Sailing stretches the boundaries of my comfort zone even when we’re not on the boat. When we set sail on Next Boat our offshore communications options are satellite phone and single sideband (SSB) radio. Writing this blog post helps me organize the bits and pieces of information I gathered from my research to decide which option best suits us. I may update this post should those more knowledgeable provide different information.
The satellite phone itself is expensive and then we have to pay a per minute plus airtime fee to talk. The fee ranges from $0.15 to $2.00 (approximately). Incoming calls are quite a bit more. We can use the phone to obtain email and weather faxes. The sat phone does not require a license to use. Finally, it may not work in overcast or storm conditions as the phone needs to communicate with a satellite.
SSB radio communication is free after the initial hardware purchase but we need licenses to use it. We can also download weather data and email for free using the SSB radio. Local radio “nets” allow boats to check in with each other and are particularly helpful when traveling in a group and for obtaining local knowledge.
We are leaning towards relying on the radio and having a sat phone as backup.
When I was a search and rescue volunteer the team used Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. FRS radios are small, hand-held radios that enabled us to communicate over very short distances. I remember as a kid they were referred to as “walkie-talkies.” No license is required to operate an FRS. In SAR I was notorious for avoiding using the radio. I can’t explain why. It wasn’t fear. More that I just didn’t want to deal with yet another piece of equipment. I relied on my team for communications.
Halcyon is equipped with a fixed marine VHF radio and multiple hand-held marine VHF radios. We use the marine radio to talk to other boats, marinas, and restaurants. The radio is also our primary way of (hopefully never) contacting the U.S. Coast Guard in an emergency. No license is required to operate marine channels on a VHF radio as long as we use them on U.S. waters.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates radio communications in the U.S. There are three amateur radio (ham) license classes: Technician, General and Extra. Technician class is the entry-level license and allows us access to certain amateur radio frequencies. The General class license allows us additional operating privileges. The Extra class license allows us to operate on all amateur radio bands. We have to pass a test at each level of license in order to sit for the next level. John and I sat for the amateur radio Technician class license test a few years ago. Now we’re studying to upgrade to the General class and Extra class licenses.
Seriously, there is very little you need to learn to get a ham license you shouldn’t know anyway to be a self-sufficient cruiser. -Dave Skolnick
Because we intend to sail Next Boat outside of the United States, it is our responsibility to know and follow the laws of the countries we intend to visit. Knowing the laws is part of leaving a clean wake and Plan A for not going to jail and/or potentially incurring massive fines. Outside of the U.S. we need licenses to operate both the VHF radio and SSB radio. The boat also needs a ship’s station license for VHF and SSB radio. Each country that we visit may require a license fee but that’s research for another day.
Researching the regulations is a joy.
The U.S. and Canada share an automatic reciprocal agreement. The U.S. national association for amateur radio, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), says that we need to carry proof of U.S. citizenship and our valid amateur radio license. However, the Radio Amateurs of Canada website states “There is no need for paperwork or other formalities when exchanging visits between Canada and the United States.” In any case, privileges extended depend on the class of license and we must abide by Industry Canada rules.
The ARRL link to Mexico’s reciprocal regulations took me to this lovely site that provides instructions for obtaining a visitor’s license: Licensing Information for Mexico. In one sentence it says “It should be easy and streight forward [sic]” and the very next sentence says “The comment…’This is not an easy, or inexpensive, process’ is still relevant today.”
Most European countries allow U.S. citizens to operate an amateur radio under the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) Agreement. This agreement states that, like with Canada, U.S. citizens do not need additional licenses or permits, but are granted operating privileges that more or less match the General or Extra class levels of license obtained in the U.S. If we want limited reciprocal operating privileges we need our General class licenses. If we want full reciprocal operating privileges we need our Extra class licenses. Our Technician class licenses do not allow us any privileges.
In order to reach a personal preparedness level that matches the range of Next Boat, we need to go the distance with the licenses. This is where my comfort zone gets shaky.
I admit that I ignored advice to learn the material for the Technician class test and not just study to pass the test. I read the first two chapters of the study guide then I took the practice exams until I consistently achieved a passing score. If Morse code was still required, I’d still be sitting here trying to get my words per minute count up before taking the test.
Now we’re studying to upgrade to the General class license and I have to backtrack and learn the theory behind what I memorized for the Technician class test. Topics for this test include electrical principals, circuit components and radio wave propagation. It assumes knowledge of the Technician class topics. John works with this stuff every day and it should be a breeze for him.
I have a syllabus for an Extra class training course. Beads of sweat broke out just reading that required for the course is a “scientific calculator that you can operate.” Huh. AND I need to know trigonometry. Egad.
Math doesn’t come easy to me. I took Advanced Placement (AP) math in high school. I can say with confidence that I’ve never experimented with illegal substances so I’ll attribute agreeing to take those AP math classes to momentary lapses in judgment that occurred repeatedly over two years. Or aliens. John and my 18-year old niece are going to be my tutors to get me through these last two tests. Unlike in high school I now have the discipline to learn the math. I’m still going to struggle but it helps that I have a real life application for it.
We bought an inexpensive VHF radio that I can program as well as a shortwave radio receiver. I listen to the local radio clubs on the VHF. The shortwave is to listen to the marine nets and to learn how to obtain weather fax and email over the radio and get comfortable with how it works way before we need it on Next Boat. I’m practicing all of this using my Linux machine so one of John’s tasks is to make sure that Next Boat has a laptop with Linux installed. Having the radios in hand also helps me retain and apply what I read in the study guides.
Soon you’ll be listening to all the Persian hip hop you can stand. -Bubs
Not so long ago I made fun of the car with the fourteen 10-foot whip antennas on the roof. No way would I ever be that nerdy. When we got our Technician licenses I pooh-poohed my friends who asked “So when are you putting up the radio antenna tower on your property??!!” Sigh. Not only are we searching the Internet for DIY antennas, but John, bless his heart, brought home 300 feet of wire for an antenna. PINK wire. That is probably why it was never used. Also, who knew that the then-obsolete TV antenna my friend cut off the roof almost 15 years ago could have been useful now?? Despite our pink antenna only being about 25 feet in the air, we did hear Radio Africa one day.
We still need to get the wire antenna at least 100 feet up. We were sent instructions for using a slingshot and building a potato launcher. The guy who hunts on our property with his crossbow said the bow would send it into orbit. Oh well. It was worth a try.
KB3ZCB and KB3ZCA 73