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Satphone or SSB? - maybe it depends on where you are...

by Allan Riches/Sail-World on 22 Jun 2012
In times of distress will you pick up that satphone or put out a call on the radio? Allan Riches explains .. .
Last week we published a story about Britain's MCA extending advice to a sailor on a 22ft boat who had been rescued in the Atlantic that it would have been advisable to have a satphone on board. No mention was made of an HF Radio. This week Allan Riches, long time mover and shaker behind Brunei Bay Radio and well-known to long range cruising sailors, writes the following article:

In Europe and the UK, they have a very good VHF marine service. Even the Fastnet Race does not need HF/SSB radio, VHF is sufficient. The fellow in the incident probably did not have the required HF/SSB radio on board for offshore operations. A satellite phone could be a reasonable alternative for a one-off passage in their operating circumstances.

The ISAF/ORC Special Regs for Category 1 yacht racing does not mention a HF/SSB radio, but the YA Blue book says it is compulsory for Cat 1 and recommended for Cat 2 races, and some Cat 3 or 4 races use it, because there is no alternative to effective communication with and between the race yachts.

The UK/Europe has an abundance of RNLI rescue boats and lots of other dedicated rescue resources. And there are an over-abundance of commercial vessesl to call upon to assist. The Australian coastline, the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans do not. Away from the congestion of Europe, in an open ocean, beautiful uncluttered cruising coast, or chain of islands, there are no nearby helicpters or lifeboats to be despatched.

Yachts still need to rely on assistance from nearby vessels; yachts, fishing trawlers and other commercial ships.

The dilemma is, how to contact one of those nearby vessels? If you only have a satphone, do you know all the satphone numbers and which ones are nearby? And do you have enough credit in your account to make dozens of calls to find one nearby that can help you? The modern marine HF/SSB radio with DSC addresses that dilemma. Push the alarm button to alert any vessels in the vacinity mainting a watch. With GPS data connected into your radio, the recipients of your alarm also get your precise location.

And when the MRCC gets active in response to your DSC alarm, when they talk, or relay your alarm using their HF/SSB radio system, all the vessels in the vacinity will know about your problem and be able to consider how they can help. They can talk to you and the MRCC as much as needed, using their HF/SSB radio, without their satphone running out of credit, and without considering what is their satphone budget for helping you.

According to a marine HF/SSB installer in the UK, yachts participating in the ARC(Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) and also the 2013 Oyster round-the-world event are required to have marine HF/SSB radios with DSC. I expect the event organisers know what is required for effective yacht communications away from the ample support facilities - and great VHF marine and cellphone networks -of the UK and Europe.

According to a Darwin based installer of marine HF/SSB radios with DSC which small commercial vesssels (eg fishing trawlers) are compelled to carry, these radios have taken the search out of search and rescue, because with the GPS position, the DSC alert gives an exact location where to find the vessel in distress. Any available resources can give immediate assistance, rather than first search.

According to the AMSA website 'The arrangements for search and rescue (SAR) in Australia have been influenced by the physical size of the island continent, the large size of the search and rescue region, Australia's relatively small population and the nature of governmental processes. Dedicated SAR facilities are limited in Australia. When necessary, other facilities are diverted from their primary function by arrangement or request.' If SAR facilities are limited around Australia, it's not difficult to imagine how limited they are in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Ocean cruising routes/areas.

Also according to the AMSA website 'While satellites and satellite-compatible distress beacons have significantly improved the effectiveness of SAR operations, the system is NOT a substitute for carrying appropriate marine or aviation radio.

Depending on the circumstances, your initial distress alert should still be made by radio if possible. You should activate your distress beacon only if contact cannot be made by any other means or when told to do so by a rescue authority.'

As demonstrated by theses statements from AMSA, and the significant differences between the Special Regulations in Yachting Australia's Blue Book, and the ORC/ISAF Special Regulations, there are major differences in support services, communication systems, search and rescue resources, and shipping densities in Europe, compared to the large ocean areas of the world, isolated island chains, and Australia.

If the Titanic sank today, and the radio officer had the option of making a few hundred satellite phone calls to try to advise nearby vessels of their predicament (assuming he knew all their sat phone numbers and asuming he knew they were nearby, and they had credit in the accounts and he had lots of credit and his account was not cutoff part way through the list), or pressing the Alarm button on his DSC equipped marine HF/SSB radio to simmultaneously send an emergency alarm to all nearby vessels; which is the simplest and most effective option in the circumstances?

As responsible and community minded mariners, how should we equip our yachts? With a satphone, so the crew of fathers on their fishing trawler, or the modern day Titanic captain, just over the horizon, can't contact us when they need our help? Or with a marine HF/SSB radio with DSC, so they can alert us to their plight and we can help ensure those trawler fathers and cruise ship passengers return to their families. And how would we feel if we reached port and learnt they all perished? If only we'd known. If only we'd been sufficiently community minded to fit a similar marine HF/SSB radio with DSC - which they are compelled to carry - we could have helped. We were so close.

Instead, by carrying only the satphone we are saying 'In an emergency, I plan to call an MRCC on my satellite phone to get help. I expect other mariners to maintain a watch on their HF/SSB radios 24/7 to receive DSC distress alerts from the MRCC, and I expect them to come to my assistance if I need it. But I'm not willing to contribute to the same marine safety network. I will not equip my yacht with a marine HF/SSB radio with DSC, and I will not monitor for HF/SSB distress alerts related to other vessels, and I will not make myself and my vessel available to help the same people I expect to help me'.

In the heavily populated areas of the UK and Europe, with plentiful dedicated resources available to give assistance without needing other vessesls' participation, I can understand that carrying only a satellite phone could be an appropraite solution for one-off passage. But on this side of the world, or in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, where MRCCs have no helicopters or RNLI lifeboats to deploy, and vessels must depend on each other - like they always have - then it's important to be linked into the official marine distress communications network, by fitting a modern HF/SSB marine radio with DSC, and maintain a watch for DSC calls from other vessels; the same people we rely on to help us if we have a problem.

About Brunei Bay Radio:
BRUNEI BAY RADIO operates a Limited Coast Station providing HF/SSB radio voice and email services, for recreation, tourism and commercial vessels.

The assigned call-sign is V8V2222.

BRUNEI BAY RADIO is located at the geographic centre of South East Asia, at approximately 5 degrees North and 115 degrees East. This central position facilitates an effective HF/SSB radio coverage throughout this rapidly developing region where isolated islands, coral reefs, and forest areas are the venue for conservation projects, cruising yachts, exploration, adventure activities and traditional communities.

BRUNEI BAY RADIO’s maritime service area includes SE Asia, the North West Pacific and Eastern/Central Indian Oceans. Small-craft off the north and west coasts of Australia, around Japan, the Mariana and Caroline islands of the NW Pacific, Papua New Guinea/Irian Jaya, the Solomons, plus the Indian Ocean islands - Andaman/Nicobar, Cocos-Keeling, Christmas, Maldives, Chagos, Sri Lanka and Seychelles - have access to our services.

The principle HF/SSB radio services operated by Brunei Bay Radio are based upon low-cost HF/SSB radio email. Weather information, GRIB weather charts, position reporting and normal emails to family, friends, the next marina, parts suppliers etc are conveniently available using the same HF/SSB radio that provides voice communications between yachts, for self-help cruiser skeds, for skeds during rallies or races, and DSC emergency communications.

Brunei Bay Radio is the regional hub for SailMail – the low-cost radio email service for cruising and racing yachts with twenty linked stations (see www.sailmail.com) around the world. Brunei Bay Radio also operates a separate HF/SSB email service – BBRemail - which provides email for conservation projects, live-aboard surf and dive charter boats, remote communities, small commercial vessels, community service projects, natural disaster relief organisations, etc.

Because Allan is a yacht owner and Yachtmaster Instructor his website – www.bruneibay.net/bbradio - has lots of useful information for sail and engine powered cruising yachts; in particular those planning to visit SE Asia and surrounding areas. Allan also has cruising notes for attractive cruising areas and passage routes in the less commercialized, and less congested parts of SE Asia, where cruising is much lower cost and the unique rewards of self-sufficient exploration in a cruising yacht can be best enjoyed. In particular, the west coast of Borneo, Palawan Island, Northern Borneo, and routes to/from the Solomons and Australia via Sulawesi, the Spice Islands, Irian Jaya and PNG. Contact Allan via email – radio@bruneiaby.net

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