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Personal Satellite Based Message and Location System

Dear Dr. IT, I recently scared the day lights out of my wife when we returned nearly five hours late from a fishing trip. Wind and sea conditions kept us at low speeds and there was no cellular coverage until we were very close to home. We fish regularly and I fear this could happen again. We are in a smaller boat with minimal electronics and electrical power; is there any way to put my wife and family at ease? – Bob J., Trinidad

Bob, I hate to admit it but I scared my wife as well just a few months back when we arrived two and one half days late from a long sail passage, and she was not a happy camper. I was in trouble, but not that much. Why not? Within a few minutes, she had our exact location. How? Two words: the SPOT.

Before I go further I should say that I am not affiliated with SPOT in any way. I own an older SPOT and am a very happy user; honestly, this may be the best $150 I have spent in my boating life!

The SPOT is a personal, satellite-based message and location system, all packaged in a case just bigger than a deck of playing cards. Simplicity rules the design which operates on 3 AAA batteries and is very easy to use.

Of course there are other options such as a satellite phone, full satellite networking gear or a SSB radio, but all of these solutions do not mix well with a smaller fishing boat. These also require extensive installations and may be beyond the budget of many boaters. So how does the SPOT keep family in the know of our position and safety?

It works by collecting the unit's GPS location and sending this back to the SPOT servers on the internet; this data is sent back to the servers via momentary satellite communications—so a clear view of the sky is necessary for the unit to function correctly.

The SPOT allows the user to send a few different basic messages preprogrammed by the user, one for life-threatening emergencies, one for non-critical emergencies, one to say all is well and one for a custom message. These messages are all initiated by the button push of the user and delivered either to specific email addresses, or directed to emergency services as required. These messages also include Latitude and Longitude coordinates.

While not allowing complete communications, these messages would allow enough communication with family and friends to ease any tension that may occur if you were running late, or to summon emergency help if needed.

Perhaps the neatest feature of the SPOT is called the track progress mode. In this mode, the SPOT sends a message with location information back to the SPOT data centers every few minutes where they are stored. This location data can then be viewed by the SPOT owner or anyone they allow by logging onto a URL in their web browser. The track path is displayed on Google Maps in real time, thus providing family and friends an up to date location of the user and a great level of comfort knowing their family and friends are fine. If desired, the historical location data can be exported in multiple formats for reuse in plotting applications.

Bob, order yourself a SPOT, it is cheap insurance for your marriage! Even if you do not keep it on in track mode while fishing, at least keep it onboard. If you are running late or have an emergency, simply push a button to communicate. I have sailed over 4000 miles with the SPOT onboard running in track mode, rarely has the system missed updating our position to the servers on the scheduled increments. Due to this reliability and the added communication features I consider it more valuable than an EPIRB in overall safety.

Got technical problems? – send your Dr. IT questions to editor@allatsea.net.

Dustin Norlund lives aboard his Hylas 49 and has sailed extensively in the Caribbean and Central America. His career started in mechanical engineering and airline operations, and he is now involved in IT and software solutions. Dustin has also worked in the marine electric and electronics trade. www.nadagato.com or hylas49@gmail.com.

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