Garmin inReach Explorer+: Hands on with Ben Ellison as an “Armchair Transatlantic” - PassageMaker
Hands on with Ben Ellison as an “Armchair Transatlantic”

A big kick in my small life is seeing a technology I champion do well, especially when it involves a small company in Maine. I became a DeLorme inReach fanboy even before it shipped, and the company’s succession of models has not yet let me down over thousands of testing hours. I believe that the Explorer+, jointly developed with Garmin, DeLorme’s new owner, is the best yet. This is based on personal experience and also on my observing one serve its owner well over thousands of transatlantic miles aboard S/V Lunacy.

Before getting into details of the Explorer+ model, I want to emphasize how illuminating it was to watch an inReach-inexperienced friend use one in earnest. This is a fairly complex technology, at least when you dig into its advanced features.

Well, Sail Cruising Editor Charlie Doane figured out how to activate his brand-new Explorer+ just two busy days before departing France on his Boreal 47, Lunacy, and, by the time the aluminum sloop arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, 1,859 track points had been delivered by Iridium satellite to his private inReach web account and the online MapShare page that friends and family used to follow his voyage. Track points with boat speed and course appeared in nearly real-time, every half hour for 5,060 nautical miles over 53 days (with three stops).

Perhaps even more valuable to the crew and their families were all the messages reliably sent and received—927 went to various email addresses and phone numbers and 729 via the linked inReach messaging interface or via the MapShare page. All this messaging and tracking was done with a relatively inexpensive handheld device ($450) sitting in the boat’s deckhouse (attached only to a USB charging cable), plus a $65 per month unlimited tracking and messaging plan that was used for the duration of the trip.

I did help Charlie with Lunacy’s MapShare presentation, mainly by adding waypoints and route lines for clarity. It’s easier to do that sort of thing right on the account map with an internet connection, but it’s also possible to push waypoints and bearing-to-waypoint lines from inReach to the MapShare if you’ve permitted that in the setup.

Without doing anything more than turning tracking on and off at appropriate points and using the messaging feature, you end up with an interesting voyage log. You can, for instance, look back at all incoming and outgoing messages by recipient or at outgoing messages geopositioned or listed along with tracks, depending how you filter each.

The morning after Lunacy made Newport, Tom Kiley departed Camden, Maine, for the Azores aboard his 37-foot wooden sloop, Snow Star. He posted track points and messages at an even greater rate than Doane, using the original Explorer model. That’s because Tom used his plan’s most frequent track-point send interval of 10 minutes—and maybe also because they set up a Google Group before departure. This meant the crew could group-message all their friends and family using one address.

Explorer+ Hardware

I believe that the DeLorme team in Maine was already well along with this design when Garmin acquired the company, and thus the “+” got some Garmin engineering and is manufactured in Garmin’s Taiwan factory. It feels very well made, and its four additional control buttons are quite useful throughout the handheld’s interface, which otherwise remains very similar to the original Explorer.

The screen is also bigger and brighter, and that’s especially valuable because the Explorer+ is the first inReach that can display real maps. (Note that there is also a slightly cheaper $400 Garmin SE+ model for sale, though in my view it would be silly not to spend the extra $50 for the mapping, track memory, three-axis compass, and barometric altimeter features of the Explorer+.) I doubt that many boaters will use the Explorer+ screen as a chart plotter, especially since the included Earthmate Android or iOS app can display NOAA raster charts while the handheld cannot. But the selection of maps that can be downloaded to the “+” is impressive and these can certainly be useful ashore.

In late May, Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) racer Michele Zambelli had to use his Garmin inReach + to be rescued from the North Atlantic.

In late May, Original Single-handed Transatlantic Race (OSTAR) racer Michele Zambelli had to use his Garmin inReach + to be rescued from the North Atlantic.

InReach 4 Ways

An inReach comes with an extensive software and services ecosystem, and while you certainly don’t have to use all of it, I think it really helps to understand the general architecture.

EXPLORER PORTAL

I’m pretty sure that some boaters only use their account site (or Portal) to get started and are still happy with the results, but numerous inReach features can only be set up there, not in the apps and not on the handheld. Reference Point is one of these features. Its message marks a location you pick on a map or type in, not where you are when you create the message. They are sometimes used from one inReach to another so the users can both map and navigate to an agreed point.

The Explorer Portal is where you can download maps beyond the U.S. topos already loaded on an Explorer+. The selection is impressive, and the downloading is done with a USB cable and a little PC program called inReach Sync that you get from the site and is also required for firmware updates.

“Sync” is a confusing term in the inReach world because different syncs work to different degrees and in different ways. The USB sync will pass waypoints, routes, contacts, quick text, and other portal-created data to the inReach, but that can also be done by syncing the Earthmate app with your account when your phone or tablet is online and then by syncing the app with the inReach via Bluetooth. The high-resolution GPS tracking possible with the Explorer series can sync to your account site and MapShare either via USB or via Earthmate, and some nav items like waypoints can get to your account and MapShare via satellite, even if created via the app. Do you have a headache yet?

You can connect an iPhone or iPad to the Garmin inReach to utilize its data in conjunction with the Earthmate app.

You can connect an iPhone or iPad to the Garmin inReach to utilize its data in conjunction with the Earthmate app.

HANDHELD INTERFACE

The Explorer+ handheld interface is the only other software you have to mess with after setting up an account, but let’s look at some of the features that require a little more study. We’ll start with the two messaging-related screens. In the “To” section, I can type in any email address or smart phone number, or I can use the cursor and check keys to select the MapShare and Facebook addresses from the right-hand column. I had to set up my Facebook account at the inReach account page, and the inReach synced, but messages will appear on my Facebook timeline or Panbo page.

Typing a message on the inReach handheld is a chore, though the interface does offer some slick shortcuts and word prediction. On his transatlantic voyage, Charlie Doane used the handheld keypad exclusively—mainly because the Apple iTunes store would not let him download Earthmate in France. He reports that the handheld actually learned some of the names and obscure words he used repeatedly. I’m not sure he realized that the Lightning icon leads to a list of default Quick Text verbiage that can be customized through the Portal.

Intervals

The Explorer’s Tracking page shows how the Send (by Iridium) Interval can be quite different from the GPS Log Interval and how tapping the barred Menu key lets you change those intervals. You can’t change these intervals from the Earthmate app, or at least not the Android version I’m using at this time. High-resolution tracking looks good on the handheld and is quite useful, for example, when bushwhacking in a tropical forest. It really shines, though, when synced up to your account map, your MapShare, your Earthmate app, or all of the above.

The Explorer Portal allows you to load beyond the preloaded U.S. topographical maps onto your inReach.

The Explorer Portal allows you to load beyond the preloaded U.S. topographical maps onto your inReach.

Mapshare

So here’s my MapShare again—let’s call it the third piece of the inReach puzzle. Ten minute track points are more than fine for a transatlantic crossing, and for anyone wanting to know where Gizmo was in real time during this trip, but the 1 second track points I was collecting surely tell the story better, like around that poorly charted Barred Island ledge I’ve been trying to figure out for years.

I used to leave inReach tracking on for months at a time. It was easy and it’s not too messy as it tries not to record track points when stopped. But I’ve realized from the transatlantics that being more disciplined has value. For instance, if Charlie had known to turn off his inReach in Spain, the average speed, time, and distance of every leg would be quite accurate.

A defined track can also be click-zoomed, and it would be excellent if Garmin made it possible to name them.

For local cruising, more detailed tracking points can be helpful for analyzing your route in Mapshare.

For local cruising, more detailed tracking points can be helpful for analyzing your route in Mapshare.

Distress Calls

Finally, here’s the fourth inReach software piece, at least for mugs like me who like to use the Earthmate app to interface with the handheld and who have a boat where that works nicely. I even wish I could switch easily from phone to iPad and back, but the inReach can only handle one Bluetooth pairing at a time, though I’ve seen such pairings “just work” for many months any time the devices were on and nearby. Earthmate can download and display the NOAA charts that are not available on the Explorer+, and they show a lot of detail for sent messages, such as a MapShare notation.

Also, the SOS feature is an important aspect of the inReach system. The two-way SEND technology (Satellite Emergency Notification Device) is distinct from the EPIRB/PLB system because it uses commercial satellites and rescue centers. Though it has not yet been formalized, it is working and the results collected by Garmin so far look good. I’d already read about how an inReach helped the Fletcher family aboard S/V Luna-C in January.

I also learned that Garmin-sponsored OSTAR racer Michele Zambelli used inReach to exit his sinking vessel off Newfoundland in early June, 2017, and he even has a MapShare that tracked him up into the helicopter. I hope to never see a tracking map like that while armchair cruising, but it certainly makes a good point. The two-way messaging is a real plus, and I also very much like how a system you know is working every day during a voyage can also be used to call for help.

Although this article seems heavily oriented to transatlantic sailing, inReach and other handheld SENDs are helping all sorts of boaters to venture beyond the relatively small portion of earth covered by cell systems, which don’t always offer fast, professional distress response anyway. Also be aware that there are existing and potential SEND/tracking/monitoring systems that are a lot more boat-specific than an inReach Explorer+. I just started testing the SkyMate Mazu/mSeries (with Sentry monitoring), and I imagine that some of the big marine brands are at least considering similar systems with MFD integration, Garmin in particular.

InReach’s two-way messaging system allows you to send messages not only to email addresses and smartphone numbers but also to apps like MapShare and Facebook to keep people updated on your route, course, and location.

InReach’s two-way messaging system allows you to send messages not only to email addresses and smartphone numbers but also to apps like MapShare and Facebook to keep people updated on your route, course, and location.

Weather

Let’s return to the subject of bluewater sailing and all-important weather forecasting. I discussed inReach’s own weather service last year, but Charlie Doane purchased his inReach mainly under orders from his longtime weather router, Ken McKinley. Ken could easily track Charlie’s position and text advice, no sat-phone calls needed unless the story got more complicated.

Both Charlie and Tom Kiley were interested in the new inReach integration offered by the online FastSeas routing service, but neither had the time to make it work for them as a secondary source. Both believe in the value of human meteorological advice over the straight output of computer models.

However, I have successfully tested the FastSeas inReach feature and what really helped, even while using the Earthmate app, was getting the exact request syntax into that Quick Text form where I could use it easily with light editing. It would work better still if inReach adopted the service or created their own because then the request could be made much friendlier and the results could even be charted. But something like that could happen with inReach or SkyMate.

I also used Lunacy’s passage to test FastSeas against real results. Online it was very easy to simply change the route prediction start point to the boat’s current MapShare position, and the results fairly often came close to Ken’s predictions and/or the boat’s reports. Charlie told me later that in his experience the model-based forecasting tended to understate the sharpness of weather fronts, and I have also seen some evidence of that.

Issues?

Is the inReach system perfect? Hell no. I’ve seen a few intermittent glitches myself, like when the waypoint I created for Porto Santo on Snow Star’s Portal (and hence MapShare) suddenly became the one I’d made for English Harbor and stayed that way until I logged out and in again. Given all the platforms and syncing around the inReach universe, I believe that there are a lot of moving parts behind the scenes. (Snow Star was touring Atlantic Islands en route to Antigua.)

More consistent and more worrisome, however, is how Lunacy’s Explorer+ regularly scrambled the source of messages. Some messages I’d sent to Charlie were identified as coming from someone else. The same messages archived on Charlie’s account site are all organized by their true sender, so this was only happening on the handheld, but it doesn’t inspire confidence.

Oh, and I did manage to completely jam my Earthmate and Explorer+ sync relationship by attempting one-second logging over a single 2,470-mile tracking session from St. Lucia to my house. At the time you could see on my MapShare page—at share.garmin.com/PanboInReach, and now showing my winter Gizmo cruise—that a lot of satellite and high-res track data did make it to my Explorer Portal, and, moreover, the Explorer+ was running on its own battery during the entire 24-hour period. But I could not argue with the customer-support response about this being “extreme use” and I had to reset the Explorer+ and reinstall the app to get things right again. And yet I remain a huge inReach fanboy. n

PassageMaker Electronics Editor Ben Ellison also edits Panbo.com and this article is excerpted from “Garmin inReach Explorer+, armchair transatlantics & hands on,” originally published in July, 2017 at Panbo.com where it can be read in full.

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