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Radio E-Mail Connects Ships to Shore

November 22, 2001

Sue Corenman for The New York Times

HEN Jim Corenman wants to get in touch with family and friends while out in the middle of nowhere aboard his 50-foot sailboat, Heart of Gold, he doesn't reach for any newfangled satellite or cellular equipment. Instead he fires up his oldfangled shortwave radio, hooks it up to his laptop computer and starts sending e-mail.

Mr. Corenman and his wife, Sue, have been sailing the globe for 11 years on Heart of Gold. They are among thousands of active cruising sailors who use nonprofit radio e- mail networks to communicate with one another and those on shore.

Shortwave radios, more commonly known today as high-frequency (HF) radios, have long been popular with wandering sailors. And digital protocols for sending Teletype text messages via HF radio date from World War II. But it wasn't until the Internet revolution of the 1990's that text messaging via radio became practical for cruisers.

Mr. Corenman, a retired computer engineer, gave radio e-mail a big shot in the arm in 1997 when he published AirMail, an advanced e- mail terminal program he distributes free.

Since then, although a desire to get away from it all is a big part of what motivates sailors like the Corenmans, the convenience of being able to send and receive e-mail at little or no cost from anywhere in the world — even the middle of an ocean — has proved irresistible. Modems capable of sending data over radio connections and laptops loaded with AirMail are now considered essential equipment by many long-distance cruisers.

"Radio e-mail has freed us from worrying about the folks back home, and they about us," said Mrs. Corenman in an e-mail message sent from a remote anchorage in southeastern Alaska. "We no longer have to rush to find a phone when we make landfall to let everyone know we made it. It works well, too, for vital spare parts we need along the way. When our refrigerator compressor went out on us in Indonesia, we ordered a new one via e-mail from New Hampshire, and it was waiting for us when we reached Bali."

Several enterprising companies have tried to exploit this market, but so far efforts to commercialize service for recreational mariners have been unsuccessful. One reason is that ham radio operators and cruising sailors belong to tightly knit communities and like to help one another. They share their technical knowledge freely and have had no trouble creating and maintaining their own radio e-mail networks.

The largest such network, Winlink, offers service at no charge and consists of 31 volunteer ham mailbox stations scattered over the globe. According to Steve Waterman, who operates two stations from his home in Nashville and is also the Winlink network administrator, the system currently handles more than 80,000 messages a month and has 3,300 users, about 80 percent of whom are sailors.

Of course amateur ham radio by law is strictly noncommercial. But sailors can also send HF radio e-mail through what are known as marine single-sideband (SSB) frequencies. SSB radio can be operated for profit and can carry business-oriented traffic.

Still, the most popular SSB e-mail network for recreational mariners is a nonprofit cooperative called SailMail, which charges a flat $200 annual subscription fee to cover costs. SailMail was formed in 1997 by Mr. Corenman and Stan Honey, an ocean- racing sailor who navigates high- profile vessels like Roy Disney's Pyewacket and Steve Fossett's PlayStation, which recently set a trans-Atlantic speed record. SailMail currently has 11 automated mailbox stations and more than 1,100 users.

One commercial common carrier, Globe Wireless, has had success providing SSB e-mail service to large commercial vessels but prefers not to enroll recreational mariners as subscribers.

"They are naпve, service-intensive users generating low levels of traffic, and Globe would just as soon have nothing to do with them," said Vic Poor, a Globe consultant and investor.

Mr. Poor, a former cruising sailor, developed the first Winlink system before becoming involved with Globe. Through him, Globe has helped the recreational market service itself by providing technical and logistical assistance to the nonprofit networks.

"It's all a question of support," Mr. Waterman said. "If you're trying to make money doing this, you want your support people talking to Exxon's tanker fleet, not some guy sailing around in a little yacht somewhere."

But another common carrier, PinOak Digital, has pursued the recreational market and has tried to hinder the growth of nonprofit SSB e- mail.

Through threats of legal action, PinOak succeeded in 1999 in thwarting the startup of an SSB e-mail cooperative planned by Mr. Waterman and the Seven Seas Cruising Association, a nonprofit organization with a membership of some 11,000 cruising sailors. PinOak failed, however, in its efforts to block SailMail's application to the Federal Communications Commission for additional station licenses to expand its network.

Since then, SailMail's membership has grown steadily. PinOak, meanwhile, has stagnated. Recently reorganized under new ownership as SeaWave, the company is currently believed to have only about 300 users. Don Black, the new chief executive, declined comment on this, but said SeaWave would be focusing more on commercial vessels.

Satellite phone companies are another natural competitor for the radio e-mail networks. But they have failed thus far to fulfill their promise of affordable global wireless communications.

"Our assumption when we started SailMail was it would take the satellite companies two years to make bandwidth a cheap commodity," Mr. Corenman said. "I am no longer convinced satellite bandwidth will get cheap anytime soon. The capital cost is too high and the market too small. Satellites may be a viable option for business and government users, but HF radio will continue to be the best option for the low-end market."

And the nonprofit organizations seem to be the best bet for operating the e-mail systems. "Cruising sailors are by nature a very cooperative group of people," Mr. Honey said. "It's perfectly appropriate for us to fill this need on a cooperative basis."

By CHARLES J. DOANE, Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company


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