Category Archives: Using SailMail

How to operate SailMail over SSB

Using the Icom M803 with Sailmail

Icom’s new M803 Marine SSB Radio began shipping in early 2020 and is a terrific radio for use with Sailmail. It supports the latest DSC standard, incorporates Icom’s latest SDR radio designs, and also includes GPS (internal or external) and provides that data for position reporting. Any of the SCS modems are supported.

Connection is similar to Icom’s previous marine radios, with audio and control cables commecting radio to modem: One for the audio signals and a second cable for radio frequency control. While the M803 has the same “ACC” connector as the earlier M802 and M710/700pro radios, it is not compatible and a different cable is needed for the AF/MOD connector. Here are the details:

Modems: Any of the SCS Pactor modems including the DR-7400 or DR-7800 Pactor-4 modems, the PTC-IIIusb Pactor-2 modem, and any of the earlier PTC-II modem-series.

Cables: The audio cable is Farallon #9098 (2M, or 9099 for 4M). This is a new cable for the M803 (details below). Connect this from the modem’s “Audio” (“Main Audio” for the DR-7800) to the radio’s “AF/MOD” connector and plug the 8-pin DIN plug into the radio’s “ACC” connector (for 12V power).  The 9090 cable used on most Icom radios for the “ACC” connector cannot be used. The audio level settings should be 900/1200 for FSK/PSK respectively. Airmail’s “autoset” function has been updated and works well for the M803.

Frequency Control: The radio’s “REMOTE” frequency-control connection is via a standard RS232 serial port and can be connected to the modem with a Farallon #8083 cable (2M, or 8084 for 4M). Connect this from the modems “Control” connector to the radio’s “REMOTE” connector. Alternately use a standard serial cable from a computer serial port (or USB/serial adapter) to the radio’s REMOTE port (9-pin male-female). The M803’s Remote-ID is 20, and the baud rate is 4800 (avoid the higher rates).

Ferrites: It is important (with any radio installation!) that ferrite chokes be installed at each end of both cables from the modem to radio, and also at both ends of the USB cable from computer to modem (does not apply with a bluetooth connection). The ferrites should be located near each end, use a small cable-tie to prevent them from sliding down the cable. It is also a good idea to add a cable-tie around the ferrite itself to make sure it stays closed. The recommended ferrites are Type-31 material from Fair-Rite.

Modem setup: The only setup required is for a PTC-IIIusb/DR-7400/DR-7800, if you want it to power-on with the radio (and of course you do): Set Dip Switch #1 on the back of the modem to the DOWN position to power on automatically when the radio is powered on. 

Radio settings: Check the following settings in the radio’s setup menu. To change a setting press the radio’s MENU button , then use the arrows or the big knob select the setting and press the “enter” (ENT) key, then repeat for each sub-menu:

  • MENU > Configuration > Remote > Interface: Select RS-232C. Leave baud rate set to 4800 bps. Verify that MOD is set to AF/MOD.
  • MENU > Configuration > GPS > Internal GPS: Verify GPS, GLONASS and SBAS are set to On if using the external GPS antenna (see below).  
  • MENU > Configuration > GPS > External GPS: If an external GPS is connected via the BNC connector then verify the baud rate: 4800 for most connected GPS receivers, 38400 for a connected AIS receiver.
  • MENU > Radio Settings > Auto Tune: Select ON (assuming the AT-140 Icom auto-tuner is used). 

Other notes: The M803 has a Noise Reduction feature (under Radio Settings menu), it is recommended to leave this off for radio email– the modem has its own digital signal processing. Similarly leave the NB Level (noise-blanker) setting at minimum, and leave the RF-Gain setting set to max (9). Also use high TX-power mode (soft-key menu)– reducing transmit power will slow the connection.

Position Reporting: The M803 needs to be connected to a GPS in order for the DSC distress function to work– either using the radio’s internal GPS with a connected antenna, or (same as the M802) via the GPS-Data BNC connector from an external GPS. Where the M802 kept this data to itself, the M803 transmits the GPS data (from either source) via the REMOTE connector to the computer where Airmail (ver 3.5.054 or later) will pick it up.

What this means is that once GPS is connected to the radio for DSC, Airmail can update your lat-lon whenever Terminal window is opened, and Position Reports are updated automatically. Multiple formats are available including MarineTraffic to continue your AIS track offshore, CruisersCafe for Yotreps-style updates, and Sailblogs for a comprehensive tracking/blogging site.

 

PredictWind Weather via Sailmail

The PredictWind weather service is popular with offshore sailors, and with a paid PredictWind subscription  weather forecasts and routing can be requested via email including access via Sailmail. Our Airmail software version 3.5.054 onward (from January 2020) streamlines access, but any older version can also provide simple access to PredictWind forecasts. Any method of connection can be used: SSB radio, Iridium or Inmarsat handsets or terminals including the Iridium GO.

The first step is to create an account on the PredictWind website, http://PredictWind.com. A free account can be used to access basic weather via the web, but a paid account is required to request weather via email (or direct with the Iridium GO).  Then download and install the PredictWind Offshore app, this is used to both request and display weather data.

Then read the how-to info in the Offshore help menu or on the PredictWind website to set your waypoints, adjust the grib area and request files. Pay attention to file size, large files are fine via wired or WiFi internet but small files are needed via satellite or radio. And while an unlimited data plan for the Iridium GO avoids unexpected airtime charges, the connection is still pretty slow.

Practice with Offshore via a WiFI connection. Adjust waypoints and the grib area as needed, click “Download” and make the desired selections , then select “Web” and click “Download All”. This will fetch weather directly via the web, great for planning but useless at sea.

To access PredictWind via Sailmail, first create a folder (if not already done) for exchanging requests and data. Do this by opening Windows Explorer, open the “Documents” folder and create a folder called “PredictWind”. Airmail (from ver 3.5.054) will find this and use it automatically.

To send a request via Sailmail, proceed as above except select “Email” instead of “Web”. Click “Save File” and save the “EmailRequest.pwr” file in the “PredictWind” folder under Documents.

Airmail 3.5.054 automatically creates an outgoing message with the request-file attached. Connect to Sailmail to send the request, wait a few minutes and connect again to retrieve the reply files, which will be saved into the same PredictWind folder. Now go back to Offshore and use the File menu to open the files.  Sort by date (click the “Date” column in the file-open box), and select the files that were just retrieved– a “pwu” file and one or more “grb” files. Offshore will show a wind graph, click “Map” to see the grib display.

For earlier Airmail versions, create an address-book entry for “PredictWind” with an address of offshore@predictwind.com. Use this to create a new outgoing message, and then attach the request file using Airmail’s “File” menu and “Attach FIle”. in the file-open box, open the PredictWind folder under “Documents” and select “EmailRequest.pwr”. Connect to Sailmail to send the request, wait a few minutes and connect again to retrieve the reply files. Then open each reply message and copy the attached file to the PredictWind folder under Documents. Then open them from Offshore’s File menu as above.

PW gribs are standard grib files and can be viewed with any viewer including our Viewfax software, and likewise grib-files from our Saildocs server or other sources can be opened and displayed in PW Offshore.

And again,  pay attention to file size. Large files are terrific  for planning when you have wired or WiFi internet, but offshore communications are slow (and expensive for satellite airtime), so small files are needed via satellite or radio.

And remember that if you are using PredictWind from a phone or tablet, you can also access Sailmail via that phone or tablet using your PC as an onboard mailserver with Airmail’s MailServer function.

 

Recommended Operating Practices

LISTEN FIRST.  Before you transmit, be sure to listen carefully to be sure that there is no traffic in progress.  Sometimes the chirps  or periodic rasping sounds only come at 4 second intervals, so listen for a while.   If there is traffic on frequency, you will not be able to connect, and your attempts will just delay the traffic that is already underway for the duration (1 minute) of your call.     If you hear “chirping” or a periodic “rasping” on a SailMail frequency then the station is in use; DO NOT TRY TO CONNECT.

Keep in mind that the SailMail stations (with certain exceptions such as KZN508, VBV2222, OSY, and VZX) have just one transceiver that scans the frequencies looking for a call.  These stations therefore can only handle one connection at a time.  Many members find it convenient to tune around and listen on all of the frequencies assigned to the station that they want to connect to, to see if the station is busy.  If they hear that a station that has just a single radio is busy on a frequency, it is fruitless to call that station on another frequency (it doesn’t cause interference, it is just pointless).  Instead,  wait until the station is available, and then call on whichever frequency that you figure will work best.  If a station is busy, consider trying another station.  If you connect in the late afternoon or evening at a high frequency, you can connect to stations that are quite far away.

If you tune around and do not hear somebody else using aa single-radio station, go ahead and try to connect.  If the station does not respond it is either because the station is busy on a frequency that you cannot hear because there is no propagation to you at that frequency, or it could be because there is no propagation at the frequency on which you are calling.  If you are trying to connect to a multiple-radio station, just listen to make sure that your frequency is not in use, and then try to connect.

Not listening first, or attempting to connect to SailMail on a frequency that is already in use, is counter-productive, lubberly, pointless, rude, un-shipmatey, and violates International Telecommunications Law (as well as common sense).  We are open to creative suggestions for ways of further clarifying this point.

It is ok to call on a frequency where a station is just finishing a connection.  Be aware, however, that just because you hear the station identify itself in Morse code, the connection may still be in progress.  The stations transmit their identification in Morse code itself every 7 minutes DURING a connection as well as at the end of the connection.  If you call on a busy frequency, when another member is connected to the station, you will not be able to connect and your attempt may delay the traffic that is already underway.  Your fellow SailMail members will be able to identify who you are, and you will be known forevermore as a heel and a lubber.  Net, DO NOT call when the station is busy, and DO NOT reflexively call when you hear a Morse ID.  Instead, wait to make sure that it is the end of your fellow member’s connection before you call.

If you are connected to a SailMail station and some thoughtless heel tries to connect during your connection, do not disconnect.  Let your connection continue.  If you are using Pactor-III or Pactor-4 your connection will typically not be interrupted.

Be careful when you address your messages, and double-check the internet email addresses (including the “cc:” addresses) before sending.  In some cases you may not receive a “bounce” message in response to an incorrectly addressed outgoing email; the message will be delivered to a stranger.  Don’t guess at friends’ email addresses.  Instead, send an email to a mutual friend and ask for the correct email address.

Fully charge your batteries JUST PRIOR to using SailMail.  Marine SSB’s are intolerant of even slightly low battery voltages, particularly when sending data.   By trying to connect to the SailMail station with anything other than batteries that are fully charged, you are wasting your own time and batteries, as well as using more station time than is necessary.  You will occasionally hear vessels whose signals sound garbled or distorted (unsuccessfully) calling the SailMail station.  This garbled sound is generally caused by calling with batteries that are not fully charged, but can also be caused by RF getting into the Pactor-modem/radio wires or by over-driving the radio.

The system automatically computes a running average of your connect time over the last 7 days.  Limit your usage to a running average of 90 minutes per week.

Carefully control access to your SailMail email address.  Give it only to responsible friends and family members.  NEVER post your SailMail address on a website.  If your SailMail address does get posted on a website, it will get “harvested” by the “trawling” programs that spammers use to find email addresses from the web, and you will start to receive spam messages within a day or so.

Instruct your correspondents not to forward to you Internet jokes and frivolous emails.  Ask them to refrain from putting your SailMail address on chain-emails, jokes, postings to Internet news-groups, websites, or widely cc’d emails that will attract SPAM to your SailMail address.  If your SailMail address ends up on SPAM mailing lists, your SailMail account will become useless because it will become too time consuming for you to download all of the SPAM in order to get to the few messages that you really want to receive from close friends and family.  If you maintain a website with your cruising newsletters, do not allow your SailMail email address to be visible on the website.  If it is, it will end up on SPAM mailing lists.  Before you joined the SailMail Association, there was never a single SPAM email sent to your SailMail address, and the SailMail Association never releases any member’s email address to anyone.  If SPAM starts, it is because of something that you or one of your correspondents has done.  If one of your correspondents does err, and your SailMail account does end up on the SPAM lists, contact sysop@sailmail.com and we can change your SailMail email address.  This will require you to inform your (desirable) correspondents of the new address.   It is far preferable, however, to avoid the problem in the first place.

If you want to distribute email newsletters to multiple email addresses, use SailMail’s relay service.   This is a far better approach than putting many cc’s on an email which will often cause your email to be rejected as SPAM.

Keep a regular internet email account, and use it as your primary email address for all but your closest friends and family.  Use this regular account for long or non-time-critical messages and for using as a return address when ordering items via the Internet.  If you want to post an email address on a website, use this (non-SailMail) address..  You can check this address from time to time when you have regular access to the internet.    You can also check messages on this regular internet email account via the SailDoc’s Shadowmail service.

Under NO circumstances should you set up your regular email account to automatically forward messages to your SailMail account.  If you start to receive lots of unwanted messages, your SailMail account will become saturated and you will not be able to use SailMail to send and receive the messages that you really care about.

Inform your correspondents that the Internet, HF communications, and electronics on sailboats, are not perfectly reliable, and so if they stop hearing from you during a passage they should not panic and they should not call the Coast Guard or other authorities.  If the Coast Guard calls them, however, inquiring about your whereabouts and why your (registered 406) EPIRB is going off, THEN they can panic.

When you are in a major marina use  internet access via your boat computer, or use “Webmail” via a public computer  to retrieve your SailMail messages at an Internet Cafe or other location where you can get access to the Internet.  When your vessel is in a marina your SSB will work poorly due to the presence of nearby masts and rigging, and due to the electrical noise of the adjacent city and vessels.  If you are able to connect to the SailMail station at all, your traffic will be transferred slowly due to the rotten signals, and your SailMail transmissions will interfere with other vessels in the marina as they monitor voice SSB weather and nets.

If you are in a marina or harbor with  nearby vessels, and MUST use SailMail, be certain to avoid the times of the marine and ham cruisers’ nets to avoid causing interference with them.  You can also dramatically reduce the interfering “splatter” caused by your SSB if you make sure that your batteries are FULLY charged when using SailMail, and if you reduce the transmit power of your SSB somewhat.    You will find that reducing your transmit power will have little effect on your transfer times; indeed many hams routinely run at 25 or 50 watts transmit power when using Pactor.  A reduction in transmit power, in conjunction with using fully charged batteries, will dramatically reduce the interference that you cause to  nearby vessels.

Do not sign up (via your SailMail address) to services that routinely send you email messages (stock quotes, Yotreps, weather).  If you sign up to one of these services, and then travel ashore for a while or are otherwise unable to download your messages, your SailMail account will become useless because there will be so many messages queued on the station for you that you will not be able to get to the messages that you are really interested in.  Similarly, do not sign up (via your SailMail address) to subscription news services or other “broadcast” internet email services.  There are other communications technologies that are better suited to receiving general news; for example get your news by listening to the BBC.  SailMail station time is best used for personal email communications for which there are few inexpensive alternatives for non-hams.  It is OK, however, to subscribe to weather via the Saildocs service.  That service, in conjunction with SailMail’s servers, is smart enough to expire out of date messages to you so that you will only receive the latest Saildocs weather forecast even if you don’t connect to SailMail for several days.

 

 

Addressing and Sending Messages

To Send a Message:

In the Message Index Window click the “Format a New Message” Button.
You will see the Address Book, if there is no entry for your recipient, click “New” and then fill out the form, setting “Email Gate” to EMAIL, and “Post Via” to SAILMAIL. Click OK.
In your message, make sure that “Email Gate” is set to EMAIL. and “Post Via” is set to SAILMAIL.  (NEXUS also works ok for “Email Gate”.)
Put only one internet address on the To: line (replacing any template chatter).
You can put multiple internet addresses on the cc: line, with each address separated by a COMMA.
Type your message into the window below the subject line.
To post the message, click the Post Box button (Post the current message).
To send the message, go to the Terminal Window (press the blue globe button), check that the “handshake” button is pushed in,  LISTEN, and if the frequency is clear, click the green button.
Remember that all internet addresses contain exactly one “@” sign, contain no spaces, and have at least one “.” to the right of the @ sign.  Carefully check your To: and CC: addresses.

Messages sent from the internet to your boat should be addressed:
CALLSIGN@sailmail.com
Where CALLSIGN  is your boat’s marine callsign which should look something like WXY1234
Encourage your correspondents to carefully address their email to you.  If they send email to your SailMail address and they incorrectly type your callsign, they may not receive a “bounce” message, depending on their typo.