Ham radio continues to be the choice of many offshore voyagers who prefer the independence and adaptability offered by this traditional mode of communication. You still need to study and pass a couple of FCC tests to earn the General Class license, but the hours spent studying are well worth it. After securing the license, the next step is choosing an HF rig compatible with your communication needs and budget.
Most cruising hams prefer a multiband, multifunction transceiver with maximum transmission power of at least 100 watts. Our main communication mode is single sideband (SSB), but some cruisers may also dabble in AM and FM communication. Some true traditionalists still seek CW (continuous wave) capability, which is not found on all new radios. CW, by the way, is the mode used for sending Morse code, made possible with a traditional hard key or a modern paddle for faster sending speeds.
A leader in mobile ham radio is Kenwood with its TS-480SAT/HX, which succeeds and surpasses the popular Kenwood TS-50. Whereas the TS-50 had a peak power output of 100 watts, the TS-480 offers up to 200 watts of transmit power. On standby, the unit uses less than 1.5 amps of 12-volt battery power.
The TS-480 comes with its own internal automatic antenna tuner and has a frequency matching range of 1.8 MHz to 54 MHz, though whether it can be coupled directly to a random wire (backstay) antenna is not clear in the product literature. A digital antenna analyzer will help determine how long the wire feed should be between the radio and the backstay to ensure a proper match on 20 meters and 40 meters, the two SSB bands you will use most frequently while cruising.
Another popular mobile HF radio is the Yaesu FT-450D, a multiband radio in the same class and price range (less than $1,000) as the Kenwood TS-480. This mobile radio, which can be connected directly to your 12-volt house battery, puts out up to 100 watts (25 watts AM).
With an internal automatic antenna tuner, the FT-450D is a robust successor to the earlier FT-450 and FT-450AT models, offering easy antenna impedance matching for multiband DXing capability aboard your humble sailing craft. You can install the FT-450D directly onto your navigation desk or overhead with the convenience of the optional MMB-90 mobile bracket. The FT-450D may also be coupled with an external antenna tuner.
The Alinco DX-SR9T/E multiband, all-mode HF radio fits in the same class as the Kenwood TS-480 and Yaesu FT-450D, but you will need to find a separate antenna tuner to complete the installation. Come to think of it, you will probably need to add an antenna tuner to both the Kenwood and Alinco mobile units as well in order to match a random wire backstay antenna.
The DX-SR9T/E offers transmitting and receiving capability from 10 meters to 160 meters on SSB, CW, AM and FM. The DX-SR9T/E is strictly a desktop radio, but its small profile (9.45 by 3.7 by 10 inches) takes up only slightly more room than its Kenwood and Yaesu counterparts. Priced generally at under $700, this is an affordable transceiver for the power and versatility it offers.
If you yearn for the freedom to communicate to your heart’s content with fellow cruisers and land-based radio operators around the world, get your ham license and find the mobile HF radio best suited to your vessel, budget and communication needs.
Circumnavigator-author Bill Morris is the author of Sun, Wind, & Water: The Essential Guide to the Energy-Efficient Cruising Boat and is a frequent contributor to Ocean Navigator.