Ham or SSB: why not both?

When making decisions about which communications capabilities they like to have while voyaging, many mariners consider whether they want to have marine single-sideband (SSB) or ham capability. Given the new equipment and requirements for ham use, it makes sense to have both.

Many mariners gearing up for extended voyaging get their amateur (popularly known as ham) radio license. The entry-level license, called technician class, leads to ham call letters and the authority to go onto the VHF and UHF airwaves without having to pass a Morse code examination. This license is also the required element to ultimately get to the general class level for worldwide skywave communications. The general class level requires one additional theory test, plus knowledge of international Morse code at a federally mandated rate of 13 words per minute (wpm) plain language.

But don’t let the Morse code requirement frighten you off from getting your general class ham ticketit takes about 30 days to learn Morse code, plus an additional 30 days of mastering the 13-wpm code speed. And you don’t need to copy the code test letter perfect. You need only answer 10 multiple-choice questions about what you copied during the five-minute exam, and you pass the test.

Probably the hardest part of getting on the airwaves aboard a boat is not passing the tests, but making a decision about which way to go on the selection of the single-sideband equipment. You see, the words "single sideband" refer to the transmission technique used by the radio. Mariners use SSB on marine channels. Hams use the same type of SSB but on ham frequencies. The Coast Guard uses SSB, mostly on marine channels, but in an emergency they can also call out to all ham radio operators on ham frequencies.

So, if a mariner announces that he or she has single-sideband on board, the next question is, "Is it ham SSB, marine SSB, or both?"

A marine SSB is quite capable of transmitting ham sideband signals. Ham SSB sets may also transmit marine single-sideband signals in an emergency. So why not combine both ham and marine single sideband into one transceiver?

New interpretations of the FCC rules have caused manufacturers to develop marine SSBs that do double-duty as ham sets.

Marine rule 80.311 reads, "A mobile station in distress may use any means at its disposal to attract attention." Ham rule 97.405(a) reads, "No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station in distress of any means at its disposal to attract attention." And ham rule 97.11(b) reads, "The amateur radio station must be separate from and independent of all other marine radio apparatus installed on the ship. . .except a common antenna may be shared with a voluntary ship radio installation."I researched this last rule and found that it was originally written for "Sparky," the commercial ship radio operator, to keep him from tearing into the marine safety-of-life-at-sea radio and using it on ham frequencies when he was off watch. This would probably disable the radio from its intended safety purpose, so the FCC insisted that there should be no monkeying around with a marine radio to turn it into a ham radio.

No modification required

But over the last couple of years, marine SSB manufacturers developed worldwide radio equipment that didn’t require any modification to make it do double-duty. Marine SSBs are Part 80 type-accepted, a requirement for marine SSB, and it also meets Part 15 requirements that go along with ham radio receivers. Ham equipment does not require any type-acceptance. This means a ham could easily meet the rules and operate on a marine radio tuned into ham frequencies as long as he or she doesn’t do anything on the inside to disable the equipment for marine transmissions or do anything to disturb its basic type-acceptance.

When I asked the Norfolk, Va.-based FCC engineer-in-charge, Jerry Freeman, about this, all he had to say was, "When is a marine radio a marine radio, and not a ham radio?" Like any good FCC engineer, he was really saying, "Don’t ask that question. We might have to come up with a ruling that you probably don’t want to hear."

So, over the last couple of years marine SSB manufacturers have quietly been building ham radio into their equipment without saying too much about these added capabilities:

· SGC Inc.’s Model 2000 worked just as well on ham frequencies as marine ship-to-ship channels. No modification was required.

· Kenwood Corporation offered the marine TKM-707 SSB, but this required that two diodes be clipped to turn it into a full-blown ham set. And, since clipping diodes could nullify Part 80 type-acceptance, they advertised it only as a Part 80 marine transceiver.

· Some Furuno SSBs could work as ham radios, but Furuno was not at all interested in this minuscule market and so made no attempts to address ham radio capabilities in its advertising. The same thing was true with the Raytheon 152while it could be modified into ham radio operation, this could violate its type-acceptance.

· The Hull radio company, which has closed its doors, sold equipment that was relatively tough to modify, and the warranty would be void if it gummed up something else down the line.

Using certain keystrokes and internal maneuvering, SEA equipment could be modified for ham capabilities, but long-time SEA directors kept a lid on this because they had just about all of the business they could keep up with in commercial SSB sales. Also, some of the older SEA equipment could not do ham radio lower-sideband emission. But that’s all changed now with the new SEA 235 marine SSB that quickly works into ham frequencies by entering the magic keystroke numbers "73." This is actually an old railroad telegrapher’s number call and is ham-radio speak for "best wishes."

But SEA is cautious in their approach to the ham market. "The usual operating mode for amateur radio operators encourages the operator to dial around in a selected amateur band of frequencies until he or she either hears someone with whom they wish to communicate, or until he or she finds a clear frequency on which they can initiate a CQ call," comments SEA in its operating manual. "Such in-the-blind CQ calls are illegal in the marine service, except in cases of declared emergency. Given these rather ‘free-form’ methods, the SEA 235 provides hams with a reasonably simple and versatile operating system to meet their requirements." I’ve used the SEA 235, and with its digital signal processing circuits it’s a terrific radio for both ham and marine SSB.

Pushing a button

Similar to the SGC 2000, changing frequencies on the SEA 235 is accomplished by pushing an up-and-down button rather than spinning a knob. For marine use, pushing an up-or-down button is an excellent way to access different channels. But for ham operators, nothing beats the "feel" of spinning the big knob to dial in new frequencies. That’s what makes ham radio funspinning the dial until you find another voyager out there wanting to communicate.

ICOM America, one of the world’s largest suppliers of marine radio equipment and ham radio equipment, has traditionally shied away from announcing that any of its marine SSB transceivers could be ordered with ham radio capabilities. But the old-time hams already knew that ham capabilities existed on most ICOM marine SSB transceivers.

The very old ICOM M-700 was a Part 80 marine SSB transceiver, with full "secret" ham capabilities straight out of the box. It would instantly transmit and receive on almost all ham radio frequencies just by removing the plastic window, punching in both transmit and receive ham frequencies over an existing non-used marine channel, and, presto, it works! For lower sideband, rotate the mode switch one click to the left, and magically the lower sideband filter would click in. There was absolutely no mention of this in the instruction manual, and back then no one was selling marine SSB with instant ham capabilities for fear of the FCC. But, since the FCC already type-accepted it, and somehow missed its extra capabilities, or didn’t care about them, nobody said anything.

A few years ago ICOM developed the ICOM M-710. This Part 80 marine SSB transceiver would work off of a computer-loaded program entered by the factory or an authorized dealer. The less expensive version, lacking the 2,182-kHz alarm, was computer-loaded to only work on marine channels for transmitting and receiving and could receive on ham frequencies. Nothing you could do to this equipment would enable ham transmissions. That’s what the factory said. But down at the dealer level, a quick computer upload, and voiláit would now transmit and receive on ham.

But there was one problem: once you punched in a ham frequency, such as 14.285 MHz, you were stuck there on transmit. Sure, turning the big dial could cause the receiver to change frequency, but the transmitter would not track. To get transmit on the new frequency you dialed in with the big knob, you would need to keyboard-enter that precise frequency. This would be a giant pain for the avid ham. Then there were the ICOM M-600, the ICOM M-800, and the new ICOM M-810; they too were agile on ham receive but frequency-set for ham transmit.

ICOM realized it was losing a lot of ham business, so it began to spread the word among its dealers that a Version 5 of the M-710 could be ordered with ham transmit capabilities, straight out of the box. What hams found with the 710 ham-capable set was that they still needed to punch in the ham transmit frequencies, and although the receiver would go up and down with a big knob, they would still need to punch in the new ham frequencies.Ham agileNow we have the brand-new ICOM M-700 Pro. Two versions are availablethe one without the 2,182-kHz alarm is less expensive, and all you get is ham receive, no ham transmit. Version 2 is slightly more expensive, and not only does it come with the 2,182 kHz alarm, but it is also "ham agile""agile" meaning you can spin the dial, get to a favorite frequency, and, providing you have the right general class ham license, push the button, and your transmitter stays right on frequency with the receiver. Spin the knob somewhere else, and prestoyou’re instantly ready to transmit without any further keystrokes.

Can an ICOM M-700 Pro Version 1 be computer-modified to become a Version 2 ham set? Probably so down at the dealer level, but I think it would be less expensive to order a ham Version 2 than to take a Version 1 and pay a marine dealer service time to have it switched over. Also, the slightly more expensive M-700 Pro Version 2 comes with a 2,182 kHz alarm in case you need to abandon ship and send out a signal on this frequency.

Now SGC has announced its 2020 high-frequency ham set, and the company indicates it will soon have Part 80 marine type-acceptance. This could allow both ham and marine from one compact set that can be taken from boat to boat with its built-in portable battery snap-on pack. Though you wouldn’t think 20 watts would go very far, on ham frequencies 20 watts easily talks thousands of miles on a clear frequency. On marine channels it could also easily reach the Coast Guard long-range radio stations thousands of miles away. ICOM America, SEA, and SGC are very open about the ham capabilities of their equipment. On the other hand, Furuno, Kenwood, and Raytheon continue to stay low-key about ham capabilities that may indeed be already built into the equipment they are selling.

Should you maybe consider buying a ham set and physically modifying it to transmit on marine channels? This has been done for years, and with the right type of monkeying around, it indeed can sound just like a marine SSB. But it does not carry Part 80 type-acceptance, and if you ever got caught talking on a ham set on marine channels you might get a big FCC hit. But that’s pretty unlikelythe FCC has all but abandoned its inspections of ship stations down at the docks.

But if you sometimes charter your boat, or your insurance carrier shows a marine SSB as your safety equipment on board, you could be in deep trouble if ever it was learned you were relying on a ham set for marine SSB rather than a Part 80 marine radio. And if you win that transpacific or transatlantic yacht race, and one of your competitors discovers your Part 80-required radio was in reality a ham set, you could end up forfeiting the winner’s cup because you were using non-type-accepted equipment.

Now that SEA with its 235, ICOM with its M-700 Pro, and SGC with its 2020 and 2000 have radios on the market at ham radio prices, you should truly stick with a marine SSB transceiver as it was intended and, as a licensed ham, enjoy the added benefits of built-in ham capabilities without the need of whacking some diodes with your diagonals. While we would all like the luxury of a separate marine SSB and a separate ham SSB working off of a common automatic antenna tuner, in the real world of voyaging usually there is only one dedicated radio down at the nav station. That radio can do double-duty as both a marine SSB and a ham set.

By Ocean Navigator