Seems like every so often a post pops in about ham radio operation here on SN, so I'm wondering. If one were to entertain the thought of blue water cruising, would it be considered a necessary skill to have or is it more of a hobby with those who do it?
In my opinion, with the single exception of some minor regulatory items, everything needed to pass the US Technician and General Class Amateur Radio (ham) license exams is useful for a self-sufficient cruiser.
Whether you buy hardware to use a ham license or not, getting the license is a good way to demonstrate to yourself you have the basic electrical and electronic skill set to go cruising without a credit card necessarily being taped to the top of your tool box.
I would have SSB (Single Side Band) rather than ham (aka short wave). SSB is designed for maritime use, does not require much in the way of skills (no morse code), and opens up all the maritime cruisers/safety/weather nets.
As noted elsewhere, SSB is a mode despite the shorthand in the maritime community for marine high frequency (HF)/single-sideband (SSB) radio allocations. Ham HF also uses SSB. Don't stress over the vocabulary.
The morse code requirement for a US ham radio license went away in 2006.
In my experience the maritime nets on ham frequencies are better for the active cruiser than the maritime nets on marine frequencies. The most significant reasons for this are: 1. there are many more stations listening and 2. the shore stations, often retired cruisers themselves, have outstanding high-power installations with great antennas.
We were about 100 miles off the Baja coast heading south. I came down with a toothache! We have 3 types of antibiotic in the first aid kit, witch one to use? I make a short call on the HAM to a friend who is a ham, his wife is a dental assistant. Within a short time I know the type to take and for how long.
As Greg says, the ham bands are the place to go for support offshore. I've had phone patches run to Janet from offshore, gotten weather guidance when my laptop failed, made arrangements for spare parts to be ready when we made port (saving days), gotten updates on family issues ashore, and more. The Waterway Radio Net (WWRC), Maritime Mobile Service Net (MMSN), Pacific Seafarers Net, and others have been there for me time and again. I've certainly gotten good support from the marine nets like Cruiseheimers and Doo-Dah but the hams are my first choice.
There is a huge emergency communications community within ham radio. There are all kinds of capabilities and communications infrastructure.
Two specific examples:
I was offshore on a boat with no e-mail. I checked in to the Waterway Radio Net every morning. A family member was in hospital. Janet sent an update to one of the regulars by e-mail every morning which was read to me over the net. Unfortunately I learned of John's death over the radio while well offshore but I had a great deal of support from the net.
On a different trip heading from Norfolk to the VI I was getting pretty badly beaten up by weather and had to turn back. Although I had e-mail I really wanted to tell Janet directly what was going on. I checked into the MMSN (I think - MMSN shares 14300 with Pacific Seafarers and the Intercon for 24/7/365 coverage) and had a phone patch arranged within two minutes.
I could have done most of my long-range communications by sat phone at greater expense and lower efficiency (more time). To my mind there is no substitute for HF radio, ham or marine, at sea.
If you have dependents ashore for whom you make medical decisions a sat phone with direct dial makes sense. If you have business interests that truly require instant access a sat phone makes sense. Otherwise HF radio is a better solution. In fact if you are a serious cruiser you should have HF radio and then consider whether supplemental sat phone is necessary. This is my opinion. YMMV.
73 es sail fast de dave KO4MI