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Ham radio installation for voyagers

Nov 14, 2017
The SG-230 Smartuner is easy to install and offers decades of flawless service for ham radio communication.

The SG-230 Smartuner is easy to install and offers decades of flawless service for ham radio communication.

Many sailors transitioning into offshore cruising still opt for the versatility of ham radio to communicate with other vessels and to take advantage of SailMail or Winlink with a Pactor modem. To install a ham set, you will need not only a transceiver but an automatic tuner, too. An automatic tuner matches the standing wave ratio (SWR) between the antenna and the radio output to prevent harmful amperage from being reflected back to the radio from mismatched impedance.

Some ham radio sets are designed to interface with a proprietary tuner. Most sets can be coupled with the tuner of your choice. The SG-230 Smartuner is a high-quality, virtually bulletproof device offering interface capability with most HF ham sets and can last many years in the harshest tropical conditions. The Smartuner I installed with my Kenwood TS-50S ham set on Saltaire in 1999 survived a circumnavigation and still works like new. By the way, the Kenwood TS-50S is a great radio, and the only reason I replaced it was because the first one was “confiscated” by representatives from the, uh, Somali Board of Aquatic Tourism in the Gulf of Aden (see article in the May 2005 Ocean Navigator).

The Smartuner employs a microprocessor to adjust antenna length through a set of relays and copper coils. The unit is sealed in a black plastic box measuring 16 by 12 by 3.5 inches, and it is attached at the radio side with an RG-58 connector/coax and at the antenna side with a length of insulated wire. For a long-lasting antenna feed, use Ancor GTO 15 tin-coated insulated wire. I use a non-conductive jelly designed for electrical applications to protect the backstay feed connection, but there are both advantages and disadvantages to this practice. While the jelly does keep the antenna feed wire from corroding, the goop also attracts salt and grime, forming a sticky paste, which eventually becomes a signal-blocking insulator.

The backstay antenna is a “random wire” coupled with the automatic tuner. Most skippers prefer an insulated backstay, although you will occasionally see an insulated shroud on a large yacht. Another option is a whip antenna, which averts the chance of rig failure at the insulators but offers less gain than a long rigging wire antenna.

Rigging insulators, available from GAM Electronics ( and a few other manufacturers, protect radio transmissions from being grounded by the mast or the ocean. The insulators are installed via swage fittings or compression fittings, the latter offering the advantage of reusability after a rig change. To be on the safe side, though, the prudent skipper uses new fittings.

In a cruiser anchorage, the alpha skipper is the one with the tallest mast. Offshore, it’s the skipper with the strongest signal. And the secret to maintaining a strong signal is having a really good counterpoise grounding both the radio and the tuner to the bronze through-hulls. That means carrying plenty of extra copper foil and inspecting the counterpoise array at least once a month. If the copper is turning reddish-brown and crispy from exposure to saltwater, cut out the affected section and splice in a new piece by crimping the ends together and, if necessary, stapling the foil joints to keep them from pulling apart.

Have fun with ham radio, and enjoy its versatility in offshore worldwide communication.

If the radio, tuner and backstay are installed properly, your “shack” will provide many years of trouble-free service.

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.

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Nov 15, 2017 01:14 am
 Posted by  TedL

Thanks Bill, some good information. A couple of additional items that support a great signal:

1. Clean power, and enough of it, as the radio will take up to 30A when transmitting, particularly with digital modes. This means fat tinned copy strand power cabling (10 to 6 AWG) with proper sized ring terminals connecting directly to the battery, fused on both positive and negative leads, run through a separate 30 breaker (not off the main breaker panel, as it may not be able to support the 30A load simultaneously with other miscellaneous loads and also is a likely source of electrical noise).

2. Suggest investigating the KISS radial system rather than a counterpoise using copper foil/through hulls, etc. It doesn't corrode and is MUCH easier to install. It does send a good amount of RF into the boat, but is still supporting a very strong signal out the antenna.

3. Suggest NOT grounding the radio chassis to the RF ground. ICOM got it totally wrong in their documentation. Rather ground the radio chassis to the DC ground.


Ted Lavino

Jan 30, 2018 02:45 pm
 Posted by  John Lewis

I used SGC atenna couplers on my last two boats.
They work fine and are not tied to any particular brand of tranceiver.

The problem I ran into with the HAM radio I installed prior to leaving on our circumnavigation is that the tranceivers designed for use in cars are not cooled in a way that makes them suitable for marine use.

About a year and a half into our cruise the radio stopped working and when I took the cover off it was obvious that corrosion was responsible. On compact HAM radios the cooling air is pulled into the case and across the components on the mother board. It was possible to see the path of the cooling air by the pattern of corrosion. We replaced it with an ICOM marine SSB which uses large heat sinks to isolate the electronics from the cooling air.

I will add that our HAM tranceiver was in a location under the seat in on pilot house that was about as dry as you could hope for on a 37 foot boat.

The Marine SSB tranceiver can be used on all the HAM bands so you dont give up access to winlink by using a type approved marine radio. The SGC 230 is limited to 100 watts and the marine radios put out 150. We never found that output power had anything to do with performance.

It is well worth it to get a HAM license so you can use the winlink system. We never ran out of minutes to get weather and email and, in one exceptional situation, when we were approaching the generous red line on one station, a simple note to the sysop got us an extension when he understood we were dependent on his station for critical info.

If we were to cross oceans again we would not bother with either HAM or marine SSB radios. Once we got an iridium sat phone we understood the benefits of reliable 24/7 connections and the cost of all our sat phone minutes did not come close to the cost of a pactor modem.

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