Marine SSB, Ham Radio, or Both?

Posted by Darrell Nicholson with Gordon West at 01:04AM - Comments: (7)

Photo courtesy of Gordon West
Photo courtesy of Gordon West

Radio school owner/operator Gordon West demonstrates his mobile emergency communication center, the "Gordomobile."

It seems like it was just yesterday that amateur radio guru Gordon West was guiding Practical Sailor readers through the maze of marine single-sideband (SSB) radios on the market. In fact, it was nearly 20 years ago.

While the high-frequency (HF) marine radio landscape has shifted dramatically since then, West’s advice for those who are trying to choose between a marine SSB or a ham radio has remained relatively steady. When we contacted Gordon for our update on marine SSBs, he pointed out that there remains a lot of confusion over the differences between ham and marine SSB, and the pros and cons of each. He also explained that in many cases, while there are practical differences, the decision often comes down to personal preference.

Here’s what West had to say:

“Both the marine radio and ham radio services use the same type of modulation, called single sideband. So when a fellow sailor says they have a "sideband" on board, you need to ask, marine, ham, or both?

“Marine single sideband lets you communicate to the Coast Guard, high seas telephone service, email through Sail Mail, and talk with other sailors who have marine SSB on board. No amateur radio license is needed.

"To use marine SSB, your ship needs a marine SSB call sign from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), called a station license, which is good for 10 years, and also includes your International Maritime Mobile Service Identity number. You will also need to obtain an operator's permit, called the restricted operator permit, a lifetime license to use a SSB marine radio aboard. Cost for both is a total around $200, to the FCC.

"There is no FCC testing required for these marine SSB licenses.

"Your marine SSB will also tune in weatherfax, shortwave broadcasts, marine weather nets, and also tune in ham radio broadcasts.

"If you can't raise the Coast Guard in an emergency, and you are in immediate danger of sinking, or need immediate medical help, radio rules allow you to use ANY frequency to obtain a life-or-death contact. Ham operators will help any station with a mayday call, and ham frequency 14.300 MHz is where maritime hams listen up.

"If you have no interest in playing radio, and tuning around to see what you can pick up from nature's ionospheric skywaves, and only want a long range signal that can get weather and help in an emergency, you do not need to take a ham radio test and become a licensed Amateur Radio Operator. You can chat with fellow sailors on long range SSB ship-to-ship channels, with no ham ticket needed.

"If you do like playing radio, and as a kid, enjoyed tuning in short-wave broadcasts, or as a mariner, you like to monitor the banter of hams talking about cruising spots around the globe, then consider obtaining the general class ham radio license.

"Morse Code tests are no longer required to obtain a general class license, although Morse Code is still a popular method of ham operators communicating over the ham bands.

"The prerequisite for a license, the Technician Class Exam (Element 2), is 35 multiple choice questions. Scouts pass the test as part of their Radio Merit Badge. It is easy stuff!

"Once you pass the Technician Class Exam (Element 2), bone up on General Class, another straightforward 35-question, multiple-choice test. It will take you about a month of study—but no Morse code. You could take both exams in one sitting.

"The General Class ticket is the license you need for playing with long range ham radio, and working the many weather nets, cruising nets, 14.300 MHz Maritime mobile nets, free email, or digital messaging. You will even be able to send color photos long range over the free ham airwaves.

"All single sideband radio equipment can offer 3 - 30 MHz marine and ham radio capabilities, without any internal modifications.

"On marine band, it is considered a Part 80 marine radio. On ham bands, this same radio will be a ham radio, without internal modifications that would harm marine bands.

"On marine channels, you use your ship's call letters, and on ham channels, you use your ham radio personal call letters. Ham operators receive a free 10-year license, after passing the two tests.

"Most long-range sailors first start out on marine SSB, and monitor the ham traffic nets for valuable local and distant marine weather forecasts. If the ham service sounds intriguing, then they study the General Class ham radio license.

For more information on ham licensing, you can contact the American Relay Radio Leage, or the WFYI Group”

Comments (6)

Some comments have raised the issue of which solution costs more, and one neglected to mention that their solution, a IC7100 unit, will set you back a whopping $1,000.

Can we get some additional price related information from Darrell Nicholson?

Posted by: jasonrobinson | February 17, 2016 4:52 PM    Report this comment

I want to emphasize, like Gordon mentions, that the IC7100 or any ham radio transceiver is ONLY legal for Amateur Radio, NOT Marine Bands. For that you'll need an FCC-type certified Marine Radio. My day sailing around SF Bay doesn't really require SSB, but I love DX'ing on HF.

I forgot to mention that I'm using a 23' fiberglass stern-mounted SSB antenna with an AT-130 Tuner. The IC7100 will auto-tune the antenna at a push of a button.

Posted by: NonsuchGuy | August 13, 2014 6:08 PM    Report this comment

Best install a SAT phone first with external antenna and web access accessory. Unmatched for safety and medical access anywhere/anytime. SSB installations require costly rigging antenna refits and very careful attention to ground installations often requiring a haul out to install a large ground plate. Plus heavy cable from distribution panel to SSB. Good bet is the installation will double costs of buying the new SSB set. Consider a vertical SSB antenna to save rigging costs. No one leaves home without a SAT phone these days.

Posted by: Piberman | August 13, 2014 2:27 PM    Report this comment

Best buy a good SAT phone first - unmatched for safety and medical access anywhere anytime. Spend monies to install an installed antenna rather than rely on hand held's antenna. And a web/e-mail access - useful in a pinch.

Posted by: Piberman | August 13, 2014 2:18 PM    Report this comment

Hey Gordo, I took your course with Morse Code and passed with flying colors years ago. It was a terrific course. And I am so glad I did, because the rules you quote for SSB are for the US. In other places in the world you need a HAM radio license to have and operate an SSB, like Ireland where I now live. In many places, it is much more difficult and costly to get a license so I urge anyone heading off crossing oceans to get one in the US first.

I had great fun talking to HAM radio operators in the Orient as KC2KTD/MM when crossing the Atlantic. You were right. They love maritime mobile.

Posted by: CruisingKitty | August 13, 2014 1:38 PM    Report this comment

Great article. I have a general ham license, and a large "boat anchor" radio at home. Do you have any recommendations for ham radios for small to medium boats. I have a Catalina 315 and would like to outfit it with a ham radio. Also any thoughts on how to best rig an antenna.

Posted by: MILT S | August 13, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

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