Is the Single-sideband Radio Still Relevant?

Posted by at 06:34AM - Comments: (12)

The Icom IC-M802 is the most popular single-sideband radio among sailors today.

My wife Theresa and I, with only a VHF radio to reach the outside world, fell into the “incommunicado” category during our cruising days. This is one reason why contributing writer Capt. Frank Lanier, who has been busily testing a wide range of electronics aboard his Union 36, is contributing to this week’s post on the relevance of single-sideband (SSB) transceivers.

As satellite communication equipment becomes more reasonably priced, more reliable, and more compact, we often hear sailors raise the question, “Are single-sideband radios even relevant anymore?” As Lanier points out, the question is easy to answer: Yes, absolutely. Here is an excerpt from his forthcoming report on single-sideband radios, which also will look at some of the latest products for simplifying SSB installation.

While single-sideband radios have long been a priority aboard any “serious” cruising vessel, technology has put the squeeze on SSB’s reign as the defacto choice for long-range communications in recent years. The challengers are satellite-based communication devices that have stormed the market in recent years (see reviews in PS January 2013 and March 2013 issues). Of these, satellite phones are the primary high-seas communication alternative to SSB transceivers (a fancy word meaning it can both transmit and receive). Satphones have become particularly attractive since the introduction of affordable (or at least more affordable) units and service plans.

As with any apples-to-oranges comparison of two totally different systems providing similar features or services (voice communications, e-mail, etc.), both will invariably have their pros and cons. The trick is weighing each of these to determine which is best for you. 

Operationally, the most obvious advantages of satellite phones is their ease of use, a result of our familiarity with cell phones. Other advantages would be the ability to easily call a landline phone number (although this can also be done with SSB using services like ShipCom), as well as easy (or no) installation requirements or costs.

A satellite phone’s portability is also a bonus over SSB; you can take it with you should you need to abandon ship or simply want to carry it along on shore excursions for non-emergency use. As to satphone cons, the first is the same disadvantage attributed to cell phones when compared to VHF radios. Satphones can’t provide ship-to-ship safety communications or communications with rescue vessels or aircraft. 

Also, as is the case with cell phones, if you make a distress call using a satphone, only the party you call will be able to hear you. An SSB radio allows for an unlimited number of people to listen in on a transmission. Other nearby commercial and recreational vessels that may be monitoring the airwaves could lend a hand or communicate directly with you to offer advice, act as relay, etc.

Single sideband is also the only way to participate in various regional safety and cruising nets, such as the BASRA (Bahamas Air and Sea Rescue Association) Weather, Safety, & Traffic Net; Cruiseheimers Traffic Net; or Chris Parker’s popular Caribbean Weather Net. Many cruising events, such as the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers’ Caribbean 1500, require participants to have a single-sideband radio on board, so that they can stay in contact and share important safety and weather bulletins. 

Another benefit of having an SSB onboard is the ability to tune into AM and FM bands and shortwave radio stations around the globe, allowing you to receive the latest news, sports, or simply listen to music no matter where you are.

An additional safety benefit is that some SSB models are equipped with Digital Selective Calling (DSC), which is part of the internationally adopted Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS). All commercial ships mandated to have DSC are required to monitor DSC marine SSB frequencies while at sea. In the event of an emergency, they (or any other HF-, SSB-, DSC-equipped vessel) would receive your exact location (assuming you’ve provided GPS data to your SSB) and the nature of distress at the push of a button. As with VHF DSC, this effectively takes the search out of search and rescue, allowing rescue agencies (and nearby good Samaritans) to provide immediate assistance, rather than waste valuable time trying to locate you first.

Look for our forthcoming report on single-sideband radios, antennas, tuners, and various auxiliary devices in the September issue of Practical Sailor.

Comments (12)

If you want reliable, intelligible offshore communications I recommend a SATPHONE. SSB communications
is marginal at best. I installed a new M802w/ tuner in 2013 and have basically had zero use from it in over a year. It is so sensitive to reception static that it is rendered unusable. I've confirmed that it transmits well but forget hearing another station more than a few miles away. The installation and wiring have been investigated numerous times with no joy. I could' t be more dissatisfied. I previously had an M602 which I used in the Caribbean successfully from 96 to 98, I wish I still owned the older radio !

Posted by: MCW | December 11, 2014 3:43 PM    Report this comment

Dear Editors,
As this "SSB" article has not made it into the September issue, I assume that you are still working on it...and this is a good thing!
So, I reaffirm/repeat my offer of assistance / consultation / etc.

John M.
s/v Annie Laurie

Posted by: JOHN M | August 28, 2014 8:45 AM    Report this comment

An SSB update is very welcomed. Please include SEA Com Corp equipment, I understand the last USA manufacturer, as well as the PS assessment of KISS, a modern twist to the real bugaboo of SSB, the counterpoise.

Secondly, please provide PS's recommendations on weather data frequencies; there is an overabundance of available weather data making selection confusing...please cut through that fog.

Lastly, how useful is SSB if you eliminate the HAM frequencies due to equipment limitations (marine SSB) or no Ham non-Ham use worth the expense/effort?


Posted by: MIKE H | July 27, 2014 11:35 AM    Report this comment

I attempted to post some polite, informative comments here back on June 5, 2014, but it never showed up?

But, as a longtime Practical Sailor subscriber (and someone whose parents were subscribers way way back), I hope that my words at least made their way to the editors?


John M.
s/v Annie Laurie

Posted by: JOHN M | July 24, 2014 5:08 PM    Report this comment

I would think that the initial equipment and installation costs of SSB vs. Sat devices are about the same. The nice thing with SSB is that there is no monthly subscription to pay out for its (unlimited!) use. Also, don't forget you can use your SSB radio to transmit tracking info, receive weather bulletins etc... At this point SSB is cheaper to operate on the long run.

Posted by: PIERRE J | June 11, 2014 2:30 PM    Report this comment

Hi folks, during our circumnavigation 1999 through 2008 we found the SSB radio coupled to e-mail first PinOak and later Sailmail to be a vital part of our communication suite. It was and remains the only long range capability offering "lateral communication". As such the SSB HF radio remains the communication platform suitable for Net communications. Nets are indeed a vital part of inter-yacht information sharing. This is rightly highlighted in the subject article.

We also had Inmarsat C. Today, I would choose a Sat phone and view that comm platform as an essential element of a present day communication suite.

As a long time seminar Presenter at The Toronto Boatshow and many yacht clubs, I stressed the value of HF comms as an essential component because of its unique capability for lateral communication among yachts. There is no single solution. VHF, HF Radio, and Sat Phone are all essential to a safe blue water passage.

Posted by: ARGONAUTA I | June 11, 2014 11:08 AM    Report this comment

While I've had both Ham and SSB aboard for the last 25 years, I would not install either on my next boat unless I was going to the Pacific (where it still has it's uses). HF is a hundred year old technology who's time is passing.

The writing was on the wall when the CG stopped monitoring 2182kHz. DSC adoption has remained spotty. Commercial ships are increasingly able to use Inmarsat instead of HF. Ten years from now who will still be using HF?

Meanwhile, new satellite communicators like the Delorne InReach have made simple offshore satellite communications inexpensive and reliable. I would not go offshore without my InReach. I hope Practical Sailor is including these new devices in its story.

Posted by: Carl N | June 10, 2014 5:30 PM    Report this comment

One important thing to remember is that the radio signals for satellite communications are in the UHF and Microwave range which makes them strictly line of sight communications and do not penetrate heavy rain well at all. This is not true of the HF signals emitted by the SSB rigs, which penetrate rain much better and also reflect off of the ionosphere, permitting communications over much longer distances than VHF would permit. At sea, it's very likely that it will be bad weather when you have to put out a distress call and need to communicate the most.

Posted by: John F | June 6, 2014 6:33 PM    Report this comment

It all depends on how much you value being part of the 'cruising community' On our Pacific crossing an informal net became the glue keeping 60 + boats in touch over 2000 miles. And its not just Rescue as in 'Abandon Ship' - Boats often need spares and repairs rather than rescue - SSB nets provide willing helpers who may have just the part or expertise you need if something falls off. One guy became ill 200 miles from the Cook Islands and 'the Net' were able to put a crew member on board and help his partner bring the boat to port. Try organising that with a Sat Phone!...

Posted by: Ian P | June 4, 2014 2:37 PM    Report this comment

You don't have to be a HAM to listen to SSB at sea for your safety as to condyions,weather , warnings , etc. You don't have to be a HAM to use one communicate
when your safety is at stake. For now , I would never cruise those long voyages without one. A simple bach stay attachment is available and and tuning box for antenna if stay or other KISS , all at relatively low cost items . However the IC -802 is a great one
others at much less cost can be had for your safety use if needed ......Satalite things will prevail in future , but are not quite there yet for the extremities..........

Posted by: John L | June 4, 2014 12:01 PM    Report this comment

The part of this article regarding requirements for the Caribbean 1500 aren't true...they allowed use if Sat Phones or SSB... I participated in the 2013 rally using a Sat Phone, which was used to communicate with USCG and BASRA when we had a crew injury that required us to divert from our intended rout to BVI and put in at Marsh Harbour, Abaco, Bahamas.

Posted by: Chuck B | June 4, 2014 11:18 AM    Report this comment

I really am looking forward to these reports and reviews. It might be a good idea to include some of the more popular nets, their times and frequencies.

Posted by: Thomas A | June 4, 2014 8:25 AM    Report this comment

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