A SiriusXM Marine Weather receiver is easy to install, easy to use, and handier than a boathook during a dicey docking.
Several years ago, I was part of a three-man delivery crew tasked with taking a 42-foot trawler from Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. The trip began in early November, stretched on for days and coincided with the appearance of a hurricane in the central Caribbean that proceeded west (instead of east, the typical direction of cyclonic storms in the northern hemisphere), a confusing sort of behavior that earned it the nickname “Wrong Way Lenny.”
Lenny was bad—so bad that the World Meteorological Organization ultimately decided, in deference to the horrific damages the storm caused, never to apply its name to a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean again.
But here’s the deal. Throughout much of our delivery to St. Thomas, as Lenny’s long-range effects worsened all around us, we had virtually no weather information to use for routing. No single-sideband radio. No cellphone reception. And no VHF marine weather broadcasts. In essence, we wound up flying dangerously blind, beyond the range of all meteorological help.
This taught me two indelible lessons. First, weather information is existentially important when you suspect a storm is close but don’t know its exact position and direction. And second, the weather info we take for granted ashore—from smartphones, tablets, hotspots and VHF radios—is often surprisingly absent on open water. Wi-Fi signals fade between five and 10 nautical miles out. And VHF and cell signals can do the same within a few short miles as well, depending upon antenna heights and other specifics.
The Satellite Solution
Modern satellite technology is a different story, however. Although often pricier than the other types of connectivity I’ve just mentioned, it seems to work reliably just about anywhere in the world. And because SiriusXM Marine Weather is satellite-based it’s a game changer with respect to range. Indeed, all four versions of the service—from Garmin, Raymarine, Furuno and Navico (Simrad, Lowrance and B&G)—extend their signals, according to Sirius, to all of continental North America as well as hundreds of miles into the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea.
Of course, the delivery trip to St. Thomas was on my mind when I recently installed a GXM53 module, Garmin’s satellite receiver for the Sirius system, on the Betty Jane II. Had we had such a nifty piece of electronics linked to a plotter onboard that 42-footer long ago, stress would have been immeasurably reduced and routing facilitated.
The unit’s install was basically plug-and-play. I simply used a couple of screws to mount the module inside a cabinet near the lower helm, installed the antenna at the rear of the cockpit (where a full view of the sky would be available), and ran three cables-—one to my Garmin 742xs plotter, one to a fuse block under the helm station (for 12-volt power) and one to the antenna. I ignored a fourth cable that would have fed a Sirius radio signal to my already-Sirius-enabled Clarion stereo. Unnecessary.
The financials involved? The Garmin GXM53 costs about $800 and the Sirius “Offshore” subscription I chose costs $54.99 per month, although in the future I will likely go with the more popular “Coastal” program, for $29.99 per month, which excludes sea-surface temperature data and extended wind and wave forecasts favored by hardcore offshore fishermen. I will also abjure the third, “Inland” option, which costs $12.99 per month because most of my cruising is coastal in nature. The three subscriptions can be compared at SiriusXM.com.
Safety and Convenience
I sea-trialed the new SiriusXM service on a recent cruise from Jacksonville to Cumblerland Island in southeastern Georgia. Startup—on a rainy Sunday afternoon—went rockily. Because I was using an unidentified unit given to me by Sirius for demo purposes, attempts to get signal connectivity via a link sent to my smartphone failed and so did a follow-up refresh. Dan Dickerson, manager of marine and aviation product planning for Sirius, straightened the matter out the next day after a brief phone call, however. And within minutes I began grasping the real value of the Sirius technology.
For starters, I could see blotches of precipitation and other weather activity on the Garmin screen (with red indicating more intensity, green less, and lightning strikes and storm cells denoted with easily understood icons), much like you’d see on a smartphone. And, as with a smartphone app, I could also go back in time to see the direction a particular blotch was heading and how it was changing.
Was this brief, 20-minute reprise of weather history as easy to understand as what you see on a computer screen or smartphone? No, mostly because it arrives via a satellite signal that is not constant but periodic, a detail that engenders a certain jerkiness, which takes some getting used to. And will some of the receivers from other manufacturers take you further back in time? Yes, but while the Simrad module, lets say, offers a three-hour replay instead of just 20 minutes, I’m not sure a full three hours is actually necessary to accurately determine a storm’s direction and characteristics which, after all, is the point of the feature to begin with.
DIY Route Planning
Then there’s the detailed offshore info that SiriusXM offers, a feature that became important to me when, on the last morning of the trip, I was trying to decide whether to take the open-ocean route back to Jacksonville or the more protected Intracoastal Waterway. A couple of touchscreen taps, however, gave me immediate access to current wave heights offshore via weather buoys depicted by yellow icons. And combining such a critical piece of info with some of the other biggies-—like on-screen textual marine zone forecasts (which obviate having to wade through lengthy, more generalized, audio forecasts on a VHF weather station); high-res coastal and inland surface wind forecasts; colorized bands showing near-shore sea surface temperatures (making it easy to discern the edges of the Gulfstream); local five-day weather forecasts and, to get a handle on the big picture, a weather map of the entire United States, complete with isobars and fronts—made making a decision pretty easy.
SiriusXM Marine Weather has one final aspect that strikes me as especially practical. It produces storm tracks for cyclonic major-leaguers that are quite similar to what you’ll get from the National Hurricane Center on a laptop or home computer. And as with the NHC’s products, which are so useful when tracking and otherwise dealing with hurricanes in the tropics, you can obtain forecast positions and conditions from SiriusXM by simply clicking on a given storm’s projected route. A super-handy feature? Most certainly, and one I wish I’d had onboard that little trawler back in the day, when Wrong Way Lenny was on the loose!