Monday, September 21, 2015

The SSB Workaround

After my recent post on cruising budgets, a reader requested more information on our SSB workaround. We had originally bought a used SSB from a good friend, but discovered shortly thereafter that it would require more installation headaches than we were willing to tackle. We ended up selling it. Not long after that, we had the good fortune of meeting Julie from S/V Coup d'Amour. Julie runs the Dinner Key Cruiser's net frequently and also happens to be the go-to guru on portable SSB weather receiving. She runs a class once in awhile when there's enough interest, and we were able to take the class. Taking a class on this is a good thing, because it does take some inside knowledge to make it work and also lots of practice. I've heard that full-function SSBs also have that kind of learning curve so committing to that was no problem for me.

First, let's talk equipment. Here's what you need to receive weather faxes on a portable SSB:
  1. Portable SSB radio receiver
  2. iPad or Android tablet
  3. Black Cat Systems HF Weatherfax app for your system
  4. Good set of ear buds
  5. Antenna
Julie recommended the Kaito 1103 radio as being the easiest to work with. We purchased a slightly different one, the TecSun PL-660 because it was on sale and had slightly better ratings. Once you purchase your radio, you need to purchase and install the software. At the time of this writing it was $4.99 for either the iOS or Android systems.

Set up an antenna next. We followed Julie's example by making our own.  You simply use a long section of wire and put the appropriate end on it to fit your radio's external antenna jack. On the other end of the wire we installed a quick-disconnect fitting. We then cut a very short piece of the same wire and installed the other half of the quick-disconnect fitting to one end of it. The other end we exposed the wires and clamped them to the side stay on Kintala. When we use the radio we simply hook the wire to the side stay quick-disconnect, run it into the boat through the hatch and hook it up. You could permanently wire an antennae if you choose, but the low-budget approach has worked flawlessly for us. We did buy a portable SSB antenna on Amazon for $9.99 but it was not up to the task so we don't use it. Don't waste your money on one of those.

Once you have the radio hooked up to an antenna, plug your ear buds into the headphone jack on your radio. Once you are receiving the weather fax signal, you only need to position the ear bud over the mic on your iPad or tablet and it will transcribe the signal to a weather fax. The different reports run for several hours and holding the ear bud to the mic would become quickly tiresome so we rigged a very MacGyver holder for it out of some 5/8" water hose which you can see in the picture above. I have read that you can get a rig designed for cameras that will hook up to the charging port and allow the use of a USB input, but I haven't tried it. Get comfortable with receiving the reports then you can change your setup to what works for you.

Once the rig is completely set up then you can begin to receive your fax. The signals are only sent on a specific schedule, and come from several locations so you would choose the one closest to you, pick one of the frequencies and see if you get a clear signal on it. If not, then move to the next frequency and try again. There are usually 3-4 frequencies available at each location. This would be a good time to go on over to the schedule and download the pdf to study. The schedule does come included in the HF WeatherFax software to use offline. In our case here in Annapolis we would use the Boston location. The possible frequencies would be 4235, 6340.5, 9110, and 12750 although the only ones offered at all broadcast times are the 6340.5 and the 9110. Keep in mind that the times listed in the TIME column are UTC (or ZULU) times. If you have trouble calculating that, you can download an easy-to-use app for it, available in either Android or iOS. Pick your reports based on the time of day that you are available to download them. The most recent data on this schedule would start at 0755 UTC, but that is currently 3:55 am where I am and I'll still be sleeping. Instead, I can do some of the reports beginning with the preliminary surface analysis at 1453 UTC which is 10:53 am where I am, and then some of them at 1905 UTC (3:05pm) beginning with the 24-hour surface forecast. If you've rigged a mic holder then you just let them run one after the other. The software has a function that saves the image as it completes then moves on to the next one so you don't have to interfere.

Several notes: reception will be bad anywhere close to shore due to cell phone towers, radio towers, airport broadcasts etc. The images will come out with lots of noise like this one:

The farther you are offshore and away from interference, the better it will work. Since you will normally use cell internet for weather reports near shore, this arrangement works well. In the Bahamas there is so little interference that your faxes will come out very clean like these two that were done in Bimini:

It takes a while to learn what the signal tone should sound like. Julie liked to describe it as galloping horses and that's a pretty accurate description. Here's a couple videos that I did this morning. The signal was strong enough that I was able to record it with just the extended radio antenna without even attaching the long wire antenna. The first video is of the tuning process. In the app there's a tuning button which takes you to the tuning screen. You adjust the SSB fine tune knob on the radio until the spikes line up on one or both of the vertical red lines. The second video is of one of the reports transmitting so you can see how slow it is. I don't have the ear buds hooked up since I wanted you to hear the signal, but you can see that you would want the ear buds hooked up rather than listening to this for a couple of hours. In addition, the ear buds keep it from picking up surrounding noise in the boat as well.

Adjusting the tuning knob so that the signal spikes climb up the red vertical lines.

Receiving a weather fax.

After Julie's class and a dozen or so tries I'm now able to get consistently good reports. Like anything worth learning, stick with it and practice and you'll get the hang of it.

In addition to the printed forecasts, you can also receive NOAA's voice forecasts. Here are the schedules:

HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
4426, 6501, 8764 kHz (USB) 0330Z1  0515Z2 0930Z1

6501, 8764, 13089 kHz (USB)

1115Z2 1530Z1 2130Z1 2315Z2
8764, 13089, 17314 kHz (USB)


1 Offshore Forecasts, hurricane information
2 Highseas Forecast, hurricane information

Broadcast of hurricane and other weather broadcasts from this station may on occasion be preempted, as the frequencies are shared with other USCG stations.

New Orleans(NMG)
HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
4316, 8502, 12788 kHz (USB) 0330Z1  0515Z2 0930Z1 1115Z2 1530Z1 1715Z2 2130Z1 2315Z2
1 Offshore Forecasts, hurricane information
2 Highseas Forecast, hurricane information

Broadcast of hurricane and other weather broadcasts from this station may on occasion be preempted, as the transmitters are shared with the radiofax broadcast.

Pt. Reyes(NMC)
HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
4426, 8764, 13089 kHz (USB) 0430Z 1030Z

8764, 13089, 17314 kHz (USB)

1630Z 2230Z

Broadcast of hurricane and other weather broadcasts from this station may on occasion be preempted, as the frequencies are shared with other USCG stations, and the transmitters are shared with the radiofax broadcast.

HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
6501 kHz (USB) 0203Z
HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
6501, 8764 kHz (USB)
0600Z 1200Z
8764, 13089 kHz (USB) 0005Z


HF Voice Broadcast Schedule
6501 kHz (USB)
0930Z 1530Z
13089 kHz (USB) 0330Z

HF voice broadcasts may be terminated if longer than the available broadcast period. This will most likely occur during the hurricane season when supplementary advisories are broadcast in addition to the routine forecasts.

Carrier frequencies shown.  HF voice broadcasts use a synthesized voice "Iron Mike".
ITU channel numbers as follows:
4426(#424), 6501(#601), 8764(#816), 13089(#1205), 17314(#1625)

Note that stations share common frequencies.

You can also receive Chris Parker's broadcasts on the portable. Here is his current schedule directly from his website:

Nets conducted 6 days/week, Monday through Saturday.

Our TecSun PL-660 also functions incredibly well on AM and FM bands. We have received regular radio weather forecasts even 10-12 miles offshore. We also enjoy listening to radio broadcasts from other countries. There are many websites dedicated to shortwave broadcast schedules. One example would be Ham Universe but there are thousands more available for a quick Google search. We enjoy listening to BBC programs as well as music from other countries.

Using the portable SSB, you can still receive cruiser nets. You can't transmit and participate, but the news and gathering information is available to you. One of the best resources for cruiser net frequencies is Dockside Radio.

Clearly, a full-functioning SSB has advantages in being able to conduct two-way communications with weather and emergency personnel and cruiser's nets. As an alternative in those instances, we use our DeLorme InReach for two-way texting when we're out of range of cell. But at two grand purchase price plus another grand for installation equipment plus the unknown other wiring and parts replacements that would most certainly be unearthed in the installation process on a 33-year old boat, the portable is a great alternative for us.


The Cynical Sailor said...

Thanks so much for this Deb! I can't believe you wrote this so quickly - very impressive. Tons of great information in here which will be really helpful in thinking thru what we do on the SSB front. Cheers - Ellen

s/v Odin the Wanderer said...

A portable SSB? Never heard of it! It will be a race to see if I could get the Iridium or this going first. There goes my budget ;-)

ELLIDA said...

Thanks for the info, that's alotta free research!

Sarah said...

Thank you for the information. I am a little fuzzy about how you fashioned the antenna. What kind of wire did you use, and why did you use a quick disconnect? What was left in place that you were disconnecting from?

Deb said...

@Sarah - We used a long piece of wire and at one end we attached the proper plug to plug into the radio. The other end we stripped the plastic coating off for about 1" and spread the wire out into a fan shape. The about 4" down from that end we cut the wire and inserted a quick disconnect fitting. We took that little short piece of wire with the frayed end and 1/2 the disconnect fitting and attached it to our side stay with a heavy wire clamp. That stays on the side stay all of the time. When we want to use the radio we plug the antenna wire into the radio and run the wire up through the hatch and plug it into the quick disconnect. This keeps us from having to attach the antenna to the stay with the clamp each time which would require tools. Let me know if you need any more information.

SV Brandy Girl said...

Hi Deb
we are first time cruisers, and just bought the Tecsun 660, and got a 3 month subscription to Chris Parkers service for south FL. We cannot gt anything in clear other than FM radio, and we are just in Largo Sound.(no need for faxes at this point) . We read the instructions, and have attached the included 30ft antenna'S plastc clamp to our stay. Still garble.
any ideas. PS we just left Dinner Key, a guy named Ed Gato ov MV Sanctuary is running the Cruisers Net now; wish Julie ere there and e could have taken a class!)