Radio Communications for the Cruising Sailor

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Marine HF, Amateur Radio, Satellite phone can all be used by those on ocean crossings, but which will be best for you?


Preamble

From time to time I see queries regarding the use and merits of HF radio versus Iridium satellite phone or INMARSAT-C. For mega-yachts with pockets to match, there is no problem. Have the lot is clearly sensible. For ordinary mortals such considerations as cost, space and power requirements come to the fore.

Of course, coastal sailors can also find HF radio useful although there are competing delivery systems via the Internet. Nevertheless, many use HF/SSB in a receive only mode. The NASA Weatherman has made Radio Teletype broadcasts accessible to many sailors who would normally shy away from using an HF/SSB radio.


Related pages

On this page -

Marine Radio - VHF/MF/HF SSB and NAVTEX

If INMARSAT-C is not fitted on a blue water yacht, then a marine MF/HF radio should be, preferably with DSC capability. To use this requires the Long Range Certificate (LRC) which can be obtained following a short course at a number of RYA recognised training centres. Use Google and ask for HF + long range certificate, several training centres will leap out of the page.

To operate legally a marine transceiver, whether VHF or MF/HF, it is necessary to have both a certificate of competence and a Ship Licence. Identification of the vessel is by a unique 5 letter/digit call sign. The operator must hold a certificate of competence or be under supervision of a qualified operator. For Anhinga, the call sign is MPJV7. That call sign stays with the vessel unless it is flagged by another country. A Ship Licence is now obtainable at no cost from OFCOM.. See Appendix 2.

MF/HF radio is useful for voice broadcasts of Marine Safety Information (MSI) and to receive GMDSS services such as RadioFax and

Radio Teletype (RTTY). These can be received by a receive only set for which no licence is not required. The NASA Weatherman. is, in effect, a HF receiver that is pre-tuned to four of the six Deutscher Wetterdienst RTTY frequencies. For schedules of RTTY and RadioFax go to another page.

Up to about 300 to 400 nautical miles offshore, NAVTEX is the prime method of receiving MSI. Unlike INMARSAT-C, it is a receive only system and no licence is required. Like INMARSAT-C the information, as the name suggests, is all in text or numeric form.

An HF/SSB transceiver enables contact with other vessels and shore stations. With the addition of a modem, it can be used to send and receive emails. For an operator with the LRC, this requires having a contract with a commercial service such as that run by GlobalMarineNet or to subscribe to the user owned service, SailMail..

Yachtcom offers course in HF/SSB radio use leading to the Long Range Certificate. Their site is also a useful resource.

Amateur Radio - "HAM"

An attractive alternative, used by many blue water sailors, is to become an amateur radio operator – often referred to as a “HAM.” This allows use of the amateur radio bands. As a qualified HAM you can join Winlink at no cost thus gaining access, by email, to the many items in the Winlink catalog or just to send emails to your friends and relations. A rather out of date version of the Winlink catalog is one another page of this site.

An amateur operator has a unique call sign allocated to the individual. My round the world friend, Ross an Australian has a United States call sign KF6UIY. His wife has a different call sign although both may call from the same location, their yacht. This is unlike Marine radio operation where the call sign identifies the vessel and not the operator.

A Full UK Amateur Licence holder may, with permission, operate from a Vessel at sea, defined as being to the seaward side of the UK low water line or in international waters. It does not include the territorial waters of other countries, who will define their own conditions.

In the UK written permission is needed to install, use, or change an amateur radio in a vessel and a log of operations may be required. Maritime services may request radio silences which must be observed.

The frequencies issued internationally to amateur radio are listed in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and vary in each of the three

ITU regions. The UK, most of Europe and Russia are in region 1. The Americas are in region 2 and region 3 includes China, Australasia, etc. Only those frequencies allocated internationally in that region must be used.

The current route to the Full Licence is via a Foundation Licence; followed by an Intermediate Licence. In order to be able to have legitimate use of amateur bands from a marine-mobile station, such as a ships radio cabin, requires the Full Licence from the Radio Society of Great Britain; Their website carries details. The Foundation and Intermediate Licences are for broadcasting within the UK only and are not internationally recognised. With these certificates alone, it is illegal for UK flagged vessels to use the amateur bands when outside the UK low tide line or in international waters.

Of course, and as with any HF transmission, anyone may listen to amateur transmissions such as the well known station on the 14,303 frequency, at 0800 and 1800 daily, (Call sign G4FRN), which is listened to by many yachts irrespective of not having a Full Licence from RSGB. However the station will not respond to a call save from a station not identifying itself by means of a recognised RSGB call sign, or a similarly approved foreign call sign.

Getting HAM certificates is not a trivial matter but can have enormous benefits in terms of operating costs both for long distance sailors and for coastal sailors with the necessary interest to go down that fascinating route.

Iridium and Mobile Phones

Iridium is clearly a very useful bit of kit. It allows communication to land from virtually anywhere that most leisure yachts will venture. With data compression and other techniques, texts of all forecasts, including those broadcast under the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) as well as GRIB files can be accessed reasonably easily and, with care, at a cost that may not be too prohibitive. The downside is that communication with another vessel in an emergency may well not be possible, warnings are not received automatically, coverage is not guaranteed – see Robin Knox-Johnson’s last round the world experiences.

Like a conventional mobile phone, it is useful but it does not replace GMDSS equipment. Iridium is an additional bit of kit not for standalone use at sea. It is for these reasons that all official advice is that Mobile phones, in general, are not a replacement for conventional radio. Another is that a distress call can, if long enough be located by the coast guard using direction finding aerials. A distress call from a mobile phone can be received anywhere in the UK and take longer to process; there is no D/F capability. Nevertheless, there have been several reports of lives being saved by use of mobile or satellite phone. Both must be useful additions on a yacht. Notes on the use of mobile phones are on another page of this site.

Appendix 1. MCA Recommendations for leisure vessels

These are based on the mandatory requirements for vessels subject to SOLAS legislation

Area of Operation from Coast (Nautical Miles)

Up to 5 NM

Up to 30 NM

Up to 60 NM

Up to 150 NM

> 150 NM

Hand held waterproofed VHF radio - also for use in life raft

R

R

R

R

R

VHF fixed radio installation - fitted with DSC

O

R

R

R

R

406 MHz float-free EPIRB (with 121.5 mHz homer)

O

O

O

R

R

MF SSB radio installation - fitted with DSC

None

None

O

R

R

INMARSAT

None

None

O

O

R

NAVTEX Receiver - useable up to ~ 400 NM from coast

None

O

R

R

R

Search And Rescue radar Transponder (SART)

None

O

O

R

R

R=Recommended - O=Optional

Appendix 2. Ship Radio Licences

Provided the user is qualified, the Ship Radio Licence allows the installation and use of

  • Digital Selective Calling (DSC) equipment
  • MF, HF and VHF radios
  • Satellite communications equipment
  • Radar and Search and Rescue Radar Transponders, (SARTs)
  • Low powered on-board UHF communications equipment
  • UHF on-board repeater stations
  • 121.5/123.1 mHz Aeronautical SAR equipment
  • 121.5/243 mHz and 406/121.5 Electronic Position Indicating radio Beacons (EPIRB) and
  • Personal Locating beacons (PLB)

Equipment must only operate on recognised maritime radio frequencies.

The Ship's Radio Licence should always be kept on board. I shows the

  • Name of the ship
  • Call sign other identification and owner of the ship
  • Public correspondence category
  • Type of transmitter equipment
  • Classes of emission; and
  • Frequency bands or assigned frequencies.

HF and VHF/DSC portable radios are covered by the licence but may only be used on the named vessel. A Ship Portable Radio Licence is for use when a portable set is to be used on a number of different vessels. The licence also covers one PLB and one EPIRB. All details regarding the licensing of marine radio equipment can be found in the OFCOM leaflet Ship Radio Guidance notes for licensing, Of168a

Appendix 3. Certificates of Competence for marine radio

Short Range Certificate (SRC) The SRC is awarded to candidates who can demonstrate how routine, safety, urgency and distress communications are organised in a GMDSS Sea Area A1 That is within VHF distance of the coast.. A practical examination in the use of a DSC controller is included, together with NAVTEX, SARTs and EPIRBs. If you have a radio-telephony certificate (ie the VHF Only certificate) it is possible to upgrade to the SRC by taking a modular course (typically 1 day, including the examination). For candidates with no current radio operating qualification, the SRC is available by taking a more comprehensive course (typically 2 days) which, in

addition to the GMDSS aspects covered in the modular course, also includes radio voice procedures and techniques. To obtain details of courses and examinations in your area you should contact the RYA who administer this certificate in the UK. Long Range Certificate (LRC) The LRC may be used on vessels that are, for example, not legally required to fit GMDSS equipment but may make voyages outside of A1 areas (ie those areas within VHF range of the coast). A practical examination in the use of DSC controllers, NAVTEX, SARTs, EPIRBs as well as "traditional VHF, MF and HF radios is also included. In addition, if you intend to fit Satellite equipment (eg INMARSAT C). There is a modular qualification covering satellite operation .


Anyone sailing should read the recommendations from the MCA for the carriage of radio equipment for leisure vessels are set out above. These are based on the requirements for vessels subject to SOLAS regulations, including training yachts. They represent sensible suggestions and should be taken seriously as such. A useful reference on the GMDSS is the GMDSS Guidelines page another is www.gmdss.info.

'''This page has been written with the help of David Morris, a CA member who, at the time, was well on the way to becoming a qualified amateur radio operator. See also my page on various types of communications equipment and their uses.'''


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