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HF/SSB radio services

Marine Communications Strategy for cruising, racing, rally, marine tourism, yacht delivery and charter in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and SE Asia. 

HF/SSB radio remains the practical and cost-effective communication service for medium to long distance (15nm to 5000nm) marine communications, for cruising, races, rallies, marine tourism, yacht delivery, yacht charter, ferries and other small-craft (eg: fishing trawlers, tuges, barges etc). It is the official  maritime distress and emergency communications service - for small and large vessels - throughout the Pacific & Indian Oceans, and SE Asia. It remains compulsory equipment on large vessels; commercial, government, tourism, ferries and recreational.

Modern - DSC capable - HF/SSB radios provide the only common  communication service which links together recreational, commercial, government, man-of-war, maritime security, search & rescue and marine tourism vessels over medium to long distances. They also provide the common communication service linking all types of vessels with MRCCs.

Yachting Australia - which creates the yacht racing Special Regulations suited to this bigger, emptier side of the world, beyond the range of the amazing, immediate response, 24/7 search and rescue resources available only in the high population density areas of Europe/UK and some parts of North America - recently (December 2012) released their new Special Regulations to apply from 1st July 2013 to 31 June 2017. This re-confirmed the importance of a modern DSC capable HF/SSB radio (NOT a satellite phone) for event management, general boat-to-boat and emergency communications; whether racing or cruising, in sail or engine powered yachts.

 Use this link to see/download a copy of the latest YA Special Regulations.

By using a modern, marine HF/SSB radio with DSC, recreational small craft can:

  1. Initiate contact with any similarly equipped nearby vessel and distant MRCCs in the the well established maritime safety communications network already operating for commercial vessels since 2001. 

  2. Obtain quick, nearby support, advice or assistance from other cruisers, race or rally participants, and cruise-in-company groups. Cruising and racing yacht crews have a substantial depth of knowledge, skills and resourcefulness which can be of benefit to each other via the radio.

  3. Play their reciprocal role as a valuable and accessible search and rescue asset; to assist other mariners - commercial, tourism, government or recreational - in the maritime safety and mutual self-help network.  

  4. Conveniently maintain a 24/7 DSC watch for Individual, Group and Distress calls using the DSC radio's scan and silent speaker features.  The radio does the work of monitoring for calls on multiple frequencies, without the noisy speaker of a regular HF/SSB radio and without needing to wait for a daily sked to ask fellow rally or race participants for advice or assistance. It only disturbs the on-board environment when a DSC call - Individual, Group, or Distress - is received.

Since 2001, HF/SSB radio manufacturers around the world have experienced a big increase in sales. This has occurred despite the availability of sophisticated shore and satellite based voice, data and internet systems. Because the functional limitations, excessive cost and fragile nature of the sophisticated terrestrial and satellite based systems have become apparent; especially during natural and man-made disaster events. 

For example, the two main Australian manufacturers of commercial/military HF/SSB radios - Barrett and Codan - have grown many times over.  And ICOM (Japan), created it's first commercial HF/SSB radio, and expanded it's range of marine HF/SSB radios in recent years to include a HF/SSB radio with DSC - the M802(DSC) and M801(E) - which are now the minimum standard for new recreational small-craft radio installations in Europe, the UK, USA and Australia.

Why has HF/SSB marine radio become more widely used and effective despite the development of other apparently more sophisticated communication services:

1. Because - in the marine area - the implementation of GMDSS for ships over 300 tonnes freed busy HF/SSB marine radio frequencies of heavy users, so hundreds of marine frequencies became available for use by yachts and other small-craft for their general communication needs. Large vessels - such as cruise ships, military and cargo vessels - were required to install expensive - high power - satellite communications equipment. Their high volume traffic - especially telephone interconnect traffic - shifted from their traditional heavy use of HF/SSB radio frequencies to the satellite carrier they were compelled to use.  Great news for recreational and commercial small-craft with an effective marine HF/SSB radio.

2. Because the availability of DSC capable HF/SSB radios for small-craft made a vast improvement to their ability to  conveniently maintain a 24/7 watch for calls from each other and to successfully make contact. There is no longer any need for yachts in rallies, races or cruise-in-company groups to limit their communication to once daily skeds, because the DSC capable marine radio's speaker is silent while scanning for calls. The noisy HF/SSB radio speaker of non DSC HF/SSB radios has been the key reason for turning it off, or turning down the volume, and implementing skeds; thereby eliminating the possibility of immediate communication to access quick response mutual support, advice or information between skeds.

The modern marine DSC capable HF/SSB radio - with a muted speaker during standby mode - is designed to constantly scan the calling/distress frequencies 24/7, without disturbing the crew, sunset or relaxing anchorage. When it receives a call, it goes into an alert state, ringing like a phone, to inform the crew. It also sends a response signal to the calling radio; so the caller knows they have contacted the desired radio. 

Modern DSC capable HF/SSB radios scan for three types of DSC calls. Individual - a DSC call to the yacht's specific MMSI ID. Group - a DSC call to a group MMSI ID. This group could be all the yachts in a rally, race or cruise-in-company group. Or all the members of a particular yacht club. Or all yachts cruising in a particular region. The radio can be setup as a member of multiple groups and scan for DSC calls for all those groups. Distress - a DSC call to all nearby vessels and distant MRCCs in order to obtain a quick response from any nearby vessel or regional MRCC. One simple button press alerts all nearby vessels and MRCCs; without needing to know if they are present nor their satphone number. 

3. Because the DSC feature vastly improved initiating contact with other nearby vessels - recreational, commercial or government - and distant MRCCs, in an emergency situation. Commercial vessel crews and MRCC radio staff do not like the noise of a non DSC radio speaker either. Most MRCCs and large vessels quickly adopted the DSC option, to make their operating environment quieter, and to improve reliability of reception of emergency DSC calls. By using a modern DSC equipped marine HF/SSB radio, cruising, racing, charter and rally yachts can tap into the exiting resources of the marine search and rescue network operating for large commercial vessels.

In the Pacific and Indian Oceans, around most of Australia's coast and in SE Asia, it is important to heed the advice of regional MRCCs, such as NZ, Australia and Hong Kong when they advise they do not have lots of S&R resources and need to rely on nearby vessels. MRCC Australia makes this clear in a number of website statements: "In the event of an emergency, communication should first be attempted with others close by using radios"

"Even once a (EPIRB) position is obtained, response times then depend on the time for a search and rescue (SAR) unit, such as a helicopter, aircraft or ground party for the readied and transit to the search area. The more remote the location of the distress incident, the longer the response time. In all instances, be prepared to survive."

And, "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."

Therefore, "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." Because the distances are great and the EPIRB battery could expire before an official response S&R vessel/plane can reach the location. 

4. Because every yacht can also become a useful and contactable resource in the modern maritime safety network, to help other yachts and all other mariners. A DSC equipped HF/SSB radio does the work of monitoring for distress calls, quietly, without disturbing the beautiful anchorage or ocean sunset. If a distress alarm is received - either from another nearby vessel or an MRCC - the radio tells you. There is no longer any need for the yacht - or commercial vessel - crew to listen to the noise of an open distress frequency 24/7 for MAYDAY or PAN-PAN calls.

Maintaining every modern DSC capable marine HF/SSB radio in constant watch mode, 24/7, greatly improves the chance of any mariner finding nearby advice, assistance, a tow or spare part; so a problem does not become a disaster.

The Titanic sank in calm seas when small-craft could have saved hundreds of lives. The modern day Titanic equivalent can immediately contact all nearby recreational and commercial small-craft with one DSC Distress call if all have their similar radios on standby, 24/7. 

5. Because some smart German radio electronics engineers developed technologies to make email available efficiently and cheaply via HF/SSB radio. HF/SSB radio email is far more efficient and convenient  than traditional weather fax or NAVTEX, or listening to voice broadcast weather at a fixed time. And far cheaper than  satphone email options.

Official METAREA forecasts, along with GRIB weather charts (a graphic display with isobars, wind speed/direction arrows, colour shading for wave height, shadow for rain areas), coastal weather forecasts and weather warning emails can now be requested/received via HF/SSB radio email. There is no need to sit beside the radio at voice or weather fax broadcast times. Small-craft can collect the information using their their existing HF/SSB radio when on-board routines permit, and reliably receive far more detailed and useful information.

The same on-board HF/SSB radio and email equipment is also used to order spare parts, arrange shore stops, book a marina berth, take school or university courses, book shore excursions, monitor a shore email address, send position reports and keep in touch with friends or family, the office or local officials. While relaxing at beautiful, secluded anchorages or crossing empty oceans. 

And for yachts without DSC in their existing marine HF/SSB radio, email can be used to initiate contact with most MRCCs, to get them to open their radio mutes and make voice contact on the official marine distress frequencies. See the MRCC pages of this website for details.

6. Because modern marine HF/SSB radios - and radio email - utilise well established technologies, to provide truly low-cost marine communications. It's the most cost-effective communications option for small-craft. There is no need to pay (via high connection time fees) for the  high cost and high risk of satellite communications technology development, the cost of space shuttles or the salaries of leading edge rocket scientists, astronauts, and communication engineers which such technologies require.

HF/SSB radio works without intermediate satellites, communications towers, electricity, cables etc. It provides no-cost voice communications between vessels, and between vessels and shore stations.  The DSC (Digital Select Calling) feature makes 24/7 monitoring of Distress and General calling frequencies easy. And it makes getting a  response to Distress or Group or Individual calls far more reliable.

Modern marine HF/SSB radios now incorporate digital technology and other developments  to increase their effectiveness, lower on-board power requirements and make them simpler to operate. They do not have the complexity of dials and functions found on a HAM radio. These developments have helped marine HF/SSB radio retain its position as the optimum efficiency, effective and low-cost communication medium for medium to long range voice and email (ie: SailMail).    

7. Because HF/SSB radio still works when all the gee-whiz stuff falls over, often because of something as simple as a broken phone or electricity cable or lack of electricity to any of the multiple network components required to keep the system functioning. A number of notable events in the last fifteen years have highlighted how the amazing terrestrial and satellite networks we've become dependent upon are so fragile, complex, easily damaged and slow to repair. For example:

  • The Twin Towers and New Orleans disasters left local communication services broken, overwhelmed and in disarray, for weeks, exactly when reliable and plentiful communications is important to manage the problem and co-ordinate response resources. As a consequence, the USA established a public access HF/SSB radio email service - using a similar  hardware/software integration as SailMail - to help provide reliable communications at such times. Authorities chose not to use satellite options for this critical service.

  • The Iridium satellite collision with space debris in 2008 knocked out one satellite and left Iridium users - particularly those near the equator where Iridium satellites are most widely spaced - with a reduced service availability and reliability. Land and marine users of the Iridium system in equatorial areas experienced a significant decline in service availability.

  • A number of tsunamis in Asia have destroyed coastlines and with it, the existing communication infrastructures, with their dependence on electricity supply along with sophisticated cable, mobile phone and satellite communication pathways.  SailMail and BBRemail users on yachts and commercial vessels became important communication relay points during these incidents, because their HF/SSB radio based email and voice communication systems still worked, despite the local damage to sophisticated land-based communications systems and their satellite links.

  • The fires that killed hundreds of people in Victoria (Australia) in 2010 precipitated a loss of electrical power to hilltop towers that provided sophisticated SMS, FM radio, mobile phone, police, ambulance and fire brigade trunked radio communication networks.  (Note: apart from damage to electrical cables and distribution systems, bush-fire brigades normally have the electricity switched off to avoid electrocution problems with falling power lines etc.) Management of the fire fighting and emergency response system stopped. The planned centralised co-ordination of emergency services response did not exist, because the control room in Melbourne had no communication with the resources on the ground. Residents who'd been advised to expect evacuation warnings via their mobile phone and FM radio systems did not get any warnings. It took eight days - when emergency response operations should be at their peak - to get minimal communications working again; despite the close proximity to Melbourne, with ample spare parts and competent technicians. The Country Fire Authority in Victoria is now fitting HF/SSB radios and Pactor Controllers - for email and SMS and position reporting - to vehicles and rural fire stations. A satellite based system was an alternate option, but was not chosen; the broadcast feature of HF/SSB radio is vital to quickly and simultaneously update all fire-fighters. The lack of dependence on intermediate equipment makes the communications reliable; regardless of the functionality of other services.

Unlike satellite and terrestrial communication systems: 

1. HF/SSB radio does not require large power supplies (eg: on warships, cruise ships, cargo ships, or at telephone exchanges, hilltop communication towers, earth satellite comms stations etc), high vantage points (eg: a satellite in space, the top of a tall building, or a mountaintop tower) or a complex network of underground or suspended cables to function.  A 12v car battery - charged by either solar panels, a boat or car alternator, or a portable generator - is sufficient electricity.

2. HF/SSB radio can communicate over mountains and across oceans without satellites or other complex and easily damaged or disabled relay systems.

3. HF/SSB radio does not require a dedicated communication link - eg: via an unbroken piece of wire or multiple satellite links - to talk or pass data.  Just a HF/SSB radio at each end of the communications.

4. HF/SSB radio does not require large parabolic antennas with tracking and aiming technology and electric motors, to operate reliably and at fast speeds. For HF/SSB radio, a wire suspended from a tree, the backstay of a yacht or a whip antenna is sufficient.  Insulated lifelines or a length of 12v wiring can function as an emergency antenna. 

4. HF/SSB radio allows each user to communicate directly to another user, without the need for interlinking cables, satellites, exchanges, network switching equipment, satellite earth stations and large amounts of electricity, to keep them functioning.  And without the associated call charges. It's for these reasons that:

  • Military vehicles, planes, and infantry still use HF/SSB radio, even though they also have the money for other highly sophisticated - but fragile - systems.

  • Commercial ships - small and large - are still required to fit HF/SSB radios, even though they are also required to fit satellite communication systems.

  • Marine emergency/distress voice communication is still based on HF/SSB radio, not satellite communications.

  • Shore based natural disaster communications systems and aid agencies have been re-discovering the significant operational advantages and capability of modern HF/SSB radio systems. Emergency communications without cost is a significant advantage.

5. HF/SSB radio has a broadcast function which allows one speaker to be heard by many listeners. Normal satellite and terrestrial communications technology is designed around individual calls and private conversations between each pair of communicators; so fees can be charged. The free-to-air broadcast feature of HF/SSB radio has major benefits for marine communications and safe yacht operations. For example:

  • A Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) can broadcast to request all vessels in the vicinity that can go to the aid of a vessel in a particular location to respond. They do not need to know the location of the potential rescue vessels beforehand, to select them for a direct phone or satellite call. Anyone in the area can listen to the broadcast HF/SSB message and respond if they are nearby and able to assist.

  • The MRCC can broadcast instructions to the assigned rescue vessel, and the stricken vessel's crew can hear it too; without the MRCC needing to separately call the yacht or other vessel (eg: on a mobile or sat phone).  

  • A MRCC does not have to call one-by-one - using individual vessel satellite phone numbers - to ask the same questions, give instructions or update all the vessels, planes, helicopters, police launches, navy ships, fishing trawlers and yachts in the vicinity of the incident. All can hear the MRCC's information and instructions simultaneously.

  • All yachts in a race or organised rally can listen to instructions from the event organisers simultaneously.  And they can all hear position reports, questions from other yachts, answers etc simultaneously; saving a lot of time and repetition. 

  • A cruising yacht can participate in, or just listen to, a morning sked between yachts when weather information, updates about marina capacity/prices, anchorage details, the latest immigration/customs procedures and more, are broadcast and discussed.

  • A yacht in unfamiliar territory can ask for advise - such as waypoints into an anchorage, or fuel availability - by broadcasting a question during a sked time. All listening yachts can hear the question and respond if they have the answers.

  • Groups of yachts exploring a region or crossing an ocean can setup their own DSC Group Call IDs to facilitate a quick response to urgent questions, and self-help skeds to swap information, provide advice and monitor each other's position and security on a routine basis.

6. modern marine HF/SSB radio with DSC allows each vessel crew to play their role as a responsible mariner in the Maritime Safety Network.  Many recreational vessel operators expect rescue services and mariners in other vessels to come to their assistance if they need help. But they often forget this willingness to help others is a maritime tradition/obligation that works to save lives because everyone plays their part, including recreational yachts and other small-craft. 

Any yacht or small-craft might be nearby and able to assist a fishing vessel, another yacht, or even a commercial vessel - and its crew or passengers - in a life-threatening situation.  But for the vessel/people in distress or the MRCC to make contact - to advise of the problem -  all vessels need a functional HF/SSB radio - preferably with DSC - switched on and monitoring for calls, 24/7. 

Being accessible only by mobile or satellite phone ignores the responsibility to contribute to the marine community, and to the  maritime safety network which helps protect all mariners - recreational or commercial. Because other vessels and MRCCs will not know if you are in the area, will not know your cell-phone or satellite phone number and/or may not have the equipment or money to call you. The DSC capable HF/SSB marine radio addresses these communication difficulties.

Emergency communications at sea is not just about getting help from others, it's also about making yourself accessible so you can provide help to others in need. A modern marine HF/SSB radio with DSC make this possible. 

Nevertheless, all systems have their limitations, and the prudent mariner will take this into consideration. For example, it's not practical to take the yacht's HF/SSB radio  (nor a high power satellite system's parabolic antenna and computer controlled tracking/aiming mechanism) into a liferaft .

A practical combination that addresses Distress and General communication requirements, enables every vessel - recreational or commercial or government - to play their reciprocal role in the maritime safety network, provides free inter-boat communication, allows everyone to alert nearby commercial or recreational vessels for their advise/assistance, minimises regular communication costs, and works for most small-craft is:

1. An on-board marine HF/SSB radio used as the principle communications device, with voice and email functions. Because it works well in that role, and because it's far cheaper to operate - for voice and email - than any satellite based option.

With DSC function, because DSC allows every vessel to reliably initiate contact with most MRCCS, and with nearby yachts or commercial vessels to access quick, nearby, advice and/or assistance. It also enables each vessel to be easily contacted by MRCCs and/or other vessels in distress. If buying a new HF (SSB) radio, be sure to get one with DSC.

With radio email function, so you can manage your cruising life, maintain contact with people ashore, access important weather and safety related information,  receive accurate updates direct from race or rally organisers, contact shore based officials, send position reports and initiate contact with an MRCC; if you do not have DSC functionality in your radio. 

The cost of a Pactor Controller and SailMail subscription is a relatively minor addition (cheaper than a new sail) for an extremely substantial gain that will easily pay for itself with operational savings within the first year of use. SailMail and/or BBRemail (for commercial vessels in our BBR service area) via the HF/SSB radio is much cheaper to operate than a satellite based email option; including SailMail via a satellite phone.  

2. A hand held satellite phone carried as a battery powered backup to the HF/SSB radio for voice and email because:

  • It can be used to phone an MRCC to initiate contact in a distress situation if your HF/SSB radio does not yet have DSC alert functionality. Once the MRCC is alerted, switch to the HF/SSB radio for managing the situation, and simultaneously communicating with ships, aircraft etc which the MRCC assigns to assist you.

  • It can be taken into the liferaft (with lots of spare batteries) to maintain limited communication with most MRCC's.  A hand-held VHF marine radio (with spare batteries) should also go into the liferaft; for short-range (ie: in-vew) communication with search aircraft, nearby rescue ships etc.

  • It can work as a substitute carrier for email and voice if the vessel's main batteries or electrical system or HF/SSB radio are damaged.  It can substitute for some functions of the HF/SSB radio at a much higher operating cost.

  • Some satellite phones can be connected to the same on-board notebook running the SailMail  -on-board HF/SSB radio email -software to utilise the existing address book and email store to send/receive emails. With the additional benefit of SailMail's smart compression and message management to speed transmissions, reduce connection time and therefore save money compared to the standard email comms provided by the satphone service provider.

  • It can be used to make (expensive) calls for family and business. 

3. OR a DeLorme inReach satellite communicator that provides a compact, low-cost, solar panel re-chargable - two-way text message and position reporting - alternative.

  • More compact, water resistant and lower cost to operate than a regular satphone. 

  • Limited to text messages only, but sufficient for most urgent family or work related comms.

  • Functions as a backup to the HF/SSB radio if the vessel's power supply or HF/SSB radio is damaged.

  • Some models have a built-in GPS and can function as a regular position reporting device.

  • Very convenient to take into a  life-raft with the DSC capable VHF marine radio.

  • Works on land too, as emergency comms and position reporting when taking tours ashore, or for wilderness hiking, skiing, canoeing, rafting etc.

When 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 M801(E).  In the long-run, this is far cheaper - compared to alternative satellite based options - for cruising/racing/rally/boating/charter communications.  And it links you into the official Maritime Distress communications network, with all it's advantages for you and your fellow mariners.

  2. Remember that the latest Special Regulations - for racing yachts and recommended for cruising yachts - published by Yachting Australia for the communication and search and rescue realities of this bigger, emptier side of the world, requires all new and replacement HF/SSB radios to be DSC equipped, and recommends a satphone as an optional item. It does not require a satphone and does not permit a satphone to be carried as a substitute for a HF/SSB radio with DSC.  Use this link to see/download a copy of the latest YA Special Regulations (July 2013 to June 2017).

  3. Use the same purchase philosophy most of us would normally aim to apply when 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 HF/SSB radio with DSC. 

  4. Take advice from people who have spent a lifetime using marine HF/SSB radio and providing marine search and rescue services. For example, see and and . Their advice is based on real experience and cleaning up the problems created without the official, recommended and required, - by Marine Authorities, Communication authorities, and Yachting Australia - communications service for maritime Distress and General communications; HF/SSB marine radio with DSC. 

For further information - and practical evidence of the importance of modern, marine HF/SSB radio with DSC for Distress and General communications - please use the below links to documents regarding the importance of DSC equipped HF/SSB marine radios for yacht charter, cruising, racing and rallies, along with techniques for easy installation, and the amended General scan frequency strategy to extend/improve yacht-to-yacht DSC calling for daily convenience, information, skeds and 24/7 mutual support:

HF/SSB radio with DSC - For cruising, racing and rallies

HF/SSB radio with DSC - A comms strategy for race, rally or cruising

HF/SSB radio with DSC - Easy installation

HF/SSB radio with DSC - Functions

Terry Spark's upgraded DSC scan/frequency strategy

Terry Sparks's schematic of upgraded DSC scan/frequencies

SIYC Newsletter - scroll down to read what can happen without a functional DSC capable radio

Yachting Australia's Special Regulations - for racing & cruising


updated: 30 October 2017

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