The SSB Radio, Demystified

As a follow-up to his April BWS article, “Essential Offshore Gear: Why SSB?,” Daniel Collins demystifies the SSB radio in this June BWS story.

Heard the SSB is too complicated to install or learn to use? Think again. Modern SSB radios are no harder to learn than your TV set, and new gear allows them to be installed far easier than before, at lower cost to you. Read on to discover ways to radically simplify and improve a new installation, as well as get the most out of an SSB you already have.

The high frequency, single sideband radio—commonly nicknamed “the SSB”—is one of the most useful, yet most misunderstood pieces of electronic equipment aboard a modern blue water vessel. In April, we covered the many benefits of an SSB installation and why it’s considered one of the most fundamental, important marine electronics on board. Now, let’s dig deeper into recent innovations in installation as well as some new technology that can help you get even more out of an SSB you already own.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

You may have looked into getting an SSB (or upgrading your existing unit) and been put off by the high installation cost. You are not alone. Installations used to be horrible, complex and highly expensive. That is no longer true—or, I should say, it is no longer necessary that they be so. An SSB radio requires exactly four parts to be installed and properly connected: the radio itself (including its remote display), the antenna tuner, the antenna and the ground plane. Usually, installing the radio, display and antenna tuner is no more expensive (nor difficult, for the DIY crowd) than putting anything else on your boat, like a new VHF or a chartplotter upgrade. The antenna can be a bit of a problem if you go the traditional route of cutting your backstay and installing expensive insulators. Fortunately, antennas such as the GAM make this unnecessary and in fact are easier to install than a new VHF antenna. Amateur radio operators are very experienced with antennas and can often help you as well.

But by far the biggest, most frustrating part of any SSB install has been trying to get a good ground connection. There are books written on the subject, countless articles espousing ways to achieve “ground plane nirvana,” and even more articles warning of the dangers of doing it the way another article describes. A person could go insane trying to sort out all of the misinformation. I don’t know how many stories have been told about horrible things happening when a proper ground plane wasn’t installed, and how many equally horrible stories have been told about the indignities suffered while glassing a few square meters of copper foil into a bilge or tapping into an encapsulated ballast in order to get a solid ground. And the worst part about all of the painful, expensive and often iterative attempts that people go through to get a solid ground on a sailboat? They are completely unnecessary.

Yep, all that trouble was for naught. As an avid amateur radio user working very similar frequencies to marine SSB bands, on very similar equipment, using the identical principles of physics that sailboats do, I never gave one whit about getting a good connection to Mother Earth when setting up rigs. I used a little secret called a radial. For the technically minded among you, a radial is effectively another antenna (or set of antennas) that balances the signal and creates its own ground reference.

I have seen exactly one product for the marine market that does the same thing ham operators have been doing for nearly a century and I haven’t a clue why it’s not on every single SSB-equipped boat. The KISS-SSB is a collection of radials designed specifically for marine frequencies. It’s dead simple to install—it looks like a short garden hose that you connect to your antenna tuner and then unwind anywhere you like. That’s all there is to it. Reports are extremely favorable, and I’ll be taking one for a long-term test over the next year.

In short, with a KISS-SSB or equivalent radial system, a GAM or similar long-wire antenna, and a place to mount the radio and tuner, you’re in business. It should be possible to both purchase and have professionally installed an entire SSB radio setup for a fraction of the cost of going the old route of integral backstay antennas and copper foil ground planes, and the best part is that you’ll get a better signal with less power loss and no corrosion/grounding issues. It’s hardly more invasive than a below decks install for a satellite phone. How’s that for modernization?

TO THE FUTURE…

Unlike VHF, certain SSB frequencies are allowed for use with data and not just voice. Think of the old phone line modems and their screeching noises. While the data connection was slow, it was better than no data at all. Presto—the same basic idea is behind a PACTOR radio modem. Instead of using a phone line, it uses a radio frequency and your SSB and does exactly the same thing by screeching and chirping its way to your email, all the way out in the middle of the ocean. Best of all, it’s simple to operate: plug your computer into a properly installed modem, launch the software and hit “connect.” The software does the rest, including tuning your radio to the right frequencies.

The current gold standard model is the PTC-IIusb with the PACTOR III license, but in a strikingly nice turn, any PACTOR modem from the original models onward will work. The newer models are faster, however, saving you connecting time and providing higher bandwidth. The newest P4 Dragon model is faster still, nearly right up against the physical limits of how much data can be sent over the HF frequencies, giving SSB an edge over typical satellite data rates.

I should mention, though, that there is a bit of a difference in data between a satellite phone and an SSB. SSBs excel at transferring a quantity of data all at once (checking your email, for instance). Satellite phones, with lower latency and traditional IP networking, tend to be a bit better at streaming data or short-burst connections such as IM, text messaging or low bandwidth audio/video streaming. While either can be made to work with any data format, by and large for those of you with an email or file-focused workflow, SSB tends to be better. Those with more robust IP networking demands and traditional Internet connectivity are going to prefer a satellite phone for data. Most cruisers who are actually on the water find that email is perfectly sufficient in the middle of a passage and tend to wait until they reach a coastline with cell or Wi-Fi service to get higher bandwidth connections, so SSB is a perfect match and much lower in cost.

… AND BEYOND!

Now that we have a modem for data via our SSB radio, we need someone on the other end of the radio channel to connect us to the Internet and our email. Enter the Sailmail and Saildocs services. Sailmail is, in effect, just like any email provider, with one key difference—it uses a highly efficient and durable protocol to squeeze those emails over the slow SSB data speeds much faster and more reliably than normal email. In addition, as a member-owned network, they operate a large number of radio stations listening 24×7 for a connection from your vessel out there on the ocean. In effect, they are a one-stop-shop for text-based email service on the high seas. Saildocs, on the other hand, is a complimentary service that fetches weather and other important data and sends it to you via email.

While providing the details of using these services is beyond the scope of this article, they allow you to do some amazingly useful things with your new data connection, like have up-to-date weather GRIB files for your location and forecast range automatically sent to your computer, even thousands of miles out in the ocean. Direct weatherfax data images, text forecasts, and other essential information are also available through these services. Sailmail is also a key way for tech-savvy sailors to keep their blogs updated while en route. Once you get your SSB setup working, you owe it to yourself to check out what they can do for you.

Last, but not least, I should mention that once you have a quality, modern marine SSB radio, you also have a gateway to a larger world of communications experts and enthusiasts—the amateur radio service, or ham radio. A good SSB unit like the ICOM M802 can be “unlocked” to allow transmitting on amateur frequencies once you have a license, and that opens up an entirely new set of radio services, frequencies and friends in every country around the world.

SSB remains the most versatile, reliable and capable method of long range communications for blue water sailors. It offers a unique set of options at a significantly lower lifetime cost than satellite, along with an extremely robust and effective emergency communications capability. In addition, its usefulness with regards to weather information, world news and other data sources is unparalleled. Recent innovations such as the KISS-SSB ground radials, simpler and smarter radios like ICOM’s M802, guides such as Marine SSB Radio for Idi-Yachts, and technologies such as PACTOR 4 and Sailmail keep SSBs at the forefront of every smart, responsible and well-equipped cruiser’s gear inventory. There’s a whole world out there—don’t miss the party by forgetting an SSB and a PACTOR modem.

Daniel Collins is a USCG licensed Master, an Extra class amateur radio operator and an ASA-certified sailing and navigation instructor. He will be testing a P4 Dragon modem and a KISS-SSB radial on a very unique upcoming voyage and will be writing his comments on those and much more at www.oddasea.com. He can be reached at daniel@oddasea.com.

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