Introduction to Radio On Board

Radio on board can be very confusing.  There's a lot of jargon and a great deal of  "folklore" that can be rather misleading.  Here's some basics:

1.  Marine Single Sideband versus Amateur (Ham) Radio

There's no difference in a marine SSB versus a Ham radio--in terms of range, clarity or installation.  Both transmit and receive within the 2-30 MHz bands of the radio frequency spectrum, so the laws of physics say that they will work similarly.    While they do typically have some mechanical differences that have to do with how they operate, they are primarily different in that they cover different frequency ranges--"bands"--in that 2-30 MHz range.  These bands are set out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in conjunction with the ITU--the "United Nations" of radio.

There are, however, big differences in licenses and permitted use:

a.  License requirements for a marine SSB are the same as for a VHF:  a Ship's Station License (for the vessel)--endorsed for SSB frequencies--and a Restricted Radiotelephone License (for you, the operator).  Yes, a few years ago, it was made the rule that you didn't need a Ship's Station License if you were operating a radio inside U. S. waters.  However, if you're going offshore and bound for foreign waters, you'll need to apply for one.   The Ship's Station License will also get you your MMSID number, which you'll need to fully implement Digital Selective Calling (DSC) on your VHF or all of the safety functions on your Inmarsat C system.  

No testing is involved--just fill out the form and send the FCC your money.  You can apply on-line or obtain the forms on line to fill out--visit

b.  The minimal useful license for worldwide Ham radio communications is the General Class.  To obtain it, you must pass two tests on radio rules, theory, and operations; Morse code competency is no longer required.  The Technician license will only give you voice privileges on the short-range VHF Ham frequencies.

c.  If you have a Ham-capable marine SSB radio, you must obtain a Ham radio license for yourself to use the Ham frequencies (except in an emergency).  

d.  You cannot use Ham radio frequencies to do business that generates profit for you; you can use marine SSB for profit-making activities.  For example, you can order parts from a supplier on Ham radio--you don't put money in your pocket from that transaction.  However, you cannot make stock trades or work on details of renting your house.  Marine SSB radios carry no monetary practice restriction, although, by the strict letter of the law, their use is restricted to ship's business and safety.

e.  The rules above are the same for voice and data operations.  They hold whether you're talking or sending e-mail.

As we alluded above, Ham and SSB equipment differ.  A true marine SSB is designed for simple operation and is set up in fixed channels that are assigned to specific frequencies so that it can be operated without knowing much about the radio itself.  Many of today's radios legally cover the Ham bands for dual use.  Ham radio hardware can be modified--illegally--to transmit on marine frequencies, but are more difficult and confusing to operate.  They don't have preset and you must keep your wits about you to call up the right frequency in the right mode--hard to do unless you study carefully.

Marine SSB's are also typically more robust radios with better design for wet locations and a heavier duty cycle--important for demanding e-mail applications.

2.  So, why bother with a ham license?

a.  Preparing for the ham license will make you a better radio operator in general.  It will teach you about radio theory and, more importantly, propagation--the method by which radio waves travel.  You'll be able to communicate more efficiently and effectively by voice or e-mail with a little background information.

b.  You'll enjoy cruising more.  Most radio nets--community meetings of cruisers that discuss weather, sailing conditions, the hows and whys of getting around--are conducted on ham frequencies.  You'll be missing out on a vital social aspect of cruising and missing an opportunity to get to know your peers better if you can't join in. 

3.  What are the ham radio licensing levels?

There are three levels:

      a.  Technician Class.  The Tech license qualifies bearers to communicate on the amateur VHF and UHF bands--2 M and 70 cm are a couple of the most popular.  Communications are primarily short distance and in line-of-sight, although there are some experimental techniques that may allow operators to communicate longer distances--even with the Space Shuttle!   You must pass a 50 question written examination about rules, radio theory, operating practices and safety to qualify.

    b.  General Class.  General Class licensees can communicate worldwide on the HF bands by voice or with data; it's the favored license for cruisers.  You must pass a second written examination; Morse code capability is no longer required.  You must also pass or have passed the Technician examination.

    c. Extra Class.   Extra Class licensees can use maximum power levels and gain more frequency and mode privileges.  Extra Class hams are also capable of administering exams at all levels.  You must pass a third examination that delves deeply into radio components and electronics theory.  You must also pass or have passed the General and Tech theory exams.