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Keeping in touch at Sea

Keeping in Touch at Sea

© David Kerr 2001-2004

David Kerr describes Penta Comstat plus a cost-effective means of after-hours emergency contact for blue-water cruisers.

Take a highly reliable HF communications setup in a low noise location, mix it with a very relevant set of member services, stir with 26 years of dedication to the cruising community, fill it with the precise and direct approach of Derek and Jeanine Barnard¬and you have the unique private Coast Station, Penta Comstat.

Penta Comstat is well known to many blue-water cruisers in the Pacific. It provides a full range of radio services such as coastal skeds, long range skeds, coastal and high seas weather, radiotelephone calls, tracking for family and friends plus safety reporting and medical links to the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Penta is a private Coast Station that runs as a business and receives no government or other external assistance. The station has an extensive range of assigned working frequencies so that coverage includes the Eastern half of Australia and extends out across most of the South Pacific. Their twice daily skeds and weather report at least three times a day on multiple frequencies are a part of the daily regime for many of us as we cruise, whether it is along the Coast or further out to sea. The Barnards have been tireless lobbyists and have been responsible for many of the small craft radio facilities and procedures that we take for granted today. They have excellent credibility with the authorities and are very well regarded. They have been responsible for the allocation and reservation of a number of frequencies for small craft and their recommendations have often been built into policy by the authorities. Their services have spanned cruising services, communications with solo circumnavigators, yacht race communications, local boating services and 4WD communications.

26 years

It is timely to review Penta Comstat because of their significant 26 years of contribution to cruising communications and because of the cessation on July 1 of the 24hr voice watch kept by the Telstra Coast stations. Other Coast Station services (such as Radphone for radio telephone calls) have already ceased. Brian Hill gave an excellent overview of the changes in his “Radio Daze” article last August, including the fact that Penta Comstat can support the needs of blue-water and other cruisers when the government services change. A very brief summary of “Radio Daze” is provided here for those who may have missed the article.

The Voice

Derek and Jeanine created Penta Comstat in 1976. They are a quiet, retiring couple driven by a passion to help others, specifically in the area of radio communications. Their services through radio have brought a well-justified sense of security to thousands of cruisers and their friends and relatives on dry land. After several years of talking to Penta Comstat on the radio, I wanted to see their setup and finally meet “the voice”. I find the thought of multiple skeds and weather every day for 26 years a very daunting one and it is commendable that Derek and Jeanine can still summon the requisite energy.

The people and equipment

I finally visited Penta Comstat on a hot day this January. Derek was about to broadcast the weather and asked if I would like to do it. “No way” was my response. I was very impressed with the setup of Penta Comstat and the careful planning behind it. It was even better than I had imagined it would be. The 10acre site is devoted entirely to the station and was chosen specifically for radio communications. It is a long way from artificial noise, being out in country NSW, South West of Taree. Penta Comstat is a life commitment for the Barnards, at least one of whom must always be on the site in case of a call. So, the living accommodation is integrated with the technical equipment. Where some of us might have a dining room, the Barnards have control panels, flashing lights, computers, knobs, switches and microphones! Sound is even piped into the kitchen, so that Jeanine could be part of a conversation between Derek and me while she kindly made us morning tea. A portable monitoring device allows them to move around within the house and within a short distance outside whilst still listening to the radios. The station itself is on the high end of the property and is surrounded by a number of the tall masts which support the transmitting aerials. The bottom end of the property has the receiving antennae which are deliberately located a long way from the equipment and house.

Reliable and Dependable

I counted 19 receivers and at least seven transmitters at Penta Comstat. Transmitters, receivers, antennae, power sources and frequencies can all be switched in a multiplicity of ways to provide backup in case of failure or so that the best piece of equipment is used for a particular situation. In their 26 years running Penta Comstat, the Barnards have been so well coordinated themselves that only one of them has ever been sick at the one time. They have occasionally had assistance, but it is quite rare. They were hoping to have a well-earned holiday from the station this year through the assistance of friends. Their last holiday was three years ago. It does not take much mathematics to show that the payments from 600 members plus some yacht races and related services do not translate into a high hourly rate for the on-call hours plus the emergency coverage. The cruisers who use Penta’s services are the beneficiaries of all this hard work and dedication.


I have reviewed some of the situations where Penta Comstat has been involved in coordinating emergency communications and Mayday situations. Penta Comstat has been mentioned in a number of books, publications and reports (including “Lone Sailor”, “Banshee”, First Lady” and Liquid Mountains”) so this has been relatively easy to do. I have been very impressed with the speed and reliability of Derek and Jeanine’s actions and communications, their logic and coolness in crisis and their total dependability, regardless of what personal sacrifices might be entailed. I hope never to be in an offshore crisis that requires external intervention, but if it happens, I will be hoping it is Derek or Jeanine at the other end of the radio link!

Moving with the times

Penta Comstat has changed and adapted with times and technology. It started in Gosford with 27Mhz in 1976 and became 24hrs per day the next year with the addition of VHF and HF communications. The Barnards have filled many gaps in radio communications over the years and have conversely always been quick to relinquish services to other operators once a similar service became established. Their focus now is on HF maritime communications. Solo circumnavigators, 4WD enthusiasts and organisers of yacht races now typically have more than one communications option, so this area of the business is being deliberately de-emphasised. The fastest growth is happening with Sailmail, which I mentioned briefly in my article “The Cruising Computer” in the February edition.

Email over HF radio

Sailmail is email over HF radio. A collective of cruisers runs the system on a worldwide, nonprofit basis. Each member pays US$200 per annum to Sailmail in the USA and in return receives a reliable email system and a 10 minute daily average quota of connect time. Much of the equipment, time and software is donated, however the operators of the stations around the world do receive payment and provide a professional and reliable service. Penta Comstat runs the South Pacific station and their technically excellent setup has made it the largest and most reliable. You do not have to be a Penta Comstat member to use Sailmail. The growth has been explosive since commencing operations in April 2000. In January this year, Sailmail traffic through Penta Comstat exceeded 22,000 minutes of connect time and there approximately 400 emails per day. Since it commenced operation, the service has grown from one transceiver and five frequencies to three transceivers and 10 frequencies. It is a measure of Penta Comstat’s reputation and profile that it was able to secure so many frequencies so quickly.

Radio Daze

So, what about the pending changes that were highlighted in “Radio Daze”? If you are just buying a HF radio or already have one fitted with DSC, then the changes will be positive. If needed, a push of a button will reliably send a pre worded Mayday that includes your highly accurate GPS coordinates. A button push will also gain you 24hr voice contact with one of two new stations which are being built to replace the Telstra Coast Stations. If you only cruise within range of the many coastal VHF stations run by the several fine volunteer groups, there will be little or no impact.

It is possible however, that our own situation is typical of many cruisers. I have no doubt that we will finally end up with HF-DSC on our yacht; however our transceiver does not already have it and the necessary hardware additions are $2,500, not to mention a number of other modifications that would be required. I am also not ready to throw out an otherwise perfectly good HF radio and spend about $5,000 on a new one. I do require the security of being able to contact someone reliable, on land, at any time in the case of a serious emergency. I suspect that many other Bluewater Cruisers are in a similar situation. Fortunately Penta Comstat, as well as having the new DSC equipment, also has Selective Calling (called Selcall) which is a little like tone dial telephones. Selcall allows us to contact Penta in an emergency at any time, thus allowing us to retain our HF radio for now and upgrade it at a time of our choosing rather than that of the government.

Derek told me that quite a few Penta Comstat members have Selcall as a standard feature on their radios and that it is simply a matter of them enabling it in order to use the facility. In my case, I purchased a new microphone made by Jenal Communications in Western Australia. The economy model SC-3 will work on most radios and is an affordable $352. Jenal supplies the SC–3 and other model Selcall microphones through a network of dealers throughout Australia (and some overseas locations). As a useful bonus, I still have my old microphone as a spare. The microphone is the item on a radio most likely to be damaged by an unexpected rush of water through an open hatch. I did have to add a connector and some extra wiring specific to our radio. This is a simple job that can be performed by the dealer for nearly all marine radios.

24hr contact

The new Selcall facility worked first time and I was able to contact Penta Comstat reliably, even in several tests which I conducted at a tenth of our radio’ s normal power. Pressing a couple of buttons on the microphone initiates the Selcall. The digital processing used by Selcall means that it can even be decoded in situations where voice communications are almost impossible. Of course, Selcall does not transmit GPS coordinates like GMDSS-DSC, nor does it send “canned” Mayday messages, but it does allow me to contact Penta Comstat any time of the day or night. Our identity, time of contact and frequency are all logged automatically in their computer and an alarm sounds until Penta Comstat responds. We can also use the system to request a radiotelephone call. Penta Comstat can call us (if our HF radio is on) and an alarm will ring on our radio until we respond. There is a useful “Selcall beacon test mode” that enables cruisers to determine the best frequency to use for any HF communications, without disturbing the Penta operator. Their system sends you back a set of tones and you just choose the frequency that gives the loudest tones. Selcall is still used by international aircraft and many other organisations in Australia and overseas. It may disappear in years to come, but I suspect it will stay around just like movie theatres which were predicted to be ousted by television. Penta Comstat was the first Australian maritime station to use Selcall, commencing in 1992 and it was later installed at the Telstra Coast Stations.

Memorable Times

Derek and Jeanine clearly cherish the relationships established over the years even when many of these have been confined to the radio. Their most satisfying moments have occurred when they had confirmation of people being rescued, where Penta’ s actions initiated or coordinated the rescue activities. Upon one notable occasion, two American women (not members) notified Derek when they were caught by a cyclone which was out of season in the Coral Sea. They asked him to raise the alarm if they did not call him in the morning. They had never talked to Penta Comstat before, but had heard Derek on the radio and decided he sounded more reliable than their usual Cruising Net. During the night, they were dismasted and one was injured. They were unable to call the next day (everything was waterlogged). Derek had already alerted the authorities the night before and raised the alarm when there was no radio contact next morning. They were subsequently rescued, which was a really high point for the Barnards. Unfortunately, “Rockin Robin”, another yacht in communication with Penta Comstat, was lost in the same cyclone and this was a low point.

Derek received the Order of Australia Medal in 1980 and this was well-deserved public recognition of Penta Comstat’s contributions. There have been a number of other prestigious awards. Penta Comstat has been mentioned in many books and publications. They played the lone communications role for famous solo sailors like Kay Cottee, David Adams and Jon Sanders, before the advent of satellite communications. I think they rather cherished being the communications channel for these lone sailors. Jeanine tells the story of her first ever speech, which was at Kay’s invitation to a Ladies group. She told the story of how it was becoming difficult for both her and Kay Cottee to find topics of conversation as Kay sailed around the world. Upon one such occasion, in response to Jeanine’s “How are you today?”, Kay replied “Well, I’m not pregnant!”

In Summary

Penta Comstat provides a very useful set of services for its cruising members. There are the coastal and long range skeds, weather reports, AUSREP reports, radiotelephone calls and very importantly, a 24hr emergency Selcall watch which complements the day time voice watch. They have also fitted the latest GMDSS DSC equipment which keeps 24hr watch on their working channels for yachts suitably equipped with DSC. Non members can still access some of the services, but members receive precedence on skeds. Phone calls and the Selcall services are only available to members. It would be good to think anyone using Penta Comstat’ s services or those of the VMR stations like Coastguard, Coastal Patrol etc. would also become members of those respective organisations or we might not have them around in the future. Well-done Penta Comstat as you enter your 27th continuous year of serving the cruising community!


HF High Frequency (3 to 30MHz)

AUSREP Australian Ship Reporting System (Administered by AMSA).

AMSA Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

RCC Rescue Coordination Centre (coordinated from AMSA in Canberra).

SELCALL Selective Calling. A reliable radio calling system, pre-dating GMDSS-DSC, but still widely used in many parts of the world for maritime, aeronautical and land based communications.

GMDSS Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. See Brian Hill’s “ Radio Daze” article.

DSC Digital Selective Calling. See “ Radio Daze” article.

VMR Volunteer Marine Rescue stations such as Coastal Patrol, Coastguard, Air-Sea Rescue.

TRANSCEIVER Transmitter and receiver in the one unit.

PENTA COMSTAT. The first station was in a room rented from a Gosford Chrysler dealership, so Penta is the Chrysler 5 pointed star. As Penta grew, the word “Comstat” was added; it is a contraction of “Communications Station”.


Twice daily coastal and twice daily long range skeds where member yachts are called alphabetically.

Various coastal and high seas weather reports three times per day (more for warnings). Split up by weather area.

Navigation alerts.

Telephone interconnect to the public network at good rates

AUSREP Sailing Plan lodgement and reporting.

Family and friends can call Penta for updates concerning yachts.

Voice watch up to 13 hours per day on multiple frequencies.

Selcall to enable ship-Penta and Penta-ship automated calling.

Selcall watch 24hrs per day for emergencies.

GMDSS-DSC on working channels

Solar propagation information


A$150 joining fee and A$120 per annum. Add 10% GST for residents in Australia.

Radiotelephone calls have a A$3 flag fall (plus GST) and different costs per minute for different types of calls. For instance calls to any landline in Australia are $1.50 (plus GST) per minute.

Penta Marine Radio Communications Manual (VERY useful) is A$40 (plus GST) with free postage within Australia.


Penta Comstat

Phone (02)6559 1888.


Jenal Communications


Changes to HF Maritime Radio Services:¬


The 6 Australian Coast Stations are being closed down from July 1 2002.

Telstra Radphone services have already ceased.

24hr voice watch from Coast Stations ceases from July 1 2002

There will be two new stations built in Australia to handle GMDSS-DSC and some weather services.

The States are investigating enhancements to the coastal VMR network of volunteer stations.


Note- multiple photos included, labelled (for example) 4A, 4B, 4C. The ordering is my preference (ie A is best).

Slide 1. Penta Comstat is well off the beaten track

Slide 2. Penta Comstat in quiet, idyllic surroundings.

Slide 3. Derek at work with the morning weather and sked.

Slide 4. Sailmail transceivers are multiplying fast

Slide 5. The antennae are beautifully designed and built. Receiving antenna tower.

Slide 6. One of the Transmitting Towers.

Slide 7. The clever Jenal Selcall microphone which can be added to most marine transceivers. NOTE, this slide is not back from processing and will be sent in a few days.


“I hope never to be in an offshore crisis that requires external intervention, but if it happens, I will be hoping it is Derek or Jeanine at the other end of the radio link!”

“ response to Jeanine’s “ How are you today?” , Kay Cottee (on her solo circumnavigation) replied “Well, I’m not pregnant!”

“It would be good to think anyone using Penta Comstat’s services or those of the VMR stations like Coastguard, Coastal Patrol etc. would also become members of those respective organisations or we might not have them around in the future.”

“Selcall does allow me to contact Penta Comstat any time of the day or night. Our identity, time of contact and frequency are all logged automatically in their computer and an alarm sounds.....”

BIO: David Kerr is an avid sailor who also has a keen interest in electronics, computing, photography and radio. He was given the components for a crystal radio set 47 years ago and has kept up with the many changes since that basic experience.

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