Communications at Sea

In this day of being connected to our mobile phones and internet connections just about everywhere we go, it can feel like you are a bit cut off when you go to sea and suddenly that connectivity disappears!

So what are the options?

Well actually there are a few:

  • SSB Radio
  • Satellite Technology

Some friends of mine who have been sailing for 18 months say that Satellite phone is the way to go – and I guess between now and when we eventually set off, there might be some better systems and cheaper calling rates.

Other blogs I read are dead set on SSB.

It seems that both systems have their pros and cons.

Yachting World has got a great article on the topic here.

SSB Pros:

  • You can talk to different stations – you are broadcasting to many – like VHF
  • Send and receive emails – refer Sailmail and Pactor Modem
  • Receive weather fax info
  • You can listen in to other cruising chats – so you feel part of the greater community
  • Handy in an emergency – broadcasting to many means that someone nearby could hear you
  • Little or no ongoing cost

SSB Cons

  • High initial set up cost
  • Complicated installation – wiring etc
  • Quality of transmissions can depend on the weather conditions
  • Appear quite complicated to use, lots of different channels and varying numbers

Satellite Phone Pros

  • Lower initial cost
  • No installation in to the boat
  • Can take it with you if you go in the liferaft or sell your yacht
  • Call plans appear to be getting cheaper

Satellite Phone Cons

  • Ongoing costs
  • Can be difficult to get reception according to some bloggers
  • Slow internet speeds
  • Only talking to one person – not many like SSB
  • No opportunity to listen in to other conversations – no sense of community

Lets take a look at some of the satellite technology options available:

The Iridium Go! looks brilliant. It supports a full range of global communications, including voice calls, email access, applications, social networking, photo sharing, SMS two-way, GPS tracking, SOS alert and weather updates via PredictWind. The unit itself is about USD$1000 and then USD$125 per month for unlimited data and free texts.

Xgate looks like a great concept – it sets up a wifi system in your boat, so you can send emails via satellite on any of your devices. It also automatically compresses the data so it sends it in a smaller format. You can post directly on to Facebook and it also prevents your computer from looking for software updates – all of which can slow down your connection. It also has a tracking system so people at home can look up where you are at any time.

Another new option is the Garmin InReach. This unit is also connected to the Iridium satellite system. You sign up for a plan based on your usage requirements and this allows you to send and receive text message, you can trigger an SOS similar to a PLB or an EPIRB (make sure you register your details with the Rescue Coordination Centre), you can share your location using the tracker with people back home, it has a GPS for basic navigation and tracking, it also has an inbuilt compass and altimeter. Purchase price is around NZD$769 and plans start from around NZD$25 ish a month for the basic package.

Another friend of mine uses his Sat phone with his laptop and this Expedition software which appears to plot the course of the yacht to optimise the weather – used by Volvo Ocean Racing yachts and Americas Cup –

If we went with SSB here is some useful information I have found:

My friend Chris says “SSB set up is around $1000 for a radio and tuner is possible another $1000 for the Pactor modem plus installation. It is still more expensive than an Iridium connection.

The thing with SSB is that it requires a fair level of knowledge and skill to get the best out of it. If you can do that then it is a superbly versatile tool.”

How Far on What Bands?

A marine SSB system operates on a marine radio spectrums called shortwave, medium frequency and high frequency — 2 MHz-26 MHz. This radio spectrum is shared with hundreds of other radio users including shortwave broadcasts, Ham radio, FEMA, the American Red Cross and long-range aircraft.

Radio signals within the SSB shortwave spectrum refract off the ionosphere and come back to earth hundreds or thousands of miles away without the need for communication satellites and/or ground stations. Each marine SSB radio frequency band has a very predictable skywave bounce bulls-eye. If you choose a band that’s too high, your signal will skip over the other station. If you choose a frequency that’s too low, your signal won’t go far enough to reach.

The following is a good guide for choosing the band of frequencies that will target your first skywave bounce:

2 MHz 200-400 miles
4 MHz 400-600 miles
6 MHz 600-1,200 miles
8 MHz 800-1,600 miles
12 MHz 1,200-2,400 miles
16 MHz 1,600-3,200 miles
22 MHz 2,200-4,000 miles plus
26 MHz unpredictable during our solar cycle minimum

SSB in an Emergency

Marine SSB has been allocated hundreds of international channels, some of which are closely guarded by the U.S. Coast Guard and worldwide rescue agencies. They are prepared to act immediately on any received mayday or call for medical assistance. The Coast Guard maintains 24/7 distress radio guards on the following frequency bands:

2.182 MHz 0-400 miles
4.125 MHz 400-800 miles
6.215 MHz 600-1,200 miles
8.291 MHz 800-1,600 miles
12.290 MHz 1,200-2,400 miles
16.420 MHz 1,600-3,200 miles

SSB Etiquette

If you want to be an upstanding and non-annoying member of the SSB-radio community, these are the things you need to know.

by Jan S. Irons
Dave Norton

Have you experienced the aggravation of trying to listen to an important passage-weather forecast, only to be eclipsed by the infamous e-mail interference? Marine single-sideband radio and amateur, or ham, radio have been around for years, but only recently have they become so prevalent among cruisers, most likely due to technological advances in radios and computers and the increasing affordability of each. Combined with a modem, the result is technology that allows sailors to have access to e-mail via SSB radio that simply wasn’t possible until recently. And as SSB radios have increased in popularity, so, too, has there been a concomitant rise in the frustration levels in many anchorages.

These days, anchorages are filled with cruisers with SSB radios all wanting to check e-mail, get weatherfaxes, participate in radio nets, and chat with their friends in faraway places. As anchorages grow increasingly crowded, SSB/e-mail interference is a growing aggravation for everyone. The following are 10 simple tips that will help keep the SSB airwaves free of interference and frustration.

Listen First 
Listening before transmitting is the most important rule of radio usage. Make sure that no one else is already using the frequency. And don’t be fooled by momentary silence; some transmissions are silent for a full 4 seconds between bursts. Listen for a while. It can be difficult to determine through the interference if the frequency is in use. Obviously, if you hear voices, it’s busy. If you hear a chirping noise, it’s a Pactor III transmission; if you hear a rasping noise, it’s a Pactor II transmission. All mean that the frequency is busy. And, obviously, if you hear the familiar dits and dahs of a Morse-code transmission, go find another frequency. The SailMail Association sums up the cardinal rule of SSB operation perfectly: “Not listening first or attempting to connect on a frequency that is already in use is counterproductive, lubberly, pointless, rude, un-shipmatey, and violates international telecommunications law (as well as common sense).”

Off-Hours E-mail
Onboard e-mail is a luxury that’s quickly becoming regarded as a necessity. Unfortunately, e-mail causes most of the aggravation and frustration. Many cruisers tune in to a morning cruisers net or weather forecast early in the day. Accessing e-mail early in the morning creates enough interference that those listening to weather or cruisers nets hear only e-mail chirping or rasping that obliterates voice transmissions. Timing varies in every anchorage, but most morning nets and weather transmissions occur between 0600 and 0900. Sending your e-mail before or after those hours is an easy way to avoid annoying the whole anchorage with your interference.

Proximity Exacerbates Interference 
If you attempt to get e-mail in the same anchorage as boats that are attempting to listen to a net or the weather forecast, the interference created will override the net no matter what frequency you use. Don’t assume that because you use a frequency to retrieve your e-mail that differs from the frequency of the radio net that you won’t be interfering. Proximity to other boats has more to do with interference than frequency. Again, the polite policy is simply not to send your e-mail while others are listening to nets or the weather.

Respect Radio Rights 
A good cruisers net provides an opportunity to check for emergency, medical, or priority traffic and can be the vital link in a true emergency. Nets can also be the sole source of weather for some cruisers, an important conduit for information exchange about, say, needed engine parts, and a “what’s happening” compendium of an anchorage’s dizzy social swirl. Always respect the right of others to get the information they need via the net.

Don’t Be a DJ 
Being a volunteer net controller is fun and provides a good service for other cruisers. However, please remember that the true purpose of a net is to assist in any emergency as well as provide weather information. Recently, and much to the dismay of many a cruiser, some net controllers are playing songs before their broadcasts or including what they think is entertainment. A limited amount of this may liven up the daily net, but keep in mind that it’s illegal to broadcast such content on any SSB or ham band, and that definitely includes playing your favorite ABBA or Johnny Cash tunes.

Watch Your Frequency 
When requesting further information during a net, remember to switch to a frequency sufficiently removed from the net so you won’t create interference. Don’t just move a couple of frequencies and think that you’re now far enough away. Everyone else wants to continue to listen to the net.

Charge Your Batteries 
Fully charge your batteries before using the radio. Marine SSBs don’t function at their best with even slightly low batteries, particularly with e-mail. Consider running your diesel or another quick-charge strategy to top off your batteries before attempting to transmit or get e-mail. If others are reporting that your voice is garbled or if you can’t get a connection to a SailMail or Winlink frequency, the first thing to check is your batteries.

Reduce Interference 
Electrical interference aboard can make getting a frequency for e-mail almost impossible, and it can clutter voice transmissions so you sound like Donald Duck or are reduced to nothing but static. When using the SSB, run your laptop from its battery, shut off the inverter, and turn off the refrigerator. In fact, you should consider shutting off everything on your electrical panel. Anything electrical might create interference. A good test is to listen to the SSB while turning different electronics on and off. This way, you can isolate the interference caused by each device. If you’re under way, don’t forget that interference can work both ways. Many cruisers report that using their SSBs causes their autopilots to forget where to steer.

Using a software propagation program to determine which frequencies are optimal for transmitting e-mail reduces your frustration in finding the quickest frequency to retrieve your e-mail. The tool is very easy to use. It reads the station you’ve selected and shows the time of day and the best frequencies in a color-coded graph. If you don’t have one, a free propagation tool is available from Airmail (

Power Down 
Consider reducing power to 50 watts to reduce interference with nearby vessels. A reduction of power along with a fully charged battery will have minimal effect on your e-mail transmission, and according to SailMail, some evidence suggests that reduced power actually improves e-mail transmissions by reducing overall interference.

If we all follow these simple steps, our single-sideband-radio and ham-radio interactions will be better off. But if a boat in your anchorage continually interferes with nets or weather transmissions, please consider it an educational opportunity. It’s possible that they’re simply unaware of the interference they’re causing during the morning net. So hop in your dinghy and meet your neighbor. You never know, you may meet new friends, be invited for sundowners, and solve the interference problem all in one visit.

SSB for eMail

  • SSB provides access to email wherever your vessel may be.
  • A data modem, connectivity to a computer, associated software, and a relationship with a ground station net is required.
  • One of the most effective systems at this time is the Pactor modem and data compression system.
  • AirMail is a ground station net operated by hams worldwide and requires at least a General license. No commercial business can be conducted on this net.
  • Sailmail is a commercial pay-for-service ground station net that can be used on marine SSB bands without a ham license. Commercial business can be conducted on this net.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.