Essential Offshore Gear: Why SSB?

The following is an excerpt from Daniel Collins’ Tech Talk column in the April issue of BWS. Pick up the issue on newsstands for much more on this topic.

The astute reader may be wondering what is so useful about a radio, especially when satellite phones provide fingertip contact to anyone in your phone book and data services to boot. An SSB radio is a longstanding essential item on a blue water boat for very good reason, because while SSB and satellite phones are similar in purpose, they are very different in usefulness at sea.

First and foremost, the SSB is inherently a “one to many” communications method. Broadcast on any of several common “call channels” (the equivalent of VHF 16 in many countries), and anybody around listening in will hear you—no need to have them in the phone book. The advantages this brings for safety, situational advice or local knowledge cannot be underestimated. The SSB has a range of many thousands of miles, whereas your VHF can only effectively reach just beyond your sight on a clear day. In an emergency, the satellite phone can only reach someone whose number you have—usually far away and often unable to do anything effectively. An SSB can reach out to everyone within a few thousand miles, instantly and without needing to know their number ahead of time. Much like the distress button on your VHF, an SSB DSC alert will send the bridge radios on every major vessel around into alarm mode. Best of all, you’ll alert those closest to you rather than only those furthest away. There is immense confidence and peace of mind that comes from having this level of communications easily and directly available.

In addition, SSB enables participation in cruising nets, where other cruisers in your general part of the world converse on scheduled frequencies to share information, make acquaintances, while away long passages, and generally help each other out in good camaraderie. You won’t be able to join those on a satellite phone. You don’t want to miss out on the luau at the next anchorage or the update on the shoaling at that critical pass, and the nets are one of the best ways such info is shared, especially to those still out at sea and not yet in range of the VHF chatter.

Eric Steinberg of Farallon Electronics, a longstanding source of SSB expertise and innovation, sums it up nicely:

“For ocean sailors, the ability to keep in contact with other sailors is a common use of SSB. When a boat you have been sailing with goes over the horizon, SSB is the only ‘no cost’ way to keep in contact. Since this is a common way for cruisers to keep in touch with one another, a radio community evolves. It may be as simple as four boats making the same passage, or expand to something more regimented and established—these are the cruising “nets” that exist around the world. When something is free to use, people are more likely to use it, thus the popularity of SSB for traveling cruisers. Since SSB is free to use, it often gets used a lot, which takes us back to the SSB community. Put these two together and you have a built in safety net. The other boats you are making a passage with are available for you to call in an emergency (and in a mid ocean passage may be the only ones who can get to you). But SSBs reach MUCH further. Beyond the nets, there is the entire Amateur radio community working on similar frequencies. In an emergency, sailors in distress can literally shout for help to hundreds of listeners, making SSB a basic piece of safety equipment.”

And of course SSB, when paired with a PACTOR modem and a service such as Sailmail, allows not only email access but GRIB weather data, news headlines and more. While you can get some of these things on a satellite phone, you won’t be able to use the satellite phone to tune into local NAVTEX broadcasts, catch weatherfaxes on the air, or listen to the BBC’s historically excellent shortwave news, all of which can be done with an SSB quite easily.

While we’re on the subject, let’s talk data speed for a minute. That satellite phone tops out at about 9600 bps if you’re using Iridium handsets (and an even slower 2400-4800 bps if you use Inmarsat handsets), which is the speed of some of the early phone line modems—a far cry from modern DSL. SSB radio with PACTOR isn’t necessarily any faster, but neither is it significantly slower, especially with the newer P4 Dragon modems being released this year, which, according to Eric, can outpace satellite phones in many cases. I’ll be putting the new P4 Dragon modem to the test over the next year of long-distance ocean voyaging, so stay tuned for updates on that. With the current models, the SSB takes about the same amount of time to transfer the same data in practical use, but you’re not paying for those minutes of airtime like you would be with a satellite phone.

This leads us to another great benefit of SSB for the average cruiser: beyond the initial cost of the equipment, and a small annual fee for a service such as Sailmail, there is no per-minute fee, no monthly subscription charge, and no area of the world where your coverage does not apply. Even factoring in the initial cost of the radio, modem and installation, an SSB installation typically pays for itself in about two years compared to a similarly used satellite phone, and that doesn’t even count all the great contacts you’ll make among the cruising community far and wide!

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