Radio Communication

These days cruisers have a radio telephone operators permit so they can use their VHF marine radio to talk boat-to-boat and boat-to-shore to ensure their safety and for recreation. Just fill out the FCC forms, send them $75 (2000) and you'll receive a non-expiring license that permits you to use the VHF.

The VHF radio is the work horse of communications on-board and indispensable while cruising. But once you're more than say 10 miles from shore, VHF radio is out of range of most shore stations and not of much use in an emergency unless another boat is nearby. There are alternatives.

A high frequency (HF) communications radio, broadcasting voice using single side band (SSB), has the ability to communicate around the world conditions permitting. With the addition of a ships station license from the FCC ($110 for 10 years when we applied for ours in 2001) and the same radio operators permit you need for the VHF radio, you can install and use this equipment on your boat to communicate with other boats and with shore stations around the world. The marine SSB is used on specific frequencies reserved for maritime use and the US Coast Guard still monitors several SSB safety channels reserved for emergency use (the channels will change once digital selective calling (DSC) is implemented world wide).

If you pick the right SSB radio and also get an amateur radio license, you can extend the utility of the transceiver to also include frequencies allocated to radio amateurs. For the cruiser, this means you can communicate with radio amateurs around the world and, conditions & shore equipment permitting, an obliging ham ashore can even connect you through local phone lines so that you can talk to people ashore who don't have a radio. No business conversations are permitted, but you can contact family and friends.

The days when AT&T operated marine radio stations around the world are gone. In an earlier revision of this info I said the last remaining US radiotelephone station, WLO in Mobile, AL, had gone under. Not true! It was rescued by Rene Stiegler and is now operating as ShipCom LLC with remote transmitters on the west coast controlled from Mobile. See the note below:

Note: I was informed that WLO is up and running on a 24/7 schedule. Here's the note I received from Rene Stiegler on 2 Nov 2003:


I stumbled upon your web page while surfing the net. Under radio communiations you erroneously state that WLO radio is out of business. We are still in operation 24 hrs per day 7 days per week. Try SSB voice ITU channels 405 824 1212 1641 2237.

We also operate voice from KLB near Seattle on channels 417 805 1209 1624.

Fair winds and following seas!

Rene Stiegler


If you need info about using WLO or any of the other stations they operate, contact Rene via e-Mail or call them at 800 633 1312 or visit their web site. The current rates for High Seas voice connection are $2.99/min, 3 min minimum. You probably need to set up an account so that you don't give CC info in open transmission.

There are other commercial options for voice communication with people ashore while at sea. Satellite telephones and the charges these services want for a call have dropped since their introduction a few years ago. In some cases, rates are getting more competitive and have improved over the flat rate-plus-$1.50/minute we were being charge in 2002. It's not as cheap as your cell phone, but it's less than what we were paying for international telephone calls via land-line phones not too many years ago.

Marine SSB Radio

There are a few options for using a marine (not amateur) SSB radio: voice is pretty obvious, but you can also use marine SSB radios for digital communications as well. With the addition of a specialized modem called a terminal node controller (TNC) and a laptop computer, the radio can be used for sending and receiving e-Mail through a coast station connected to the internet. You can't surf the net, but you can keep in touch with friends and family ashore who have access to the internet and, since it's not the amateur bands, you can also conduct business with shore stations. The latter assumes you've made prior arrangements with merchants so you don't have to send your credit card number via a message that anyone can read.

For our purposes here on Goosebumps, these new e-Mail services via coast stations are the most enticing use of marine SSB. We use the service provided by SailMail Association. We've had great success with SailMail and at $200/year for about 10-min/day of connect time we don't find the price prohibitive. They can provide weather information, too, through their Saildocs service. SailMail started offering PACTOR-III connections on US coast stations in May 2003 (it was available earlier on non-US stations) which makes connect time much more efficient. There are other services besides SailMail available and a Google search should help you track them down.

We bought our marine SSB radio and all accessories from Don Melcher of HF Radio On Board in Alameda, CA. It was set up and tested on the bench with all the cables we needed for installation before he shipped it to us. Our radio can operate on both marine bands and amateur bands. Our system includes an ICOM 710RT transceiver (you may want to consider the newer, smaller but same power ICOM 802), ICOM AT-130 automatic antenna tuner, SCS PTC-IIpro modem, and all the cables you need to connect all of these devices. Later we added the SCS Professional firmware for the PTC-IIpro which adds PACTOR-III capability. We had a rigger in Maryland install the insulators for the backstay. So far we have had no problem with any part of the system and it's in use every day. You can buy the pieces from places like West Maine or Farallone Electronics and integrate everything yourself, just be aware it's not a trivial task. I see in Don Melcher's advertising that he also offers the new Icom 802 which has DSC and complies with the GMDSS standard for marine SSB safety.

Amateur Radio

This is the bargain of all bargains for cruisers. The services provided by these seemingly tireless hobbyists is amazing. We've all heard about what these folks have done in times of emergency, e.g. for a May Day when your boat is about to sink or during the chaos of the 9/11 disaster. You may not be aware of the cruiser check-in service they provide. These "nets" are scheduled at specific times and frequencies and allow a boat in transit to check in so that someone ashore is keeping track of them. Nice to know someone knows you're out there! It is through these nets that you can often arrange for a phone patch to someone ashore.

We had planned from the beginning to have marine SSB aboard. Later, just before we left the Chesapeake, we decided to study for our amateur radio licenses. We flew back to California so we could attend a weekend seminar in Chula Vista taught by Gordon West (WB6NOA). If you really want a license and put in the time studying ahead of the weekend, Gordo's class will probably get you from no license to general class in one very intense 3-day weekend. The seminar is intended for cruisers headed south out of San Diego into Mexico. Most of these people have a marine SSB radio aboard and want to add the fun and convenience of amateur radio as well. And that's what our situation was except we weren't headed for Mexico. We jumped in and managed to get through the code (5 words-per-minute) and theory tests. Our mteur radio operator licenses (Celia/K5CMB, General class; Bruce/NM5B Extra class) give us use of all the frequencies allocated to radio amateurs except that Celia can't use those reserved for amateur Extra class (in an emergency, all amateur frequencies are available).

To get more information on this useful hobby, check these links:

Winlink 2000

I want to share some information about the most incredible service a cruiser could hope for. I mentioned that you can use an amateur radio station to communicate around the world. That ability has been expanded enormously to allow an amateur to send and receive e-Mail. Winlink 2000 is the amateur-designed system that permits the innovative use of amateur radio to send and receive e-Mail via the internet.

For over a year now we've been using the free services of WinLink 2000. This amateur radio system allows amateurs with a general class or higher license to send and receive e-Mail via their HF SSB radio from virtually anywhere in the world. Equally impressive, the system includes a catalog of weather related data files to aid planning and executing a safe passage:

And this weather info covers the navigable world. No matter where you're cruising, these guys will get the weather info you need and make it available to download from one of the over 30 Winlink stations.

The latest addition to WinLink 2000 is the new PACTOR-III data format. PACTOR-III increases the bandwidth required by almost 10:1, but the amount of time needed to up-/down-load messages and files is proportionately less. This change to the Winlink system opens the door to greater use of the available weather resources. Awesome!

And what does all this cost? Nothing more than the cost of your own equipment and the effort to get your amateur license. Requirements of the FCC that control amateur radio operation dictate that amateurs can't charge anything for the service... it's a hobby.

Information about Winlink and the incredible radio-mail client software called AirMail is available from:

Satellite Phone

Once we leave the US, our cell phones will no longer be of use since they have about the same range as a marine VHF radio [depending on your phone, some have the ability to connect with the GSM system used in Europe, Africa, Australia and other countries, but you still need to subscribe to the local service; GSM service in the US is spearheaded by AT&T Wireless and to a lesser extent T-Mobile, but it's progressing slowly. Cingular bought AT&T Wireless, then in 2007 ATT bought Cinglar]. Celia needed to keep in touch with her mother's care givers, so we wanted to find a means of calling the US while we were out of the country, even from a remote anchorage. There are several options and, as I mentioned above, the least expensive providers charge about $1.50US/minute plus as little as $20US/month (thru 2005). When we were looking in August 2001, Iridium had just come back on line and they were selling refurbished Iridium phones for $495US vs. $995US new (the newest phone model is over $1,100US). We managed to get one of the last refurbished phones they had and have had great success with it. There are other choices besides Iridium, but we have no experience with the alternates and so far we're happy with Iridium.

A caution about using the Iridium phone. The charge is $1.50US/minute for calls originating from your phone. But (in 2004) a call from a non-Iridium phone to your Iridium phone will cost the caller $11.00US/minute. Yikes! For this reason, many users get the pager service which is an additional $7US/month. The non-Iridium phone user, e.g. a home or business phone, sends a pager message to you (dunno if there's a charge to send the page). You can then call them back at the Iridium rate.

Iridium also claims that they will introduce a digital gateway allowing you to send/receive e-Mail. This was supposed to start in 2002, but when I checked their web site I wasn't sure if this really happened. You need to contact one of the dealers to find out for sure, e.g. HF Radio On Board.

The info above on pricing, not just for satellite phones but throughout, was put together in late 2001 and is getting out of date so you need to treat it carefully. Do your homework before signing up for any of this stuff!