are ham stations who's equipment are set on automatic operation to receive, store, and send AMTOR messages without operator intervention and APLINK stations can forward your messages automatically from one station to another until they reach their destination. There are numerous APLINK stations located around the world and you can connect to one or more of these stations just about any time of the day or night. You can use any of the APLINK stations to send and receive messages. Many of these stations have powerful transmitters and beam antennas which enable them to link to stations not directly available to your radio. Mail forwarding is automatic and there is no charge for these services.

To send outgoing messages, just connect to any APLINK station where propagation allows and download your message with a forwarding address (more about addressing mail later). To receive mail, the party sending the mail must know which electronic mailbox (MBO) you use to receive mail and address your mail accordingly. If you decide to change the MBO where you receive mail, no problem, just send an AMTOR message to your old MBO direct or via another MBO and have your mail forwarded to your new MBO of choice. Let your contacts know the new MBO address when convenient and your mail will take the most direct path possible, often arriving within hours. We once received mail that was posted at the originating station only minutes before! Once, when my wife Wilda (KA6IVB) needed a recipe for homemade sourcream, we got a response to her request within five hours. Her electronic mail traveled from Guinevere to Australia to Oregon (via some unknown route) to San Diego and back automatically within five hours.

The person you are sending mail to does not necessarily have to be a ham. In addition to regular electronic letters, APLINK stations allow for shorter National Traffic System (NTS) mail similar to a telegram. NTS mail is forwarded just like regular APLINK messages but the forwarding address is an individual's address and telephone number instead of another ham station's call sign. A participating local ham (probably unknown to you) will deliver the mail by telephone and can offer to take a return response message. Once NTS mail has entered the American Radio Relay League (ARRL) National Traffic System, it is forwarded by whatever means gets the mail there quickest. Single SideBand (SSB) voice contacts, CW (code), Satellite communication, PACKET, or a combination of these and other communication modes are used by NTS mail forwarders. NTS mail is very formal and very reliable. It is also possible to address your outgoing mail in such a way that it is automatically routed through an "Internet Gateway" and will arrive on your friend or relative's home computer via the Internet - just like regular e-mail. With a little training, your relatives and friends can also use the gateways in reverse, sending mail to you on your boat. To use this advanced technique, talk to a local ham or call a radio club, they usually bend over backwards to help.

To address APLINK messages you follow a simple addressing scheme that is internationally universal. Regular APLINK mail is always addressed to another ham station at whatever MBO that station checks to look for incoming electronic mail. For example, if I want to send an APLINK message to my friend Allan KC5LT located in San Diego, I link up to any APLINK station in the world and tell that APLINK that I want to send a private message to KC5LT at W7DCR.OR.USA.NA, the receiving MBO. That is the only information needed by that APLINK to forward the mail. The forwarding address tells the APLINK that W7DCR is located in Oregon, U.S.A., North America. My letter is automatically forwarded to W7DCR and is stored there awaiting KC5LT's checkin. When KC5LT checks into W7DCR MBO, it tells him he has mail waiting and Allan downloads the mail to his computer file.

Similarly, people address mail to me by specifying they have mail for N6ID at VK2AGE.NSW.AUS.OC which stands for VK2AGE located at New South Wales, Australia, Oceana. The mail will get to VK2AGE and await my check-in. I usually check for mail twice a day and am not often disappointed. APLINK mail is especially useful when someone needs to get a hold of you fast or to relay important time-sensitive information. Ham nets are great but you have to be on the air at a certain frequency at a certain time to connect and even then propagation may not be there. With APLINKs you can communicated at any time on your schedule.

Mail can be private or public. If you specify that the mail is private, only you, the MBO operator, and the intended station will be able to access the message. Public mail can be directed to everyone or just a certain interest group and usually involves information of interest to certain groups such as ham or computer equipment buy/sell requests (legal within reason), literature requests, equipment warnings, bulletins listing APLINK stations and frequencies, etc.

When propagation is good, AMTOR can be used to make direct connects to your intended ham station. If your desired link has their equipment on and is in monitor mode, you issue a connect request and their computer will automatically link to yours. You can "keyboard" live to your heart's content. I have keyboarded live to Allan (KC5LT) while he and his wife Nedra (KB5RCD) were driving their computer-equipped truck through midwest U.S.A. while we were sailing in the South Pacific. Another time we keyboarded live while they were enroute to Catalina on their boat and we were crossing the Pacific on our way to the Marquessas.

I usually prepare my letters ahead of time with a wordprocessor and simply download the entire file to an APLINK station. I have combined the individual files into a single large file that has become a splendid defacto log of our trip, highlighting the most interesting parts of what has happened to us.

A PACKET/AMTOR hybrid called PacTOR is beginning to replace AMTOR communications because of a number of important advantages. PacTOR is similar to AMTOR and is supported by a growing number of APLINK stations. PacTOR is better because it enables faster communications, tolerates interference well, offers more reliable links and allows exchange of computer programs as well as messages. Some TNC's have PacTOR capability built-in, others may allow upgrading the TNC to PacTOR.

TNC's are advertised in ham radio magazines. Manufacturers of popular TNC's are MFJ, Kantronics, AEA, PacComm, and others. Make sure that the TNC you buy is supported by software for your particular brand of computer. Communication software can be as simple as a free public domain or inexpensive shareware modem program or dedicated special purpose software designed especially for your TNC costing U.S. $50 TO $150.

Third party traffic is illegal from many locations, but using APLINK stations to relay messages to another ham is not considered third party traffic. If you have messages for non-hams you can use APLINK stations that are in areas that have third party agreements with the USA as long as you are not transmitting from within the territorial limits of a country that does not allow third party traffic. If you are more than 12 miles offshore even third party traffic should be legal. This means that the ham you send the message to can call your friends or relatives on the phone and relay your message to them and get return mail for you. Your participating friendly ham could even upload/download your mail to other land line telephone based computer modem services such as MCI mail, RBBS, COMPUSERVE, INTERNET or FIDO-NET enabling your friends or relatives to access, send and receive mail from and to you via their own modem equipped computer - think of the possibilities!

Bert P. van den Berg, N6ID



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