Learning Marine Radio

Here is an explanation of the process we followed, the lessons we learned, and the struggles we had with installing and learning how to use marine radio. We offer this in the hope that it might be helpful to others faced with that task.

When we bought Callipygia, we knew how to use a VHF radio, and an AM-FM radio--and that was about it. Our boat was equipped with an ICOM IC-M45 VHF, an AM-FM radio, and a ham radio. After we were finished with her, she was equipped with the same Icom VHF, a Standard Horizon HX460S handheld VHF, a Sony 50XW4 car radio with a 10-CD player, a Radio Shack pocket AM-FM radio, an ICOM IC-M710 SSB, a Pactor IIe terminal node connector, and a pair of TechLink "family" radio headsets.

The cost of upgrading the radio equipment made a big hole in the boat kitty, but we deemed it well worth while because now we could: listen to weather forecasts; participate in ham and marine Radio Nets; download weather fax; talk to far-away friends on other boats; get and send e-mail; listen to world-band radio; listen to local broadcasts and our CD collection; talk to each other from foredeck to cockpit and from masttop to deck without yelling; and get a bearing on a local radio station. The one thing we never figured out was how to get real-time satellite pictures.

Note that this article includes information that was current as of the end of our cruising period (summer 2004). Changes in laws and requirements since them are not covered.

Table of Contents for this Article
1. Regulations and licensing 2. Using the VHF 3. SSB Marine and Ham Radio
4. E-mail from the boat 5. Weather Fax 6. AM-FM Radio
7. Family Radio    


1. Regulations and Licensing

It took a while to understand the licensing requirements. A presentation by Joe Nunemaker, KD3VR, of BayMaster Electronics in Lanham, MD, (301-577-0434) at Nautech's Offshore Passagemaking Seminar in early 2001 was helpful. Joe provided copies of the FFC forms, which can also be downloaded from the FCC website.

As we understood the requirements, a boat needs a Ship Station License if it has an SSB radio on board, and its crew needs Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permits to operate the SSB using the marine band of frequencies. The RRO permit is also needed to operate a VHF in foreign waters. The Ship Station License is good for 10 years. The Restricted Radiotelephone Operator Permit does not expire. Filling out the forms is quite confusing as there are separate forms for application and to make payment. However, the FCC website does provide a helpline which can be used by phone to answer questions.

To transmit on the most widely used ham frequencies on the SSB, you need General Class Licenses for Amateur (ham) Radio--no license is needed to listen, however. To use the ham frequencies in foreign waters, a reciprocal license may be needed from the foreign government. The General Class License is good for ten years. To get a General Class license you must first obtain a Technician class license, and complete a test of Morse Code at 5 words per minute.

Only commercial, FCC accepted radio equipment is authorized for use in the marine frequencies--however, such equipment can also be used on the amateur (ham) frequencies. Amateur (ham) radio equipment, on the other hand, can only be used in the amateur frequencies, and may not be used in the marine frequencies.


2. Using the VHF Radio

Since we were already familiar with using the VHF, this didn't present too many problems. We had to learn which channels are authorized for use by cruisers, and that authorized use varies somewhat from country to country. Regulations in the US are restrictive. We purchased a handheld VHF radio as backup, and to use in the cockpit while underway, or to go with a crew member in the dinghy. This radio was recharged from the boat's batteries, and got soaked a few times without malfunctioning. In many Caribbean countries the VHF operates as a telephone for local residents and cruisers alike. People listen in on each other's conversations without compunction-- jokingly referred to as the "We HF". Morning nets on the VHF are common, and a great way for cruisers to share information.



3. Single Side Band (SSB or "Shortwave") Radio

Without knowing really what we were doing, but on Joe Nunnemaker's recommendation, we replaced the ham radio that came with Callipygia with an ICOM-M710 marine SSB in September, 2001. Joe installed the radio (definitely not a do-it-yourself task) using the existing backstay antenna, and replaced the ground. The purchase and installation was a major and unaticipated expense, but we never regretted it for a minute. We struggled up the learning curve with this radio, since the user manual is quite cryptic. At the SSCA Annual Meeting in Melbourne in November, 2001, the ICOM representative recommended we call ICOM and ask for a copy of Gordon West's primer on Marine SSB Simplified and we bought Frederick Graves' Mariner's Guide to Single Side Band Radio. Eventually, through reading these books, the instruction manual, and a lot of trial and error, we got the hang of it, and learned how to program the User Channels to our satisfaction.

We spent many hours just listening to the SSB, learning what kind of traffic could be found on which frequencies, at what time of day. We developed a Listening Log in the Radio Notebook. Once we finished programming the User Channels, we made a reference sheet on which we marked programming changes. We allocated the 160 user channels for: WWV (time ticks and weather); ham nets; marine nets and talking channels; weatherfax; e-mail; and world-band radio. We eventually became familiar with what was available in the ITU channels since many of these are used for marine weather, marine nets and talking frequencies.

While we were in Marsh Harbour in the Bahamas in early 2002, Jim and Julie Lyons of S/V Iolani were organizing a series of "WD-40 For the Mind" seminars for cruisers. One of the topics while we were there was radio, and it was excellent. At that seminar, we learned about the book Passport to World Band Radio which we bought. Wow! Did that open our eyes to all the programming available to us on the SSB. We often listened tonews and other broadcasts in English from all around the globe.

When he installed the SSB, Joe Nunnemaker told us that we should get our ham radio licenses. Through the ARRL we bought the study guides for the Technician and General Class licenses, and a set of Morse code training tapes. We took and passed the Technician exam at the SSCA meeting in Melbourne, and in April, 2002, we took and passed the next level General Class license exam in Laurel, MD. We learned some useful things about radio while studying for these exams, but it was mostly rote learning. We drilled each other on Morse Code. We drilled each other on regulatory issues, which frequencies could be used by whom for what, modes of communication, safety factors in using radio, antenna features, radio wave propagation characteristics and what affects it, radio etiquette, etc., etc. We bought the ARRL's Operating Manual and became proud of our membership in the ham radio community.

We spent quite a bit of time listening/participating in various Radio Nets. We discovered that these were a wonderful way of getting answers to questions, obtaining help when needed, finding out what's going on in various cruising locations, and generally keeping in touch with other boats.

An emergency antenna was carried on board so that the SSB and/or VHF could still be kept functional in case of a dismasting or other loss of radio antenna.


4. E-mail from the Boat

At the SSCA meeting in Melbourne (November, 2001) we attended a daylong seminar put on by the Winlink development team and spoke to a representative of Sailmail. Winlink and Sailmail are close cousins. They are e-mail systems for cruisers using the amateur (ham) and marine frequencies respectively. To use Winlink, we learned we needed a General Class ham licenses so we signed up with Sailmail for a year to get ourselves started and received diskettes with the Airmail software on it. At the same SSCA meeting, and again on Joe Nunnemaker's recommendation, we bought a Pactor IIe terminal node connector (radio modem) and the necessary cabling from Mike's Electronics in Ft. Lauderdale (954-491-7110). The Pactor IIe allows a computer to transmit and receive digital information over the radio.

Plugging the Pactor into the radio and connecting it to the laptop was the easy part. Installing the Airmail software was also simple. Then we programmed the Sailmail frequencies for three of its radio stations into the SSB User Channels, remembering to make them 1.9 hz below the listed frequencies. But then it took quite a bit of trial and error, and a call to Jim Corenman (Airmail's developer) before that first e-mail message went out. But what a thrill! Jim Corenman, and the folks at Sailmail and Winlink (all volunteers) provide a great service to the cruising community. By September of 2002, we had got our General Class licenses, upgraded Airmail to the Ham version, and signed up with Winlink as our e-mail provider. Then we could automatically receive weather forecasts along with our e-mail every morning.

The differences between Sailmail and Winlink were:

  1. Winlink users need to have a General Class ham radio license, however no license beyond the Ship Station license is needed to use Sailmail;
  2. There is an annual fee to use Sailmail, no fee for Winlink;
  3. Because Sailmail uses marine frequencies, business transactions may be conducted through it unlike with Winlink where no business may be conducted because it uses the Amateur frequences;
  4. Winlink users are allocated 30 minutes per day through each PMBO (radio station in the Winlink network) but Sailmail users are limited to 10 minutes per day total;
  5. Winlink users can receive by e-mail a wide range of weather forecasts and charts, and while it is possible to get some weather information through Sailmail, this is much more limited;
  6. Winlink users can automatically update their position in the Winlink website so that family and friends to track their movements; and
  7. It is simple to send and retrieve Winlink e-mails over the Internet using the Telnet feature of Airmail if you leave the boat for a while.

In the fall of 2003, at the same time as we upgraded the Airmail software, we downloaded a firmware upgrade to convert the Pactor IIe into a Pactor III radio modem and paid for a license for it. All the instructions for doing this came from the folk at Winlink. As a result, email went much faster and we received Internet weather fax pictures along with the email messages and text forecase each the morning.



5. Weather Fax

After the SSB was installed, but before we bought the Pactor IIe, we bought Coretex Weather Fax for Windows. However, no matter what we did we just couldn't get it to work so we returned it. After we had the Pactor IIe installed, we downloaded the JVComm32 shareware which is what used for Weather Fax. It has a bit of a learning curve, since there is not much in the way of user help information. However, once you've learned its tricks by trial and error, it's pretty easy to use. We downloaded the weather fax schedule and frequencies from the Ocean Prediction Center. We programmed the frequencies into the SSB, remembering to subtract 1.7 Hz from the center (advertised) frequency. To improve our skills at interpreting weather maps, we read Michael Carr's Weather Predicting Simplified and Mike Harris' Understanding Weatherfax. Two of the Nautech seminars on weather were very helpful. One was presented by Michael Carr and the other by Lee Chesnau, of the Ocean Prediction Center. Lee handed out a very helpful article from the magazine The Mariner's Weather Log entitled "Mariner's Guide to the 500-Millibar Chart."


6. AM-FM

We bought a high quality Sony car radio with 10-CD player and installed it with all the other radio equipment at the nav station soon after we acquired Callipygia. We had a custom box built for it so it could be screwed down with all the other radio equipment. It was wired into the boat's 12-volt electrical system. This radio was used for listening to local radio stations, and to CDs. We also bought an inexpensive portable AA battery-operated AM radio as part of our emergency equipment. The antenna of this radio can be used as a radio detection finder to get a rough bearing on a nearby radio station, if needed.


7. Family Radio

These are basically high-powered walkie talkies. We bought a battery-operated set built into headphones (made by TechLink) at the the 2001 SSCA annual meeting in Melbourne, FL. We used these to talk to each other from foredeck to cockpit during anchoring activities, and from the mast-top to the deck when Bill went up the mast. These headsets made communications at these times easy and low key and we never had to resort to yelling--a major achievement. We learned a few hand signals, but found it much more useful to be able to talk and consult with each other about issues using the headsets. We planned to buy a pair of handheld walkie talkies to use if/when we sailed back to the US since it is not legal to use a handheld VHF there on shore.

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Bill Dillon (KG4QFM)
Pat Watt (KG4QFQ)
This page was last modified on August 9, 2009

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