Marine SSB, Ham Radio, or Both?

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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 www.arrl.org, or the WFYI Group www.w5yi.org.

Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.

2 COMMENTS

  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.

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