Bookmark and Share Email this page Email Print this page Print

Cruising with ham radio

Sep 28, 2017
The Alinco DX-SR8T HF radio features SSB, CW, AM, and FM on 160 to 10 meters.

The Alinco DX-SR8T HF radio features SSB, CW, AM, and FM on 160 to 10 meters.

Courtesy Alinco

Serious cruisers have depended on amateur ham single sideband radio (SSB) since the early 1960s. Imagine sailing in the mid-Pacific and talking to a guy drinking beer in a cottage in England, or to a senior government official in an African republic. This is the power of ham radio. Your primary duty as a sailor, though, is to maintain contact with other sailing vessels in your group or region and to share crucial information regarding weather, sailing conditions and the most up-to-date information regarding checking-in procedures at various ports.

For many cruisers, upper sideband marine SSB on 40 meters provides sufficient communication capacity beyond the VHF. Marine SSB is enabled through a dedicated marine band HF (high frequency) radio transceiver, such as the 150-watt IC-M802 from Icom. However, many skippers use a standard ham radio rig to receive and transmit on marine SSB channels. Some radios, such as the legacy Kenwood TS-50, need to be modified to use upper sideband on 40 meters.

The FCC forbids ham sets from transmitting on marine SSB frequencies, but this is standard procedure among cruising hams. The exception to this law is when there is danger to human life. Information regarding severe weather conditions, sea state, obstructions and piracy is meant to save human lives, and these are issues you are discussing routinely. If you happen to throw in a recipe for tuna casserole during one of your contacts about a gale near Socotra Island while crossing the Arabian Sea, believe me: No one cares.

Ham and marine SSB radio operation requires FCC licensure, although there are significant differences in what the two licenses cover and the process for securing the licenses. Applying for an FCC ship radio license is a simple affair requiring you to fill out a form and pay a one-time fee of $60. An FCC amateur radio (ham) license permitting communication on many radio frequency bands, including 40 meters, requires you to pass the General Class amateur radio test. You must understand basic electronics, radio reception and transmission, basic antenna propagation theory and the laws governing amateur radio transmission.

If you are a serious cruiser, you owe it to yourself to pass the Technician and General ham tests, both required for your General Class license. If you enjoy math and want to study additional antenna theory, you can prepare for the Extra Class license exam. Most of the chatter on ham radio, though, is on the General Class portions of the ham frequency bands.

With only a vessel station license, your marine SSB is limited to exactly that, marine SSB. No licensed ham operator in the world will respond to an unlicensed ham radio operator (easily verified online), except in a life-threatening emergency. With a General Class ham license, you have access to more frequency bands, allowing greater flexibility in how you communicate.

Besides being able to chat with other cruisers and ham operators on SSB, your ham radio can be linked to your laptop computer via a Pactor modem to enable communication through SailMail. For a small annual fee, cruisers who want worldwide email access can join this nonprofit organization in order to send and receive email from any point on the planet.

There is no further charge to send or receive an unlimited number of emails through SailMail via SSB. SailMail provides an updated list of SSB frequencies in their network so you are always within range of a SailMail station. With the service now offering access to Inmarsat or Iridium satellites, ham radio continues to provide the most robust communications option for cruisers.

Circumnavigator-author Bill Morris is the author of Sun, Wind, & Water: The Essential Guide to the Energy-Efficient Cruising Boat and is a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator.

Edit Module

Old to new | New to old
Sep 28, 2017 07:04 pm
 Posted by  Annette

Would you check the FCC license fees? I believe the Ship Radio Station license is much higher and the Restricted Radio Operator permit has increased. Thank you.

Sep 29, 2017 12:11 am
 Posted by  TedL

Thanks Bill. Believe Annette is correct - the FCC Ship's station and Restricted Operator licenses are $220 and $70 respectively.

A couple of other nits. Sailmail doesn't limit the number of emails, but DOES limit HF connect time to 90 minutes per week (telnet connections via the internet are not limited, either by time or data (more incentive to purchase that Pactor 4 modem I suppose...).

Also needing to be mentioned is the much larger free email system used by Amateur licensees called WinLink, which does not require an annual fee, but DOES require an Extra class license in countries participating in CEPT or CITEL agreements (mostly European and Americas countries), or a reciprocal license issued by the country itself supporting Amateur HF bands.

Sep 29, 2017 12:25 am
 Posted by  Laszlo M.

Using a ham radio to operate as Marin SSB radio in not only illegal around th word, but a stupid choice.

A responsable cruiser should learn the essentila marine communication procedures both for his VHF and SSB.

It is good to know, that Marine radios both VHF and SSB are enabled with DSC (Digital Selective Calling) to be used to call shpre base statons and othe sships much more automatocally, wichout the mees do aurial watch of voice channels (VHF ch 16 and SSB 2182, 6215 or 8291 kHz.)WIth DSC initial contacts are establishe by DSC with an MMSI numer and than the converastion is carried out by voice as usual.

This is Marin radiocommunication in the 21 century even for our radiamateur friends.

Regrads,Laszlo Mercz (

Oct 2, 2017 01:08 pm
 Posted by  Mitch

I much preferred my 80's vintage M602 ICOM SSB. Even though I was never able to eradicate all static I was able to communicate with Herb in Toronto from Grenada and Trinidad (97-98). In 2013-2014 with the new M802 and the hundreds of channels (of which we only use a tiny fraction) and the latest in ground planes, clean power and antenna connections, etc.. the new radio's performance was almost nil. Extremely dissatisfied with it. They need to be making SSB's more user friends rather than more complicated.. if, that is, they wish to stay in business. Before long the dropping cost of Satellite comms will be more affordable and incidence of SSB/HF radios aboard the average cruising vessel will fall way off. Obviously there are some whose entire day revolves around radio nets.. and that is great for them but the vast majority of cruiser's are out there for other reasons. Seems to me that the SSB/HF industry needs to be making these observations and building equipment that is easier to install and operate that currently available. Capt Mitch, sv Private Dancer

Oct 4, 2017 12:25 pm
 Posted by  Ocean Navigator

Bill Morris responds:

Annette and Ted,
Thanks for the updates on FCC fees for marine SSB licensure and Sailmail details. WinLink is indeed a great service, but most sailing hams have only General Class tickets. A bit of extra study for Extra Class will offer them greater communication opportunities.


Thanks for your feedback. I think "stupid" is a rather strong word for experienced ocean sailors who pass along potentially life-saving information to fellow cruisers, but I do respect and admire your faithful adherence to the law.

Your "radiomateur" friend,

Nov 14, 2017 07:48 am
 Posted by  Martin

Thank you for the great information. My Icom M802 radio was in daily use during our voyage.The email and weather products available while offshore are truly outstanding. Iridium phones can retrieve this information as well.
What is most important about modern radios is the DSC (Digital Selective Calling) function. If you have an emergency at sea you are most likely to be rescued by an AMVER participating merchant ship. A DSC enabled radio allows you to contact all the commercial ships near you directly. A few recreational boats receive DSC signals as well.
In my experience, ships no longer monitor voice frequencies, but meet their radio watch requirements by automated monitoring of DSC frequencies. When I have needed to contact a ship, a "routine" DSC call over the VHF or HF always gets a reply. An AIS receiver tells you the nearby ship's MMSI number so a mariner can contact a particular ship directly.
While Amateur HF equipment and satellite communications will allow basic functionality, digital selective calling is what sets a marine ssb type-approved radio apart. A satellite phone may allow you to call your family from the southern ocean, but will not allow you to contact that passing freighter as you're sinking.
Best Regards

Jun 12, 2020 05:47 pm
 Posted by  Janet L.

The last time I looked, an IC-M803 was nearly $2,000 more than a basic ham HF radio, like the IC-718 or Alinco DX-SR8T, ones from SEAS a wee bit less and ones from JRC a whole lot more.
I suppose the very limited market for marine SSB radios at least in part justifies the fact that even the old M802 was a kilobuck more than a basic HF ham radio, and the M803 jumps it up another kilobuck for the selective calling hardware.
Now, I'm a ham radio operator and have been one for years, so licensing is no problem, (not to mention, unless you have real problems with math, getting a general class ham license isn't much of a challenge.) Which leads me to wonder if the marine units have additional anti-moisture and shock-resistant features to help me justify the extra expense? I suppose at the last ditch, the DCS features would be worthwhile, but until a ship shows up on your AIS system and you then know the MMSI, I kind of wonder if it would make much difference - unless I'm missing something.

Add your comment: