Beware using HF e-mail while in foreign waters

From Ocean Navigator #79
January/February 1997
I found the article on HF SSB e-mail by Gordon West very informative (“Low-cost messages,” Issue No. 78). West mentioned something in his article that I was aware of as a concern in the ham radio world but had not applied to marine HF SSB service.

Unlike the U.S., the governments of most countries own the telephone system in their lands and jealously guard the income and high tariffs their phone systems generate. As a rule, it’s illegal to operate radio equipment that circumvents the local telephone tariff system while in such a nation’s watersthree to 12 miles off the coast, depending on the country.

So? Who’d know if you were sending and receiving HF e-mail while in French waters? Well, other marine interests nearbythose who are abiding by the law and staying off the air, not to mention French stations that are legally allowed to transmit (and paying huge tariffs) and can’t use the frequency because you’re tying up the band. Remember, both PinOak Digital and Globe Wireless are still using ITU-sanctioned international maritime mobile frequencies. And while the content of your communications using Clover or Pactor 2 is fairly secure, determined governments could easily intercept your traffic.

Wouldn’t the communication be covered under your marine SSB license and reciprocal international agreements? Maybe, maybe not. In foreign bureaucratic eyes there is a big difference between a merchant ship’s business traffic and e-mail traffic from friends and relatives. While it’s also true that many countries may have turned a blind eye toward the relatively few merchant men beating the system in the past, they will not ignore hoards of cruisers running HF e-mail traffic as this technology becomes more widely used. The relevant communications treaties now in force couldn’t possibly foresee the advances in communication technology we’ve experienced in the last few years, and many of these issues fall into a gray area. One thing is certain, however. Most countries will do anything within their power to hang on to the profits from every telephone call, e-mail message, or fax that is sent from their waters. In fact, some countries pay a bounty of a percentage of the fine collected on conviction of telephone and radio regulation scofflaws.

For instance, it was widely reported on the Pacific ham radio nets in 1994 that a U.S. voyager visiting down under had a technician aboard to fix some radio equipment. The tech turned the voyager in for having a ham radio illegally modified to transmit on marine HF SSB frequencies. (The new hybrid marine SSB/ham radio rigs fall between the FCC regulations for the two radio services, and even the FCC hasn’t decided what it thinks about these units yet.) The voyager’s radio equipment was confiscated (including the computer that was hooked to the radio modem) and sold. The technician collected not only his fee for the work he did but also a bounty for turning in the voyager.

Rick Kennerly lives aboard Xapic, a Westsail 32, and is currently based in Annapolis. His comments above were originally posted to the Live Aboard e-mail list. He can be reached via e-mail at To join the Live Aboard list, send to:;

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By Ocean Navigator