Amateur Radio for the Coastal and Offshore Cruiser

My article last month was an introduction to Marine HF/SSB radio for those new to long range radio communication. Here, I try to introduce you to the wonderful hobby of amateur (Ham) radio and how it can enhance your cruising experience. Advanced articles on maximizing your enjoyment of HF radio and other communication options will follow in upcoming months. I hope all long-range cruisers have equipped their boats with both digital selective calling (DSC) VHF and HF radios that are properly configured with GPS connections, and, in the case of Marine HF, a DSC listening antenna if your radio, like the Icom M802, is so equipped. Ham radio(s) are not a replacement for this, but an augmentation bringing a whole new range of communication options.

Amateur or Ham radio can be a wonderful addition to your cruising enjoyment. A significant hobby in and of itself, Ham radio truly comes into its own when away from “home†and “off the grid.†All of you are familiar with your marine VHF/FM radio and most with her long range sister, marine HF/SSB radio. These are your primary safety communication systems with both other boats and shore stations. Adding Ham radio to your cruising skill set can make your voyages safer and more enjoyable.

In the United States, unlike most countries, recreational boat operators are not required to pass an examination to operate marine VHF and HF/SSB radios on their personal craft, but only to complete an application and pay a fee. The feeling is that the Marine band “type approved†radio transceivers are largely plug and play and are limited to authorized frequencies, and that the separation between channels is set by the manufacturer. Unlike Marine radios, which operate on specifically defined “channelsâ€, Ham radio operators, with one small exception, can operate anywhere within their authorized bands, with much greater power, up to 1500 watts! Also, they may use, for all intents and purposes, any equipment that can transmit on those bands. This includes modified marine radios, old military and commercial equipment, and “home brew†rigs built from scratch from plans or purchased as build-it-yourself kit radios from companies like Heathkit.

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The author’s first HF radio; a tube type Heathkit from the 70’s.

It required a separate 800 volt(!) power supply. I have been a ham radio operator for almost 50 years and still love old rigs.

Because Ham radio operators have so much more freedom in their choice of equipment, operating modes and frequencies, virtually every nation requires an examination for access to the Amateur bands. In the United States, the FCC currently issues three levels of licensure with increasing benefits: Technician, General, and Amateur Extra. Each level is achieved by passing an increasingly difficult examination in radio theory, operational practice, and governing regulations. Previous examination

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New Ham license holders and their SSCA examiners in Davao, Philippines.

requirements in Morse code (CW) proficiency have been abandoned as evolving digital modes such as Pactor have replaced CW for emergency communications. For cruising boaters, the General class license provides all of the necessary privileges for maritime operation, and all the popular nets are found on frequencies available to General Class operators. Through a long standing arrangement with the Laurel Amateur Radio Club, SSCA members provide both assistance in studying for your amateur licenses and are authorized to offer the FCC examinations at every gam around the world.

While marine and amateur radio services can use equipment that is similar, and their assigned frequencies are often adjacent, there are significant differences in the organization, operations, and licensure of marine amateur radio stations and their operators. Almost every country in the world provides a large slice of varied radio spectrum (a range of frequencies) for purely amateur use, and encourage reciprocity between operators from other nations. When operating from a foreign country’s waters, you may need to obtain a reciprocal license. Check with for current details. They do this to promote experimentation in radio science, and to encourage the training of generations of skilled radio operators who can assist at times of emergency. Much of the radio technology we use today started on some amateur’s bench and migrated into the mainstream commercial market. When I first started cruising, there were almost no affordable solid state HF radios. Most required high-voltage power supplies to power the vacuum tubes, and only those with a radio background seemed to have them. I made many calls for others from anchorages on my first solo cruise in the early 80’s.

Marine radio regulations prohibit making general calls such as “Hey, is anyone out there? I’d love to chat a bit.†Hams are encouraged to do just that, making calls like: “CQ CQ, CQ, CQ 20, this is WAØLSS/MM†in my case. A quick spin of the dial of any Ham HF Band and you will hear someone calling CQ, or, “Seek Youâ€; that is, looking for anyone interesting in chatting. If you are licensed for that band and feel like chatting, just answer with your call sign and introduce yourself.

Many shore-side Hams enjoy “Dxing†(from long distance contacts), making contact with people around the world and collecting “QSL†cards that confirm their successful contact. Chatting with a Maritime Mobile, as we are known, is a highlight for many, so my wife and I have printed QSL cards that show the Lat/Long of the contact with a photo of our boat. We post them to the station we contacted when we have both time and a reliable post office. Of course, while many land-based Hams make friends around

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the world virtually over the radio, we cruisers get to meet those same people face to face by visiting them in harbors around the globe.

You will notice that that I refer to frequencies by both their number of cycles (usually in megacycles, or megahertz) and in their length. Maritime channels are always listed by number and frequency this way 12C or 12.359.

Hams often refer to their bands not as the 14mhz band, but rather as the 20 meter band, referring to the length of the wavelengths on that frequency. They both refer to the same thing and this handy formula,


which allows you to go back and forth regardless of how a frequency is referenced.

Both the marine and amateur radio services host myriad “nets†at scheduled times and frequencies where operators meet. SSCA’s own KPK on the marine bands, the Waterway Radio Cruising Club and Maritime Mobile Net on the Ham Bands are examples of these nets. These are most people’s first introduction to their radio and give them a chance to test their signal and learn the basics of operation. They are also a wonderful way to make new friends and get the most current information. The Waterway Net, for example, provides detailed weather reports to cruisers from the Maritimes to the Caribbean every morning at 0745 ET on 7.268 LSB in the amateur 40 meter band. The Maritime Mobile Service Net is one of several that shares the 20 meter band frequency 14.300 USB. They are the recipient of SSCA’s 2011 Southbound II Award for their constant support of the cruising community since 1968.

These nets and operations aren’t limited to HF. Indeed, there are tens of thousands of Hams who never wander onto the HF Bands. Ham VHF (and UHF) radio is very popular because of repeaters, which are stations that take your signal from a small hand-held or installed radio and relay it from a tall tower with much more power. Where I am currently cruising on the Chesapeake Bay, one repeater covers the area from Baltimore to Solomons, Maryland permitting great communication between boats and shore stations. These repeater stations are all over the world, many linked together by the Internet. Hams can chat on small handheld radios between Hawaii and the mainland; for example, using a technology known as “Echo-Link.†Many are linked to the telephone system permitting Hams to make phone calls from their VHF radios. While most VHF marine operators are no longer operational, a technology called “auto-patch†means that no operator is necessary. A couple of codes on the microphone gives you a dial tone. While the ubiquity of cell phones has meant fewer hams use VHF auto-patch, the services still exist wherever there are ham repeaters.

If you decide to join thousands of cruisers and add Ham radios to your existing boat, I have one strong suggestion: keep your primary Marine VHF radio separate from any additional installations. We have a 2nd VHF (a Ham 2-meter FM radio for shoreside repeaters), but it has its own separate antenna. Marine VHF/FM with DSC is your primary emergency radio near shore and needs to be totally independent from other installations. On the other hand, if you decide to fit an amateur HF station on your cruising vessel, I have a few hints that will help. First, you probably have much of what you need already. The popular Icom 700, 710, and 802 all can operate on the Ham bands with simple modifications. If you have one of those, you’re well on your way. Of course, you’ll need to obtain the proper licensing from the FCC as noted above. Because they are really designed for ease of use, they are missing many of the advanced features, digital modes, noise reduction filters, and detailed displays of modern ham radios

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A Coax Switch that can select between radios

A good example of an HF Ham radio, the Kenwood 590

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If you would like to add a traditional HF Ham radio with all the additional features, the popular Icom, Yaesu, and Kenwood HF Ham radios can share an antenna, antenna tuner, and power supply with your existing Marine HF installation. Just insert a high quality antenna switch such as the Alpha Delta above. In my case I have three (yes… 3) HF radios sharing three antennas (an insulated rigging stay for daily communications, a vertical wire “Dipole†for high performance on 20 meters, and an emergency Whip on the stern rail). Two switches make it all simple:

  • Connect the Icom M802 to the insulated stay, which in my case is a mizzen cap shroud joined to
    an insulated triatic stay, because we’re a ketch,
  • Connect the Icom 756ProII Ham rig to the 20 meter vertical dipole through a 500 watt amplifier
    for very reliable worldwide communication.

While this is an extreme example of a “maritime ham shack,†there are many cruisers who are enjoying their ham radio hobby while they are also living aboard and cruising. For them, their ham radio hobby is a logical extension of their cruising.

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The authors “Ham Shack,†piled high while wintering the dock up north in 2011.

Note the multiple radios, Pactor modem, meters, tuners, tube type amplifier, and switches. This was all made ship shape, of course, before heading south in 2012!

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Author: Scott Berg has been sailing, racing and cruising for the past 50 years and has experience on a range of power and sailing vessels. Scott is the owner of Chardonnay Boatworks, a full-service marine repair and consulting company focusing on the repair and re-engineering of sail and motor yachts. He frequently lectures on marine electrical systems, electronics, and yacht systems and off shore sailing. Scott is a current member and past president of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA). He also holds a USCG 100T Masters license, an Amateur Extra Ham License, and currently lives on his 60’ Seaton Ketch, Chardonnay.

If you’ve found this article useful, you’ll find more similar information aimed directly at sailors/cruisers on the members-only portion of the SSCA website (