SSB & Cruising the Bahamas

SSB & Cruising the Bahamas

Q: Do you need a single sideband radio for cruising the Bahamas?

A: I believe it’s safe to say most boats that cruise the Bahamas don’t have an SSB, particularly when you include all of the boats smaller than 35 feet that go over each year. However, we’ve always had one and would not want to be without it. A working SSB gives you an extra margin of safety, as well as many conveniences.

In some Bahamian waters your VHF radio will be out of range unless another boat happens to be within your radius of transmission. Once you get beyond the western chain of islands, you usually will be out of the U.S. Coast Guard’s range, and you won’t be able to get NOAA weather on the VHF weather channels. Sometimes you can hear broadcasts from these towers, but this is less reliable as you head east. And even though you can hear some Coast Guard stations, you probably won’t be able to transmit to them.

If you need help, you may have to rely on VHF relays from other boats or Bahamian shore stations (probably private stations), and this isn’t always reliable. While there is a Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association, it is a volunteer organization. It depends on donations from people like you and me, and its range of operations may not include your position. There is no Bahamian coast guard as such. There is a defense force, but its primary mission is law enforcement, and it may not be available to help you.

If you have a working SSB you can talk around the world, assuming you know what frequencies to use and when, and you can almost always raise the U.S. Coast Guard from the Bahamas. (An exception would be during extreme atmospheric interference, which is rare.) We’ve seen medical emergencies on other boats in which the SSB was literally a life saver.

You can also get good weather information with an SSB. Many who go over rely on weather relays from other boaters. Usually these are fine and reflect the willingness to help seen throughout boating. However, there’s nothing better than getting your information firsthand. Weather can be of life or death importance. High-seas weather forecasts are broadcast several times a day on the Coast Guard SSB frequencies, and the ham operators read official weather forecasts on their morning net. (Non-hams can listen to this on SSB but cannot talk.) There are various services that will provide you weather products for a fee, and these can be obtained by SSB — as well as other, usually more expensive, methods of communication. You can receive weather information with an SSB receiver alone, which is much cheaper than a full set (less than $200 as compared to $2,000 to $3,000), but it won’t transmit.

You also can send and receive e-mail with an SSB, and you’ll need to buy additional hardware and subscribe to a service. Many people find this very helpful. In addition, you can talk to friends around the world if they have sets.

For examples of service providers that offer weather, e-mail and other products, check out OCENS (www.ocens.com ) and Marine Weather and Communications LLC (www.mwxc.com ).

When you get an SSB, there’s more to do than just buying the equipment. It requires a station license from the Federal Communications Commission. It must be installed properly — there are special issues as to the ground plane, tuning and antenna — and you must learn how to use it. The latter isn’t too difficult, but you do need to learn, for example, what frequencies to use for different times of day for different ranges.

If you have a satellite telephone (more people are getting them) you may think there is less need for an SSB. However, sat phone airtime is expensive. Airtime on an SSB is free, except that you normally will have to pay a provider for such services as e-mail. An advantage of the satellite phone is that you can easily make a telephone call, if you can afford the minutes, but even satellite phones may have occasional holes in coverage.