Marine SSB, Ham Radio, or Both?


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, Wests 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.

Heres 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

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him by email at


    • There are no “handheld” HF/MF radios. There are small radios, QRP in ham terms, that can be used “portable” but they are usually 5 watts or less. The QRP radio is about the size of a small mobile radio, but you’ll need a power supply (battery) and amplifier if you want more power. The average HF ham radio is fairly good sized, good for desktop or mounted in a well ventilated space. The other issue when related to “handheld” is antenna size of the antenna. The bands are in meters and a full wave antenna would be that long. 1/4 wave antenna would be 1/4 the full wave length of the band. So, for the maritime mobile net frequency of 14.300, a 1/4 wave antenna would roughly be 5 meters (approx 16.5 feet). A 1/4 wave antenna for the SSB distress frequency of 2.182 MHz would be about 20 meters long (approx 67 feet). These lengths are rater impractical for most. The solution is an antenna coupler. The antenna coupler permits the user to use a random wire (usually 23 ft or more) as an antenna and matches the impedance of the antenna to the radio (very important). Common uses of an antenna coupler would be using the backstay of a sailboat as an antenna or a manufactured SSB antenna, such as the Shakespear SSB Fiberglass vertical antenna. I’m just skimming the surface of HF/MF radios and antennas, but “handheld” HF/MF radios just don’t exist in a “walkie-talkie” form. I am an Amateur Extra licensed Ham and a certified Marine Electronics Technician holding a General Radio Operators License with a Radar Endorsement.

      • I would really recommend someone interested in using these frequencies to educate themselves in how HF/MF works. I think the easiest would be to study and get a General Class Amateur Radio (Ham) license. This is the cheapest and easiest way to go. The other option would be their General radio Operators License, but that is geared more for the commercial operator and prior electronics background. while neither of these are required for Maritime SSB, knowledge in how they work will increase ease and efficiency of use, and will help one operate safely, especially in an emergency. Best of luck.

  1. Used ham radio on my 3-year Voyage to the South Pacific on my 27-foot sailboat . . . only way to go, that is if you are tech savvy. Unfortunately most of the people who are “Sailors” today are push-button sailors. If a button doesn’t do it all, then there is total confusion. . . . which is the reason why there are so many rescues and abandonments. Knowing Morse code is extremely useful if you even knew enough to know why. It’s terrible the way we have dumbed down so much. We used a sextant hand bearing Compass – both were purchased at flea markets – and paper charts for our navigation across the Pacific Ocean. We had one ham radio transceiver and an all band radio, no VHF radio, no depth sounder. Marine SSB radios are fine. Totally unnecessary but they’re fine. Do you want to spend four or more thousand dollars to set your boat up with a marine SSB radio? Have at it. But if you are the iPhone navigator that we so often see today, you probably wouldn’t really appreciate what that radio can do for you.. Mariners who understood how to use ham SSB radios properly have become a community and very useful Network for those crossing oceans. But for most of you this is just magic.

  2. Thankyou for this. I got my permanent license years ago, and can still read very slow code. It was my husbands thing, as he was an electronics engineer, and after I did the exam relied on him for details. However, I am about to start travelling and have been told I should get a cb as well. I recall that we were able to use HAM to go down to 11 meters but have no idea whether I can buy a radio that does, and if they would frown on this. I also see a cheap ham they are jail breaking to transceive GMRS, so I am dithering… I did pick up a set of GMRS, but now I hear about Muir which is completely new to me, and wonder if I should bother trying to keep up