A Perspective by Capt. Alan Spears
It used to tickle me. Some self-proclaimed sailor or electronic wizard tests a gadget and says "yay" or "nay" whether it works. I'm no longer tickled. I'll read all future endorsements with a wary eye. The reason: a gadget that works on the dock or in a protected yacht harbor may have limitations at sea. Case-in-point: my Magellan GSC-100 GPS/Satellite Communicator. Long before this gadget received final FCC approval for sale to the public, Magellan placed one in the hands of Gordon West, who writes for Santana magazine. He gave this gadget high marks. Subsequent articles appeared in other mags, the most recent of which is an article by editor Tom Queeny of Ocean Navigator. Says Queeny: " . . . Like Inmarsat C, Orbcomm is a worldwide system, and the built-in GPS receiver allows you to position-stamp your messages."
Queeny, an accomplished sailor, doesn't mention whether he ocean-tested this gadget. Moreover, had he tested it between 62 and 65 degrees N. Latitude, he'd have reached the same ultimate conclusion regarding remote-region performance as did I. In reliance upon these myriad claims and, with the expectation of staying in touch with loved ones and friends while at sea, I eagerly plunked down $1,100 to propel myself into the 21st Century. Before heading off to the Bering Sea the first unit failed, and I was given another. It too failed, and I was given a third. The folks at West Marine San Diego are very helpful and understanding! Unlike some of the journalists and gizmo-freaks who've written laudatory articles about the GSC-100, I bought this gadget to perform in a harsh remote ocean. It wouldn't. Despite what journalists have written, the claims Magellan makes, or what any sales person tells you, I found my particular GSC's GPS performance in the extreme northern latitudes abysmal!
It wouldn't operate with any degree of reliability in the extreme Northern (and presumably Southern) latitudes. It was significantly affected by local geography, not doing well in town (San Diego, Long Beach, Anchorage, Bethel, and Nome) because of buildings. In fact, its acquisition time paled in comparison to my $100 Magellan "Blazer 12", and my 10-year old Trimble "Ensign"! I tested them in San Diego side-by-side for hours before leaving for Alaska. As for my GSC's e-mail messaging capability, or "GlobalGrams", the gadget performed reasonably well just off San Clemente Island, and in the San Pedro Channel. But in the Bering Sea, where I desperately needed the GSC as a vital link to home, it was virtually useless.
In my opinion the Magellan GSC-100 is an excellent concept. But mine flunked the seamanship test in the Bering Sea. More importantly, however, is my sincere belief that this gadget is nowhere near reliable enough to be considered a "stand-alone" GMDSS or SOLAS communication device. Magellan's web site contains a sea story about a distress message and rescue. This may have been pure luck! I'll take an ICOM Single-Sideband any day over a Magellan GSC-100 in a survival situation! My GSC's telescope antenna, antenna coaxial connection, and rubber flapper cover for the external power connector eventually broke during my hitch in the Bering Sea.
Since my return to civilization I have found a practical less-expensive -- albeit limited -- alternative to the GSC-100: Cellular phone text messaging. Anyone on-line with a computer can send a text message (up to 100 characters) to my Sprint PCS cell phone. Unlike my GSC-100, this method of e-mail messaging is ultra-fast. If the message is sent from the Sprint PCS Messaging web site at: http://www.messaging.sprintpcs.com it only takes a few seconds. Astonishing, eh? This is indeed a powerful communications tool. Moreover, cellular text messaging completely eliminates the need for carrying either an alpha-numeric or text pager. There are, however, obvious limitations to cell phone communications in the marine environment. On San Diego Bay, for example, the signal will skip across the water and calls are lost. My Sprint/Samsung SCH-2000 phone's tiny antenna will not support a signal for more than a mile or so offshore.
Sprint PCS has very good Customer Care Advocates, and an interactive Internet site for existing customers. During the past 2 years I've had a few connectivity problems in San Pedro, CA which were beyond the expertise of the Customer Care Advocates and Tech Support. But in each case I was routed to a communications engineer who promptly addressed and resolved my queries. Dialing Seattle, Portland, or New Orleans from Long Beach or San Diego as a local call certainly saves money. My only criticisms of Sprint's customer service are that more often than not you have a lengthy wait on the phone during normal business hours to speak with a Customer Care Advocate, and they're lousy about answering e-mails sent from www.sprintpcs.com.
What made the Magellan GSC-100 so attractive to me was having the stand-alone capability to send and receive e-mails. Oh well. . . Similar -- albeit limited -- technology also exists in the form of the Nokia 9000 Communicator. The Nokia 9000 with Microsoft Windows CE and connected on http://www.pacbell.net permits full Internet access. To insure continuity of communications while traveling offshore, I recently purchased a Kyocera Iridium pure satellite cell phone using Stratos service. This phone also receives text messages (e-mail), and sports a wide variety of very sophisticated features. There are lot of new high-tech gadgets to keep mariners amused. The time-honored expression "caveat emptor" certainly applies to these toys.