Category archives: Thoughts

Ham Radio for Sailors.

On Monday, April 15, 1912, 745 passengers were saved following the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic, thanks to a Morse code radio message sent from the ship. It wasn’t the first time lives were saved by radio at sea, but it certainly emphasized the need for reliable communications while under way.

Today we have EPIRBs and other small satellite devices, even phones available. However, relying on orbital relays to ensure safety, as reliable as they are, isn’t something I am willing to do entirely. Except for sat-phones, they do not allow long conversations to assess and help in emergencies, for example obtaining medical advise or requesting specific life saving supplies. They do not allow you to chat with friends either. Satellite phones are also pretty expensive and require contracts or prepaid time.

Marine HF SSB radios do cover a wide range of frequencies, but at a price, financial but most importantly in Amperage. An Icom IC-M802 will draw 3A on receive and 30A while transmitting. If you don’t have a sizable battery bank and the means to replenish it, you won’t be on the air for very long. That model will also set you back $2500, including the antenna tuner. I would still suggest that you have one of course, but personally, I can’t afford it yet. I use an old IC-M700, but seldom leave it on for fear of draining my small battery.

Dagny's Icom IC-M700 Radio.

Dagny’s Icom IC-M700 Radio.

The general consensus is that more power is better. Better yes, but not always required. A Ham radio will make contact most of the time using 10-25 Watts. I routinely make 6000 mile contacts using 1 to 5W in Morse code. Ham radio bands cover the whole spectrum of High-Frequencies (HF) from 1800kHz and almost 30000kHz (30mHz). These bands do not overlap marine bands but behave the same way, some better for daytime, others for night time. The two most useful bands in my opinion are 20 and 40m (14 and 7mHz), 20m during the day and 40m in the evening.

You do need a license for Ham radio, but it is usually very easy to get. In the United States, you want at least the “General” license, which allows you access to HF bands. You can pass the two exams the same day for $15, and your license is valid for ten years. Get the books and exam schedule from the ARRL. If you are visiting other countries and staying a while, you might want to request a reciprocal license to their radio regulatory agency. Otherwise you will only be able to use your radio in international waters.

I won’t go too deep into technical issues, but here is a little primer… Radios use different modes of transmission. Some are voice modes, others are digital modes, and there is Morse code. Most people will use voice modes of course. Examples of voice modes you might know are AM and FM, just like on your commercial bands radio. Marine and Ham radios also have SSB modes, which include USB (upper side band) and LSB (lower side band). You don’t need to know how they work but they are used because although they do not sound as good as AM or FM, they do have more power, and are good enough for voice. Then you have different frequencies, defined by bands. On your commercial FM radio, the band is 87.5 to 108mHz. The 20m Ham radio band for example covers 14 to 14.35mHz (in the U.S.).

Lower bands like 40m (7mHz) work better at night and during the winter. Higher bands like say 10m (28mHz) work better during the day. There is more to it than that, but you get my point. The reason is that radio waves bounce off the ionosphere, but only at certain frequencies and certain times, dictated by solar activity.

The lower the frequency, the longer the antenna, usually half the wavelength. So, for a 40m band, the ideal antenna length would be 20m, or about 66ft. You would need a pretty tall mast for the ideal 40m antenna using your insulated back-stay! Each band requires an antenna of a different length. That is why Marine and Ham radios on boats require the use of a tuner, to match the antenna impedance to the band used on the radio.

A Ham radio will allow you to make contacts worldwide at a lower cost, in money and electricity. There are a number of marine nets on 14300kHz, which is in the 20m amateur band. You could get an MFJ-9420X radio for less than $300 and be in touch most of the time during the day.

I might just get one since all my radios are Morse-code only (CW mode), and using my big Icom will drain my battery quickly. Note that marine radios do allow transmitting on Ham radio bands, with a license.

If you like a technical challenge, you can use digital modes to chat with others or even send emails via Winlink. Only personal emails are allowed, but still a great way to update family and friends or send an article to your blog! Watch me demonstrate sending an email with my Elecraft KX3 below:

Then there is Morse code, my favorite!

Morse code is elegant and efficient. It is like using a laser beam instead of a flashlight. When transmitting a tone, all the power is concentrated in a narrow bandwidth. You need about twenty times more power to get through with voice compared to Morse code. Morse code radios are small and sip current. My Elecraft K1 uses 60mA on receive, fifty times less than an IC-M802! So the same battery would last fifty times longer. The radio below is a Weber MTR, which draws 35mA on receive and outputs 5W of power for global range, here operating from a coffee shop:

Weber MTR

Weber MTR

Yes, that little blue box the size of a pack of cigarettes can send messages worldwide from the middle of the ocean!

I also use my Elecraft K1 on the boat, an excellent radio you can buy as a kit or used on Ebay:

Elecraft K1

Elecraft K1

As an antenna, I use an end-fed tuner connected to the back-stay. Another option would be using a portable antenna like the Buddistick, or a marine 26ft antenna with a tuner. I prefer the insulated back-stay because it is an integral part of the rigging and won’t be swept off by waves or wind, hopefully!

Ham radio is an excellent option on a boat, especially a small one without the means to generate a lot of electrical power. It affords you an extra level of safety, and for the single-hander, human contact during long passages. You will always find people willing to chat, forward messages for you or browse the web for the latest weather forecasts. The exams are too easy and the radios too cheap to ignore.

Maybe I’ll talk to you on the air some day. If you aren’t already a Ham, now is time to do a bit of research and studying. You will thank me later!

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Opinion on Blue Water Boats.

There is much controversy over what makes a blue-water boat, capable of crossing oceans in the worst weather. Some will argue that the latest production sailboats including catamarans can safely circumnavigate. Maybe, but I have my own standards as to what constitutes a blue-water boat. Here is a list of the features I think are desirable for such a vessel. I am no expert mind you, but common sense dictates my choices.

Full Keel: Soon or later all sailors will touch ground or hit something right beneath the surface. A full keel will resist the shock much better. It also protects the rudder behind it. Then there is heaving-to, a storm tactic full keel boats presumably perform much better. There has been instances of fin keels falling off, mostly on racing boats, but also due to poor maintenance, but why take a chance? Sure, a full keel boat will be slower, so what? I do not indend on ever racing, so safety takes precedence over speed. The argument that a faster boat can avoid weather might have some merit; until you get caught in a bad storm.

Material: Materials used in boat production are pretty good. Dagny is made of fiberglass and I have no problem with that. Maintenance is minimal. The hull is thick and solid. I would however prefer a steel hull. My previous boat, which I unfortunately didn’t get to sail much was plated with 3/16″ mild steel. The keel was made of half-inch plate. You could have hit a plastic boat with it and said “oops, sorry!” and not worry about any damage to your own boat. Same goes for dragging on rocks or hitting floating debris at sea. A steel boat can take a beating. Another major advantage is lightning safety. The hull is essentially a Faraday cage through which lightning will find its way to the water without burning a number of holes on its way. Not to mention keeping the crew safe inside. My next boat will most likely be made of steel.

Double-ender: That is open to debate. I like the way double-enders look. Norwegian rescue boats have a canoe stern. They went to sea to rescue other boats caught in storms. That alone is a good enough reason for me. It seems logical that a stern able to part the seas should be safer when breaking waves crash from behind. It may be argued that the lack of buoyancy negates that advantage. I would feel better with a canoe stern when using a drogue to slow the boat down. I may be wrong, but like I said, they sure look good!

Small cockpit: Big cockpits might be comfortable at the dock for cocktails, but they fill with tons of water in rough seas. Small ones drain quickly. I always evaluate cockpit size when looking for a boat.

Small ports: Huge breaking waves can break through large windows and leave you with a flooded cabin. No thanks. I’ll take a darker interior any day instead of vulnerable windows. Unfortunately bright interiors sell better, so current manufacturers seem to prefer large panes of acrylic or glass. I have seen new boats with windows and hatches looking so flimsy, I wouldn’t take them anywhere.

Samson post: Where did the Samson posts go? Few boats have them now, relying instead on cleats, which are clearly not as strong. I know I will be worried about anchoring with Dagny in a storm. The bow cleats do not look quite strong enough. Getting towed would be nerve-wrecking as well.

Low freeboard: Anything sticking out above the water line will be affected by wind and waves. I like pilot houses but it’s like having an extra sail you can’t take down. Huge waves can take a cabin out, as scary as that sounds. Dagny has a flush deck, which while a real pain when moving about inside is a safer design in rough weather, aside from the possibility of knocking your head on the ceiling. I will probably get a helmet to avoid getting hurt that way. Anything on deck is a liability. That is why I decided to glue my solar panels on the deck. I want nothing to stick out if I can avoid it.

Tiller: A tiller is the simplest way to move your rudder. Wheels imply gears, chains or ropes, which can break or get stuck. Losing steerage at the wrong time can be catastrophic.

Wind vane: Not mandatory I guess, but owning a blue-water boat usually means that you at least hope to cross oceans. Steering all the time is simply impossible for a single-hander. Electronic auto pilots always seem to break. I have watched documentaries on circumnavigations aborted because the auto pilot(s) failed. A wind vane is a mechanical device with few moving parts, making it much more reliable. Dagny came with a Fleming wind vane, which I am very happy about.

Heavy displacement: Is not always synonym with strength but usually means that more material has been used, resulting in heavier scantlings and thicker hulls. A heavy boat feels more stable. My Tahitiana at 32ft and 18,000lbs felt very solid, even sluggish, but that was a good thing for a cruising boat. Dagny is only 6800lbs but it isn’t especially light for a 26 footer and 51% of that weight is in the keel.

Self righting: That seems a given with monohulls, but not always the case. I want to know that my boat, if it ends up upside down, will right itself quickly. Catamarans and trimarans when upside down will stay that way, the mast becoming the keel. They may float, but you can’t self-rescue.

Dagny has all of the aforementioned features, except for the steel hull and a Samson post. I feel pretty confident that she could take most of what the ocean can dish out, probably more than what I could take in any case. My first efforts will be to catch up with her and become as seaworthy, or salty, building experience until I feel comfortable undertaking long passages.

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