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.
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:
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:
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!