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Using AIRMAIL - WINLINK - SAILMAIL. This note has been prepared by Richard Clifford for members of the RCC It is reproduced here with his kind permission.

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How to receive emails using HF radio

There are two methods for sending and receiving emails using a laptop and an SSB radio. One used by several members is SailMail (membership fee is about $250 pa) but another, which is only available to radio amateurs (Hams) is Winlink and is free. Both require the same messaging programme called Airmail which can be downloaded for free. Both have daily time limits on the air. Winlink is about 30 mins, which is a large number of emails. SailMail is about 10 minutes.

The advantage of Winlink is that it has about 35 stations called PMBOs dotted around the world. SailMail currently has 14 stations. Airmail is a messaging programme (similar to Outlook) specially designed to connection to HF radio. Airmail is a 32-bit programme which runs under windows-95, 98, NT 2000 or XP. It requires a modem known as a TNC . The best (only?) is made by SCS and is the PTC-IIex or IIpro Pactor 2/3 modems. NB: the Pactor 2 is slower than the Pactor 3.

The following steps are necessary, assuming that you have an SSB and a laptop.

  • Purchase a Pactor III modem fitted with Professional Firmware. One source in UK is SailCom Marine, contact (01489 565100) at Bursledon. You will need to tell him which SSB you have so that he can fit the correct plug. He will instruct and demonstrate the system to you with your own laptop and TNC. For other sources see http://www.scs-ptc.com/en/Modems.html
  • Download the Airmail programme from the and select either the Ham or Sailmail system. The programme you download looks very much like the Outlook Express. There is a help email address.
  • Download the instructions for Winlink or Sailmail.
  • To use Winlink one needs to verify that you are a ham by faxing your licence to the Winlink organisation or the PMBO you are likely to use first. This will then get you accepted by the system; apparently there are about 300 illegal users.
  • You will have an email address peculiar to either Winlink or Sailmail.
  • Set up your radio, antenna, ATU, in the usual way and connect the Pactor to the radio and the laptop. The Pactor modem can remain connected to the SSB at all times but you need to be able to get at it in order to switch it off when you are not using the system. The Pactor modem is powered via the SSB and it is only milliamps.
  • Then type out some test emails and request a reply.
  • You can also give a position report which can also be sent automatically if your PC is connected to a GPS.
  • You can also request GRIB weather reports automatically or by typing the request as described else where in this website.
  • When you are ready to send you will need to look into the data base of PMBOs, within the airmail programme, and select one which is at a suitable distance for the frequency and propagation. For example from UK my first choice is the PMBO in Italy * then Holland or Germany. Click on his callsign and a list of his frequencies is displayed. The preferred fast transmissions are marked p3, meaning Pactor 3 which sends at 500 characters per second, rather than 140 with Pactor 2. Select a suitable p3 frequency eg: 10MMHz. Switch on the Pactor and various lights will flash. Tune the SSB and antenna to the p3 frequency and listen (NB> the Pactor IIpro will do this automatically for you).. If no one else is on frequency then click on the green symbol on the top of the screen to send your emails. It is a bit fiddly at first plus one should not use full power
  • You will hear bursts of signal establishing the link with the PMBO. If someone else is already linked to that PMBO but on another frequency the screen will tell you that the PMBO is not available. Try later.
  • Once the link has been established messages will be sent and received in the usual way. On completion the link is broken automatically

Other uses of the Pactor/TNC

With the Fax receiving programme you can get

  • RTTY. For weather forecasts.
  • Weather Fax.
  • Morse which is decoded.

Some Notes

Airmail is licensed without charge to the amateur radio community and thanks to some dedicated people around the world there are a large number of stations.

Winlink cannot be used for pecuniary communications or for any business communications including handling your investments! Sailmail can be used for business.

The SailMail Association is a non-profit association of yacht owners that operates and maintains a network of private coast stations in the Maritime Mobile Radio Service. The Association provides radioprinter (e.g. Internet email) communications for its members on a cooperative basis, in order to meet the private business and operational needs of the members' yachts. It provides worldwide coverage through the operation of 14 stations in North America, Hawaii, Australia, Southeast Asia, South Africa and Europe.Sailmail uses the same Pactor technology as the ham radio system, and supports Pactor-1 and Pactor-2 (although the latter is strongly recommended). Airmail can be configured for either ham or Sailmail operation, or both. With the addition of a Sailmail configuration file, the same copy of Airmail can provide service for both the ham radio and Sailmail systems. This allows Sailmail to be used for business-related messages which are not permitted on the ham bands, as well in countries where ham radio third-party traffic is not permitted. For more information on joining the SailMail Association


Richard Clifford
6 April 2004