Tag: radio

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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Aurinco Solar Panels.

A sailboat needs some form of electrical power generation, if only to run a VHF radio and navigation lights. Portable devices need recharging regularly. While the inboard engine can provide ample power to charge batteries, it is noisy and burns fuel. Choices are limited on a boat, and other than a dedicated generator, impractical on a small boat, solar panels and wind generators usually provide the required electrical power. Wind generators are quite expensive and noisy. They are just another thing sticking out of the deck, increasing windage, vulnerable to breaking seas and very high winds. I don’t like the way they look either. A sailboat deck shouldn’t look like the roof of a meteorological station.

I decided to find solar panels that could be glued on deck. They had to be walkable of course, somewhat non-skid and look decent. A seemingly good and affordable option was Renogy panels, but I did not want a connection box or anything else that wouldn’t be flush on deck. Renogy gets decent ratings, but not always when it comes to quality control. On the other side of the spectrum are brands like Solbian, but at a price I could not afford. I could not allocate more than about a thousand dollars for the whole installation. Unsure of my power requirements, I just needed to balance quality and capacity at the best possible price.

After some research on the Internet I found Aurinco, a small company in Anacortes Washington. Their flexible panels were just what I was looking for, though a bit expensive, at $322 for a 25W panel. I bought two Compact-25 panels and two Bluewater-18 models. They total 88W (C25 is 26W). The panels arrived very well packed and seem very well built. I’d suggest anyone contemplating ordering from them to check availability, as they do not always have all models available. I believe only a handful of people actually work there. Patrik Swanljung the owner answered my questions personally and quickly via email. I have a good feeling about the company and their products.

Genasun Charge Controllers

Genasun Charge Controllers

A charge controller is needed between the solar panels and the battery. They come in two flavors, MPPT and PWM. MPPT is more efficient, and considering the small price difference, I didn’t even look at PWM controllers. Instead of buying one controller for my four panels, I bought two 4A units ($65ea.) for redundancy. I settled on Genasun, another American company. I mounted the two 25W panels in parallel, one on each side of the deck, feeding one controller, and did the same for the 18W panels. They will never produce 88W together, but connecting them in parallel ensures that at least one of two panels can produce electricity while the other one is shaded. I haven’t checked yet, but I expect around 40W on a sunny day.

Aurinco Solar Panels

Aurinco Solar Panels

To glue the panels I used Dow Corning 795 Silicone Building Sealant, which allows for some movement due to temperature changes. It probably would be a bit easier to remove the panels than if I had used epoxy.

I sleep much better now knowing that my automatic bilge pump won’t run out of power. Hopefully the amount generated will be enough to power my VHF (560mAh) 24/7 and LED naviations lights at night. Anything else, I can do without on passages. If it isn’t sufficient, I will just have to buy one or two more panels. I could see a 25W panel on the forward hatch cover… I will buy a spare Genasun controller as soon as I can.

My other power requirements are very meager. I have only one cabin light. I plan on adding an inverter and a 12V/USB charging combo plug to run small electronic devices and occasionally charging my laptop. The big power draw would come from the Icom IC-M700 SSB radio, especially when transmitting, but I don’t plan on doing that too often. I would also rather use a small short-wave receiver with SSB, than switching on the big Icom. I will however want to have my Elecraft K1 Ham radio on most of the time, but it only draws 60mAh on receive! Another option is to add a small MFJ-9420X radio to listen and transmit on 14300kHz. I will talk more about radio in other posts… In any case, I will also need a bigger battery than the standard car battery model now installed.

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