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Demystifying SSB radio

Feb 28, 2017

This powerful communication tool is still a great addition to a voyaging boat

A marine HF SSB radio installed alongside a VHF. Left, an Icom IC-M802, a popular marine HF SSB.

A marine HF SSB radio installed alongside a VHF. Left, an Icom IC-M802, a popular marine HF SSB.

Sarah Silverstein

In an increasingly plug-and-play world, marine high-frequency (HF) single sideband (SSB) radio has developed something of a bad reputation, particularly among people relatively new to cruising or long-distance sailing.

Naysayers might argue the technology is decidedly low-tech compared to the smartphone in your pocket or tablet in the cabin. Some just consider it frustrating to use and would rather rely on a satellite phone for voice and email communications. There is also the upfront cost, which can exceed $4,000 or more for a radio tuner, modem and installation.

But marine single sideband has legions of fans and plenty of regular users. Although even its staunchest defenders acknowledge an initial learning curve, they cite its myriad benefits available with a little effort. These can include low cost of ownership, access to email and detailed weather data using a Pactor modem, and the potential for speedier rescues during an emergency.

“The satellite phone, when it’s working and if you don’t care about the expense, it’s still point-to-point communication or one-to-one, whereas radio is an entirely different thing, it’s one-to-many,” said Bill Trayfors, a longtime sailor and radio expert based in Arlington, Va. “Nobody else can hear you when you’re talking on a satellite phone, it’s just a telephone call from one place to another. Whereas if you’re on a radio, anyone else who is tuned to that frequency can hear you, and quite often that turns out to be a lot of people.”

Voyaging nets
Possibly the biggest benefit of marine SSB radio are the “nets” — these are regular radio meet-ups that occur at certain times on a certain channels. During these sessions, boaters can swap weather observations and route tips with sailors hundreds of miles away or more. For voyagers making long trips solo or two-handed, these groups can provide a much-needed link with the outside world.

This capability is where single sideband radio really shines, said Dave Skolnick, an Annapolis-based sailor whose company, AuspiciousWorks, sells both satellite and radio-based marine communication systems.

“You can talk to people in front of you, behind you or before you leave some place,” he said in a recent interview.

“If you leave Norfolk on an Atlantic Rally, or you’re in the Caribbean 1500, or the Salty Dawg Rally or the Pacific Puddle Jump, on any of those you’ve got a whole group of people in front of you telling you what the weather is like, what they’re seeing, what fish they caught or what they had for lunch. You’re out there by yourself, but with single sideband you’re out there in a community.”

That sailing community also can be called on during emergencies. Mariners in distress can ask for help over popular channels using marine SSB, reaching vessels tuned to those frequencies 100 miles in any direction. Modern SSB radios with digital selective calling (DSC) have emergency distress signals that are automatically broadcast on several frequencies.

“Anybody equipped with DSC is going to hear it, setting off a rather loud alarm,” Trayfors said. 

Rescue benefits
National rescue authorities monitor these frequencies and would likely pick up the signal and be able to locate the distress vessel through the radio’s MMSI number. These distress signals also could trigger a response from the U.S. Coast Guard’s AMVER system, in which nearby commercial ships can respond to the emergency.

An Icom IC-M802, a popular marine HF SSB.

Courtesy Icom

“If the nearest recreational boat is 80 or 100 miles away … at 6 or 7 knots (that person) is going to be closer than a fixed-wing aircraft out of the U.K. followed by commercial ships that might be two or three days away,” Skolnick said.

“All of a sudden, that guy that feels far away at 100 miles at 6 knots becomes your first responder, and that makes a big difference and you are going to get that with single sideband where with a satphone you’re not.”

Marine SSB also works pretty well for communicating with friends and family back on shore. Sailors can make phone calls back home through the ShipCom service using SSB for about $1 a minute. When connected to a modem, these radios can send and receive email through SailMail and other systems, which cost around $275 a year. Radios can also receive detailed weather reports in the form of GRIBs, synoptic charts and voice broadcasts on a regular basis on several frequencies.

Download speeds over radio can also be faster than over a satellite connection, according to Gordon West, a California-based radio expert.

Marine SSB’s capabilities aren’t especially useful if sailors can’t figure out how to use them, however. Single sideband radios can have hundreds of marine frequencies, and it’s not hard to imagine novice users endlessly spinning a tuning dial looking for a certain channel.

There are some tips that make finding frequencies easier. When connected to a computer, the Airmail email software can automatically tune your radio to find optimum frequencies. The nets, weather broadcasts, fax broadcasts and other information also tend to happen at set times on set frequencies, meaning users can learn to find a handful of useful channels without having to navigate the entire spectrum.

Start small 
“Rather than getting frustrated trying to learn whole thing, the best way for a newcomer is to pick one or two net frequencies and join those every day and listen to those every single day,” Trayfors said, likening the nets to “crowdsourcing.”

Some nets can draw 50 to 100 boats to a frequency at a given time, but the rest of the day there won’t be anyone there, he said.

There is typically overlap between ham (amateur) radio users and marine SSB users. Unlike ham radio, marine SSB does not require an exam, although users must have an FCC-approved radio and a station license for their boat plus an operator’s permit. These can be acquired by filling out a form on the FCC website.

Skolnick admits marine SSB can take some effort to learn and understand. But he said it’s no more complex than learning other onboard components.

“For all of the work that you do learning about diesel engines and watermakers and sewage systems and air conditioning and generators and Wi-Fi and all that other stuff, it just isn’t that hard to understand how to really effectively use single sideband radio,” Skolnick said. “It’s not hard,” he added, “but there is a learning curve and you do need to put forth some effort.”

Given the benefits a marine SSB rig provides, however, the effort would seem worth it for many voyagers.

Casey Conley is a staff writer for Ocean Navigator and Professional Mariner and is the editor of American Tugboat Review.

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