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The case for RadioFax services.


A version of this text first appeared early in 2001 following the Cessation of the Bracknell Radio Fax.; The original page has now been subdivided for ease of updating and, I hope, reading. Those who sail around the coast and close to safe harbours, or who are always able to receive weather forecasts using VHF, telefax, Internet, telephone and other sources may wonder why or if a low-tech system, such as Radio Fax, has any role in our modern age of digital communications via satellite. This page summarises the needs, as I see them, for adequate Radio Fax services around NW Europe, the Mediterranean and Eastern Atlantic.

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Working for certificates of competence, whether voluntarily as in the UK, or in a mandatory sense as in France, skippers of small vessels learn to understand and use meteorological information including synoptic charts. This is because of the need to make decisions regarding their actions afloat for several days ahead. Such decisions can be for efficient passage planning but, more importantly - although they are closely linked - they are also for safety reasons.

This applies to those crossing the Channel, Irish Sea, North Sea, Biscay, or in the Mediterranean as much as those on longer ocean passages. These decisions will depend greatly on the weather. Forecasts out to 5 or more days ahead are probably the most important consideration. To make informed decisions, such forecasts should be as weather charts of isobars and/or wind arrows. Comprehensive text forecast can be almost as good and the ideal is probably a

combination of both. Forecasts of sea state over the same period are very useful additional information

In recent years there has been a very welcome increase in the amount of data available that can be used by the yachtsman. There are the GMDSS services of NAVTEX and the INMARSAT SafetyNET™. There is a comprehensive cover of MRCC/MRSC VHF/MF stations around much of the Western European coastline. There are HF broadcasts (some using SSB). There are Radio Fax and some Radio Teleprinter broadcasts. Finally, of course there is the Internet with its large, some would say confusingly large, amount of weather information in text and chart format.

What broadcast information is available to the yachtsman at sea?

For very many yachtsmen there is little problem in that, while ashore, they can get very comprehensive and the best available forecast advice in text and chart form. Decisions for coastal passages and the shorter (say, 12 hour) crossings can be made with reasonable confidence.

The problems arise when a vessel is at sea or, even, at anchor. Beyond 10 miles offshore mobile telephones do not function and, even where they do, the band width is too small to allow much information to be down loaded. The same applies to those few with satellite phones. Beyond 25 miles or so offshore, VHF radio is unreadable. The list of available services then comes down to INMARSAT/NAVTEX, MF/HF (voice) radio and the Radio Fax/Teleprinter


In NAVAREA I (the north east quarter of the North Atlantic), there have been no HF voice broadcasts since the closure of Portishead. The UK weather broadcast on the SafetyNET™ is a 24 hour forecast only, with no outlook information. For NAVAREA II, the French SafetyNET™ is also a 24 hour forecast but with a very brief, one sentence outlook for up to 36 hours. The French also, through Radio France Internationale and Monaco 3AC, do broadcast forecasts by voice on HF and HF/SSB. The forecasts are for 24 hours. RFI do not give any outlook, I am not sure about Monaco.

The problem

When at anchor, off the French or Spanish coasts, for example, and wanting to make passages of up to 3 or 4 days NAVTEX and MRCC VHF broadcasts simply do not give enough information to help decision making having due regard for safety. This applies to Biscay, longer Mediterranean and North Sea crossings or coastal passages when ports of refuge may be inaccessible due to the weather. Similarly, for those on trans-oceanic crossings, INMARSAT SafetyNET™ 24 hour forecasts are little use for decision making since no indication is given about weather developments several days ahead.

Using HF SSB, anyone within he footprint of the Hamburg/Pinnenburg Radio Teleprinter service (known variously as Offenbach, the DWD or, more correctly, the DWD Seewetterdienst) can obtain forecasts up to 5 days ahead. These give spot forecasts of wind at 12 hour intervals and provide very good guidance. However, their geographical scope is limited and the grid points are some considerable distance apart..

Forecasts in text or broadcast by voice have necessarily to be brief and

invariably lack detail. It is in such situations that forecast charts become invaluable. The Offenbach Radio Teleprinter service apart, Radio Fax is the only source of information beyond the next 24 hours. This is evidenced by the fact that an estimate, not mine, is that some 70% of cruising yachts in the Mediterranean are equipped with HF/SSB plus laptops or dedicated Radio Fax equipment.

The MCA code of practice for vessels going "more than 60 miles from a safe haven" is that they should have INMARSAT and/or HF/MF radio. For most yachts INMARSAT-B as carried by many commercial vessels (and Vendéé Globe yachts) is impossibly large and very costly in financial and power consumption terms. INMARSAT-C receivers are now available that are small physically, not expensive to buy and economical to operate. However, INMARSAT-C can handle text only so it can only be used to receive text broadcasts and to send/receive email type messages. INMARSAT Mini-M does have a voice capability but, again, band width limits reception to text messages only (2.3 kb/sec).

The future

No doubt, in time, mobile telephony will improve to such a state that even small yachts ie less than 13 metres will be able to download charts and texts anywhere at sea. For that to happen, the cost of the equipment and its use will have to be reduced from the present levels. How far this off is difficult to predict. It may be sooner than at present seems possible.

In the meanwhile very many yachtsmen are dependent upon Radio Fax for the safety of their vessels and crews. As a matter of safety of many small, non-SOLAS, vessels Radio Fax services still come into the essential category.

Radio Fax in Operation

Schedules are available online for Offenbach and Northwood Radio Fax : and for the Offenbach Radio Teleprinter broadcasts. on my GMDSS Links page.

To see what happens in other parts of the world see the

NWS MARINE PRODUCTS VIA RADIOFAX site. This gives a good oversight of what is available around North America.
For a world wide view of Radio Fax stations and their broadcast schedules, go to

The Worldwide Marine Radio Fax Schedules. This is a large file that needs Adobe Acrobat to read. Click here to download the Adobe Acrobat Reader Also try the Worldwide Radio Fax Webpage