Using the inReach Satellite Communicator
By Tom Burden, Last Updated: 1/17/19
Satellite Messengers, Satellite Communicators, Satellite Emergency Notification Devices (SEND)—there are lots of terms thrown around to describe small, affordable handheld communication devices like the SPOT Gen3 Satellite Messenger or DeLorme inReach. The aim of this article is to give you a better idea of how these satellite communicators work in a real-world situation. If you’re completely unfamiliar with what they do, you can also check out our West Advisor called Choosing a SEND Device, for the technical details.
Two-way global communication
I chose the inReach SE (which stands for Screen Edition, since it has a small color LCD screen) because it allows two-way text and email messaging, and because it has global coverage. My voyage, completed in October 2015, was a qualifying sail for the July 2016 Singlehanded Transpac, a solo sailing race between San Francisco and Hanalei Bay, on the island of Kauai.
The inReach devices use the Iridium satellite constellation, with pole-to-pole global coverage, Their less expensive competitor, SPOT, uses the Globalstar system, and it covers most of the world, but not the Pacific Ocean region I’ll be crossing next July on my way to Hawaii. If you’re traveling on land in North America, SPOT has coverage that will work for you.
Setting up the inReach
My first task, after purchasing the device, was to go onto the explore.delorme.com web site and create an account. Satellite communicators require a subscription, and have quite a few options for plans to choose from (see below). You can go with an Annual Plan, a 12-month contract at the lowest monthly rates. It’s a good option if you’re going to be using your inReach regularly.
I chose their Freedom Plan, because it only requires a 30-day commitment. That way, I can suspend the service after my voyage, and reactivate it for the Hawaii race in July at no extra charge. You don’t have to keep paying when you’re not using the service.
DeLorme offers four levels of service, costing between $14.95 and $99.95 per month. My choice was the Freedom Expedition Plan, for $64.95. With this plan, you get unlimited text messaging, tracking (at about 10-minute intervals), and location pings (so your friends back home can see exactly where you are, in between tracking location sending intervals). This plan also includes unlimited SOS messages (good grief, ONE would be enough for me!).
You choose your plan, enter your emergency contacts, add your emergency info, and then connect the inReach to your computer with its USB cable to “sync” the device up.
While you’re setting up, you can also create three preset customizable messages, or add to and edit the Quick Text Messages. These canned messages are easy to send, because you don’t need to type in text on the Virtual Keyboard when you’re out in the wilderness.
During my offshore voyage, I made time to regularly type custom messages to my primary onshore contact person. An example:
Tom: About 2NM to Waypoint North! Have been going fast w double reefed main and jib. Heading south!
Kitty: Great progress! Happy you have turned the corner to the next waypoint!
On the fourth day of the voyage, the weather got pretty challenging, with Small Craft Advisories posted by NOAA. The masthead instruments showed wind of 23 to 27 knots, increasing to 31 to 35. There were also 12' swells with wind chop. I didn’t have time to type messages, so just sent a Quick Text Message: “I’m checking in. Everything is OK.” I sent this at regular intervals during this very windy 18-hour period.
After my earlier custom texts, my loved ones began to wonder just a little if, in fact, everything was NOT OK. Luckily, they could follow my track and see that I was on course and moving well. I wasn’t able to chat, but was still sailing! This also helped my shore team in planning when to meet me at the end of the trip.
Below is the MapShare page showing my voyage around the five volcanoes, about 185 miles from California.
Tracking your locations
The inReach devices allow your friends and family to see a track of your locations, with your choice of tracking intervals, from every two minutes to every four hours. I chose to send out track points every ten minutes.
This tracking information is shared on the DeLorme MapShare online web portal. Each of the clickable track points includes your speed, course and elevation. My friends were fascinated with seeing how fast I was traveling (“Wow, he’s doing 8.5 knots!”). You can select who you want your followers to be and choose your desired privacy settings. Of course, the modern world is all about social media, and the inReach gives you the option to share on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Impressions of the inReach SE
Overall, the inReach is a pretty unique product. It performed as advertised, allowing my contacts to track the progress of my voyage when I was out of range of the Internet, VHF radio or cell phone communication. I could communicate by text or email, and friends could check in on the MapShare page whenever they wanted.
With a manually operated EPIRB on my boat, inReach gave me a backup form of emergency distress communication. Next year, when sailing solo to Hawaii, I plan to keep the inReach, but will upgrade to the inReach Explorer, so my contacts can also see waypoints and route information. inReach will then serve as a backup for my B&G Zeus chartplotter for navigation, in case my boat’s electrical system fails. For further redundancy, I plan to carry a Garmin GPSMAP 78 handheld GPS Receiver.
I also plan to add voice communication using an Iridium GO hot spot, which turns your smartphone or tablet into a satellite phone. This will also be my data hub, for downloading weather files. In addition, I will have my old Icom 701 single side band (SSB) radio. This will provide backup voice communication, and allow me to talk with other sailors who are competing in the race event. In a long offshore journey, redundant systems are a must.
Overall, four and a half stars for the inReach SE. It has so many features that it could be a little simpler and more intuitive to operate—more like a smartphone—but it’s a great product.