A Marine SSB / Ham Radio
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
My boat is in Hawaii, and I am sleepless in Seattle. I feel a little lost without my boat. It's damn cold outside, and I long for the sun and warmth of the tropical islands. So, while stuck here taking care of some personal issues, some legal matters, and tying up loose ends, I have dove back into one of my other hobbies - amateur radio. That got me to thinking I should probably write a post about the marine SSB / ham radio on S/V Discovery.
One of the last upgrades I did on my boat a few days prior to departure last August was to remove my old Icom M-710 transceiver and the AT-130 Automatic Tuning Unit (ATU) and install a brand new Icom M-802 marine SSB / ham transceiver and an AT-140 ATU. The M-710 was still functional, and these radios (like their predecessors the M-700) are workhorse radios. So, why did I upgrade?
First, I knew at some point I would need to upgrade, so why not before I head off.
Secondly, the technical specs on the M-802 are much better compared to the M-710. (I won't bore you with all the minutia.)
And thirdly, I knew the Icom M-803 was coming out soon, (technically it is identical to the M-802 with a color display) and I knew the M-802's would be pulled from the shelves.
I won't go into all the installation details. There are a lot of websites, books, and forums filled with bad advice on installing a marine SSB radio. There are one or 2 books, and pdf documents on the web by Gordon West that are invaluable. My advice is to read the materials by Gordon West, learn about HF radios in general, and buy lots of snap on toriods (you'll figure it out).
COMPARING THE ICOM M-802 and M-803
The 803 color display looks nice, and Icom did a lot of work to make the 803 look nice when mounted next to the M605 VHF. The new direct sampling improves receiver sensitivity which is a good thing. They also have 4 power out settings now instead of just 3, but the difference between 100 and 150 is of negligible import, and most people leave it on the 150 watt setting unless they are working a small very local net. The included GPS receiver and the inclusion of an antenna is a nice addition in the M-803. The M-802 requires an external GPS receiver/antenna. However, the signal output is still based on NMEA 0183 (albeit upgraded version) and not NMEA 2000. This is a huge failure IMHO. Also, IMHO, the built in speaker is also not a selling point for me. I suspect most users will want an external speaker. A larger external speaker will almost always produce better sound than a smaller internal speaker. Additionally, there is not headphone jack on the control unit which is a stupid design "feature" to make the control unit IPX7 Water Immersion Compliant. IPX7 means the control unit can be under 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Look...if your SSB/ham radio control unit is under water...the last thing your thinking about is talking on the damn radio!
Also, we are at the bottom of a solar cycle so radio propagation is not ideal. Stations are sometimes hard to hear. They are even harder to hear if an engine is running, or other ambient noise. When I use my marine SSB / ham radio to check in on the Pacific Maritime Net, or other nets I use noise cancelling Heil Pro-7 headset. The M-802 doesn't use the same Icom 8 pin connector on it's ham rigs, but fortunately Bob Heil pointed me to the folks at Associated Radio who whipped me up a custom made dongle for about $90.
Virtually all other factors are identical between the 2 radios. It looks nice aesthetically, I do like the menu layout, and receiver sensitivity is better. Is it worth the additional price? IMHO, it was far from enough for me to want to wait to upgrade to the 803, and for the money the M-802 is the way to go (if you can get your hands on one).
MARINE SSB/HAM RADIO VS SATELLITE
There are endless debates on the value of SSB/ham radio compared to satellite phones, and many proclamations predicting the demise of marine SSB radios aboard cruisers. In my opinion the marine SSB/ham radio is another valuable tool to have aboard a long distance cruising boat. It is not so important for puddle pirates or inland sailors or even casual coasties who are tethered to the internet virtually 24/7. But, when you are sailing across the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean there are still dead spots in satellite coverage. The oceans are vastly larger than most people can imagine. And while radio propagation is generally poor these days, we are at the bottom of a sun cycle...it's natural, it will change!
Having nets like the Pacific Maritime Net to check in daily is a safety net. Other local nets provide useful information prior to arrival into new ports or anchorages, or for others planning departures. Also, as an amateur radio operator, it is sometimes nice just to reach out to another ham operator and ragchew for a bit. I like the fact that a radio is a one-to-many means of communication where a satellite phone is a one-to-one means of communication.
That being said, I do also have an Iridium Go satellite system aboard and use it for email and downloading weather reports twice daily. It is also an invaluable tool aboard which I would not do without. I find it more reliable for downloading weather reports and routing guidance compared to downloading grib files via SSB and a Pactor modem or sound card.
If I were not a ham operator and I could only choose one option, then clearly I would go with a satellite system. But, why not go for both?