No Internet? Use a Radio! Email Access via HF Radio

Before I got involved in a cruising boat I thought of radio being a voice transmission device. You know, you talk on it, you hear other people talk on it. When pressed I had to admit, yes, I know that they used Morse Code on the radio, too. I mean I’ve seen war movies from WWII, so I know about that. Oh, and weather fax, yes – that’s when an audio signal is used to draw a weather map. Seems weird but very useful. But Email access via HF Radio?? I would have said that email is a different animal than radio.

But little did I suspect that just a few years later I would be using the HF Radio mostly for Internet Packet Data, including email access. What is packet data? It’s a way of sending data over a network, which is basically what the internet is. So, ta-dah, the HF Radio, by using a Pactor Modem can speak internet for you. Now it speaks internet VERY slowly, but you didn’t want to spend time on Facebook while you’re cruising, did you?

What can you do with internet access via HF radio?

So the radio internet is too slow for Facebook, what can you do? These are the most essential services we use daily on Phoenix:

  • download weather files
  • read and send email (no images)
  • automatically update your location to YOTREPS or Winlink (Ham radio users only) so your family know where you are. They will need to look you up by your ham radio call sign. This is like a free personal EPIRB tracking your location!

What do you need to get email access via HF Radio?

  • HF Radio (Ham, SSB or both), antenna, grounding etc
  • Pactor Modem (translates audio to data packets)
  • Licenses depending on usage (see chart below)
  • Software (Airmail or RMS Express) running on PC

What We Use Aboard Phoenix

pactor modem used to get intenet access via hf radio

Pactor Modem

So on Phoenix we use our Pactor Modem connected to the ICOM 735 which can access both SSB and Ham stations. (Read an article about how to connect a Pactor Modem and other devices to your onboard laptop.) We have our Ham General class licenses that give us the right to use much of the HF spectrum (the first level license, Technician, is mostly for voice communications on VHF and UF parts of the spectrum – for HF you really need the General class). We use Airmail Software to talk to the Pactor modem (it can also use your wireless signal when you are ashore).

If you have a ham radio you will be connecting to Winlink stations and if you have a Marine SSB radio you will be connecting to SailMail stations. If you are lucky to be capable of both kinds of radio transmission you can use the same installation of Airmail to talk to both kinds of stations. However, make sure you have the applicable licenses for each system (see below).

Airmail also has an excellent GRIB weather file downloader and viewer. I use the downloader but I prefer to view the weather files on Coastal Explorer so I can see the weather overlaying my navigation charts. Airmail’s viewer is called ViewFax and is very good if you don’t use electronic charts. It is included in the download of Airmail.

And if your Airmail is configured to use the GPS connected to your PC, or you choose to enter your position manually, your lat/long will automatically be sent to YOTREPS or Winlink (Ham radio users only) mapping systems for your family to follow your progress.

Update 2016

Airmail has a big better brother. RMS Express now does everything Airmail does and handles all Winlink capabilities. I’ll review it separately once I’ve had a chance to use it. From the site:

RMS Express also contains manual and automated GPS position reporting abilities, support for the Winlink catalog of downloadable weather, information and help bulletins, Saildocs and Globalmarinenet for obtaining GRIB files, and a propagation prediction program to help determine which of the participating Winlink RMS gateway stations are best to connect to from anywhere on earth.


Winlink – a free worldwide system for sending and receiving data packets (email and weather) by radio via Ham stations

SailMail – a worldwide system for sending and receiving data packets (email and weather) by radio via SSB stations with a yearly fee for its members.

Airmail – a software program that allows a user to send and receive emails on Winlink and/or SailMail stations. It also aids in the download of weather files. 

RMS Express – a software program developed by Winlink to replace Airmail. Both systems are still used so try both and see what you prefer.

Brief overview of Ham/Winlink email vs SailMail email

Both systems require a radio modem. The much faster Pactor III is worth the software upgrade if you have a Pactor II. If you are buying a Pactor new (very $$$), and money is not an issue, get the P IV and I will drool with envy. It’s about twice as fast as the PIII.

Ham / Winlink SailMail
Radio type Any ham (amateur radio service) radio Any marine SSB radio.
Membership Costs No cost $275/year
License Required General ham license for each user FCC station license for the onboard radio, not for the users. $160 for 10 years. Restricted RadioTelephone License for one person on board. $60.
Type of Email Personal, non-commercial email only. NOT for work! No restrictions
Transmission size Limits for email messages No size limits Pactor III: 10 kbytes/msg
Pactor II: 5 Kbytes / msg
Transmission size limits for grib files No size limits Pactor III: 30 kbytes/msg
Pactor II: 15 Kbytes / msg
Transmission limits No time limits Up to 90 minutes / week connection time
Station Count > 45 stations world-wide 20 stations world-wide
Frequency List These change from time to time. Get Latest Pactor Frequency List Updated from the program or see article on SailMail Frequencies

Useful Links

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