Monday, 25 June 2012

Wither SSB ?

One of my favourite finds during our recent inventory of Spray was the Sony 7600 single sideband radio receiver.  When I was a kid, my sister and I became amateur “ham” radio operators (Kentucky hams, we used to call ourselves).  We spent many happy evenings eavesdropping on conversations, news and music from around the world, dreaming of the travels and adventures we would have.    

A shiny new Sony 7600 (the one I want...)
Despite the many miraculous technological advances of the past 30 years, shortwave radio is still the best way for global cruisers to have news and information from just about anywhere on the planet.  Some AM/FM radio stations can be picked up along the coast for 50-75 miles.  Beyond that, if you want to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world, you have to rely on signals bounced off the ionosphere, which is shortwave or World Band Radio.  During a brief stroll along the dial (“dial” is what older folks call the seek tuning button) you can stumble onto a mix of traditional music from Southeast Asia, a documentary about maple syrup harvesting from Canada, and dire warnings from doomsday cults broadcasting from….well, they never really say. 

You may be asking yourself how useful (or indeed, desirable) it would be to have the ability to listen to, say, classic Chinese opera while at sea.  But you would be ignoring the fact that a SSB radio not only captures radio broadcasts, it also provides access to all-important weather and navigation information at sea beyond the reach of the marine VHF radio.  Combined with a computer and a good antenna, you can obtain both text and graphic weather data anywhere in the world.  Add a transmitter, and you are wired to participate in the global village. 

There are many radio nets established especially for cruisers by amateur radio operators around the major cruising destinations of the world (or more specifically, major cruising destinations of the world where old hams go to retire, which is to say, predominantly in areas with warm turquoise waters, palm trees, plastic flip-flops, and little fruity drinks with umbrellas … hmmmm, I wonder if I have to be 65 to join them ?).  These nets provide local sailing and port information, reports of piracy, queries from worried families about late arrivals, general gossip, and message relays.  They broadcast at a fixed time every day, providing a great source of entertainment, a bit like Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegone Days” on the high seas.

What breaks my heart is that SSB is now most often labelled as “not dead yet”.  The satellite phone and the ability to connect to the internet from anywhere on the globe is rapidly undermining radio services.  On 31 December 2011, Radio France International announced that it would no longer broadcast offshore weather reports on short wave, depriving French sailors of one of their only sources of offshore weather news from a human voice.  An informal poll on Sail the World suggested, however, that the howl of protest was mostly an elderly one, with younger sailors greeting the news of the terminated broadcast with “so what?” 

While it is tempting at this juncture to dive into the sociological ramifications of this finding, I think I would prefer to avoid the debate altogether and just install both a SSB system and a satellite phone on Spray.  But I sure hope those radio net communities are still around when I’m ready to settle down and plant my toes in the warm sand somewhere.  And a final word to the younger generation of sailors who remain stubbornly insensible to the human connection:  when the robots rise up to enslave and kill us all*, the only place that will be safe is on a boat surrounded by salt water, and you can be sure that all us survivors will be coordinating our efforts via good old shortwave radio. 

Addendum:  After being mercilessly teased by my former colleagues for my naïveté regarding a robot’s ability to operate in salt water, I humbly admit that this was an inexcusable oversight on my part.  After having worked for more than 10 years coordinating bits of the Global Ocean Observing System, I should have immediately thought of the Argo and Glider programmes, which are based on autonomous or remotely-operated floats.  In my own defence, to call them robots at this point is a BIT of an exaggeration.  Nevertheless, I did take this opportunity to remind my friends working on Argo that it is not too early to be thinking about a global “kill switch” for those little buggers.

For a list of maritime radio nets around the world, check out the Noonsite Communications pages.

Also on Noonsite, read “The Essential Role of HF/SSB Radio in Ocean Cruising” by Allan Riches.