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Starlink and updating our onboard systems and network

Our stay in Belfast was a great opportunity to do a little maintenance and focus on making a few changes and improvements to communication systems we have onboard.

Snow Bear was already very well equipped with VHF and HF Radios, IridiumGo, Mobile 4G and the ability to connect to shore based wireless hotspots. So we were always contactable by text or voice to those ashore and had the ability to contact emergency services and other boats – should the need arise.  We also had access to up-to-date weather routing, and we broadcast our position track using PredictWind. In fact, we had fast (unlimited) Mobile 4G Data & Wi-Fi Calling for over 90% of the time thanks to our Digital Yacht equipment and roaming SIM from EE. 

picture of digital yacht 4g pro installed on a boat
Digital Yacht 4G Pro and WL510

In Svalbard we found that our McMurdo Navtex Unit failed. We almost dismissed this equipment as non-essential until one of our buddy boats told us over VHF, that they had picked up over Navtex that the Norwegian military had planned live firing exercises over a relatively large area of sea between Svalbard and Mainland Norway. Avoiding this was one of the reasons our return passage from Svalbard was to Lofoten rather than the shorter distance to Tromso in Northern Norway.

There were two lessons we learned from this; firstly the need to fix the Navtex and continue to use it to monitor navigational warnings and secondly, that having fast Internet accessible when away from mobile coverage areas would make our lives better, safer and as well as allowing us to work in the most amazing locations on the planet.  

We also decided that we should not be totally dependent on our IridiumGo for tracking and position reporting as this had proved somewhat unpredictable due to it being installed below deck. Its external Iridium antenna worked perfectly to guarantee a connection, but the internal GPS unit embedded in these is poor and annoyingly the unit has no facility to connect an external GPS antenna! 

Navtex V3 Antenna Upgrade

The first job was to replace the antenna for the McMurdo Navtex. The new V3 antenna needed an additional reciever box installing between it and the NAV6 display but this was pretty straightforward following instructions provided by Barry at ICS Support.  It allowed the use of the existing cabling for much of the installation. This is now working perfectly.

picture of McMurdo Navtex weather station
Navtex ICS6 running with the new V3 Antenna

Adding Starlink to our Digital Yacht 4G Pro wireless and wired networks

After a little research and a few chats with boats that were using Starlink, we decided it was time to take the plunge and add this to the boat. We opted for the 2nd generation kit as this is reported as being less power hungry than the 3rd generation. Also Starlink had some as-new refurb kits for £199.00 so the initial investment was relatively low. 

starlink antenna installed on a boat
Starlink dish fitted on the boat

Physical Installation was easy, the Starlink dish is mounted on the stern rail using a modified fishing rod holder. We decided to install it with a dedicated 250W Victron Inverter with a remote on/off panel rather than hooking up to our main 240V Inverter circuit. We didn’t feel that the minimal power saving achieved by modifying the system to run on 12V was worthwhile and we were not so keen installing cheap Chinese aftermarket parts to provide the PoE that all the information online suggests. Our Starlink with Ethernet adaptor is wired directly into the WAN port of the Digital Yacht 4g Connect and the Starlink wireless router is disabled, we have also turned off the heating function.

Turning our Starlink on and off is simply a case of switching the dedicated Victron Inverter on and off.

One of the great benefits of the Digital Yacht 4G Pro is that it has automatic failover built into the firmware. We have configured the failover with Starlink set as the priority connection, so turning on Starlink also means our main onboard network automatically switches to  Starlink, and in turning off Starlink the network automatically switches back to 4G. 

Using the Digital Yacht WL510 Wireless extender is still possible by swapping over the Ethernet cables plugged into the Digital Yacht 4Gs WAN port

We have had this up and running for about a week now, and so far, and are very pleased with the results. We are currently on Starlinks Mobile Regional Subscription so not a priority service but our typical speeds are >50Mbps download and >35Mbps upload so very workable high speed internet.

Starlink app that shows the internet speed

PredictWind Data Hub and Tracking

Our family, friends and followers love to be able to keep an eye on our progress and see that we are safe. We also love to have an automated track of our boat that will be accepted by customs throughout the world as evidence of our country departures and arrivals. PredictWinds tracking service meets these needs but with less dependance on our Iridium Go when away from shore-based mobile communications, the addition of a Data Hub from PredictWind fills the gap and gives us several additional benefits: 

  • The hub uses our boats instrumentation data and sensitive GPS antennas to provide a far more accurate position for tracking, and it has its own GPS antenna that we have mounted in a good location for a position fix when we turn off our boats instruments at harbour.
  • The hub continues to record tracking when connections are offline, uploading it when a connection becomes available.
  • The hub allows us to broadcast our position, and our boat speed, wind direction and strength via Starlink, 4G or Iridium.
  • The hub is also continuously uploading our boats performance data to create an optimised AI Polar unique to our boat and our sailing style that is then used to produce the most accurate weather routing plans.  
  • The hub is providing us with long range AIS data, currently set at 50NM (Potentially 300NM) so we can now “see” over the horizon, likewise our AIS position is being transmitted over the internet so we can also be seen over the horizon. Before we could see boats within 5NM on the Raymarine plotters and now we have AIS to 50NM on the plotters and our iPads. 
Ais data over the horizon
Long Range over the Horizon AIS

Physical installation was relatively straightforward, and we have ours physically wired into our Digital Yacht Network via WAN/LAN. We have physically wired into our NMEA 2000 Network to receive our instrumentation data. We could have connected over wifi, (as we already have NMEA data on the network via a Shipmodule duplex module) but the LAN/WAN option and hardwiring into our NMEA data seemed more robust and it leaves the wireless connection free for us to connect to the Iridium Go as an automated failover for tracking and weather forecasts.

picture of predictwind data hub installed on a boat
Predictwind data hub installed behind our switch panel

Configuring the software was a little more complex because of our existing hardware setup but the support from the service team at PredictWind has been excellent – they can also connect remotely to troubleshoot and check settings.

We have also configured and tested PredictMail (compressed email) and PredictChat (compressed messaging) as alternatives to Iridium mail and SMS services.

A simple but effective firewall is configured to block all traffic except PredictWind Forecasting, Tracking, AI Polar data, AIS over the horizon, PredictMail and chat, plus any domains we specify to be allowed. The hub has its own Wi-Fi and LAN ports so we can connect devices when offshore on limited connections and not worry about excessive data use and unexpected bills. 

PredictWind Professional

PredictWind professional version has a lot extra info for planning your cruising days

We are also evaluating (and loving) the professional version of PredictWind. We have been using the standard version for a couple of years and really value the departure planning, weather routing and tracking features, it has also worked reliably with our Iridium Go. So we were a little unsure if we would see the value of the pro subscription (double the cost of the standard version) but so far we are very impressed.

The higher resolution GRIB’s for all the weather models and high resolution departure and weather routing are excellent and the AI Polars, Tidal and Ocean Currents and Wave Partition Data bring a new level of detail into our passage planning, its certainly interesting to see predicted roll, vertical acceleration, and slamming incidence for our planned passage.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, combining old tech like Navtex VHF and HF Marine radios with modern tech like Mobile, Starlink and Iridium gives us the best possible range of communication tools for work, leisure, planning & emergency situations, we think we now have a very workable setup that has tons of redundancy built in. We will definitely keep our iridium GO up and running (on PredictWind’s Go-Basic subscription giving us inclusive tracking) as this is still the best last ditch emergency communication device, but we are really looking forward to testing this new setup as we cross the Atlantic on the Viking Route in 2024.

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