I dont remember where this came from but it was sent to me when asking similar questions.
Idiot's Guide to Marine SSB
Despite several advances in offshore voice communications such as
satphones, marine single sideband (SSB) isn't going away anytime soon.
That's because SSB radio, unlike satphones, allows an unlimited number of
people to listen in to a transmission at the same time.
As such, SSB radio is the only way to go for the various regional cruising
nets, such as the Baja, Sonrisa, Chubasco and Southbound nets. It means,
for example, that when Don Anderson of Summer Passage transmits his latest
weather forecast, an unlimited number of people can listen in at once. And
when someone has a question about the forecast, everyone can hear the
question and Don's response.
Marine SSB is also perfect for cruising events such as the Baja Ha-Ha, the
Caribbean 1500 and the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers. "While the Ha-Ha
doesn't require SSB radio," advises the Grand Poobah of that event, "most
boats do have them. They are good for safety - but fun, too. The folks
with SSB radios are able to actively participate in all the roll calls,
weather and fishing reports, and other fleet news. Over a period of nearly
two weeks, personalities develop over the radio, and an even greater sense
of community is established."
In racing events such as the Pacific Cup, the TransPac, and next year's
revived Tahiti Race - where SSB is required of all entries - it offers
more than just straight communication. "Thanks to marine SSB, our 1700
hour reports and discussions maintain the racing camaraderie and fun,"
comments Jack McGuire, KG6CJN, Communications Chairman of next year's
Pacific Cup race from San Francisco to Hawaii.
Although not the subject of this article, the other significant benefit of
SSB radios is that they, when used with a Pactor modem and SailMail, allow
for the transmission and reception of short emails while offshore.
You don't need to pass a Ham radio operator's test to operate marine SSB.
All that's required is a valid Ship Station license and a lifetime
Restricted Radiotelephone Operator's permit. No testing required! The Ship
Station license is good for 10 years and is non-transferable. If you're
good at dealing with government online forms, you can apply for a license
yourself at FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau: WTB Home
. If you're not so good at it, or don't
want to take the time, my lovely wife Suzie will be happy to help for a
fee: (714) 549-5000.
How is Ham (amateur radio) different than SSB radio? If you're new to long
distance marine radio, I suggest not even worrying about it. Although I
run the Radio School and some of the income comes from teaching students
how to use Ham radio and pass the test, I generally discourage new SSB
operators from taking that step right away. Get the no-test license for
SSB radio, become familiar with the procedures and protocols, and use it
for a few months. If you find that you're one of the very few cruisers who
talks on the radio so much that SSB frequencies aren't adequate, then look
into Ham radio. Or, if you're going to the South Pacific, where there is
lots more traffic on ship-to-ship channels, you might consider eventually
moving up to Ham status. But generally speaking, it's really only for
serious radio buffs.
By the way, there is nothing to prevent folks with SSB radios from
listening on Ham frequencies, and indeed, there are some helpful weather
broadcasts on Ham-only frequencies. If you're new to SSB radio and worried
that you might accidently stumble onto a Ham-only frequency, start
transmitting, and really piss off the 'radio police', fear not. SSB radios
that are capable of working Ham frequencies come 'locked' from the
factory. Some can only be unlocked using software, while others can be
unlocked by just pressing three keys at the same time. In cases of genuine
emergencies, Ham frequencies can be used even by people who don't have a
How Far on What Bands?
A marine SSB system operates on a marine radio spectrum called
'shortwave', medium frequency and high frequency: 2 MHz-26 MHz. This radio
spectrum is shared with hundreds of other radio users such as shortwave
broadcasts, Ham radio, FEMA, the American Red Cross and long-range
Radio signals within the SSB shortwave spectrum refract off the ionosphere
and come back to earth hundreds to thousands of miles away without the
need for communication satellites and/or ground stations. Each marine SSB
radio frequency band has a very predictable skywave bounce 'bulls-eye'. If
you choose a band that's too high, your signal will skip over the other
station. If you choose a frequency that's too low, your signal won't go
far enough to reach the other station.
The following is a good guide for choosing the band of frequencies that
will target your first skywave bounce:
2 MHz 200-400 miles
4 MHz 400-600 miles
6 MHz 600-1200 miles
8 MHz 800-1600 miles
12 MHz 1200-2400 miles
16 MHz 1600-3200 miles
22 MHz 2200-4000 miles plus
26 MHz unpredictable during
our solar cycle minimum
Pop Quiz #1: You are in San Francisco and you want to talk with your buddy
who is on his boat 1,200 miles away in Cabo San Lucas. Which band on
marine SSB might you choose?
Answer: Because 4, 6, and 8 MHz would likely fall short on the first radio
signal bounce, 12 MHz and 16 MHz would likely be your best choices
The thing that usually drives new SSB operators nuts - and I know that it
still irritates the Grand Poobah of the Ha-Ha - is that SSB radio
frequency/channels are so different from VHF, FM, television and almost
every other kind of channel. On VHF, for example, channel 72 is channel
72. On television, channel 7 is channel 7. What could be more simple?
Certainly not SSB radio. Get this: while 4146 is always 4146 on SSB, it's
also known as 4A, and sometimes the designator 4-1. In addition, depending
on the individual radio, it's often channel 35 or channel 77, but could
also be some other channel. That's right, depending on what radio you
bought and when, and who might have customized the user channels, channel
35 and channel 77 may or may not be 4146 and vice versa. And, of course,
it might also be channel 63 or 147 - or a bunch of other channels.
The most sure way to get to 4146 is to just tune to 4146. The problem is
that you may have to do a lot of knob turning, which gets to be annoying.
In order to eliminate unnecessary wrist injuries from knob turning, some
manufacturers 'channelized' the more popular frequencies. That is, they
assigned specific channels to specific frequencies. For example, the Icom
SSB radios of several years ago assigned channel 35 to frequency 4146 (aka
4A and 4-1). That was all well and good. Unfortunately, in later radios
they decided to assign channel 77 to 4146 (aka 4A and 4-1). In addition,
some retailers created custom 'user channel' packages, which gave yet
another channel designation to 4146.
How did it all come to this? SSB operators used to have to spin the
frequency knob like crazy to find anyone because there are more than 1,000
SSB frequencies - only a very few of which will ultimately be of interest
to you. (More on that later.) As a result, most modern marine SSB
transceivers - a fancy name for a combined transmitter and receiver in one
black box - have nearly 700 pre-stored duplex channels - a channel simply
being a specific frequency designated as a channel for easier access.
After all, what's easier, dialing through 1,000+ frequencies or 700
Nonetheless, you could spin your SSB channel dial all day long and you'd
probably still hear nothing - except for WLO, the excellent radiotelephone
station located in Mobile, Alabama. If you want to pick up something, look
for on-the-hour weather and traffic reports on the following International
Telecommunications Union (ITU) three- and four-digit designators: 405,
417, 805, 824, 830, 1209, 1212, 1226, 1607, 1624, 1641, 1807, 2237 and
2503. If you punch in 1607 on the hour, you'll get traffic lists and
weather broadcasts from powerful WLO. The U.S. Coast Guard also broadcasts
voice weather reports on ITU channels 424, 601, 816, 1205, and 1625.
Because SSB radios are more complicated than VHF radios, you might
initially have a little trouble punching in all the three- and four-digit
ITU channels and/or the actual frequencies. Maybe I can help.
ICOM America, Furuno, and SEA are the last remaining SSB manufacturers,
and of the three, ICOM is the undisputed leader when it comes to equipping
recreational vessels with marine SSB gear. To assist North American
sailors in more easily calling up relevant ship-to-ship, Coast Guard,
weather facsimile, Ham and marine telephone stations, they have
pre-programmed 160 'favorite channels' - channels 1 through 160 - into a
memory circuit titled 'User Channels'. These channels begin with the
informal designator #1, and end with #100 - unless, of course, you have
the new ICOM 802, which has user channels #1 to #160.
For example, if you have an Icom 802 and tune to Channel 77, you'll find
that you'll be on frequency 4146 (aka 4A). And if you tune to Channel 118
on an 802, you'll find yourself on frequency 3968, which is home to the
Sonrisa Net at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time in the winter. It will even show
'Sonrisa Net' on your screen, even though the Sonrisa Net only uses that
frequency a few hours each day.
Your radio will no doubt also have a toggle for 'channel/frequency'. As
you toggle it, the display will switch back and forth from, say frequency
4146 to Channel 77 - assuming, of course, that 77 has been assigned to
4146 on your particular radio.
Take this opportunity to run all the user channels on your radio, and make
a list of what frequencies/stations they refer to. As mentioned, if you
have a newer Icom 802, it's very likely, but not certain, that you have
the same channel/frequency combinations as owners of other new Icom 802s.
But if you have an older Icom model, or perhaps had a custom user channel
package put into your 802, I'd recommend you have an authorized Icom
dealer come down and give you the most recent user channel package. All he
does is plug his computer into the front of your radio and download the
new stuff. It shouldn't take more than 15 minutes, and will synch you with
the majority of other SSB radios.
Favorite SSB Channels
When cruising Mexico, these are the only channels you'll
really need for calling ship-to-ship or ship-to-California.
Channel DesignatorLatest ICOM
4A774146 kHz USB
4B784149 kHz USB
8A978294 kHz USB
8B988297 kHz USB
If you look at the table above, you'll see Latitude 38's favorite SSB
channels that I've compiled to help you better understand that each
channel has a specific purpose. You'll notice there aren't 700 of them.
That's because you can only use 33 primary channels. And for cruisers in
California and Mexico, you'll almost exclusively be using just five of
them: 4A, 4B, 4C, 8A and 8B. That's not many, but you'll rarely have
trouble finding an open channel. (There are an additional 49 secondary
channel/frequencies on the 4 MHz and 8 MHz bands that you can use if they
aren't being used at the time, but if you're just starting out, you don't
need that additional confusion.)
The main thing to do is play with your user channel/frequency combinations
so you become familiar with them. It won't take long. If you find that
your channels are out of sync with most other folks' SSB radios, you might
want to change yours to match theirs. Depending on how technical you are,
you may or may not need assistance.
Calling for Help over the SSB
In addition, there are six Coast Guard Global Maritime Distress and Safety
System (GMDSS) channel/frequencies:
2182, the distress channel
The Coast Guard or other international rescue agencies monitor them 24
hours a day. U.S. Coast Guard monitors out of Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, San
Francisco, New Orleans, Miami and Norfolk.
Warning! Remember, different bands have different ranges. If you make an
emergency call on 2182 when you're halfway between Mexico and the
Marquesas, it's very unlikely anybody is going to hear you. If you check
the earlier chart, you'll see that you'd actually want to transmit on
12,290 (12S) where the range would be 1,200 to 2,400 miles.
Checking Your SSB Reception and Transmission
Okay, you're getting some meaningful reception as you dial around the
channels, but you'll probably still be wondering if your SSB is working as
it should. One way to begin to find out is by trying to pick up the time
signals at 10 and 15 MHz and WWV, which provide a continuous signal for a
ready reference. If you're still at the dock and plugged in, you may find
that turning off the shorepower battery charger will make a huge
difference in your reception. Ditto for the refrigeration and any
florescent lights or inverters that might be turned on.
If you're unsure if you're transmitting, you can tell a lot by looking at
the LCD display on the face of your radio. First, push the 'TUNE' button,
at which point the radio should briefly transmit a low power signal to
tune the automatic antenna coupler. Do this on any 6 MHz channel as long
as there is no traffic on it. The word 'TUNE' should flash a couple of
times on the LCD screen, and then stay up on the screen when the radio
cycles back to receive. Still see the word 'TUNE'? This is good. However,
if the word 'THRU' comes up, or 'HI SWR', you've got problems. At that
point it's probably time to bring in a NMEA-qualified marine SSB
specialist to see what's wrong between your radio and your tuner.
Assuming you do get 'TUNE', it's time to pick up the mic and try a short
transmission. After doublechecking that the frequency is clear, key the
mic, and speak directly into it saying "FOOOOUUUUR." The mic should be
touching your lips when you do this. If the following things happen, it
suggests that your transmission is good and powerful:
1) The LCD bar graph goes full scale.
2) Your cabin lights dim slightly.
3) The instrument indicator lamps glow.
4) The bilge alarm squeaks.
5) The house battery drops about a half volt.
It is perfectly normal for instrument panel lights to glow and bilge
alarms to squeak when a powerful 100 watts are coming out of your marine
SSB. But most important, doublecheck that the LCD transmit indicator
shoots across the screen when you say a very loud "FFOOOUUUUR".
A potentially more dangerous way to test the transmit power output is with
a small florescent tube at night. Ask your first mate to hold the glass
tube against the insulated backstay antenna or the big white whip.
Caution! Be sure they don't touch the backstay with their fingers or other
parts of their body, as this could result in a nasty burn or worse. Say
the magic word, "FFOOOUUUUR" once again, and the tube should instantly
light up. The glass must actually be touching the radiating antenna or
antenna lead-in single wire for this to happen.
If, when you say the magic word "FFOOOUUUUR," the cabin lights dim, the
bow head flushes, numerous bilge alarms go off, and the florescent tube
lights up, chances are excellent that you're putting out 100 watts. But
are they clear watts? Only a radio test with another SSB user can
determine that, so ask someone else in the marina to dial in a common
ship-to-ship channel, such as 6224, and run your radio check. This will be
a good test for a nice, clean signal.
If your test partner reports that your sound was garbled and you've just
added a new email modem to your rig, temporarily disconnect the wire going
from the back of your marine SSB to the computer. If your voice now sounds
clear, these additional wires are the problem. Snap-on filter chokes are
available from your local marine electronics specialist that may resolve
the garbled voice problem.
A good test for the range of your radio is with me! I'm happy to offer
Latitude readers free, on-the-air radio checks on an appropriate SSB
frequency that will agree with the approximate range between your station
and mine, here in the Newport Beach area. If your boat is in the Bay Area,
we will likely use 8 MHz. If you are local, we'll go with 4 MHz, and if
you're down at Cabo, we'll probably choose 12 MHz. Call me on the phone at
(714) 549-5000 weekdays and we'll find a nice quiet channel for our radio
Another great way to test your marine SSB transmit-and-receive capability
is with weather guru Don Anderson on his marine SSB Amigo Net. He begins
at daybreak, at 1415 hours Zulu (UTC) on 8.122.0 MHz, upper sideband. If
you have the latest frequency load from Icom America, it's already stored
in memory as channel 105. If you don't find it in memory, you will need to
break out the instruction book and learn how to program a new frequency to
be stored in your user programmable frequency 'bin'. It's not hard, but if
you've never done frequency programming before, it can be a mystery. You
might want to call in a marine electronics tech familiar with marine SSB
equipment. Try Don Melcher of HF Radio On Board (Alameda) at (510)
814-8888; Shea Weston of Offshore Outfitters (San Diego) at (619)
225-5690; Steve Helms of Marine Radio Consultants (San Diego) at (619)
276-5530; Ron Romaine of KKMI (Richmond). Or me. I'll try to talk you
through the process.
I've got two final tips.
First, if you sent your Icom 802 to the factory to get the 'clipping'
problem fixed, you'll note that there are two places to plug in the
antenna. One is for the DSC antenna, the other for your SSB antenna.
Unfortunately, they are not clearly labeled. A number of people have
gotten their radios back and plugged their SSB antenna into the wrong
port. As a result, transmit and receive range are minimal. You would see
an antenna tuner error if plugged into the wrong jack. Set it up
temporarily and test it with time signals.
Second, Icom is very conservative in an attempt to make sure none of their
radios violate FCC rules on output power and how wide the signals are. I
think they are too conversative. If you get that voice compression
software unlocked, your radio transmissions will boom out with a
commanding signal like Voice of America. The software upload is only
available from authorized Icom dealers. They can come aboard and plug it
into your radio, as well as the most recent 'user channel' update. It
usually takes just 15 minutes.
- gordon west