Hamming it up on marine single sideband

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You don’t need a ham operator’s license to take advantage of long-range radio communications

By Gordon West

If you are active on marine single sideband and like what you hear when you tune in to the ham operators passing weather and cruising information, then study hard and get your General Class ham radio ticket. However, you don’t need a ham license to take advantage of long-range communications that the Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union provide for cruisers.

Access to the hundreds of long-range marine single sideband frequencies for both voice and e-mail is available without passing the ham test. The only requirement is having a marine type-approved SSB on board and the required no-test ship station license, as well as your restricted operator’s no-test permit.

Ship-station licensing is accomplished on the FCC’s Universal Licensing System at wireless.fcc.gov. You don’t need a high-speed connection for the process, but you’ll need patience. The Universal Licensing System can be a nightmare for those who don’t work on computers eight hours a day. Ask the marine electronics dealer that sells you the equipment to help with licensing. If all else fails, a phone call to the Gordon West Radio School, (714) 549-5000, lets an agent accomplish everything for you within hours. Cost is $95, though there is no charge for simply answering questions you may have.

Your ship station license will consist of three letters and four numbers. You also will be issued a Maritime Mobile Service Identity number that should be programmed into both your marine SSB and VHF with digital selective calling. Your ship station call sign will become your Sail Mail e-mail address, and the nine-digit MMSI will become your ship’s identification number when running free tests with the Coast Guard using DSC or making an emergency call over your VHF with the big red distress button.

Once set up, you can take advantage of long-range voice communications on marine SSB channels. You can talk over thousands of miles to other ship stations, as well as to shore stations that may offer free weather routing. For example, Herb Hilgenberg covers the Atlantic on SSB channel “12 Charlie” (12,359 MHz). And along the West Coast and Mexico, Don Anderson offers morning and evening one-on-one weather suggestions on multiple channels preprogrammed on your new marine SSB. No ham license required.

Both Anderson’s and Hilgenberg’s weather broadcasts are preceded by informal long-range ship-to-ship communications. Cruisers can talk about nearly anything that pertains to cruising and sailing safety: facilities at a distant cove, weather, parts availability. However, simply chatting on marine SSB channels is discouraged. Keep in mind that the marine SSB channels are shared with other operators who might want to make their own ship-to-ship calls.

Sending and receiving e-mail uses the same equipment as ham operators — the SCS Pactor II/III multimode controller — tied into the long-range SSB radio. A modest annual fee of around $225 allows you to use the Sail Mail land stations around the world for Internet e-mail access.

Shoreside Sail Mail providers have multiple channels, so getting through usually isn’t a problem. Hams keep their shore stations on as a hobby, but marine Sail Mail stations are on for business. You may transact business on your marine SSB license authorization. On ham, however, no business e-mail is allowed. Now you can see some advantages for marine e-mailing versus ham.

Weather facsimile reception as well as tuning into digital weather reports is just as effective on marine SSB as it is with a ham set. In fact, when tied into the SCS Pactor II/III multimode controller, the new breed of marine SSB transceivers may offer improved reception over a ham set tied into a conventional weatherfax recorder.

The FCC also has authorized cruisers without a ham license to use multiple 4- and 8-MHz channels in addition to the more common marine SSB ITU channel scheme. If you and a cruising buddy want to stay in touch every day, clear of powerful commercial ship-to-shore SSB communications, pick one of the 4- or 8-MHz interference-free ship-to-ship frequencies. This is much like what hams do when they change frequencies up and down the dial, looking for a “quiet spot.”

Ham operators with ham equipment don’t have emergency DSC capabilities. However, cruisers with newer ICOM and Furuno marine SSB equipment have full pushbutton access to the Coast Guard for emergency calls, radio check test calls, or any ship in the vicinity with an “all ships” call.

Many yacht clubs and long-range cruising clubs also are obtaining shore station licenses that allow them to communicate, free of charge, with their members using SSB anywhere in the world. The shore station license permits multiple frequencies on multiple bands, and up to 1,000 watts of power may be used for this free voice ship-to-shore service. This is the same license held by weatherman Anderson to stay in touch with cruisers throughout the Pacific.

Yacht clubs and cruising clubs can erect powerful ham-type marine SSB antenna systems that could easily span the oceans to regularly talk with their associates. These same shoreside facilities also could provide their own digital networks, even receive digitized color photos from members wanting to share their experiences with those hanging around the club’s marine SSB base station.

Cruisers also may take advantage of worldwide marine telephone station WLO in Mobile, Ala., for long-range phone calls. Similar to a ham radio “phone patch,” automated equipment and megatower antenna systems generally improve your voice quality far out at sea so everyone back home can talk directly with you over marine SSB. Cost is a couple dollars a minute.

Sailors who know all about marine SSB and always wanted to be a ham to participate in ham radio maritime mobile net activity should contact the American Radio Relay League in Newington, Conn., at (860) 594-0200 (www.arrl.org) for details. And for those who just want to get into long-range marine communications or need to meet a requirement, start off with marine SSB and get an FCC ship station license … without taking a ham test.