HF/SSB Radio

We knew we absolutely had to have an HF/SSB radio on board.   We wanted it for general communication, to get weatherfaxes, and to send and receive Email back to the USA, and maybe place a phone call or two along the way.   This was one of the hardest problems we have ever had to resolve on the boat.   We searched high and low for information on radios but there was next to nothing available.  The following is a series of questions that you will end up asking yourself.  We will try to answer them from both sides of the coin.  Most of the information here we found out after we had left California, therefore too late!

 


 

What does HF and SSB mean?

This is a toughie. 

HF is easy, it stands for High Frequency, which translates to the band or range of frequencies that the radio can transmit and receive on.  An HF radio has it's frequency areas or ranges, set at the factory to conform to the international HAM standards and they exclude the SSB frequencies.


SSB, on the other hand, is still somewhat of a mystery to me.   It stands for Single Side Band.  But wait a minute my HF ONLY radio says Single Side Band on it?  This is where the confusion begins.  An SSB radio is a radio that allows an unlicensed person to transmit and receive radio calls on frequencies that are not governed by the HAM radio operators of the world, and believe me these people are fanatical about THEIR frequencies.  The SSB is a radio that lets anyone use the airwaves.  An SSB radio has its frequency area, or ranges, set at the factory to exclude the international HAM frequencies.

NON-SSB frequencies are agreed upon sets or ranges of frequencies that are reserved for specific operations.  These include commercial airlines, government agencies, commercial radio stations, television stations, etc..  There are an awful lot of assigned frequencies but there are also many more that are not.  They are the SSB radios users play ground.  There is no governing body telling you that you have to have a license and what you can and cannot say.

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Do we need licenses?

The simple answer is YES.  Well not really.  If you only want to use the SSB channels and get weather faxes then you are okay.  But we only came across two or three boats that didn't have and actively use their radio in the HAM bands.  The American HAM operators get everywhere!  There was a license test site set up in Tahiti while we were there.  It was a one day deal for those who wanted to either get their license upgraded or to just get one. They did a great job and should be thanked for making the effort to let others use the radio.  There were about 20 people that took part in getting licenses and/or upgrades.  Most were upgrading from No Code Tech to General.  Believe me guys when I say that women get along much better with Morse code than us men.  So encourage them to take the test and help them with their code.  A vessel only needs one licensed operator.  As long as that licensed operator is on board, the other can use the radio under their supervision.
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What class of License?

Do you want to check in with the Maritime Nets? Then you will need a General license.  Do you want to make cheap or FREE Phone Patch calls to the USA or anywhere else? Then you will need a General license.  Do you want to send and receive Email via your HF/SSB?  Then you need a No Code Tech license.  The answer here is really GENERAL

 

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Email

We wanted to be able to correspond to people back home.   We even had this thought that we would be able to update the web site from the ocean.  What a joke that turned out to be.  In this age of technology and satellite communication, one would think that there would be choices, not dead ends to be found.  Well there were many dead ends along the way.  At the time of this writing, there is now a unit from Magellan, the World Phone, that looks promising.  We found that there are really only two choices for email.  HF radio and Inmarsat.  What appeared to be the cheapest was the HF radio, we already had one!  I had purchased the Kenwood 707, a good all purpose HF/SSB radio according to the HAM radio store.  But then I came to find out later that HAM radio people don't know anything about SSB radios.  In hind sight we are not convinced about that at all. I remember that the Inmarsat systems were more reliable and faster  but much more expensive for the start up.  They ran into several thousand dollars and all you got was Email and the weather from Nadi etc.  Not very cost effective.

The HF system utilizes your existing HF/SSB radio.  That is, if it conforms to their standards, which the Kenwood didn't.  We had to sell it back to the store, it was only 3 months old, they only gave me half my money back.  We then asked a lot of questions of the only two manufacturers that had radios that could work.  The ICom 710 and the SGC 2000.  We put together a list of questions both technical and novice for each of them.  We weighed the results and chose the SGC 2000 with the PowerTalk optional head.  We have nothing good to say about SGC, their radios, their service, or their quality control (or lack of).  We had the radio professionally installed by an SGC person.  It seemed to work kind of okay.  Since neither of us had any experience, we didn't know what to expect.  I thought it should have worked better.  We had it re-installed in San Diego along with the GlobeTOR system.  The radio, now on number 4, functioned much better... see Jerry's Journal for an explanation on why so many radios.

There are two players in the HF Email world Pinoak and Globe Wireless.  We chose the Globe Wirelesses system GlobeTOR.  The system worked well, although in hind site we should have gone for the more expensive but more reliable and faster GlobeEmail system.  GlobeTOR has now been discontinued in favor of the better GlobeEmail system.  It used a very poor piece of software from John Hoot, Software Systems Consulting of Southern California.  I had several telephone conversations with John Hoot personally and I found him to be an outright liar and would do anything to sell you his product.  When I still had the Kenwood I called him to specifically ask if he had installed his system on a Kenwood 707.  He assured me that he had personally installed at least seven units and they all worked perfectly and that he would even come to the boat when we got to San Diego to install it.  What a crock of s.....  When I called him again he changed his story to "I have heard of one or two other installs, but I haven't done any and I will not install it on your boat".  We have seen ads in some of the magazines from him selling his software.  We can only say DO NOT BUY JOHN HOOT (SSC) SOFTWARE IT'S NOT WORTH THE US$149.00.  It is an antiquated DOS program that doesn't work on most of today's high speed PC's let alone the radios.  Globe has several software/hardware packages they recommend, most include sophisticated modems and all include Windows software.  Globe Wireless does not produce the communications packages themselves.  They rely on third party companies to provide their user with the necessary connectivity packages.  Globe Wireless is a service provider only.  Pinoak on the other hand provides you with the service and everything you need to get up and running, except the radio.  Their start up costs are now about the same for both as well as the running, per word/character, costs of sending and receiving a message.   They both boast the ability to send binary files, but at very slow speed compared to what you may be used to at home.  At last check, they were up to 2400 baud compared to the 28.8k baud of your home system.

Even though I do not have one the new Magellan World Phone's, the specifications and per minute cost make it the perfect choice.  It is a full features telephone that utilizes the Inmarsat service as it's transport.  This makes it very reliable and much faster.  It boasts (as of January 1,1998) baud rates of 9600 voice and 4800Fax/Data, very respectable.  The on air cost is US$2.99 per minute.  We expect these numbers to rise and the cost to come down over the next year or so.  There are no additional radios etc. to purchase.  I actually saw a beta model of the unit when we were in Raiatea, Jim and Diane on Impossible.  It worked great sitting in the middle of the boat yard.  It also worked just as well on their boat.  We are sold on the unit.   We can send and receive Email, voice calls and faxes all from the same laptop sized unit.  And at prices about half what we were paying to make a simple phone call from a local telephone company in the South Pacific.

 

 

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Weather FAX

What more can I say.  DON'T LEAVE HOME WITHOUT IT.   It is something I believe every self respecting sailor should have.  Even the most primitive or stalwart sailors that we met have a laptop hooked up to their radio and received daily weather fax information from California, then Hawaii, and finally New Zealand and Australia.  We found the Australian faxes more accurate than the New Zealand ones.  But there was no substitute for Russell Radio out of Opua in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.  The California faxes were difficult to get sometimes and it took a while to figure out which ones we needed now and which were for later.  There are so many.  Once we were on our way to the Marquises it was time to start picking up the Hawaii station faxes.  They lasted just about all the way to Tonga.  This means the entire South Pacific is covered by the USA's NOAA system.  They are talking about discontinuing it.  Please write to your local politician in every country and ask them to continue this system as it is the only accurate weather we can get.   Discontinuing the system will put the lives of thousands of people at risk.

For weather fax information to be received we must point out that you do not need a big fancy radio transmitter/receiver.  In fact all you need is a reasonable, couple of hundred dollar, receiver only.  There are several good ones from Sony, Grundig, etc.  In the USA Radio Shack does one for under US$100.  You will need a good antenna though.  Usually your backstay is insulated and converted into an antenna.  We mounted a spare whip antenna on the rear pulpit for emergency use.  Never have used it since we tested it back in California. 

The weather fax became a daily part of our diet.  We bought several books with us on weather reading but never realized before we left just how much a part of our lives it would become.  We very quickly learned how to read these weird charts and could predict the weather very well.  Much better than the weather men and women we used to watch on the TV back in California.

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