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The Essential Role of HF/SSB Radio in Ocean Cruising

By Val Ellis last modified Jan 20, 2016 02:02 PM

Published: 2012-06-06 10:45:00

As the operator of the SailMail station that covers SE Asia, the NW Pacific and eastern/northern Indian Oceans, from here in Brunei (NW coast of Borneo), I am often surprised that so many international cruising yachts coming into this region do not have a proper marine HF/SSB radio.

Talking with yacht owners, it seems that information is not available to them regarding the importance of marine HF/SSB with DSC in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, SE Asia and Australia/New Zealand.

Some have spent most of their home waters cruising where they've leant a VHF radio is sufficient, and conclude it will be sufficient elsewhere. Or, having checked official regulations for racing yachts (e.g.: ISAF Special Regulations) have seen that it does not include a HF/SSB radio. This is because VHF is sufficient for most events in Europe/UK and North America.

The Australian Yachting Special Regulations are quite different, with a much greater requirement for self-sufficiency. As an example, a life-raft under YA Special Regulations requires food to be packed inside. An ISAF life raft does not, because rescue services are common and shipping densities are high.

In Australia - like the entire Pacific and Indian Oceans - you are likely to be waiting for a day or more before a tasked ship or plane arrives, even if your EPIRB is beeping. The spaces are big and the resources are few and widespread. The YA Special Regulations require a HF/SSB radio for Category 1 events, and often required for category 2 events and even some category 3 events. That's because coastlines in Australia may not have anyone to see a flare, there are no local rescue services, and there is no network of hilltop VHF towers that provide dependable VHF marine communications.

If this is the case in relatively well populated and developed Australia, you can certainly expect far less VHF communication in large expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. SE Asia has almost no VHF coast station services.

Other cruisers may be mislead by what might seem to be an easy solution - just buy a satellite phone. The satellite phone salesman will get a good commission on the equipment sale and the ongoing connection time payments. The HF radio salesman will sell you the radio, but all voice communications to other yachts, coast stations, MRCCs etc is free after that. So too, is listening to broadcast weather forecasts, world news and receiving weather faxes. Nothing is free with the satellite phone.

If the satellite phone runs out of credit in an emergency or distress situation, communication stops. Not so the HF/SSB radio, you can call MRCCs, other yachts, ships etc without fear of running out of credit or creating a massive post-paid bill. Cruisers can therefore play their part in the international network of vessels at sea listening for distress or emergency communications and be one of the available vessels that can help; just like cruisers would like someone to help them if they faced a serious problem. A DSC equipped HF/SSB radio is a great advantage in this role.

Below is some further information regarding DSC equipped marine HF/SSB radios that could be useful for cruisers from Europe and North America planning to explore this much larger side of the world.

For more information see our website - www.bruneibay.net/bbradio - and read the pages under the Yacht Cruising heading. Cruising this side of the world is very different.

Allan Riches
Brunei Bay Radio
radio@bruneibay.net
www.bruneibay.net/bbradio

Information about DSC enabled HF/SSB Radios
One reason for DSC in marine HF/SSB radios is to reduce an aspect of uncertainty with any radio comms; "have I called on the right frequency/channel and is the intended recipient's radio turned on?"

Each radio has an MMSI number and this is akin to a phone number. Yachts can call each other using the number. The radio speaker in the recipient's radio is normally muted - on DSC watch - but the radio can be scanning for a call that has it's MMSI number. If detected, the speaker mute opens, and the radio goes into an alarm/ring state.

There is also a revertive tone sent back to the caller. As the caller, if you hear the revertive tone, you know you made contact with the desired radio. If you do not, then try a different frequency. When installing a marine HF/SSB radio with DSC, it usually requires a separate DSC receive antenna. As confirmed by my HAM friend, this can be the AM/FM radio antenna (i.e. receiving only and not an antenna that involves transmission, such as the AIS or VHF radio antenna). It can be passed through a splitter box to feed both the stereo and the HF/SSB radio. Simple, cheap and quick. No need to find space for another (expensive) whip antenna.

Fibreglass and wooden boats have traditionally required an external earth plate for the antenna system earth. This can now be replaced by the KISSSSB counterpoise, that just connects onto the earth point of the ATU (Automatic Antenna Tuner). Quick, dependable and much cheaper than pulling the boat from the water to fit an earth plate. It also allows the ATU to be located closer to the antenna base, thereby helping to maximise transmission output. The DSC feature eliminates the need to listen to the radio's background noise and static while maintaining a listening watch for calls on a marine HF/SSB,. The radio can monitor 24/7 for emergency or private calls, and there is no noise from the speaker. When a call is received, the DSC equipped radio goes into an alarm state, and the speaker is unmuted.

I understand that major rally organisers - including the ARC and Oyster - now require all participating yachts to have a marine HF/SSB radio and radio email. Marine HF/SSB radios with email capability (i.e. SailMail) will provide cruisers with low-cost but reliable communication and keep everyone informed of rally operations, next port arrangements etc. When rallies operate around SE Asia (and some have over 100 boats) it is very frustrating for the organisers and other participants when yachts do not have a marine HF/SSB radio. It means they cannot receive information directly from organisers at skeds, they cannot send daily position reports, and they cannot take part in skeds when yachts share information. It falls to those yachts with SSB to pass on information where they can, with the consequent risk of mistakes and misinformation. It's a real pain in the butt for organisers and those participants who have made the effort to properly equip their yacht.

In combination with email on-board - e.g. low-cost SailMail - the marine HF/SSB radio makes life on-board simpler and safer. Weather information, TS warnings, ordering parts to be sent to the next stop, booking marina berths, organising food re-supply at the next port and chasing up the house rent that is funding your trip, sending position reports, updating a blog etc are so much easier. You can spend more time away from marinas, wi-fi and Internet cafes, in beautiful locations where the cost of living is much cheaper. You easily get back the money invested in a marine HF/SSB and Pactor modem.

Experienced yacht rally organisers now require a marine HF/SSB radio and email; not a satellite phone. And a sat phone certainly has a useful role (i.e. private calls to a shore contact) but it cannot replace the marine HF/SSB radio with DSC for low-cost communications (i.e. free voice calls and low-cost email) and the link into the professional search and rescue services and each yacht's important function as a SAR resource that can be called upon to assist other seamen in distress.

For more information see our website - www.bruneibay.net/bbradio - and read the pages under the Yacht Cruising heading. Cruising this side of the world is very different.

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