How to Communicate at Sea When Cell Service Runs Out

In our day and age, it’s hard to imagine not being able to solve any problem with a cell phone. From computing complex equations to communicate via voice or text, to ordering dinner, so much is now accomplished from the palms of our hands.

But there are, shockingly enough, times in life when cell phones cease to function as the all-in-one problem solver we’ve come to rely on them to be. One of those circumstances is when you are out at sea.

Think about it: the only reason that most of us have as much cell service as we do is that cell phone carriers build towers to provide us with it. With more demand comes more supply. Wherever there is a patch of space that lacks the consumer demand, a carrier will make the decision not to throw up a new cell tower and expand service.

Now imagine the ocean: 70% of the Earth with no people on it. The second you sail even one or two miles offshore, your phone is as good as an electronic photo album. How do mariners and those who frequently travel by sea communicate with other seafarers, and communicate with those at the shore? From Moonraker antennas to satellite phones, here are the four primary ways of communicating at sea without cell service.

1. Mobile Hotspot

If you don’t know anything about the vast and complex world of seafaring communication, you’re probably reaching for this answer: bring a mobile hotspot along. It’s what we do ashore when a favorite coffee shop doesn’t offer Wi-Fi or the office loses service for a week.

If you’re traveling from continent to continent, or even from island to island by sea, you need to bring along more than just your phone to provide the mobile hotspot. You’ll want to invest in a portable router that can throw up a limited network for all your Wi-Fi calling, browsing, and email needs.

2. Single Sideband Ham Radio

Amateur Radio or Ham Radio (so-called because of “ham-fisted” telegraph operators in the 19th century) refers to the use of radio for any non-professional purposes, such as communication, contesting, or experimentation.

Most vessels that rely on ham radio utilize single-sideband modulation as a way of transmitting communications from vessel to vessel, though once you get out, the range won’t probably extend far enough to make it to shore. Ham Radio operates like a party line, opening you up to talk to hundreds of other free-going seafarers. Because of that, it’s great for socialization, but not as great if you need to send something like a distress signal.

3. Maritime VHF Radio

VHF radio is essentially the adult version of Ham Radio. Vessels of 65 feet or more are required by international maritime law to be equipped with VHF (or Very High Frequency) radio capabilities.

There are many uses for VHF radio, and VHF marine radio has its own frequency, channels for use (Channel 16 for emergency distress calls and Channel 13 for Bridge to Bridge communication between vessels, for example), and code of acronyms and slang.

VHF allows those at sea to broadcast communications to just about anywhere.

4. Satellite Phones

VHF once ruled the high seas as the primary mode of communication, but in many ways it is limited. You don’t get the full range of expression, nor can you reach as many people, as a regular cell phone can.

Enter the satellite phone. Satellite phones don’t rely on earthbound cell towers to transmit signals from user to user, they cut out the middle man and bounce signals straight off a network of satellites hovering 500-1,000 miles above the Earth. At sea, there’s no safer choice for cell phone replacement.

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