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HF/SSB radio services

Marine Communications for Cruising this side (of the world).

SE Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans contain thousands of venues, anchorages, islands, shore attractions, communities, sailing trips, activities (diving, surfing, short excursions) deserted atolls and visitor experiences for cruising yacht crews who take the opportunity to explore the region, venturing away from marinas, town anchorages and commercialised areas. 

Marine communications capabilities for cruising yachts will need to be significantly different to what owners find is suitable for cruising in the UK/Europe or North America. The Pacific and Indian Oceans, and SE Asia present vastly different operating circumstances, with large distances, and minimal formalised support or rescue services.  HF/SSB radio is essential to communicate (cheaply) over these distances, to participate in self-help communications and support networks created by groups of cruising yachts, and to link into the official maritime safety network that already exists for commercial shipping.

In SE Asia, most circumnavigation yachts previously followed a simple route from Darwin to Bali to Singapore to Phuket and concluded they'd seen the region. But during the last ten years, an increasing number of cruisers have ventured away from this commercialised highway to enjoy beautiful places, friendly people, cheaper living, great sailing, amazing dive sites and uncongested surfing.  

Cruising the west and north coasts of Borneo, the Spice Islands, Sulawesi, Palawan, Raja Ampat/Halmaheras and Timor/Alor/Flores in eastern Indonesia, Irian Jaya/PNG/Solomons, and the southern/eastern Philippines have proven to provide exceptional cruising and shore experiences. An increasing number of yachts are moving from the Pacific Ocean into SE Asia via the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and into the Philippines and Indonesia.

Some of the rewards for venturing into these less developed areas include:

  • Low cost living away from hotels, marinas and towns

  • Uncrowded anchorages, beaches and islands

  • Amazing natural beauty and spectacular cruising sites

  • Helpful people with a rich cultural heritage

  • Enjoyable sailing passages in favourable conditions

  • Interaction with local people, families and communities

  • Great diving, forest walks, mountain hikes, river rafting

  • Local festivals, celebrations and musical events

Organised events - such as Sail to Indonesia the Darwin to Ambon Race, Sail Indonesia and Sail Malaysia have helped introduce many cruisers to the delights of SE Asian yacht cruising, away from  the beaten track.  The new rallies being developed by BRUNEI BAY RADIO in combination with our BIMP-EAGA tourism partners will further expand the opportunities for cruising yachts to explore and enjoy some of the world's most diverse and amazing natural and cultural treasures; by participating in Sail BIMP-EAGA 

However, for cruisers accustomed to the nearby and well established shore support facilities and communication services for recreational small-craft in Europe/UK and North America, enjoying the Pacific Ocean, SE Asia and the Indian Ocean means adapting to some very different operating circumstances. I hope the following will help highlight some of these differences.

Cruising yachts need to be self-sufficient on this side:   

The town facilities, populated coastlines, rescue services, yacht and shipping densities that provide a safety and support net of mariners and shore services in North America and the UK/Europe do not exist in most parts of the Pacific, around the  Australian coast, in SE Asia and the Indian Ocean.

These differences are apparent in:

  1. The naming of Yachtmaster scheme training programmes. The entry level RYA skipper course in the UK is called a Day Skipper. Australia's entry level skipper course was called Inshore Skipper; because you may not get to another significant port/anchorage within a day. The next level in the RYA scheme is called Coastal Skipper, which Australia named Offshore Skipper and added some more skills. The Offshore Skipper programme added skills for sailing more than 15nm from shorelines and overnight; because distances are greater and a passage between headlands might be well offshore.

  2. HF/SSB radio requirements for yacht racing. The ISAF/ORC Category 1 and 2 race equipment requirements do not mention a HF/SSB radio (MRCC UK does not have a HF/SSB radio); a VHF marine radio is sufficient. But in Australia a HF/SSB radio is compulsory at Category 1 & 2, and some Category 3 races along Australian coasts also require a HF/SSB radio; because there are no VHF shore stations to contact.

  3. A life-raft in the ORC/ISAF regulations is not required to be pre-packed with food and water; in Yachting Australia's Special Regulations it is. When you step into a life-raft in the UK/Europe or North America, you can reasonably expect to be picked up quickly, because of commercial shipping densities, RNLI lifeboats, Coast Guard cutters  etc. But in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, SE Asia and many parts of Australia's coastline, it could be days.  MRCC Australia's website says "be prepared to survive"; because it could take days to get an official response to the location.  

  4. The range of marine VHF communications makes it almost irrelevant in the scale of distances and on this side of the world. Australia's Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) has declared it officially has no GMDSS/DSC VHF service; only a HF/SSB service.  Australia's MRCC and most around SE Asia do  not monitor for DSC or voice distress calls on VHF, only DSC calls on HF/SSB. 

    Some island's and coastal ports have localised marine VHF services, and some MRCCs use VHF communications in their inshore areas. But there are almost no integrated VHF marine coastal networks and even where they are (eg around NZ and parts of PNG) most international cruising yachts will be beyond their range within a few hours of embarking on a new passage to the next destination.  Around SE Asia, there are no integrated coastal VHF marine networks.

    Most UK/Europe and North American recreational boating operates under the communications umbrella provided by well developed networks of integrated hilltop towers which effectively extend the range of marine VHF, perhaps up to 70nm offshore. These marine VHF networks are backed by well trained shore operators to provide weather, position reporting, passage logging, and S&R comms/support for cruising, racing, charter operations etc. For all practical purposes, it is essential to understand such VHF marine radio services do not exist in this bigger, emptier side of the world.

    Embarking on a circumnavigation or extended cruising in these regions with only a VHF marine radio is pure folly.

    The boat-to-boat range of VHF communications is approximately 20 to 30nm in open water, and far less when cruising hilly coastal terrain without hilltop repeaters. To maintain communications - and mutual support - amongst groups of cruising yachts in open ocean, on either side of a mountainous tropical island, or along a deserted coastline with protective coves, requires HF/SSB radio communications.

  5. Dedicated Search and Rescue services/facilities are limited on this side. Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCCs) must co-ordinate with navies, merchant ships, fishing vessels and other yachts to provide a rescue capability. Australia is an example of a well developed and co-ordinated maritime emergency response service on this side, but they acknowledge the realities created by the large areas and distances. From the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) website: "The arrangements for search and rescue (SAR) in Australia have been influenced by the physical size of the island continent, the large size of the search and rescue region, Australia's relatively small population and the nature of governmental processes. Dedicated SAR facilities are limited in Australia. When necessary, other facilities are diverted from their primary function by arrangement or request."

    Yachts can be a very important part of this S&R capability, but only if other vessels - recreational, commercial marine tourism, government etc - and MRCCs, can quickly and readily make contact. A modern HF/SSB radio with DSC capability, maintained in 24/7 watch mode (with the speaker peacefully muted) is the required communication equipment to achieve this. 

  6. Yacht equipment regulations for yacht racing and recommended for yacht cruising. Yachting Australia's "Blue Book" - containing the ISAF racing rules and the YA Special Regulations for yacht equipment - has a substantially more detailed and extensive list of equipment specifications and yacht structure/design features than the standard ISAF/ORC Special Regulations.

    The equipment and yacht specifications contained in Yachting Australia's "Blue-Book" incorporate the accumulated wisdom from years of yacht racing and cruising, by thousands of yachts,  on this side of the world. These specifications are based upon the large distances, empty spaces, the need to be more self-sufficient and the need to rely on other - nearby - small-craft for advice an assistance.  Yachting Australia's "Blue Book" is a very useful reference when buying and equipping a cruising yacht for this side of the world. 

    The equipment and vessel specifications detailed in YA's Special Regulations are designed for  "Yacht Racing and Recommended for Cruising"  and have details for mono and multi hull yachts. Much of the information is as relevant to engine powered yachts as it is to sail powered yachts. Details include size of anchor and rode related to vessel size, first aid kit contents, fuel and water capacities/storage, and communications equipment requirements.

    For a copy of the latest YA "Blue Book" email .

    To see Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - "For racing boats and recommended for cruising boats" on-line, and to make a copy in PDF format click on this link:
    Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - for racing & cruising.  

These few examples highlight the operational differences on this side of the world, away from the great support facilities and services available for recreational small-craft in Europe/UK and North America. On this side, the relatively low shipping densities, large distances, lightly populated and relatively undeveloped coastlines, along with limited shore communication stations and lack of dedicated S&R facilities, mean help could be days away. 

On this side, VHF radio repeaters on coastal mountains, Coast Guard Cutters and RNLI rescue boats simply don't exist.  

Yachts need to be more self sufficient and have effective medium to long distance radio communication so they can take advantage of the mutual advise and support that is available from nearby cruisers and other mariners - recreational/tourism, commercial or government - who are also in the area. 

A marine HF/SSB radio is important for cruising this side of the world: 

Radio communication services on this side of the world are quite different to what racing and cruising sailors experience in the UK, Europe and North America.

Whereas VHF radio is sufficient for operations in many cruising areas of Europe and North America, the much greater distances in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and the almost complete absence of marine VHF networks, make VHF communications relevant principally for boat to boat communication in anchorages and when sailing nearby in groups.

For example, in Australia, VHF mountain top relays/repeaters do not exist. VHF marine communication is limited to relatively short range in the occasional places where VHF shore stations exist. Under GMDSS regulations, Australia has declared it has no VHF marine DSC service.  

In SE Asia, marine VHF relays/repeater networks have never existed. And  the MRCCs principally monitor HF/SSB frequencies for DSC calls.

In contrast, marine VHF repeaters/relays are common around UK and Europe. For example, the UK's Fastnet race can use marine VHF radio communications because there are numerous marine VHF relays and repeaters on high mountains which create large coverage areas, and because the race is within sight of land at most times.

These differences in operating circumstances, marine radio services and MRCC operations reflect lower coastal population densities, the relatively small number of recreational vessels and the vastly greater distances on this side.

It's therefore important to have a marine HF/SSB radio with all the ITU marine channels/frequencies and marine emergency frequencies when cruising this side.  Whether you are participating in organised rallies or exploring independently, maintaining regular contact with other yachts, or calling another yacht for advice, communication will almost certainly require talking beyond VHF radio range.

When participating in an organised rally, it is a considerable burden to be tasked as the relay yacht that must make all the email communication with event organisers because other participants only have a VHF radio, or their HF/SSB radio installation is not working, or they do not have an on-board email service.

When all rally participants have a functional HF/SSB radio and their own on-board email capability, operating skeds and distributing information becomes simple and accurate for everyone. Misinformation - which can cause considerable consternation and become the basis of unjustified concern and wasted emotional energy -  can be largely eliminated when all participants can receive the same emailed information. When all yachts have a DSC capable HF/SSB radio - and maintain a 24/7 (silent speaker) watch on that radio - rally participants create amongst themselves an immediate response communication umbrella, similar to what they are accustomed to with VHF radios in Europe, the UK and North America.

A marine HF/SSB radio with email (ie: SailMail) will lower cruising communication costs,  help your pilotage - because another cruiser who made it into the same anchorage in daylight a few days beforehand can email you the waypoints to use in the dark - and give you the confidence to venture away from the confines of Wi-Fi equipped marinas or congested cruising grounds and town internet cafes; to places where living expenses are much lower and the unique delights of owning a yacht can be fully enjoyed.

A Marine HF/SSB radio is important for your safety:

VHF communication might work to manage safety or disabled yacht situations in high shipping density cruising areas such as UK/Europe, North America around the coast of New Zealand some towns and harbours in Australia and SE Asia. But an effective marine HF/SSB radio is essential outside these areas.

In an emergency situation, rescue co-ordination centres can broadcast on the official marine HF/SSB emergency frequencies to all vessels, planes, helicopters etc simultaneously, over a large area.  Aircraft and vessels redirected to assist the vessel in distress will be listening to the same marine HF/SSB emergency frequencies to monitor ongoing developments and hear instructions going to different vessels, aircraft etc. This important broadcast feature of emergency HF/SSB communication allows the vessel in distress and all potential nearby rescue resources to simultaneously receive instructions and be aware of developments.

MRCC Australia has two very large and powerful HF/SSB radio stations for talking with vessels in distress. These provide broadcast capability for maritime safety operations for thousands of nautical miles beyond Australia's shoreline, including all of SE Asia, approximately half the South  Pacific Ocean, and the Indian Ocean as far west as Mauritius.    

Here is a quote 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.


There was an incident some years ago with a group of yachts on passage in the Pacific Ocean, between Panama and French Polynesia. One developed a serious problem. That yacht only had marine VHF, so could not instigate any emergency contact at all from their location. They called  another yacht in VHF range which then called MRCC Australia on their satphone and MRCC Australia responded using the official Marine HF/SSB Emergency frequencies. This nearby yacht with HF/SSB had to relay information to the disabled yacht with only a VHF radio. All yachts with HF/SSB radio and potential support ships were simultaneously aware of the situation and MRCC Australia's intentions and were able to talk to MRCC Australia to manage the situation.  But the yacht in distress was not and could not. They needed a HF/SSB radio to link into the existing maritime distress network of MRCCs and commercial vessels.

In another incident on route from Panama to French Polynesia (3500nm) a yacht - part of a large organised rally group - developed a serious rig problem. But because the participating yachts had spread out they were beyond VHF radio range. And because most yachts with HF/SSB radios did not have DSC capable radios, a decision had been made to have communication only via once-daily skeds. The yacht with the rig problem had to wait almost 20 hours to make contact again with other rally participants and to request assistance. Fortunately, the wind and sea conditions remained placid until contact could be established and another participating yacht with parts and skills could reach them. If all participants used a DSC capable HF/SSB radio, they could maintain a 24/7 (silent speaker) watch for DSC calls, establish a rally Group Call ID and thereby initiate immediate communication with each other; without waiting for the next daily sked. 

An Amateur (HAM) radio is NOT A SUBSTITUTE for a proper Marine HF/SSB radio. HAM radios do not have Marine Radio DSC functions, are not sold pre-programmed with the official Marine Emergency frequencies, and are not pre-programmed with the full marine radio band-plan of duplex channels and simplex frequencies. Their design, construction and components may not be sufficiently robust for a bumpy life in the high humidity and salt air atmosphere of a cruising yacht or other small-craft. They normally have dials, small displays and control features designed to facilitate the experimental and educational goals of Amateur Radio, which can be incorrectly set - especially by a non-Amateur attempting to use the radio in an emergency - and prevent communication.

HAM radios are not type approved for use in the Marine HF/SSB service because of technical differences; they could cause interference to other mariners. A new HAM radio is prevented from use on the Marine (and other service) frequencies. It is possible to modify the radio to work on the Marine frequencies. If this is done, then the radio no longer meets the requirements for type approval as a HAM radio or a Marine radio. Such a radio can be confiscated by authorities.

A Marine HF/SSB radio can be used on the HAM service and is type approved to do so. Most modern marine HF/SSB radios for small craft (eg: ICOM M802 or M801E) have user programmable frequency slots where HAM frequencies can be entered. This is a workable solution for licensed HAMS who do not wish to carry a separate HAM radio on-board.

A satellite phone is NOT A SUBSTITUTE for a Marine HF/SSB radio, either in an emergency, when maintaining regular self-help contact skeds with other yachts on a long passage, race or rally, or when spread over a cruising area, or when obtaining weather information.  The lack of broadcast capability, the inability to listen to HF/SSB skeds, and the high cost of calls are serious limitations that work against effective communications to keep people up-to-date with weather, anchorage and other self-help and safety related information.  And - because calling a satphone first requires knowing its number - a satphone cannot be on standby to receive distress calls from any other vessels; including yachts.

For practical advice about maximising the benefits - for distress and general cruising, racing and rally communications - available with a DSC equipped marine HF/SSB radio see

For a comprehensive list of the essential equipment and yachts specifications suited to racing and cruising on this side or the world, see Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - "For racing boats and recommended for cruising boats":

Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - for racing & cruising

For useful weather related information and links to marine weather resources worldwide, see Frank Singleton's weather site:


updated: 30 October 2017

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