Wednesday, February 26, 2014

SSB, Glenn Tuttle and Harry Schell Say Don't Leave Home Without It!

Glenn Tuttle

The following article was written by SSCA Commodore Harry Schell.  Harry and his wife Melinda cruise aboard their Tayana 42, "Sea Schell".   This

Icom M-802 Marine SSB, $2,087

article was published in a past edition of the SSCA Bulletin.  

Harry & Melinda are currently active on the "Coconut Telegraph Net" on SSB frequency 8.170 MHz at 0700 EST.  When I spoke to Harry this morning on the SSB, after the Coconut Telegraph Net, they were anchored in Cartagena, Colombia, perhaps our favorite city in South America. That's right, SSB communications from Florida to Colombia. Contact was loud and clear.

I echo everything that Harry has to say about HF/SSB radios aboard offshore cruising boats.  The latest case in point is when during the early morning hours of 2/21/14, the S/V Moya Maria grounded on a reef approximately 10 miles off the North coast of Cuba.

  Contact was made with other vessels on one of Chris Parker's weather channels at approximately 0630 hours, and thereafter, the Moya Maria was in constant radio contact with both vessels and land stations for the next 48 hours.  That's right, 48 hours of non-stop communications with net controllers of the Waterway Radio & Cruising Club Net (7.168), Cruiseheimers Net (8.152) and the Maritime Mobile Service Net (14.300).  The net controllers contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canadian Coast Guard ( The S/V Moya Maria is a Canadian vessel), and the Cuban Navy.  Also, contact was made with the Canadian Embassy who helped coordinate a salvage boat which eventually towed the S/V Moya Maria off the reef. Fortunately, there was little damage to the Moya Maria as she is a steel boat.

If the S/V Moya Maria only had a satellite phone, and not a HF/SSB radio, staying in constant contact with land based assistance throughout the ordeal would have been impossible.  Yes, we had an Iridium satellite phone aboard during our 8 years in the Southern Caribbean, and we loved it. But we used the HF/SSB radio every day for cruising nets and communicating with other cruisers.  

If you have an emergency aboard, I believe it's best for many hundreds of  people to hear about it, rather than just one person on the other end of the phone line.  Perhaps a nearby vessel is your closest assistance who may hear a radio call, but not a satellite call.  

Well, I have rambled on enough.  I believe that a vast majority of off shore cruisers will agree that a HF/SSB radio is an essential piece of cruising gear.

Glenn Tuttle - Moderator
Cruisers Network Online
M/Y Tothill
Punta Gorda, FL

Harry Schell

Harry and Melinda Schell

SSB: Still An Essential Tool for Cruisers by Harry Schell

Whenever we get together with cruisers and prospective cruisers I hear people drooling over the latest technology for communication.  People are using their smart phones, iPads, Wifi boosters, sat phones with compression software and everything under the sun.  More and more often I hear people referring to SSB, ham radios and Pactor modems as “old” or “outdated” technology.  The reality is that, for cruisers, the SSB serves a different and important function that no new technology has attempted to replace.

Many have gotten away from the National Weather Service’s offshore forecasts and weather faxes.  It’s no longer necessary to use a dedicated weather fax or use a Pactor modem to download forecast charts or even to download the newer GRIB files that so many people love.  Many people are getting their weather directly on their cell phones, sat phones, iPads and chart plotters. 

Unfortunately, there are problems with all of these at one time or another for the offshore cruiser.  Access to these services is limited when cruising offshore.  Certainly, there are ways to connect to the Internet and emails anywhere in the world at any time but these services also require expensive equipment and expensive service charges that dig into the cruiser’s budget. They also don’t include professional advice from a weather expert who is a cruiser and knows just what the cruiser is facing.

The marine SSB/ham radio allows cruisers to connect directly with weather experts who can answer questions accurately and reliably.  Herb, Southbound II, has been the guru of North Atlantic passage makers’ weather for decades offering his wise advice for free (although he does accept donations) and only available on the SSB.  Herb gets current weather condition reports directly from passage makers so he has weather data that no other forecaster has.  That, in addition to all the other available data and knowledge about you and your boat allows him to make forecasts uniquely suited to you and your boat. 

Chris Parker also does weather and answers questions to sponsoring vessels uniquely suited to you and available only on SSB.  You can get weather by email but asking questions with messages back and forth can be very cumbersome.  

You can also benefit from just listening to questions asked by other cruisers.  I want very much to hear Chris’s answer to another cruiser’s question that I hadn’t thought to ask.  You can’t get that without an SSB/ham radio.  The opportunity to talk directly with Chris every day costs me less than $150 per year!  Chris and other weather routers like Bob Cook also offer very cost-effective personal advice on a contractual basis.

All of these service providers also track their customers and communicate emergency, priority and medical information for cruisers.  When you’re 100 miles offshore and your husband has a heart attack or you get a critical head injury try using your iPad to get that information to the doctor who happens to be sailing just 50 miles from your current location.

That gets us to the next unique difference about SSB/ham radios.  Cruisers’ nets make a cruising community.  Everyone hears what you say over the net.  The net is a way to pass on critical, fun and social information to everyone in the community.  It’s your local news about your local community.  Sure, the person with whom you’re communicating may be thousands of miles away but he or she is part of your community.  

We hear from friends far away and learn that we’re going to be in the same neighborhood in the near future.  We find out that someone we’ve heard about on the net is going to be in our anchorage the next day.  Cruising is the most social environment around and the nets are crucial to being a full member of that community.

When I worked at West Marine I had customers who said they didn’t need a VHF radio because they had a cell phone and didn’t go far offshore.  I pointed out that they had no phone number for the boat right next to them and no way to communicate without the VHF.  The SSB/ham radio is the same thing but for longer distances.  It’s also more important because you’re farther away from home and all of the other support systems on which you may depend.

All of the new technologies have their place but they don’t replace the SSB.  A friend of mine was recently on a long offshore passage with some other friends.  They all had expensive sat phones because their wives wanted to hear from them every day. They all went up on deck regardless of the weather doing the “can you hear me now” thing trying to get the best reception while my friend was sitting in comfort down below sending and receiving emails every day.  I’m not a luddite and I wouldn’t give up my new technology but I won’t do without my SSB.

Commodore Harry Schell
Sea Schell, 1981 Tayana 42, 6’ draft, Marathon, FL heading up the US east coast.

Reprinted with written permission from Cruisers Network Online.  

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