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- V8V2222 -
HF/SSB radio services


Cruising this side -

Making contact in a Distress or Emergency situation.

The HF/SSB Maritime Emergency frequencies remain the official maritime distress & emergency communication medium used by MRCCs to manage and direct search and rescue operations in open sea. Ships and aircraft which could be directed to search for and assist a yacht in distress also have radios fitted with these official marine communication frequencies.

Satellite phones are not part of the official maritime distress and emergency communications service. They lack the important broadcast feature of marine HF/SSB and VHF radios. Satellite phone call costs are considerable and could become an element in the decision to participate in assisting another mariner. A lack of credit could cause the satphone to stop operating. 

Search and Rescue resources - such as ships and planes - are not required to fit satellite phones to communicate with yachts in distress. They fit marine VHF and HF/SSB radios, and use the official marine distress voice communication frequencies. Communication to manage emergencies and help people is therefore free of any call charges.

The official HF/SSB Marine Distress voice frequencies are:

       2182   4125   6215   8291  12290  16420 

Note: 2182 is a difficult frequency to use in equatorial latitudes due to the high background noise level.  Most equatorial services use 4Meg as their lowest serviceable frequency. 2182 is still used in higher latitudes by local area services, and in countries with GMDSS Sea Area A1 (ie VHF and MF radio services), such as the UK.

Modern marine HF/SSB and VHF radios now incorporate the DSC (Digital Select Calling) feature. DSC has been compulsory for large commercial vessels since 2001. DSC allows mariners to maintain a 24/7 scanning watch on the DSC calling frequencies (from 2 to 16 Meg) on their HF/SSB radio without listening to a noisy speaker. The speaker is muted, and only un-mutes when a DSC call is received, which triggers the radio goes into an alert state; ringing like a phone. DSC calls can be Individual (ie: the specific radio's MMSI number - like a phone number), Group (ie: an MMSI number established for a race, rally, club or cruise-in company group. A DSC call to the Group MMSI number will alert all yachts in that group.) or Distress (ie: all similar DSC radios will be alerted, speakers opened so the voice distress call can be heard by as many nearby vessels - and MRCCs - as possible.

If your yacht does not have a marine communications service, HF/SSB radio, with the Marine Emergency frequencies, and DSC (Digital Select Calling) you make it very difficult for the MRCC, aircraft, ships and other yachts to help you in an emergency. 

Here is an important reminder from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) website:

While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.

Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority.

(See  http://www.amsa.gov.au/search_and_rescue/)

Here is an except from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand website:

"At sea, call the Maritime Operations Centre on VHF ch 16  ... or SSB 2182, 4125, 6215, 8291 ... "


If close to shore and major ports, towns etc, the appropriate VHF Marine Emergency channel used by many MRCCs, ports and other authorities in SE Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans - ch16 - can be used. But once beyond the range of coastal VHF stations, the official maritime communication service which links together all types of vessels - government, man-of-war, large and small commercial, fishing trawlers, marine tourism, cruise ships - and MRCCs, is the marine HF/SSB radio, with DSC.

Since the late 90's introduction of GMDSS for commercial vessels over 300 tonnes, the monitoring of the official HF/SSB Maritime Emergency frequencies around the world for voice calls - Mayday, Pan-Pan and Securite - has almost disappeared. Like most commercial vessels, most MRCCs have also taken the opportunity to silence their noisy radios speakers, by maintaining only a DSC watch.

DSC significantly improves the  probability that a call - Individual, Group or Distress - will be heard, because the radio is doing the work of listening for the call, not the crew. And because the radio scans the  DSC calling frequencies with a silent speaker, the crew is not tempted to turn down the volume or turn off the radio. 

There are a few MRCCs which still maintain an open speaker voice watch for Distress calls on some or all Marine Emergency voice calling frequencies  - (eg: Taupo Radio-New Zealand, Seychelles Radio and  MRCC PNG) - but overall, it's increasingly difficult to initiate contact with an MRCC or related Coast Station by making a Mayday, Pan-Pan or Securite call on the Marine emergency voice frequencies.  (See our MRCC contact page for more details.)

It's also very difficult to initiate contact with nearby commercial, government, marine tourism or recreational vessels,  because the maritime regulations no longer require them to maintain a 24/7 watch for voice calls. Instead they are permitted to maintain a 24/7 watch for DSC calls only. 

Getting a response to a Distress call is FAR MORE RELIABLE by sending a DSC alarm from a modern marine HF/SSB radio. All vessel crews - on commercial vessels, yachts, MRCCs, warships, government vessels, cruise ships etc - can conveniently and reliably "listen" for DSC Distress alarms, because their DSC equipped radio does the work, only alerting them if a DSC alarm is received. The crew do not need to listen to the static or other calls and differentiate these from a real Distress call. And the crew is not tempted to turn down the volume, or turn off the radio, because of that noise; so no voice Distress calls can be heard.

MRCC Australia has two powerful radio bases with large antenna systems that provide effective HF/SSB coverage over most of the central and western  South Pacific, NW Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean; including SE Asia and most of BRUNEI BAY RADIO's email service area. However, MRCC Australia only monitors for DSC  alerts to initiate contact; there is no operator listening for voice calls of Mayday, Pan-Pan or Securite. But, once MRCC Australia is alerted, these powerful HF/SSB radio systems are used to manage an incident using voice communication - to the yacht, potential rescue ships in the region, search aircraft etc - on the official marine distress frequencies.

MRCCs in SE Asia monitor only for DSC alerts, they do not maintain a voice listening watch on the official distress/emergency frequencies. But once alerted, they will use their HF/SSB radio equipment for voice communications on the official marine HF/SSB distress/emergency frequencies, to manage the incident.

A HF/SSB radio with Digital Select Calling (DSC) is a very effective means to initiate contact with most MRCCs; or any other vessels nearby maintaining a listening watch with their radio. A great benefit of a DSC equipped HF/SSB radio in your yacht or other small-craft is that it silently scans for DSC alerts, with the radio speaker muted. The radio does the job of monitoring for Distress and General alarm calls from other mariners, and only disturbs you - with alarms and open voice frequency - when a DSC call is received; either Distress or General call.  General calls are either specifically for your yacht (using your unique MMSI number, like dialing a phone)  or a Group Call, to you as one of numerous members of a call-group.

This silent standby feature allows small-craft crew to conveniently maintain a 24/7 watch for DSC distress/emergency alerts from other recreational and commercial vessels, without the disturbance previously associated with maintaining a 24/7 listening watch for voice calls.  This convenient means of maintaining a 24/7 radio watch for Distress, Individual or Group calls means you and your vessel can be contacted by other vessels - or an MRCC  - to assist others in need of assistance or emergency help. Just like you expect others are contactable to help you if you need assistance, advice or rescue. 

Recreational vessels which maintain a 24/7 watch for DSC alarms - Distress or General/Group - help strengthen and extend the existing  maritime reciprocal support network based on HF/SSB with DSC in commercial vessels. There is considerable evidence from incidents that - when operating beyond the excellent S&R resources of the UK/Europe and parts of North America - contacting a nearby vessel can be the best option for obtaining timely advice to solve a problem, give a tow, obtain waypoints into a sheltered anchorage before a storm, or as a last resort, to pick-up people.  The broadcast nature of a marine HF/SSB DSC Distress alarm means it is not necessary to know what vessels are nearby; any vessels in range maintaining a 24/7 DSC watch will be alerted.

Because of the change to DSC only MRCC and commercial ship watch-keeping, many countries - eg; in Europe, the UK and Australia - now require new radio installations in small-craft - including recreational yachts -  to be DSC equipped HF/SSB and VHF radios.  This ensures recreational vessels have access to use the GMDSS/DSC distress monitoring systems if they have an emergency, and it also makes recreational vessels additional valuable assets in the maritime safety network, because they can be easily contacted to assist other mariners in distress:

  • A significant advantage of DSC radios in cruising yachts is they conveniently allow you and your yacht to become a useful resource in the maritime safety and support network, without needing to listen 24/7 to all the routine calls, noise etc on the emergency frequencies. Maintaining an on-board DSC watch for alerts from other vessels or MRCCs is done with the radio speaker muted, so the peace of a beautiful anchorage and the open sea can be maintained. When a DSC alert is received, the radio speaker un-mutes and the radio comes to life, announcing that a distress is occurring within radio range.

  • By maintaining a 24/7 DSC watch on board, you can be contacted by other (DSC equipped) vessels in distress, or an MRCC looking for nearby vessels to assist a vessel, aircraft etc that has notified them of a distress situation. It could be that your yacht is the closest to people in distress and you could save lives. 

  • By installing a DSC equipped HF/SSB radio, and maintaining a 24/7 watch for DSC alerts, you make your contribution to the safety and security of the entier maritime community. You and your yacht become easily contactable by MRCCs and other vessels so you can become an important asset in helping those in distress; just like you expect other people and vessels to be contactable so they will willingly sacrifice their time, money and well-being to come to your assistance if you have a problem.

When making decisions about communications equipment and linking into the DSC maritime safety communications network, remember the words of MRCC Australia from their website: 

"Dedicated SAR facilities are limited in Australia. When necessary, other facilities are diverted from their primary function by arrangement or request." 

"Even once a position is obtained (from an EPIRB), response times then depend on the time for a search and rescue (SAR) unit, such as a helicopter, aircraft or ground party to be readied and transit to the search area. The more remote the location of the distress incident, the longer the response time. In all instances, be prepared to survive."

These words apply throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around the isolated parts of Australia's coast, and in SE Asia. A similar statement can be seen on the website of MRCC Hong Kong:

"For help in the distant parts of our Search and Rescue Region where Government resources cannot reach, the Hong Kong MRCC must rely upon the assistance of merchants ships and fishing vessel in the vicinity of the distress."

A DSC alarm will almost certainly alert a nearby vessel - commercial, recreational or government - which could provide timely advise, spare parts, a pump or a tow - to solve a debilitating or potentially hazardous problem or prevent a sinking yacht and liferaft scenario. In SE Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, assistance from a nearby vessel has proven to be faster and more effective in many cases than an official search and rescue response.

Hence the importance of cruising yachts taking advantage of the capabilities of a modern DSC capable HF/SSB radio to establish mutual support groups to look after each other with advice, spare parts, information, a tow or rescue. These words from MRCC Australia emphasise the importance of radio communication:  (my italics to highlight sections related to radio use and the need to be self-sufficient): 

"While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.

Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority."

"Distress beacons should only be used when there is a threat of grave and imminent danger. In the event of an emergency, communication should first be attempted with others close by using radios, phones and other signalling devices. Mobile phones can be used but should not be relied upon as they can be out of range, have low batteries or become water-damaged."

As advised by MRCC Australia (above) "be prepared to survive" while waiting for an official rescue response in those beautiful untouched, sparsely populated coasts, islands and maritime preservation areas cruisers love to explore.

Modern, DSC capable marine HF/SSB and VHF radios facilitate the creation of mutual self-support groups of yachts, travelling loosely together, when crossing oceans, island hopping or meandering through archipelagos; separated by distance, but linked by their radios. Setup a Group-Call ID, keep radios on to maintain a (silent) 24/7 DSC watch for calls from each other, and use regular voice contact to stay aware of each other's movements. Explore beautiful coasts or island groups (eg: Indonesia) in pairs or small groups or split up knowing another member of the group is within a few hours travel time. It's all about sharing knowledge, information, spare parts etc, and having like-minded yachties nearby to provide reciprocal support.    

Apart from the regular inter-yacht communication for advice and cost-saving benefits  - eg: share information about shore services/suppliers - when used as a communications support link by groups of yachts, a modern, marine HF/SSB radio with DSC becomes cost-effective insurance with a significant incident-prevention capability. And it helps protect your insurance policy no-claim discount!

DSC equipped HF/SSB radios are more expensive and there are additional installation requirements because the DSC receiver requires a second, separate, antenna input. (This can be from a shared source, such as the AM/FM radio/stereo antenna.) In addition, only a few radio brands/models are suitable for small-craft, in terms of physical size, power consumption, operating voltage and price. But a modern HF/SSB radio with DSC is a relatively small proportion of the overall cost of boat ownership/operation, and for most yachts is cheaper than a new sail. Installing the radio and maintaining a 24/7 DSC watch is a relatively minor inconvenience compared to the benefits of linking into the existing maritime safety network and creating mutual self-help groups of cruising yachts. 

For those vessels - recreational or commercial - without a DSC equipped HF/SSB radio, the practical options to initiate contact with an MRCC or related  Coast Radio station have become either email, or a satellite phone call. Many yachts or small commercial vessels now have low-cost HF radio email - such as SailMail - and carry a hand-held satellite phone as a backup.

Email or a satellite phone call can be effective to initiate contact with emergency authorities regarding a problem. In most instances, voice communication will then continue on the official HF/SSB Maritime Emergency frequencies, to manage the incident.

The reasons that marine HF/SSB radio remains the optimal communications medium for distress and emergency communications include:

  • The MRCC does not need to keep track of which yachts, tugs, fishing trawlers, big ships and aircraft are in their SAR area, their present position, and their individual satellite phone numbers, in order to contact them individually to request they assist a nearby vessel.   The MRCC can simply broadcast the details of a distress situation - or send a DSC alert call - because these potential rescue resources are already monitoring the distress frequencies for voice or DSC alerts.

  • It's far more practical, efficient, faster and much lower cost than satellite phone communications during emergencies.

  • The rescue co-ordination centres (or their associated Coast Station) can broadcast simultaneously to all ships, yachts, planes, helicopters etc involved.

  • All ships, aircraft etc can listen to conversations between the MRCC and the vessel in distress, or the MRCC and resources assigned to assist.

  • This open communication allows everyone to know what is happening, what tasks have been assigned to particular resources, and so all involved can consider how each might be able to adapt or integrate their efforts and resources.

For the MRCC to separately call each individual yacht, ship, aircraft etc via satellite phone - or cell-phone in the case of inshore incidents - to assign tasks would be very time consuming,  frustratingly slow, expensive and risk errors. And potentially important resources - like a nearby yacht or fishing vessel - might not be able to advise the MRCC they can help, because they don't have the financial capacity to make numerous satellite phone calls, or their call credit has expired.

Voice communications via radio using the official Marine Emergency frequencies is designed to get the identical message to everyone simultaneously, and to speed the co-ordination and task assignment process; without the complications imposed by satellite phone cost, zero account credit or needing to maintain a database of hundreds of thousands of satellite phones and make hundreds of (expensive) separate calls to individual vessels, planes etc


BRUNEI BAY
RADIO
conducts a survey of MRCC services and related Coast Radio stations in the BBR service area. This revealed:

1. All countries in SE Asia now maintain  an emergency communications watch on HF/SSB only for DSC calls.  There is no voice monitoring of the emergency frequencies for Mayday, Pan-Pan and Securite calls.

2. All MRCCs or related Coast Radio Stations now maintain a 24/7 watch for emergency EMAILS or PHONE calls. These two methods now appear to be the most reliable means for small-craft without DSC equipped HF/SSB radios to initiate contact with rescue authorities in an emergency; before switching on an EPIRB.

3. Once the MRCC is alerted, they - or their related Coast Station - will most likely communicate by voice using HF/SSB radio (or VHF if very close) on the official Marine Emergency frequencies to co-ordinate the response.  Some MRCCs - eg: Seychelles, India, PNG - report they prefer to use email for ongoing communications.

While email  - or low-power satellite handphones - are not officially endorsed as methods to contact emergency services, they have become the option for small-craft - recreational or commercial - without DSC capability to initiate contact with an MRCC. Some considerations of using HF/SSB radio email in distress situations:

  1. Yacht owners with HF/SSB radio email know their radio email can normally get through even when voice communications is difficult.

  2. In the case of an emergency that requires confidential communications (eg: a situation where a yacht believes they are being pursued/followed, and these vessels they may be monitoring the emergency frequencies), email or satellite phone communications may be preferable to broadcasting the vessel's location and intentions on the radio.

  3. From the perspective of communication during an incident, some email services (eg: SailMail) have the capacity for simultaneously broadcast to multiple recipients; keeping everyone quickly updated with identical information, if they also have email on board, and the email addresses are known.

  4. Small-craft equipped with SailMail, can use the RELAY function to quickly distribute one email to multiple email address recipients. This allows a vessel to simultaneously communicate with multiple MRCCs to initiate contact, and to send identical information to the controlling MRCC and tasked vessels or other resources, during an incident. For information about using the RELAY feature in SailMail, send an empty email to relayinfo@saildocs.com  RELAY emails with the correct list of MRCC email addresses for the present sailing area can be created in advance as drafts, and stored for possible use.

For practical advice from people who have spent a lifetime using marine HF/SSB radio and providing marine search and rescue services, see http://www.made-simplefor-cruisers.com/ and http://www.amsa.gov.au/search_and_rescue/ and http://www.sailmail.com
 

Updated: 12 August 2014

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