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- V8V2222 -
HF/SSB radio services


Cruising this side -

Marine HF/SSB radio is the principle service for inter-yacht and shore communication.

When planning your cruising to this side of the world - away from the well established shore support and VHF communication services in Europe/UK and North America - be sure to have a functional HF/SSB Marine Radio (not a HAM/Amateur radio) with the complete international marine channel/frequency band plan, the official Marine Emergency frequencies, and DSC capability. 

A marine VHF radio does not have the service range for operations on this side, and there are very few VHF shore stations. People accustomed to the excellent marine communications service provided by the network of linked VHF towers on coastal hilltops around Europe, the UK and North America will need to utilise a modern marine HF/SSB radio, with DSC, to obtain a similar service when beyond VHF shore station range. Without hilltop repeaters and relays, VHF radio range from boat-to-boat is approximately 15 to 25nm. Totally inadequate for the passage and communication distances on this bigger, emptier, side of the world.   

A HF/SSB radio will make communication tasks so much simpler for you, your future cruising friends, rally/race organisers, the coast stations you want to contact, MRCCs around the world, and anyone you need advice from regarding anchorages, marina waypoints, fuel supplies, local markets, shore tours, local transport etc.

Three very significant advantages of HF/SSB radio communications for the cruising lifestyle and racing yachts are:

  1. Voice communication between yachts is free of charge. You can talk to other yachts in an event, or in the region, or ahead of you on a cruising route, or in your cruise-in-company support group, for absolutely no charge.
     

  2. When you talk, you can be simultaneously heard by all other similarly equipped vessels on the same frequency at that time. This broadcast feature of HF/SSB radio makes it so simple to let others in your rally, race or cruise-in-company group know of your progress, a great anchorage, the waypoints into a marina or anchorage, or a navigational hazard you encountered. It's also very easy to ask the group for advice about your problematic water maker, or CIQ arrival formalities, or for a spare part or a tow into port.
     

  3. The same marine HF/SSB radio is the basis for a worldwide and low-cost email service - SailMail - to keep in touch with family/friends, obtain weather information, send position reports, contact equipment suppliers for a spare part, book a marina berth etc. Since many coast stations around the world closed when GMDSS forced big ships to move most of their regular communications from HF/SSB radio to high-power satellite systems, free-to-air voice broadcasts of weather information, along with telephone interconnect and weather fax services largely disappeared or seriously deteriorated. HF/SSB radio email - provided by the not-for-profit SailMail Association's network of 20 linked relay stations around the world -replaces most of these services.

It's extremely useful to also have these HF/SSB radio capabilities: 

HF/SSB DSC for general communications - gives the radio a telphone-like functionality.  Each radio has a unique MMSI ID number, which allows other similarly equipped yachts, ships, shore stations etc to call you. When the MMSI number is received, the radio is triggered into an alarm state, ringing like a phone. The radio also automatically sends out a revertive tone - a beep - which confirms to the caller they have made contact with your radio. 

While the radio is in standby mode, scanning the DSC calling frequencies for an incoming MMSI call, the radio speaker is muted. So there is no need to listen to static or the noise of other voice conversations or calling. Unlike non DSC capable HF/SSB radios, the radio - rather than the crew - monitor the frequencies for calls. The radio just alerts the crew when a call is received.

Because the radio speaker is silent, it is easy and convenient for crews on yachts, ships, fishing trawlers, live-aboard dive/surf charter boats, cruise ships etc to maintain a 24/7 watch for DSC calls from other vessels. This is a major development for both the convenience of immediate boat-to-boat calling, and also for maintaining a 24/7 watch for Distress calls from other nearby mariners.

HF/SSB DSC for Group communications - makes it easy and convenient for yachts in a rally, race, club or cruise-in-company support group to keep in contact, advise of navigational hazards, seek advice for an equipment problem, or initiate a daily voice sked.

Each group uses a unique Group Call MMSI ID. One DSC call to the group will alert all the radios scanning for that Group-Call MMSI. Radios can monitor for multiple Group-Call IDs, so the yacht's radio can be simultaneously listening for Group-Calls from an entire rally or race group, or just close friends, or members of a particular cruising/yacht club.

Any group can be created and a Group-Call ID assigned.  ICOM's M802(DSC) and M801(E) radios can hold up to 100 Group IDs, so it's possible to enter numerous separate Group IDs for your yacht club, a race  fleet, rally fleet or cruise-in-company group.

See this page on MRCC Australia's website for how to make DSC Group-Call ID's:  Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) - Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) . This technique is the same DSC Group-Call  ID format recommended and used by Terry Sparks - www.made-simplefor-cruisers.com (USA) and Bob Smith - www.yachtcom.co.uk - (UK).

HF/SSB DSC for Distress communications - to alert other vessels in the vicinity in an emergency, to simultaneously contact Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centres and to play your part as a possible source of help for other mariners. A DSC Distress call is like an all-call - every similar DSC capable radio that receives the call will switch to alarm state - alerting the crew to listen for the subsequent voice broadcast advising the problem, vessel and location. 

DSC Distress calling is increasingly important as most governments have stopped monitoring of the official Marine Emergency/Calling Frequencies for voice distress calls since the introduction of GMDSS for ships over 300 tonnes. (see our website pages about Marine Emergency contact and MRCCs.).

DSC is also important so you can be part of the maritime emergency communications network at sea; because your help might be needed by others in distress. A DSC equipped HF/SSB radio in your yacht can detect DSC distress alerts from any other vessels or from MRCCs, so you can play your part in providing assistance to other mariners; just as you'd like them to help you if the need arose.

Since DSC radios suited to yachts have become available, there are more  new yachts with new HF/SSB radios with DSC, or older yachts with replacement HF/SSB radios, also with DSC. Therefore the number of yachts with DSC equipped radios is increasing. Given the fact most MRCCs around the world now rely on DSC to initiate Distress calls - either to receive them or to send an alarm to other vessels to advise them about a situation and/or request vessels to provide assistance - it means a growing number of yachts are now in a position to become part of the maritime distress communications network, so they can be easily contacted to help yachts - or other vessels - that need assistance.
 
Because DSC capable radios scan for Distress calls with the speaker muted, radios can be conveniently switched on 24/7. There is no temptation to turn down the speaker or turn off the radio as with a non DSC radio. This is a major improvement for the reception of Distress calls by nearby vessels - which are likely to be the closest and quickest source of assistance - and to increase the functionality of  HF/SSB radio for everyday communication amongst cruising yachts, for advice, information, waypoints, a recipe or assistance.
 
A DSC equipped radio allows yachts to join the maritime distress communications system - listening for DSC distress alert from other vessels or an MRCC - without the annoyance of listening to the background noise and other conversations on open frequencies. The radio quietly scans the DSC call frequencies on 4,6,8,12 and 16 Meg for DSC distress alerts. If a DSC alert is received, the radio speaker un-mutes - with the radio listening on the associated voice distress frequency to the DSC alert frequency -  so you can hear the voice distress call from a vessel, or hear the MRCC calling for vessels to assist someone in distress. 

The DSC equipped HF/SSB radio does the work of monitoring for  Distress calls, quietly, without disturbing the beautiful anchorage or ocean sunset. If a Distress call is received - either from another vessel or an MRCC - the radio tells you. There is no longer any need for the yacht crew to constantly listen to the open distress frequencies for Distress calls; the radio does the work instead.

This muted speaker functionality is quite magical and helps make it practical for recreational vessels and their crew to play a valuable role as Search and Rescue assets in the less congested oceans and coasts where many cruisers explore. Now it's easy to contribute to the safety network for the maritime community - to be contactable and to help people on other yachts, or any vessel, in distress - just like the commercial vessels are required by maritime law to do for you.

Most of the time you'll never hear a real Distress alert from your HF/SSB radio - which is excellent - but on the rare occasion that it happens, you may be closest to the vessel in trouble and the people on-board may really need your help.  

HF/SSB radio email - to maintain contact with family/friends ashore, to book the next marina berth, order spare parts, arrange shore excursions or flights, provide distance education on-board for children, receive rally/race information direct from organisers, and to access important weather forecasts and weather warning information.

Many government supported coast radio stations - including all of Australia's stations and Singapore Radio - closed when GMDSS was introduced for ships over 300 tonnes; because their income from telephone interconnect services on HF/SSB transferred to the high-power satellite services (ie: INMARSAT) which large ships were compelled to fit. 

With the widespread use of email by family, friends and businesses, email via HF/SSB radio - ie: SailMail - replaces and exceeds the functionality of telephone interconnect for making contact and for access to important safety related information and managing the cruising life. And it's vastly more convenient and cheaper than phone calls.

Email via HF/SSB radio - ie: SailMail - has free services that allow small-craft to request/receive important information - such as official METAREA forecasts, GRIB weather charts, weather and Maritime Safety Information (MSI) warnings - from the internet.  A direct internet connection is not necessary to receive safety related information or to manage life aboard a cruising yacht or other small-craft.  HF/SSB radio email provides most on-board internet related needs for yacht operations, maintaining contact with family and friends, and organising the cruising life.

Cruising yacht owners from North America, Europe and the UK should be aware that:

  1. There is no integrated VHF network or system of relay/repeater towers on high points in SE Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and around Australia's massive coastline, so the range of any VHF coast station is very limited. HF/SSB communications is the only reliable service for communication distances beyond 15 to 20 nm from major ports, harbours etc. 

    The substantial distances and lack of VHF marine networks or relay towers - relative to home waters - means VHF marine radio is very  limited in it's functionality in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, including throughout SE Asia.  It is not sufficient for cruising this side.
     

  2. ISAF Special Regulations for radio equipment on racing and cruising yachts are suited primarily to inshore operations in Europe/UK and North America. They are not sufficient for this side of the world. 

    The ISAF/ORC Special Regulations for yacht racing (and recommended for cruising) - developed for European operations - require only a VHF marine radio.

    In contrast, Yachting Australia's Special Regulations for yacht racing (and recommended for cruising) specifies  a functional HF/SSB marine radio for a Category 1 & 2 race. Some Cat 3 and 4 races along Australian shorelines also require HF/SSB radio. This is because the distances are greater, the support/emergency services are far apart, shipping traffic densities are much lower, and because VHF marine coast stations are non-existent along most coastal areas of Australia. The same applies throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans and in SE Asia.
     

  3. An Amateur (HAM) Radio can be (illegally) modified to work as a Marine HF/SSB radio, but this is not recommended. It will not have type approval from  communication authorities for marine operation, and many communication authorities will not issue an official radio callsign and vessel radio license if the only HF/SSB on-board is a HAM radio.

    Strictly speaking, the licensed Amateur Radio operator on-board is the only person authorised to operate a radio designed/licensed for HAM use. These radios are built for flexible functionality when used by a trained/licensed HAM operator who knows what should and should not be done with the radio. The radio displays also have small lettering, and dials/buttons that are far more difficult to use in a bouncing boat with wet hands when your reading glasses have fallen behind the bunk. 

    Here is a quote from the not-for-profit SailMail Association which operates an integrated network of over 20 HF/SSB radio email shore stations around the world for it's 2000 plus members:

    "The Icom IC-718 and most other ham radios work with SailMail if they are equipped with a High Stability Crystal Unit, and if the radio is modified to transmit on all bands. ....  Ham radios are not type accepted for use on marine frequencies and their use may not be permitted by your country's radio regulations. For US-registered vessels, the US FCC requires marine type-accepted radios (e.g. Icom M802, M710, M700Pro etc)

    There is another reason why it is a bad idea to use a Ham radio...  Ham radios are much more complicated to operate than marine radios because they have many features that marine radios don't need.  If these options and features are set incorrectly the radio will not work.  Often on a cruising boat there is only one knowledgeable HAM on-board.  If that person is injured and others need to use the SSB, they will be much less likely to be able to operate a HAM radio than they would a marine radio.  Note that it is perfectly legal to use Marine radios such as the Icom M802 on Ham frequencies.  This is a better approach."

    Also, Amateur (HAM) Radios do not have Marine Radio DSC functions, and they are not pre-programmed with the official Marine Emergency frequencies, or the full marine radio band-plan of duplex channels and simplex frequencies.  But Marine radios such as the ICOM M802 and M801E do have all these features included, and they also have user programmable frequency/channel slots, where amateur radio frequencies can be added.

    These marine radios are far better options for the safety of you and your crew, and also to perform your duty as part of the maritime safety network and a potential source of assistance to other mariners; including yachts in your race or rally, or cruise-in-company group. 
     

When selecting a HF/SSB radio for cruising this side:

Be aware that most monitoring of voice emergency calls - Mayday, Pan-Pan and Securite - by MRCCs around the world has stopped or been severely reduced; since GMDSS was introduced for commercial vessels over 300 tonnes.

Making initial radio contact with most MRCCs now requires a DSC alert to be transmitted. Following that, normal voice communications on an official marine emergency frequency will proceed.  So look for a HF/SSB radio that has the DSC function. The ICOM M802(DSC) and M801E (or A) radios are very attractive for small-craft because they are suitable for voice calls, and radio email at full power; many radios cannot operate email/data at full power. They also have the DSC function, and they are a reasonable price. But be aware they need a second radio antenna (eg: an AM/FM radio/stereo receive antenna with a splitter box to divide the incoming signal) for the dedicated DSC Distress receiver function. 

The ICOM M801E (or A) has the additional advantage of a heavy cast aluminium casing which acts as a heat dissipater, eliminating the need for a fan that consumes electricity and sucks salt air and dust through the radio. Some countries (eg: Australia) now require the M801E (or A) - or similar - as the minimum standard to issue a new radio license and call-sign for a yacht.

Another significant advantage of the ICOM M802(DSC) and M801E (or A) radios is the size of the display and text; big enough to see when you can't find your reading glasses, or when standing at the companionway.
In a lumpy sea, when your reading glasses have fallen down the back of the nav table, you - or other crew members - will appreciate a radio with large display characters, and limited dials or buttons. The ICOM M802(DSC) or M801E (or A) radios are practical, versatile, robust, made for marine use - for voice and for email/data - and are reasonably priced. 

NOTE:  Some other reputable name HF/SSB marine radios with DSC cannot sustain full power output when used for email/data. They will automatically cut back their power output to protect their components from overwork. The ICOM radios do not need to do this.
 

Yachts need an official marine radio license and call-sign:

When you need to talk to official organisations - such as Coast Radio Stations or MRCCs -  or you are entering another country where licensing and availability of radios is tightly managed, it is important that your radio installation is properly licensed, with a call-sign; just like the commercial ships which officials are accustomed to accepting. 

Each license issuing country has unique call-sign letters for marine radio call-signs. Officials in countries you enter may know and recognise these call-signs as legitimate. They may not recognise Amateur Radio call-signs - which are issued to an individual, not the yacht - as legitimate for a vessel's radio.

Official marine call-signs are normally written on an official radio license, issued by the national communications authority of the country where the yacht is registered. Some customs/port/marine/immigration/marine police/navy officials may want to see that license; and they may check the license validity/expiry date. Be sure your yacht has a valid and current radio license and call-sign.

An Amateur Radio (HAM) license is not sufficient. These are issued to a specific individual to operate communication equipment on a limited range of internationally agreed frequencies for personal and experimental purposes only. The frequencies allowed for Amateur Radio operation do not include the official Marine HF/SSB channels/frequencies; which are not normally accessible on an Amateur Radio.  Because the frequency bandwith of HAM radios is wider than the marine HF/SSB service and therefore is likely to cause interference to conversations or email transfers on adjacent frequencies. 

Avoid creating unnecessary problems for yourself and your crew at sea and in foreign ports. Get a proper marine radio, a marine radio call-sign and MMSI ID (for DSC calling) and a marine radio license; like all other foreign-going vessels in the world.


Training for Marine HF/SSB radio operation:

Many countries require at least one person - normally the yacht owner - to complete a basic course in marine radio operation before issuing a marine radio license and Marine call-sign for a yacht.

Regardless of whether this requirement applies to your yacht's country of registration, for your own confidence and safety, it's important for at least two people on-board to know how to operate, do basic trouble shooting and communicate using the marine HF/SSB radio.

There are numerous cruisers with good Marine HF/SSB radios who can't use it effectively because they lack a small amount of operator knowledge. This training could save people a small fortune in communication costs (eg: by using the radio rather than a  satellite phone), provide safety support for themselves and fellow mariners, give access to important weather and safety related emails, and help expand the range of wonderful cruising experiences available away from commercialised towns etc.

Be sure to sign up for a HF/SSB radio course that covers more than just the basics of DSC functionality and which gives practical hands-on experience using the radios, so you can successfully utilise this important - and cost saving - resource. Learn the difference between simplex and duplex channels, understand why the Maritime HF/SSB service uses different frequencies, and what simple setup/install practices and routine maintenance tasks will ensure your yacht's radio will perform well.

In in the UK/Europe, contact Bob Smith - www.yachtcom.co.uk

In North America, contact Terry Sparks - www.made-simplefor-cruisers.com

If you are buying a new or replacement HF/SSB radio for your yacht or other small-craft:

  1. Buy a reliable marine radio with DSC and email capability. For example, the ICOM M802(DSC) or ICOM M801(E). In the long-run, this is far cheaper compared to alternative (eg: satellite based), cruising/boating communications.  And it links you into the Maritime Distress communications system, with all it's advantages for you and your fellow mariners.

  2. Use the same purchase philosophy most of us would normally aim to apply to buying a new PC or notebook; get the latest technology so it stays relevant and functional for as long as possible. Therefore, buy the type approved marine radio with DSC. 

  3. Read some books and knowledgeable web information.  For example, see Terry Spark's (retired US Navy commander, committed cruiser and licensed HAM) books: http://www.made-simplefor-cruisers.com/ (Beware of vocal forum contributors who make comments based upon their limited understadning of the subject.)

Installing a reliable HF/SSB radio system:

There are thousands of outlets where quality HF/SSB radio equipment can be purchased. There are far fewer outlets which also have the understanding of HF/SSB radio operation to help ensure your system works well, and can provide answers to installation and operating questions. 

It pays to buy from people who share your passion for boating and have the practical experience with HF/SSB radio operations to provide sound advice.  For example:

UK/Europe:
    Yachtcom - UK based - marine radio equipment & Pactor modem
                        supplier for SailMail. Installation, support & HF/SSB
                        training courses (RYA certified) from Bob Smith. 

North America:
     Offshore Outfitters - California based - marine radio equipment &
                                       Pactor modems supplier for SailMail, and
                                       SailMail technical support.

    Made Simple for Cruisers - Terry Sparks' sells books and had lots
                                                of advice and adaptations to help
                                                cruisers, race and rally participants
                                                get the most benefit from their marine
                                                HF/SSB radio with DSC.

Australia:
     Radios.net.au  - Queensland based - radio equipment supplier,
                              Pactor modem distributor for SailMail and
                              BBREmail. 
    
     NAUTEK Marine - Victoria based - boat electronics and marine
                                radio equipment supplier, Pactor modem distributor
                                for SailMail and BBREmail. 

SE Asia:

     Brunei Bay Radio - Marine radio supplier and Pactor modem
                                  distributor for SailMail and BBRemail.

The SailMail website also has an extensive list of sellers/installers who have experience with HF/SSB radio, Pactor modems and SailMail functionality. See the list near the bottom of the SailMail home page.


For further information - and practical evidence of the importance of modern, marine HF/SSB radio with DSC for Distress and General communications - please use the below links to documents regarding the importance of DSC equipped HF/SSB marine radios for yacht charter, cruising, racing and rallies:

HF/SSB radio with DSC - For cruising, racing and rallies

HF/SSB radio with DSC - A comms strategy for race, rally or cruising

HF/SSB radio with DSC - Easy installation

HF/SSB radio with DSC - Functions

And these links for other background information:

Importance of 24/7 DSC watch by yachs, and proven functionality of DSC - an article prepared for Cruisers Forum

Amended GENERAL receiver scanning for improved/extended range DSC calling - strategy developed by Terry Sparks.

Emergency frequency scanning for DSC radios - from Terry Sparks - www.made-simplefor-cruisers.com

ITU proposed amendments for DSC frequency scanning - to align official ITU world radio communications practice with Terry Sparks' scanning strategy for extend calling range and call effectiveness for nearby yachts.

Yachting Australia Special Regulation (racing and cruising) to June 2017 - specifies HF/SSB radio for events beyond constant comms from VHF coast stations

Problem for cruising yacht getting assistance in SE Asia  - scroll down the page to read the article titel "When all the ducks line up ..  " 

Link to Ocean Cruising Club forum - post on page 5 showing the superior speed of SailMail email/data downloads via HF/SSB radio compared to satellite comms.  Go to page 5.

updated: 8 June 2015

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