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Choosing and Installing an SSB Radio

Phoning home from out here has never been easier.
Even today, in our age of ever-changing communications, it’s the Single Sideband radio that sailors turn to as their primary means of long-distance communication. Most serious cruising sailors wouldn’t leave home without one, and an SSB is required equipment for virtually all long-distance offshore races.

The attributes of the SSB are manyfold. Once you’ve sailed beyond 20 to 25 miles offshore, VHF radios and cell phones just don’t cut it anymore. With the SSB radio, you’ll extend your range of communicating possibilities from a minimum distance of 75 miles up to 3,000 miles or more depending upon the frequency, time of day, and atmospheric conditions. You’ll be able to communicate no matter where you are in your travels, and you’ll have important access to high-seas weather broadcasts.

Safety is the initial reason most of us cite for adding an SSB. We soon learn, though, that it offers several other unexpected, and much-coveted benefits that have nothing to do with offshore sailing. The SSB provides you the ability to stay in touch with newly made friends anywhere on the water.

When cruising, you often spend days or sometimes weeks on end alone but Single Sideband allows you to share company with others over the radio, no matter how secluded the part of the world you are in. This can make cruising more enjoyable for many, and less intimidating for others. There’s also the entertainment and educational value of scanning the channels and picking up wonderful international short-wave broadcasts from around the world that will forever change your view of local radio stations.

Some marine publications tell you that installing an SSB radio will require the assistance of a trained and licensed technician, but that’s simply not true. It’s a little more involved than installing a VHF radio, but it’s not brain surgery. If you can follow directions and possess a moderate mechanical aptitude, you can certainly install a Single Sideband Radio yourself.

With an SSB installation, you’re not just mounting a radio. There are several components required. Along with the radio, you’ll need an automatic antenna tuner and an antenna system. Your antenna system consists of two parts: an antenna element and a ground plane. Once you’ve installed each component and connected them together, you’ll not only have the ability to communicate around the globe, you’ll have firsthand knowledge of one of the most important safety systems on board your boat.

Choosing a remote head allows installation almost anywhere.
Selecting and Mounting the Radio
When choosing a radio, keep in mind the space available in your intended mounting location. SSB radios are fairly large in size when compared to other electronics. If you’re having problems fitting a unit at your nav station, you may want to choose a model that sports a remote head. With one of these, you’ll be able to mount the radio chassis conveniently out of the way in a locker or other suitable spot, and control it via the relatively thin front panel that you can mount virtually anywhere. A small multi-conductor wire connects the two together. Icom, SGC, and SEA all offer radios with remote head capabilities. They’re a little more expensive, but if space is at a premium, it may be worth the extra investment to have your controls where you really want them.

If you plan to be out cruising for a while, you might want to consider an SSB model that can transmit and receive on all of the HAM radio frequencies as well as the marine channels. Many sailors start out using their SSB radios only on the marine frequencies, then while still cruising, study and obtain their HAM radio license. This further opens the horizon for communication, since you’ll find even more activity on the HAM bands. If you’re strictly driven by cost, choosing a marine-only unit like the Icom 700 Pro will get you on the air for the least investment, but be aware that it may limit you in the future.

Regardless of which radio you choose, when planning your mounting location, keep in mind the 25 to 30-amp power drain these radios can place on your battery bank during voice peaks while transmitting. Mount your radio as close to your batteries as possible, and plan to use heavy gauge wire. The manufacturer will specify the exact size. Make sure you mount your radio in a spot where you can sit comfortably and easily reach the controls.

Automatic Antenna Tuner An automatic antenna tuner, sometimes referred to as a coupler, is an electronic box that matches antenna to that of the output from the SSB. This allows you to transmit on very different frequencies without physically changing the length or configuration of your antenna. Manual tuners are available, but make operating your radio much more difficult. The automatic tuners allow every crew member to operate the radio, if necessary. A coupler mounts immediately below your antenna either below-deck or in a cockpit lazarette locker, and is connected to both your radio and your antenna.

Installing a coupler is easy. Find a mounting spot as close to your antenna as possible, but still out of the way. (Ours is mounted below the deck immediately under the backstay.) Generally a coupler has four simple connections to make:

  1. Signal output from transceiver to coupler input via coax cable.
  2. Coupler output to antenna via primary wire, not coax. Use the largest size wire practical (we use #6 tinned wire). Since your coupler will try to tune the wire running from the coupler to your antenna along with the antenna element, it’s important to use only primary wire for this run. Coax cable run for this application can interfere with proper tuning due to its shielding.
  3. Wiring harness from coupler to transceiver. Simple plug-ins for power, data, etc.
  4. Coupler to ground via two to three inches wide copper strapping.

Installing an Antenna System The antenna system for an SSB Radio on board a sailboat consists of two parts: the antenna element and a ground plane. The ground is a very important part of an antenna system and should be given as much attention as the antenna element itself.

Most sailboats use the backstay for an antenna. This entails cutting the rigging at two points at least 23 feet apart and fitting each connection with a special rigging insulator designed for this purpose. You can install these insulators yourself if you choose a swageless fitting like a Sta-Lok or Norseman, or you can have a rigging shop swage two insulators on the rigging for you. Many cruisers favor the swageless fittings. They’re more expensive up front, but can be reused if you have to replace your rigging down the road. Today’s rigging insulators are very strong and are universally accepted as a safe and reliable way to fabricate an antenna. With the fitting of these two insulators, the wire between them is now your antenna. The output wire from your tuner is clamped to the antenna just above the bottom insulator. A small, stainless steel hose clamp works fine.

Connect the antenna feed above the lower insulator out of arm's reach.

Height is not as important in designing your antenna as the need to stay clear from other rigging or metal. Nevertheless, in general, the longer you can make your antenna, the better. Keep your top insulator at least four feet down from the masthead, and if possible, your bottom insulator just out of arms' reach from the crew. If your lower insulator is low to the deck (as recommended by SGC), cover the reachable part of your antenna element with a plastic shroud cover. It’s not common, but it is possible for a crew member to receive a burn by touching the backstay during radio transmission.

An alternative to an insulated backstay is to use a 23-foot fiberglass whip antenna. The performance of this antenna equals that of an insulated backstay and is less expensive to install. These are commonly seen on the stern of catamarans, since many have no backstays. The smaller the boat, the more imposing the whip antenna becomes from the standpoint of looks. Keep in mind you still will need to establish a good groundplane. With a good ground, almost any antenna will produce acceptable results. Last year, while replacing our chainplates on Serengeti, we spent a month or so without our backstay attached. We hoisted a 30-foot long #6 wire up the mast, and routinely talked from the east coast of Florida with our cruising friends at dock in England.

Without a good groundplane, the performance of your antenna system, and hence radio signal and reception, will be dismal. So, what exactly constitutes a good ground? The old standby way to achieve a ground has been to run copper strips, foil, and screen next to the hull and below the water line throughout the boat to achieve the equivalent of 100 square feet of area. This copper is tied in with all the other metal in the boat such as thru-hulls, water tanks, engine block, etc. This is a tried and true method, but it is a hassle to install. Fortunately, with improved modern equipment, it’s no longer necessary.

Gordon West, one of today’s recognized experts on SSB and HAM radio installations states, " no longer need to lay down hundreds of feet of copper foil to achieve an adequate ground plane for marine and HAM single-sideband equipment for your boat. The fully automatic antenna tuner, placed at the antenna feedpoint, will offer terrific performance with as little as two or three bonded, underwater thru-hulls as your ground plane system."

To bond thru-hulls for your radio ground, interconnect your chosen thru-hulls with two or three-inch copper strapping. Use a stainless steel hose clamp to connect the strapping to the thru-hull itself. After the thru-hulls are bonded, still using the copper strapping, lay one run to your tuner and another to the back of your radio. These will connect to a stud and wing nut at each location. If your thru-hulls are not already interconnected as part of a corrosion or lightning ground, you’ll need to keep an eye on potential electrolysis problems if you bond them while forming a radio ground.

A scintered bronze ground shoe is the easiest way to build a ground plane.

Another option to establish a good ground with even less fuss and without having to worry about electrolysis, is to install a large bronze ground plate to the outside of your hull. We installed a six by 18-inch ground shoe by Newmar that is designed to magnify contact with the water and equal 100 square feet of ground. It’s simple to install. Four machine screws bedded with polysulfide sealant hold the plate to the outside of the hull. Your boat must be out of the water for this installation. Again copper strapping is run from this plate to the automatic antenna tuner and to the back of the radio. That’s it for the ground plane system. With this system as the only ground for our SSB, we’ve experienced both excellent range and reception with our radio in many different conditions.

Once your new radio and automatic antenna tuner are installed and your antenna and ground plane are established, you’ll be ready to get on the air. Don’t be intimidated; you’ll find most sailors using the SSB are extremely accommodating in helping you learn the ropes and get the most out of your radio. There’s a definite learning curve in understanding what frequency you must use for a given range at different times of the day and night, but it quickly comes together. For further assistance, you might try Marine Single Sideband, by J. Michael Gale, or Mariner’s Guide to Single Sideband by Fred Graves.

We honestly can’t imagine cruising without an SSB radio on board. We feel safer knowing we can raise help regardless of where we are, and we love regularly sharing adventures with our cruising friends on a regular basis.

SSB Component Costs

The following are approximate prices for the major components needed for a Marine Single Sideband installation:

 Radio $1,099 to $1,999
Automatic Antenna Tuner $399 to $499
Antenna – Backstay Insulators $50 to $250/each, depending upon type and wire size
Antenna – 23 foot whip $100 to $200 plus mounting bracket
Copper Strapping      $21 per 25-foot roll
Ground Shoe       $113 to $275 each, depending on size

Suggested Reading

  1. The Single Sideband Radio and the Cruising Sailor Sue & Larry
  2. Frequently Asked SSB/HAM Questions Jim Sexton
  3. HF Radio Buying Guide

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