The satellite phone has transformed long-distance sailing. Our bluewater cruising forebears would likely be stunned by the ability of modern sailors to download accurate weather forecasts, call anyone in the world and send back videos and images from mid-ocean, all from a tiny device.
There are numerous companies out there offering connectivity at varying cost and global coverage.
Buying a satellite phone is, of course, just the start – you’ll also need a SIM card and data plan. These vary considerably in cost and it’s worth spending some time researching the best options for your type of sailing. MailASail have a useful guide to choosing your usage on their website.
Questions to ask before buying a satellite phone
- What will you be using the phone for, primarily? Weather forecasts? Voice calling? SMS? Emergencies only? These will have a bearing on the type of device (see below) and the type of contract/pre-pay deal you end up with.
- Do you need it to have an SOS function, or are you happy with a separate EPIRB, for instance?
- Do you need waterproofing? some of the latest satellite phones are waterproof to IP67, but some older models must be kept dry – an important consideration.
- How important is battery life? If you’ll be mainly using the phone on board with ready access to charging, you may not be as concerned as if you were planning to use the phone in an open boat, for instance – it’s worth a careful look at battery specification.
- Do you need internal GPS? Satellite phones with internal GPS can offer significant peace of mind to family and friends ashore, but this comes with a cost, both financial and to battery life.
Let’s take a look at a sample of the best satellite phones for cruisers available today, varying in functionality and price from basic messaging to fully featured phones.
Best satellite phones available right now
Iridium 9575 Extreme satellite phone
Iridium offers near-global satellite coverage, and the 9575 Extreme allows you to send SMS and email from the phone, as well as make satellite calls.
It has a programmable SOS button to send a distress alert to the GEOS network. The 9575 Extreme is waterproof to IP65 and is ruggedised.
It has an internal GPS for tracking and emergency purposes, and can be used as an access point for internet access.
RRP: £1,155 / $1,150
With each product is a ‘Buy it now’ link. If you click on this then we may receive a small amount of money from the retailer when you purchase the item. This doesn’t affect the amount you pay.
The Iridium GO is a lightweight and portable satellite device that lets you use voice, data and text from up to 5 smartphones over a satellite connection, using the ‘Iridium GO’ App.
Waterproof to IP65, it comes with either pre-paid SIM cards or a monthly contract. The device has a SOS button and a built-in menu and status display and a rechargeable lithium ion battery.
RRP: £720 / $695
Inmarsat is another big name in satellite communications, and their IsatPhone 2 has good reviews. Inmarsat offers near-global coverage, and the phone has around 8 hours’ talk time, an integral GPS sensor, and is IP54 water- and dust resistant.
It has an SOS button for emergency use. Reviews suggest that it’s a good choice if you’re looking for predominantly voice calls – for heavy data use, it’s more cost effective to use one of the company’s impressive FleetBroadband units.
RRP: £599 / $539
Garmin inReach Mini
OK, Garmin’s InReach Mini may not strictly be a satellite phone, in that you can’t use it to make phone calls, but it’s a low-cost messenger that allows 2-way text messaging.
You can also use it to trigger an SOS call to a 24/7 search and rescue centre, and have a tailored weather forecast delivered for a subscription fee. Worth considering as a lower-cost alternative if you don’t need voice or data capability. (See also the SPOT Tracker)
RRP: £275 / $349
Thuraya SatSleeve Plus
The SatSleeve is designed to transform your smartphone (Apple or Android) into a satellite phone by clipping to the phone. You get the apps and interface you are familiar with, access to your emails and usual phone numbers through a free SatSleeve App that lets you interface your phone’s address book.
You can choose various access points to give you the level of compression you need and avoid heavy and expensive data use (heavy compression, low or no compression are the options).
RRP: £509 / $560
Thuraya XT Pro Satellite Phone
Thuraya’s XT Pro is a ruggedised handset that boasts a long battery life, built-in GPS and a large display. Thuraya claims up to 2/3rds global coverage, so it’s important to ensure that your cruising ground or passage area is included – their website has a useful coverage map.
You can make calls and send SMS from the handset and use the phone as an internet access point. There’s a dedicated SOS button that sends a pre-programmed alert to a preset number, not the GEOS service as used by some other brands.
RRP: £949 / $950