Weather, SSB and the 21st Century

in Bahamas / Life at Sea / Sailing the World
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s:v senara turf to surf sailing blog

We’re lucky that our French buddy boat, Senara, wanted to travel with us from the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic for a few reasons; (1) Captain Morgan was great company, and (2) he had a satellite phone.

And if it weren’t for Morgan’s sat-phone, we wouldn’t have had any access to weather reports in Little Inagua, where we waited for the right weather window for our crossing to the Dominican Republic.

Throughout the U.S. and the Bahamas, we’d had regular access to weather information via the internet and sources like PassageWeather.com, Zygrib, Pocket Grib and Wunderground.com, to name a few of our favorites. Mostly, though, we’ve preferred to download weather gribs using Zygrib on the computer, or Pocket Grib on the iPad because (1) we can update the reports any time we want, granted there’s internet, (2) we get fairly accurate forecasts for up to five days, (3) we can study the gribs offline, and (4) they don’t require a degree in meteorology to read.

But in the back of our minds, we knew we’d find ourselves in a situation eventually where we’d need to get weather forecasts and couldn’t get internet access. We just didn’t know what the best tool would be to have in those situations.

Most cruisers have recommended that we buy a single-sideband (SSB) receiver, which costs about $100 and would supposedly give us weather forecasts anywhere in the world, as long as we are tuned into the right frequency at the right time. And, being susceptible to peer pressure, we followed their advice. But in all honesty, with the technological advances of the last few decades, we couldn’t understand how the SSB hadn’t become obsolete. After all, GPS had so quickly become an essential household tool, existing in phones, watches and computers. So, surely, in the years since World War I, someone must have developed something more advanced than the SSB?

It turns out, they had. It’s called a satellite phone. And yet the SSB lingers on as an old-school necessity. For some reason, cruisers cling to the SSB the way my father clung to the vision of Beta-Max video players, long after the rest of the world had converted to VHS. Gosh-darned-it, he’d spent good money on that Beta-Max, so as long as we had “Karate Kid” and “Back to the Future” on Beta-Max tapes, I would watch those movies until someone either invented DVDs, or I left home. Whichever came first. End of discussion.

But unlike our Beta-Max machine when I was a kid, our SSB has never actually worked, though we persisted in trying to get Chris Parker’s weather reports in every port from New York to Nassau. And all we got was something that sounded like muffled Morse code transmitted from the moon.

A couple we met in Nassau even tried to help us out by using their SSB transceiver to transmit to our radio from just two boat lengths away. But all we heard was, “Bzzzz wah WAH wah WAAAHHHH bzzzzzz.”

I was so determined to make it work, though, that I threw out our first SSB and bought a second one after reading the Amazon.com reviews for the Kaito KA1103 SSB receiver. According to the reviews, “even ham radio operators love it.”

But ham radio operators must have some kind of secret decoder to understand transmissions like, “ssshhhh northwest ssshhh Sunday bzzzzzz front ssshhh west at bzzzz knots.” Because it didn’t matter if we ran the antenna up our mast, if we stood on the bow pointing our radio at the sky, or if we smacked the SSB on the deck whilst cursing 20th century technology like SSBs and fax machines, wondering why they refused to die like their relatives, the cassette tape and the rotary phone.

It was clear the only thing our SSB was good for was raising our blood pressure at 6:30 in the morning, the ridiculous hour at which Chris Parker supposedly transmits forecasts…though we wouldn’t know for sure, since we’ve never heard him.

Our SSB-certified friends in Nassau encouraged us to keep trying, though, arguing that no cruiser should travel without an SSB. “We heard this story once…” the wife said. “…About a captain who’d had a stroke on his boat off the coast of Mexico. His wife used the SSB to ask for help on the net and a ham radio operator in Vancouver picked it up and got them the number of a doctor in Mexico. The SSB saved his life,” she said earnestly.

But, all I could think was, “What, do we live in the age of telegrams? If that woman had had a sat-phone, she wouldn’t have had to bounce some message off the atmosphere hoping that someone on the other side of the world might hear it in the middle of night and help her. She could’ve just Googled a doctor and called him. Right from her sat phone. Pronto.”

But what about the cost, you ask? It’s true, satellite phones aren’t cheap at $1500 new with an additional $750 for a year’s worth of minutes. But it both receives and transmits, whereas an SSB receiver only receives. If you want an SSB transceiver (which can transmit and receive), it’ll cost around $4,000 including the installation and a boat-specific set-up, not to mention that you need special certification just to use your transceiver.

So when Morgan showed us his Iridium satellite phone, which he uses to make phone calls and download weather grib files in a matter of seconds anywhere in the world, whenever he wants, we nearly fed our SSB to the sharks on the spot. And we decided to look into getting a sat-phone for ourselves.

After all, a sat-phone isn’t fixed to a particular boat; you can take it with you backpacking, fishing or onto your next boat. Plus, it’s portable and it’s from the 21st century.

What more could you ask for?

iridium-satellite-phone-9555

Portable Iridium 9555 satellite phone, which can be used for phone calls, internet, downloading weather files, updating your blog, etc., with no installation, for about $1500.

Icom MC710 SSB

*For more info on price comparisons, www.macsailing.net posted this helpful info in 2010. It appears the prices haven’t changed much since then.

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21 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Fred Facker April 8, 2013, 11:35 am

    Note to self: Take the SSB off the shopping list!

    • Tasha April 8, 2013, 11:39 am

      Lol. Mind you, don’t take my advice alone… some people DO seem to swear by their SSB. But they must be getting better transmissions than we are because it takes a colossal amount of patience and ability to listen through static to hear anything on our SSB. Which is now really just a paperweight. Let’s just call it an SSB paperweight from now on 🙂

  • leonmcgarry April 8, 2013, 11:43 am

    I think this costs around $600 which is the same as a low end sat phone.

    The seamless integration of satelite data with your iphone could be really useful because it can link with any other apple stuff – eg ipad chart apps or your mac book.

    http://www.engadget.com/2013/03/21/thuraya-satellite-iphone-satsleeve/

    Love the blog!!! Very inspirational!

    All the best.

    Leon

    • Tasha April 8, 2013, 11:45 am

      WHOA. This is AWESOME. I need to look into this further, but THANK YOU for this link! And thanks for reading!
      xx
      Tasha

      • Shane April 10, 2013, 7:29 am

        Love your post. The popularity of SSB is a mystery to me.

        The Thuraya satellite network (referenced in the link above) does not cover the Americas.

        • Tasha April 10, 2013, 9:33 am

          Good to know. The popularity of the SSB is still a mystery to me, too…

          But it’s interesting to read the comments about why people love theirs. Even still, the $4,000 and the cumbersome installment (plus the fact that I can’t take it to my next boat…) makes the SSB much less attractive than the sat phone… but I”m still listening to the arguments. After all, if the next boat we buy already has one, then great. But then don’t I have to be certified just to use it? What a pain…

          If I buy a sat phone now, I have weather access now, and on my next boat, and for as long as the phone works. And it’s a third of the price. And I don’t need to take a course to be allowed to use it. This seems to outweigh all arguments for buying, installing and getting certified to use an SSB transceiver just so I can get the weather reports I need.

          But, hey, that’s me.

          • somanybeaches April 10, 2013, 11:37 am

            Tasha,

            I’ve been thinking about this discussion and it’s reminding me of the old adage: “don’t let perfect get in the way of perfectly good”.

            Sure, no one wants to invest $$$ for a system that isn’t exactly what you need, forever and ever amen, but that’s not always realistic for your needs, NOW!

            If you need/want a Sat phone now, get one, girl! It’ll totally relieve you of your current concern: downloading weather info when you have no internet/SSB/NavTex access. (BTW, we have a NavTex and it hasn’t been useful outside The Bahamas).

            While you may or may not use a Sat phone so much in the long run or on your next boat (hopefully with a SSB), you will always have it as a back-up to whatever works for you in a long run. key words: *works for you*

            Afterall, we patched up our dinghy with JB Quick when we didn’t have a patch, we’ve stuffed our electronics in a ziploc or breadbag when our drysacks went missing & we’ve pieced weather together from other cruisers all the time. Being a sailor/cruiser means figuring it out with what you have available. You’re totally there!

            Laurie

          • Tasha April 11, 2013, 7:17 am

            Hey Laurie!
            Lol. Thank you for granting permission… you’re right! Perfectly good works fine for me…off to find me a sat phone…(I feel like I’ve just been blessed to do so!)

            And if our next boat comes with an SSB transceiver, I’ll work out how to love the thing…maybe…

            BTW, what’s a NavTex? Is that another type of sat phone?

            Tasha

          • somanybeaches April 12, 2013, 10:31 am

            Hey Tasha,

            Glad you got your permission 😉

            Here’s a link to NavTex: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navtex. It came with the boat and I’d not sure I’d recommend it for boats outside the US. It was helpful for us Florida and in The Bahamas, and I think Jamaica. Then I think we got out of range. We’re looking forward to seeing if it works again for us in Mexico.

            Also, another cruiser I know uses Sky Mate. It’s about the price of a Sat phone with minutes but requires installation. The like theirs so I thought I’d pass on the info: http://www.skymate.com/products.html

            Happy communicating!

            Laurie

  • somanybeaches April 8, 2013, 11:49 am

    We just had this discussion this week!

    However, I think we’re in the SSB category: we don’t plan on crossing over 1,000 miles (range of SSB), I love the variety of info you can get from the community on SSB and you can download GRIBS on SSB (and send/receive other text-based email). Have y’all ever been able to get on a net from anyone else’s? It’s like the VHF net but over hundreds of miles of water. And, in some places (like the Guna Yala) it’s the only daily net. (We missed out because we don’t have an SSB)

    Of course, a sat phone would be nice for emergencies in the Pacific.

    Regardless, I’m happy to report, that unlike the “sailor” who was pressing us to have a Sat phone (vs. SSB, which we also don’t have), we’re off the dock!

    Afterall, you actually don’t need all that “stuff” to go cruising!

    • Tasha April 8, 2013, 1:06 pm

      Some people do swear by their SSB. But if all I miss out on is the net with my satellite phone at a third of the price, I’m okay with that. I’ve probably had enough of the cruiser’s net in George Town to last me a lifetime 🙂

      • somanybeaches April 8, 2013, 2:01 pm

        I know that every sailor has an opinion and I actually really appreciated hearing other’s experiences, especially when we were really newly salted (I think we’re just lightly salted now ;). But, if it’s one thing I know for sure it’s: do what works best for you.

        That being said, here’s a clarification on the SSB “net”: it can be way more useful than a Georgetown-esque “volleyball is happening here” net. It’s generally more focused on weather (because the range implies use over long distances), water hazards and problem-solving/trouble-shooting repairs. The SSB I’ve been able to participate in (on a friend’s boat) has been super helpful in checking on sail-plans (S/V X has/not arrived safely in port) and last week a Pacific Puddle Jumper reported a sq. mile of logs at X coordinates for their fellow sailors – info you could not get over VHF or Sat.

        And, I know it’s not a must-have but, it’s really cool to keep up with folks who are doing a distance to just check-in over long distances (here in Guatemala, we recently heard from friends in Panama via friends in El Salvador). Yes, you could definitely do this over email, but it’s one more thing about boating that I, personally, find cool.

        In an emergency, I get that a Sat phone would be super-helpful to make a call – but to whom? The coast guard, folks on land? Seriously, I’m curious and have had this question myself –> what’s your take on this?

        The answer I’ve come up with re the “SSB vs Sat phone in an emergency” debate is that I would *hope* that a SSB would get the word out, to many people, fairly far, depending on propagation, but also sailors nearby with a SSB could also be called on for immediate, local response (rather than a Sat phone).

        Of course, we have neither SSB nor Sat phone and when we had troubles at sea, we were lucky that our VHF sufficed (*lucky* on several fronts: our emergency wasn’t imminent and our PAN PAN signal repeated on VHF was picked up 3 hours later by a cargo ship with a Sat phone . . .). In case you’re interested, there’s more on that here: http://www.somanybeaches.com/2012/05/16/weve-got-issues-the-whole-enchilada/

        You’re totally right that the SSB is an expensive piece of equipment (Bring On Another Thousand(s)) – which is why we don’t have one, yet. But, we do look for them routinely at salvage yards, swap meets and we are optimistic about HAM radios which have been converted. Try SailorMan in Ft. Lauderdale next time you fly through.

        Plus, as Brittany stated, downloading weather and transmitting and receiving on SSB works – I’ve seen it in action and it’s way cool! (in a WWII meets 21st century technology mashup kinda way)

        It sounds like you’re having a stinking time with your particular unit. I’d encourage you to (have someone else?) tinker with it more and listen in on a working one before making your final decision.

        I hope you’ll take my $.02 with a grain of salt (hardy har 😉 and in the helpful spirit it’s intended. We were just having this discussion so everything is still fresh (or unanswered – who would you call with a Sat phone???).

        I trust you’ll keep us posted to what you decide (whatever works for y’all is always the best choice :).

        Laurie

        ps. We also have a SPOT tracker for emergencies and have been please with their service, but it is one-way communication.

        • Tasha April 8, 2013, 2:36 pm

          Hey Laurie,

          Thanks for taking the time to write this response…I really do appreciate an in-depth perspective from another angle…and that’s the best explanation I’ve had yet of what can be gained from access to the SSB net.

          And good question: who would we call in an emergency? I don’t know. For a major emergency we have an E-pirb which cost us about $300 and which we keep on our person when manning the helm on watches. Especially when the other is asleep. I’m not sure a phone would help in a May Day situation, but the E-pirb would.

          For less pressing emergencies, the sat phone provides Internet through the computer in case we need to research contacts. And in harbors the VHF has been awesome for help.

          Our biggest concern so far really has been getting reliable weather reports so we can plan comfortable passages…and the SSB receiver (which I was dissing) has not been useful for that.

          No doubt, if our boat came with an SSB transceiver, I would learn to use and love it as much as the next cruiser. But without one already, when looking at the choices of what to buy to get reliable access to weather forecasts, the cost and trouble of buying and installing an SSB — when I can just buy a ready-to-go Sat Phone and take it with me to the next boat — seems prohibitive.

          But maybe our next boat will come with an SSB and I’ll feel differently then. I’ve been know to change my mind! 🙂

          Thanks again for commenting…and reading!

          Tasha

  • Windtraveler April 8, 2013, 12:33 pm

    We love our SSB and we actually have an iridium sat phone too (that we have never used for anything but fun test phone calls from the middle of nowhere). Once you get the SSB up and running, it’s free and you have tons of FREE access to weather data, grib files and (most important if you plan to cross oceans) cruiser’s nets. You can even make (almost free) phone calls to land lines anywhere in the world and update blogs, etc for cheap. Yes, the technology is ancient and it’s very “old school” – but many people love their SSB and there is good reason why… The connection with other sailors when out in the deep blue is what keeps people loving them (yes, even these gen Y’ers) which no sat phone can mimic (yet) so don’t knock it until you’ve got yours workin’ 😉

    • Tasha April 8, 2013, 12:41 pm

      Fair enough. The cost of an SSB transceiver and installation is about three times more than a satellite phone, which was a major consideration for us. Did you move your SSB transceiver from your old boat to Asante? Or did you buy a new one (or did the new boat come with it?). Considering we don’t already have an SSB and will be moving to another boat in another year or two, a portable device that can get us weather data, email access and emergency phone access makes more sense. Not to mention with our receiver, we’ve NEVER heard a comprehensible transmission. Maybe the transmission gets more comprehensible with the transceivers? I can only assume, considering a receiver is $100 and a transceiver is $4,000. Though I haven’t tried a transceiver, I can definitely knock the receiver variety – useless!

  • Eric Christensen April 9, 2013, 8:07 pm

    I wonder if you are confusing a SSB receiver with a shortwave receiver. It looks like the Kaito has SSB as an option but most shortwave receivers only do AM (and if you are in SSB mode you have to make sure it is USB (upper sideband)).

    The reason people still use MF/HF radios (SSB as you call it) is that they just work and can get help to you much faster than a satellite phone. If you have an emergency at sea you can use your EPIRB (no one around you will hear it), you can call someone (who?) on your Iridium phone (again, no one around you will hear you), or you can transmit on your MF/HF radio your distress call and not only will many shore stations hear you but any vessel nearby will hear you as well. That means that ships nearby can start heading in your direction immediately. There is a reason why Iridium phones aren’t part of the GMDSS and MF/HF radios are.

    • Tasha April 9, 2013, 9:55 pm

      Hi Eric,

      Interesting. My understanding of the Epirb is that it transmits a distress signal, which I had hoped would be transferred by the receiver to nearby ships…

      The thing that we’ve not been able to do so far is get weather reports without our internet, so I’ve been looking into the options that would (1) allow us to download weather files when out of internet range so we can be well informed before making a passage, (2) give us access to email so we can contact family, update our blog, etc, when out at sea, (3) be the most cost-effective option for what we’re looking for, and (4) if possible, be transferable to the next vessel we buy, since it is very likely we’ll be buying a new boat within the next year.

      As far as I can tell, the satellite phone beats out the SSB transceiver on these grounds… but if I’m missing out on something here, let me know. I’m genuinely interested.

      Tasha

      • Eric Christensen April 10, 2013, 7:49 am

        Depending on your location, an EPIRB transmission can be received at the rescue coordination center (RCC) anywhere from immediately to a few hours after first being activated. The RCC then passes that information along to the local rescue organization who *may* relay your distress signal to nearby vessels over MF/HF/VHF. The problem is that a lot of time may have transpired since you first activated your EPIRB. Because Iridium phones cannot broadcast to other satellite users other nearby users like a radio can be heard by nearby receivers (I think INMARSAT does have a satellite net that is broadcast for mariners).

        There are numerous weather products you can receive over your MF/HF radio including weather fax, NAVTEX, and voice weather products (all for free). That isn’t including specialized weather services and nets that provide weather information. If I need to make a phone call I can easily do that through a shore station (like WLO). With a modem I can do email over HF, too (and do on a regular basis).

        It should also be noted that NOAA does not guarantee availability of their products over the Internet. Their official means of disseminating information is over the radio (http://www.weather.gov/disclaimer).

        I’m not saying that your satphone is a bad investment or a waste of time. It has limitations, though, that you should be aware of. The MF/HF radio is part of a well-established safety system that has proven itself. The fact that it’s a broadcast mechanism makes it far more useful, in my opinion.

        As far as costs are involved, in the short term the satellite phone might be cheaper but the MF/HF radio won’t have recurring costs and will be cheaper after three or four years (more or less, I don’t have to pay for the services I use but there are pay-for services available on HF).

        The real advantage to a satellite system is that they are easier to use. It “just works” most of the time. There are more pieces that are outside of your control that could go wrong, though.

        I wouldn’t make a trip without my MF/HF radio. A satellite system would be nice but not in the budget and I don’t really see much of a need.

  • Jonathan April 12, 2013, 9:24 am

    Tasha,
    For what it’s worth, here is my 2 cents:

    SSB transceiver that works is like drinking the Kool-Aid. You love it and are happy to have it. And to be in the club.

    On the other hand, getting a transceiver to work either in a new install or an existing install that has gone bad, this is hands down the most posted item on all the forums. Time and money!

    When I asked my local marine electronics dealer how much he would charge, he essentially refused to even quote it. One point he made stuck with me: You can take the Sat phone with you when you step up into the life raft!

    But to your other question, we used a Sony SW receiver with an external antenna in the Bahamas and heard Chris Parker regularly. Not all the time. When we didn’t hear him, neither did the folks with a transceiver. Because we could hear them complaining.

    So it will be Sat phone for us. Plus a DeLorme which sends text messages to all your friends who have SSB transceivers! And they can text you back.

    Jonathan

    • Tasha April 14, 2013, 8:47 am

      Hey Jonathan,

      Thanks for this comment. The DeLorme sounds interesting! I’ll have to look into that!

      Maybe our next boat will come with a transceiver? I definitely won’t be buying and installing one if it doesn’t…cuz I’m off to find me a sat phone!

      Tasha

  • george February 19, 2014, 1:45 am

    For all cruiser, they use SSB on board but don´t understand propagation, please use this useful tool from the german company.
    We had many problems with our ssb, because we don´t understand enough with HF-communication.
    With the program ” where & when” it´s easy to find the right frequency and right time.
    check it and download the tool on http://where-and-when.yachtfunk.com.

    Have fun with Where&When and you will soon see that it is not magic to communicate with HF SSB radio.

    George S/V Los roccos

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