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- V8V2222 -
HF/SSB radio services

Cruising this side -

Marine HF/SSB radio is the principle distress & emergency communication service for recreational small-craft. 

Here is an important reminder from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) website:

While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.

Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority.

Whilst there may be other Governments establishing HF facilities in the Indian and Pacific Ocean areas, Australia aims to cover the Australian Search and Rescue Region (SRR) to a high level of probability with its own stations.


Here is an except from the Rescue Co-ordination Centre New Zealand website:

"At sea, call the Maritime Operations Centre on VHF ch 16  ... or SSB 2182, 4125, 6215, 8291 ... "

The official HF/SSB marine distress frequencies - for search and rescue management and voice calling - are:

2182   4125   6215   8291  12290  16420 

The New Zealand Rescue Co-ordination Centre provides 24/7 voice monitoring of these official HF/SSB (high seas) Marine Distress frequencies for MAYDAY, PAN-PAN and Securite calls. Their Search and Rescue area covers the eastern Tasman Sea, and Pacific Ocean from as far as the equator in the north and Antarctica in the south, to half way to Chile in the east.

The range of Australia's HF/SSB service for marine emergency communications is demonstrated to be well beyond the Australian Search and Rescue Region, reaching north to Taiwan, South to Antarctica, west to Mauritius, and East to French Polynesia. MRCC Australia monitors 24/7 for DSC calls.

The COSPAS/SARSAT contacts list for MRCCs in the Pacific Ocean includes MRCC Australia as the Associated MRCC for American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomons, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Yachts can reasonably expect that MRCC Australia's HF/SSB range includes these Pacific island areas.

The same two MRCC Australia transmission sites - Willuna and Charleville - are used by the Australian Bureau of Metereology to broadcast their high seas forecasts and weather fax services, night and day, on frequencies from 2 Meg to 16 Meg. Monitor their weather broadcast sked in your area to determine the range of MRCC Australia's HF/SSB service.  The BOM broadcasts use frequencies similar to the official marine distress frequencies, so you can expect a similar service area as MRCC Australia's HF/SSB radio communications range.

However, be aware that MRCC Australia's 24/7 watch for distress calls is a DSC alert watch only, not a voice watch.

It's important to understand the very significant difference between search and rescue services in Europe/UK and North America, and this side of the world.

In the Pacific and Indian Oceans and SE Asia, dedicated rescue boats - eg the UK's RNLI and USA's Coastguard - do not exist. Maritime search and rescue assets must be seconded, by co-opting merchant ships, navy vessels, fishing trawlers, commercial aircraft and recreational vessels;  including cruising yachts.

In the event of an incident, MRCC's will use their HF/SSB radio systems - in particular the DSC system - to alert other vessels, broadcast advice about the nature of a vessel's problem, and request nearby vessels to respond to advise their location and if they can assist.  This statement from the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) makes it clear:

"Dedicated SAR facilities are limited in Australia. When necessary, other facilities are diverted from their primary function by arrangement or request."

If dedicated SAR assets are limited in Australia's S&R region, you can imagine how difficult they are to find in the less developed regions of the Pacific and Indian oceans, and in SE Asia. In these circumstances, you and your yacht become an important resource to assist yachts or other mariners in distress.

While it's easy to be mesmerised by the apparently remarkable capabilities of satellite communication systems, marine authorities and rescue co-ordination services continue to specify HF/SSB radio as the official communications for offshore distress notification and the subsequent search and rescue operations. 

Reasons that marine HF/SSB radio remains the optimal communications medium for distress and emergency communications over large sea areas include:

  • That it's considerably more practical, efficient and  faster than satellite phone communications to manage an emergency situation.

  • The rescue co-ordination centres (or their associated Coast Station) can broadcast simultaneously to all ships, yachts, planes, helicopters etc involved.

  • All ships, aircraft etc can listen to conversations between the MRCC and the vessel in distress, or the MRCC and resources assigned to assist.

  • This open communication allows everyone to know what is happening, what tasks have been assigned to particular resources, and so all involved can consider how they might be able to adapt or integrate their efforts and resources.

  • MRCCs - or yachts on passage, or race or rally organisers - do not need to constantly update a record of which yachts, fishing trawlers, tugs, barges, ships, aircraft etc are in their region, their present location, and the individual satellite phone number for each vessel, aircraft etc, in order to call them individually in a distress situation.  MRCCs - or yachts - just send a DSC alert to trigger radios into alarm state, then voice broadcast the details of a distress situation. All vessels monitoring 24/7 for DSC alarms will hear the distress message and can advise the MRCC - or vessel in distress - if they are nearby. 

  • Low satellite phone credit, or lack of credit card credit, or a changed credit card number, will not create life-threatening consequences in a distress situation. 

  • Communication via HF/SSB radio has no call time charge, so people involved in a distress situation - whether the people in need or those providing assistance - do not need to make potentially life and death decisions because of the cost of satellite phone calls.

Satellite phone communication is not suited to maritime distress and emergency situation management because:

  1. For the MRCC to separately call each individual yacht, ship, aircraft etc via satellite phone to ask them to assist in an incident, or to assign tasks would be very time consuming. And they would need to already know the identity of all the vessels nearby to the vessel in distress, and their satellite phone numbers, and their location; no point spending time and money phoning vessels that are not in the vicinity.

  2. To separately call each vessel, helicopter etc to advise them what all the others are doing, and how to integrate,  would be frustratingly slow and risk errors in communication.

  3. Potentially important resources - like a nearby yacht or fishing vessel - might not be able to advise the MRCC they can help, because they don't have the financial capacity to make numerous satellite phone calls, or their call credit or credit card has expired.

Communications using the official Marine Emergency HF/SSB frequencies and DSC alarm is designed to:

  1. Quickly notify all vessels in the vicinity of a vessel in distress that they are having difficulty and they may need help.

  2. Get the identical message to everyone immediately and simultaneously, and to speed the co-ordination and rescue task assignment process.

  3. Take advantage of the availability of any other vessels in the vicinity to hear their call for help, and to be able to communicate to arrange assistance. It could be you and your yacht which can help others and save lives.

  4. Ensure everyone listening is informed simultaneously. Imagine trying to use your satellite phone to call ten to one hundred  different vessels  (assuming you knew they were there and you have their satellite phone numbers), or shore stations to advise you are close to the people in distress and you will go to help them.

It's worth remembering that:

1. Despite the apparently amazing capabilities of some mobile phone and satellite phone systems to handle voice and data, and the requirement for all commercial vessels over 300 tonnes to have high-power satellite communications capability, marine authorities still require these larger ocean-going vessels to also carry a functional  HF/SSB radio and to monitor for DSC distress alerts, 24/7. So they can receive distress signals from other vessels (eg: you) and so large ships, small-craft, search aircraft/vessels and MRCCs can all talk to each other in search and rescue situations. 

2. Marine authorities, yacht racing regulations and maritime safety organisations continue to repeat that small-craft must have a working marine radio - VHF or HF/SSB, depending upon their operating area - not a mobile phone or satellite phone, as the principle communication devise on-board.

3. All the other vessels in your sailing region, and the MRCCs, do not know your satellite or mobile phone number. Nor do they necessarily know you are in their vicinity and could help another mariner in distress. But that does not matter if you take the trouble to maintain a watch for distress calls on the marine radio distress frequencies. 

4. Most Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCCs) around the world still use HF/SSB communications to manage emergencies offshore. And they still maintain a 24/7 watch on HF/SSB radio frequencies (most for DSC alerts) for distress calls.

5. Recreational small-craft are still afforded an amazing freedom from regulations and an incredible latitude to make their own decisions, plot their own future and explore in a way that is no longer possible in many other lifestyles.  This freedom to go down to the sea in small boats has been so far recognised as a right by most governments and maritime authorities, many of whom must endure the stress, strain and expense of providing rescue services etc for those people in the recreational small-craft community who make bad decisions, or simply get caught in a small boat in a bad situation.

And the crews of big ships, trawlers, navy and rescue service vessels and aircraft make personal sacrifices and put their lives at risk to assist small-craft - including private yachts - in distress.

To retain this considerable freedom in today's culture of dramatic TV news, ambulance chasing lawyers and butt-covering bureaucrats, it's smart not to over-strain that relationship and to act prudently, so the existing freedoms are not lost as a result of incidents. Taking responsible precautions - such as having the right communications and safety equipment - is part of acting prudently, playing a responsible role within the maritime community and protecting the present freedoms for future recreational boating participants.

Part of that responsible role is contributing to the maritime safety net, by equipping your vessel with a marine HF/SSB radio - with DSC - so you can reciprocate, by making yourself and your vessel contactable and available to assist other mariners in distress. The same mariners who are obliged (by maritime regulations) to install a DSC HF/SSB radio and to maintain a 24/7 watch for alarms, and to go to your assistance, and to put their life and welfare at risk to do so. 

6. A yacht is not too small to render assistance to others. Most maritime distress situations do not involve horrendous weather conditions; the Titanic sank in calm seas. Falling overboard, galley fires, broken steering gear, hitting a semi-submerged shipping container, a damaged skin fitting or a broken mast can all occur in light to moderate seas when a recreational vessel could be an ideal platform to pull people from the water, provide a spare bilge-pump or give other assistance to crew on vessels big or small.

7. Equipping a yacht solely with satellite phone communications - without an effective HF/SSB radio system - is like saying "I plan to call an MRCC on my satellite phone to get help.  I expect other mariners to maintain a watch on their HF/SSB radios 24/7 to receive distress alerts from the MRCC, and I expect them to come to my assistance if I need it. But I'm not willing to contribute to the same marine safety network. I will not monitor for HF/SSB distress alerts related to other vessels, and I will not make myself and my vessel available to help the same people I expect to help me".

To summarise: 

1. HF/SSB radio creates safety and distress situation communication possibilities that are not available with mobile phone or satellite services. These capabilities are especially important to help small craft operate safely and efficiently, and to manage safety and distress related incidents. 

2. HF/SSB radio voice communication between vessels, and communication between MRCCs and vessels is free of charge. So communication to manage a distress situation and help fellow mariners, does not depend on money.

3. Many safety related services - designed to help mariners avoid problems - are available free via HF/SSB radio, including voice broadcast weather forecasts and MSI warnings, weatherfax, NAVTEX, and free information available via HF/SSB radio email (SailMail), including METAREA and coastal forecasts, Tropical Storm warnings and GRIB weather charts. 

4. A HF/SSB radio - especially when equipped with DSC - allows you to call for help, and to be called to help others. The maritime tradition is that all who go to sea in small-craft become part of a vast network of vessels and people available to assist fellow mariners. MRCCs depend on these resources - already in place in the area of the distressed vessel - to facilitate and speed rescue efforts. This tradition/obligation is embodied in the regulations that apply to large ships, and in the international yacht racing rules.  It is especially important on this side of the world, where distances are great and RNLI lifeboats and Coast Guard Cutters don't exist.

5. Don't ruin the future for other yacht owners and crew by adopting a myopic attitude; reciprocate. Play your part in the marine safety network by installing a functional HF/SSB radio - with DSC - and by monitoring for distress calls, so you can help others as they are willing - or obliged - to help you.

Hopefully, you'll never need the help of a fellow yacht owner, commercial tanker, fishing vessel, navy ship, ferry, tug, helicopter or MRCC in your cruising activities on this side of the world, but if it does happen, you'll be very pleased all the people involved:

1. Have their functional marine HF/SSB radio with DSC on-board

2. Maintain a watch on their HF/SSB radio for distress calls or DSC alarms from yachts, other vessels and MRCCs. 

3. Can use their HF/SSB to respond to your distress call - and/or the MRCC alert - to advise they are nearby and they can assist you.

4. Are willing to interrupt their passage or commercial activity, and risk their property, income and well-being to go to your assistance. 

5. Did not take a satellite phone as their vessel's sole communication device; so they are un-contactable by MRCCs or vessels in distress.

Without an effective HF/SSB radio and standby capability:

  1. You cannot participate in the marine safety communications network and you cannot make your contribution to the traditional obligation to help others at sea who are in distress.

  2. You might be the closest resource to save lives at sea or in the adjacent anchorage, but you sail or motor straight past, or continue enjoying your subdowners, while the calamity unfolds nearby.  How will you feel when you get the news in the next port?

To play your part, be sure your cruising budget for this side of the world includes:

  1. A dependable HF/SSB Marine radio - with DSC capability - so you can call for assistance if needed, and also to make yourself contactable by vessels and MRCCs so you can help others.

  2. Sufficient electricity generation and storage capacity so your HF/SSB radio can be on or DSC watch to receive distress alarms from other small-craft; including your cruising friends.

  3. A training course so you know how to play your part in the maritime safety network, and how to operate your HF/SSB radio and its DSC functions. 

If you are buying a new or replacement HF/SSB radio for your yacht or other small-craft:

  1. Buy a reliable marine radio with DSC and email capability. For example, the ICOM M802(DSC) or ICOM M801E. In the long-run, it is cheaper, one-off, insurance, that will save you lots of money compared to alternative - eg: satellite based - cruising/boating communications.  And it links you into the Maritime Safety Network communications system, with all it's advantages for you and your fellow mariners.

  2. Be aware that Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - developed for racing and cruising yachts on this bigger, emptier side of the world - specifies a HF/SSB radio with DSC for new or replacement installations. Use this link to see/download a copy of the latest YA Special Regulations

  3. Use the same purchase philosophy most of us would normally apply to buying a new PC or notebook; get the latest technology so it stays relevant and functional for as long as possible, and gives efficient access to the best available modern services. Therefore, buy the type approved marine radio with DSC. 

updated: 30 October 2017


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