SGC | HF SSB | HF/SSB Installation Primer

SSB/HF Radio Applications in Modern Sailing Vessels
Eric Steinberg, Farallon Electronics
So you’re sailing across the ocean and you want to be able to call home while on the way. But
most of all you want to be heard if you call for help from the middle of nowhere.
Communications on the open ocean has always presented a problem. The distances are vast and
the transmitting platform is small, unstable and designed for a purpose other than being a radio
station. If we exclude satellite technology, choices for the average mariner to communicate several
thousand miles are about the same as they were 50 years ago. Marine Single Side Band (SSB) radio,
also referred to as HF radio, is an “old standby” of voyaging vessels both small and large. It is
called HF, or High Frequency, because of the frequency range used, 3 to 30 megahertz (Mhz).
Medium Frequency (MF) is below at .3 to 3 Mhz and Very High Frequency (VHF) is above at 30 to
300 Mhz.
Commercially available marine SSB radios are pretty sophisticated machines. They range in
price from $1500 to $10,000+ with many different configurations available. As with most electronics, from car stereos to computers, the price of equipment goes up with features and power capabilities. Output power, expressed in watts, of common marine SSB equipment is 150 to 400 watts with
some shipboard equipment in the 1000+ watts range. Anything over a 150 watt radio is a big machine and for all but a few yachts too expensive and unnecessary.
Transmitting over the airwaves with a SSB radio is always free as long as you’re not connected
to a commercial service. It is for this reason that SSB is most often used for vessel to vessel communications when the 30 to 40 mile range of a VHF transceiver is insufficient to cover the distance
between the two vessels. You can’t beat it for things like “Hey Jim, how’s the weather over there?”
Current and upcoming satellite technology is better suited than SSB for making a connection to a
landline phone, but the per minute air time charges are real, and so are the monthly service subscription fees (whether you use the phone or not). The average “Jim” will probably tire of you calling on
the sat phone and costing both of you $$$!
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Sending Email and Data Over HF Radio
Sending data over a SSB using PACTOR mode
modems has become a very popular method of communicating to people shore side or from boat to
boat. PACTOR modems have created a new use for SSB and there are now numerous shore side
service providers that transfer data via PACTOR. An in-depth discussion of modem installations
justifies a separate article, however the demands a modem puts on a SSB are worth mentioning here.
In normal operation, modems cause a radio to transmit at nearly 100% of the radios designed capacity. Deficiencies or problems with a SSB installation are accentuated when using a modem, which
make the details of this article even more important. Modem installations require the radio have a
proper DC supply and a good ground installation to the tuner. DC power and tuner grounding are
discussed further in this article. Check with your electronics specialist as to the suitability of an
existing SSB with a PACTOR modem.
Getting Started
With the help of your local marine electronics specialist you have
selected a radio system that fits your needs and budget. You will be loaded up with a SSB radio, an
automatic antenna tuner, copper strap, wire of different types and connectors. If you opt to do the
installation yourself, the radio system will occupy at least one weekend for you and a best friend to
install properly. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of properly installing a SSB radio. It is not as
technically difficult as it is laborious but as with anything on a boat, attention to the details will make
the difference in performance.
For this discussion we will assume we are talking about an average 40' fiberglass or wood sloop
with an inboard engine and an external keel with keel bolts. Steel and alloy boats will not have the
same considerations for a ground system, ketch / yawl rigs have unique antenna problems and
mulihulls ground and antenna problems that need to be addressed individually.
A boat is a difficult radio platform and as most experienced boat owners know, a boat is always a
compromise. With respect to a SSB radio on a boat the problem lies in that there is no earth ground
plane or “counterpoise” for the antenna system, so one must be built. In a land based installation
ground is usually easy. Pounding a 6' copper stake into the earth and / or grabbing onto the copper
plumbing in a house can provide a sufficient ground plane. A good ground is vital, it is half of the
antenna system and is often referred to as the springboard the signal uses to jump off the boat in to
the atmosphere. To better understand “ground” you need to know the three different ground systems
that can exist on a boat. One is
your DC ground which is the
negative post of the battery(s)
that all of your DC powered
items are ultimately common
Tuner close
Figure 1a
Radio at nav station
to antenna
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with. The second is the bonding system that is intended to tie all of the metal items within the boat
together that may be susceptible to electrolysis (galvanic corrosion). The third is your RF (radio
frequency) ground for a SSB radio. An astute reader will note that all three ground systems are
common to at least one point, the engine. In the case of the RF ground, the other ground systems are
inconsequential and of no benefit to the RF system.
No Pain, No Gain. Think Metal Surface Area
RF ground installation are different for
every boat, but the basics are the same. You want to attach all big metal items on the boat together
with copper strap and end up with a minimum of 100 square feet of metal surface area. Starting
with the Automatic Antenna Tuner, the tuner should be mounted close to the feed point for the
antenna, which means it is usually mounted aft. From the tuner, copper strap will run forward and
attach to the engine, any (and hopefully all) metal tanks and a keel bolt (any one will do). Getting
the copper attached to metal toerails and the stern pushpit along with the lifelines can be of tremendous benefit. When incorporating the pushpit and lifelines, extra care must be taken with the route
of the antenna feed wire.
Copper strap is commercially available
from marine electronics shops and ranges from
2" to 4" wide and in thickness from .001” to
.013”. Two inch wide .001” (about as thick as
an extra heavy aluminum foil) is easy to install
around the boat but there is a trade-off when
using the thin stuff. The issue is surface area
and longevity. At HF frequencies electrical
energy is no longer running through the copper
conductor as it does at DC voltages, but rather
it is traveling on the surface. Copper strap is
used instead of a copper wire because the strap
has much more surface area and offers less
impedance (resistance at frequency) to the RF
energy. Armed with this knowledge, we know
that 4" strap is going to be more effective than
2" and that the wider material should be used
whenever possible (some Volvo ocean racing
boats are using 6+ inch wide copper) . However it’s an imperfect world especially when
working on boats: sometimes 4" strap just will
not go from point A to B. Four inch material
Figure 1b
DC +
To antenna element
Dealer supplied GTO-15
14 gauge high voltage cable
Manufacturer or dealer
supplied control / supply
voltage cable
Dealer supplied RG-8U
OR RG-213 coax cable
Dealer supplied 2" to 6"
wide copper
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folded in half is one solution and sometimes the ultra thin .001” x 2" copper is the only way to go,
but make every effort to use bigger material. The life expectancy of .001 mil copper is shorter than
thicker material because it rots from corrosion in the salt air much faster. Of course life of the
copper is only an issue if it is a permanent installation . In a perfect world, the boat builder would
have used copper screen and foil in the lay-up of the fiberglass during construction. This completely
encapsulates the copper for long life. With an encapsulated ground installation, copper tabs exit the
glass in appropriate locations to attach to the tuner and metal objects such as tanks and a keel bolt.
Many boat builders now offer a SSB ground plane as an option for new construction jobs.
When attaching the copper to tanks, keel and engine try to do so in a way that achieves good
metal-to-metal surface area contact. In the case of tanks, running to an inspection plate and attaching to a couple of the bolts with large washers works well or going to a fitting on the tank and attaching the copper to it with a hose clamp also works. The latter looks crude but is effective. Some
tanks have cleats or clamps holding them in place that can be loosened allowing the copper to be
sandwiched in between. At the engine, choose a bolt to sandwich the copper to the block . You
should ask your mechanic about which bolt he would suggest using.
Why an Automatic Tuner?
The antenna tuner is an essential component of the installation
and an automatic tuner is required for most marine installations. The tuners function is to match the
impedance of the antenna system (the combination of backstay or whip antenna and the ground
plane) to the 50 ohm impedance of the final transmitter stage at the back of the radio. This is no
small task as the impedance of the antenna system can change from a few ohms to hundreds of ohms
depending on the frequency transmitted on. You say big deal? It is, only when the impedance is
matched does the maximum transfer of power take place between the radio and the antenna system.
Without a proper match, all of the radios energy
High voltage
doesn’t make it past the tuner and in turn off the boat.
Figure 2.
Energy is reflected back towards the radio producing
what is called a Standing Wave (SWR), a ratio between
forward and reflected power before it goes through the
tuner. An imperfect match between the radio and
antenna is one of the reasons lights on your electrical
panel will glow and meters will bounce around when
transmitting on a SSB.
Out of the tuner comes the actual radiating high
voltage. Naturally, you want to radiate off of the boat
not into it, so the shorter the run from the output of the
tuner to your insulated backstay or whip the better.
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A manual tuner will also do the job of tuning a whip or backstay, but a manual tuner needs to be
mounted by the radio where it can be manipulated when the desired working frequency is changed.
The problem with a manual tuner being by the radio is that the radio is usually a long way from the
antenna element. The long run from the tuner output to the antenna element will not make an efficient antenna system and will result in a lot of RF energy being absorbed by the boat.
A word of caution about automatic antenna tuners Automatic tuners available today from
major radio manufacturers use microprocessors and refined internal software to match the antenna to
the transmitter. They are very good at their job, which can create a problem: auto tuners can tune
what is effectively an inadequate antenna / ground system. It has been said by some professionals
that all you need for a ground plane is to run a wire from your tuner to a metal thruhull and your
system will operate. The tuner may indeed tune, but a majority of the energy from your radio is lost
in the process and never escapes the boat. The difference manifests itself in being able to talk 1000
miles or the 6000+ miles you can achieve with a good installation. Here’s the catch: for all practical
purposes, a technician cannot put a “tester” on your system and tell you definitively how good your
system is. A watt meter is a tool technicians use that can be put in between a radio and the tuner to
give an indication of how well the tuner is operating, but the “business end” of the tuner is the high
voltage terminal that hooks to the antenna element (backstay, whip, etc. Figure 2). An experienced
radio technician with the aid of a watt meter and knowledge of a good quality ground installation as outlined
previously can make a educated call as to whether the
system is working properly, but the real proof is
Backstay with bottom
whether you can make 3000+ mile radio contacts
insulator 7’ off deck
consistently. Apply the rules that have proven to be
shown with wire standoffs
effective: 100 Square feet of ground surface area connected with wide copper foil and good metal to metal
surface area contact when making ground and antenna
connections. This is an ideal installation, and not every
boat will allow these goals to be met, but do your best.
Figure 3a.
Primary Antennas
Your primary antenna
will usually be an insulated part of your rigging or a
standing fiberglass whip antenna in the back of the boat.
These are both “longwire” antennas, essentially a piece
of wire held up in the air. An antenna could also be as
simple as a piece of 14 gauge wire (back to that in a
moment). The decision to insulate the rigging or use a
whip is usually driven by cost and aesthetics as either
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Teflon tubing extend
to 7' above deck
Teflon tubing extend
to 7' above deck
Backstay insulator
GTO-15 to tuner
Backstay insulator
GTO-15 to tuner
Backstay adjuster
Figure 3b
Figure 3c
will do a proper job. On a sailing yacht, insulating the backstay is common as it makes for a clean
installation. The traditional guidelines for a backstay antenna are to have the bottom insulator 7' off
the deck and 3' down from the masthead. Insulated sections of backstays longer than 35' are not
required, however a longer antenna may perform better. The RF output from the tuner can be as
high as 5000 volts at very low current and grabbing the uninsulated part of an antenna while the
radio is being transmitted can cause a serious RF burn or could even be lethal! Therefore the bottom
insulator is usually put 7' off the deck for safety reasons (Figure 3a).
There are other styles of fabricating a backstay antenna that offer better performance (Figure 3b,
3c). The bottom insulator can be mounted at deck level or may be completely unnecessary if the
backstay chainplate terminates to fiberglass or wood construction, which acts as an insulator. With
this type of installation, the backstay must be insulated from possible contact with crew by putting
an insulating material over the backstay, turnbuckle, etc. The best material is Teflon tubing, which
has very good insulating properties, however the tubing must be installed on the backstay when the
backstay is being fabricated by your rigger. A distant second best material is white nylon “snap on”
shroud cover products available in chandleries. Attention must be paid to disconnect items such as
bonding system wires that may be attached to the backstay chainplate(s). Also note that a bottom
insulator will have to be installed above a hydraulic adjuster (3c). You may wish to hire your marine
electronics dealer to inspect your boat to make installation recommendations.
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Insulating a backstay can be expensive depending on what type of rigging you have, wire rope,
rod or as on some race boats Spectra, Kevlar or Technora. The initial cost of installing insulators
sometimes leads people to consider using a standing whip antenna instead. The whip is tried and
true and will do the job you require. There are whip antennas specifically made for SSB use and are
23' or longer.
Inverted "V" antenna
Inverted "L" antenna
Cushion, jacket, etc.
as an insulator
"L" antenna
Piece of line as an insulator
Piece of line as an insulator
Cushion, jacket, etc.
as an insulator
Boat hook, spinnaker pole, etc.
14 gauge wire to tuner
14 gauge wire to tuner
14 gauge wire to tuner
Stump of mast section, boat
hook, spinnaker pole, whatever!
Stump of mast section, etc.
Stump of mast section
Figure 4
Emergency Antennas
Take what we know about a primary SSB antenna from the
above text and an emergency antenna is pretty simple; a piece of wire, 14 gauge or larger, 23' or
longer up into the air coming from the automatic antenna tuner. The automatic antenna tuner will
tune almost anything attached to it. The $5 emergency antenna solution is 40' of 14 gauge wire with
a ring terminal soldered on to one end sized for the output stud on your tuner.
The emergency scenario is: you loose the rig and along with it your insulated backstay or transom mounted whip. “Lets tell everyone” being the second or third thing on your mind, disconnect
what’s left of the wire that went from the tuner to the now missing antenna and attach your $5
emergency antenna, stringing it up in the air by whatever means you have left on board (spinnaker
pole, boat hook, etc.). If 40' is more wire than you are able to rig up, cut the new antenna as needed
(no less than 20'). The antenna wire can be in an “inverted V”, as in up and over a pole or mast
stump, an “L” and an “inverted L” or really whatever you can rig (Figure 4). Physically isolating the
wire from the support pole with a piece of line or a cushion on top of the pole will improve performance. It’s really that simple because the high quality ground system that you installed at the beginning of this article is still in tact and the power of the computer inside your automatic tuner does the
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Wire, Connectors and Techniques
The cost of high quality materials are a drop in the
bucket when compared to the cost of the equipment you’re installing. Marine specific materials do
cost more, but the performance benefits over the long haul will be worth it. Tinned wire and connectors for corrosion protection, wire of the proper size, sealing tape to keep you connections dry and
flat copper strap are essential parts of a good installation. The basic techniques are soldering connections, keep all connections bone dry and good electrical connection surface area contact.
There are usually two cables from the radio to the tuner, one for RF (coax) and one to supply
operating voltage and/or control signals to the tuner. Follow your radio manufacturers recommendations for the control cable and consult your dealer. In most cases, the RF connection from the radio
to the tuner should be made with RG-8U or RG-213 coax. This is the big 1/2” stuff and will offer
the least resistance to the RF energy. RG-8X or “mini 8” may also be used with a slight reduction in
performance but may be much easier to install. The antenna connectors are UHF type PL-259. They
are tricky to make up the first couple of times and may require a professional hand. PL-259s are
available in solder and crimp types. Purchase the solder type unless you have the professional $100
UHF crimp tool for the crimp type connectors. If done correctly, the solder type connectors are
better and should be your first choice.
From the tuner to the antenna element, use GTO-15 type single conductor wire. GTO-15 is a
high voltage wire with a thicker jacket and an insulation material rated to 15,000 volts. Since a SSB
antenna can develop much higher voltages than what standard boat cable is rated for, GTO-15
reduces signal loss and the risk of shock. The connection at the output of the tuner is a threaded
stud. A properly sized ring terminal should be soldered to one end of the GTO-15 and affixed to the
stud. Then the whole thing, stud, ring terminal and wire should be wrapped with a self-sealing
waterproof tape such as 3M 2242. 2242 is a soft tape with a 200% stretch factor, and when applied
with a little tension, it will make a watertight seal. As the GTO-15 leaves the tuner try not to run it
close to other wires and metal objects. You will usually exit the hull with a watertight through deck
gland of some type and then terminate the wire at the antenna element. If you are going to an insulated backstay, strip off 3” of the GTO-15 insulation, wrap the conductor around the upper swage
several times and clamp with a small hose clamp. The last step is to wrap with a sealing tape (i.e.
3M 2242). KEEP THE CONNECTION DRY and it will last! If your backstay is wire rope, clamp
on to the swage and not the wire rope. The fact that the swage is a smooth surface enables better
surface area contact with the GTO-15 and it will provide for a better seal with the sealing tape.
To further reduce the amount of RF energy absorbed by the boat, standoffs can be fabricated to
support the GTO-15 away from the backstay between the deck and the insulator (figure 3a). You can
make your own standoffs with UV resistant tubing and electrical tie wraps.
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HF Radios and Battery Voltage
When transmitting a SSB radio on a 12 volt DC system, the peak current draw can be 25 amps
for an average 150 watt radio. This amount of current requires heavier gauge wire than other equipment on board. For the supply wire size you require, refer to the “wire size to % voltage drop” table
from the ABYC or a similar table printed in the Ancor Marine Grade Products catalog.
HF radios are more sensitive to low voltage than other marine electronics. When voltage at the
radio goes down, so does the RF output power. Extra attention needs to be paid to the DC supply of
the radio to ensure optimum performance.
DC Wiring Techniques
The DC wire size, connections and the point where the wire is
terminated are critical. Most SSBs sold come with a factory made two conductor power cable,
which has a plug at one end and raw wires at the other. The supplied cable and its wire size are
suitable for the length of the supplied cable only. If the supplied cable is long enough to connect
from your radio to the DC distribution point (usually the DC breaker panel) you are in business. If
the cable is too short, as is the case with many “remote head” style SSB installations, the supplied
cable will need to be cut near the connector and a larger gauge spliced on. The preferred method for
splicing is soldering and encapsulating the splice with marine grade heatshrink tubing, or using a
properly sized “butt” splice crimp connector. Ancor Marine Products manufactures an excellent butt
splice which incorporates heatshrink as part of the connector. As with all crimp type connectors
mentioned in this article, use a crimp tool intended for non-insulated terminals that puts a dimple in
the crimp for a superior mechanical connection.
Choosing the DC distribution point usually means finding a spare circuit breaker (or blank) in
your DC panel and replacing it with a 30 amp breaker. In some cases all breaker positions are in use
and an additional DC sub panel will need to be installed. Technically, an inline fuse does the same
job of a circuit breaker, however a breaker is the superior method of DC distribution on a boat and
should be used. A breaker or fuse MUST be at the supply end of the wire feeding the radio, even if
the manufacturer supplied cable has fuses in it at the radio end. Although uncommon, some boats
have been built with wire that is of too small a gauge to supply the existing DC distribution panel.
This is a good item to have a professional look at for assessment. Corrosion or loose connections at
the DC panel must be corrected as well.
When terminating the supply wire, select the correct size ring terminal for the wire gauge and the
screw size that is going to go through the terminal. 30 amp breakers usually use a #10 screw. Soldering the wire to the terminal is highly recommended. Slip on some marine type heatshrink tubing
around the terminal and wire for a professional finish that provides a strain relief and water protection for the wire.
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By following some basic guidelines and techniques a high performance Single
Sideband radio installation can be achieved and with a little extra effort the system will last for
years. Good quality materials improve performance and can greatly extend the life of the installation. The quality of the installation will impact your satisfaction with your radio purchase, not to
mention the fun and piece of mind in being able to make long distance communications from anywhere on the globe.
This article assumes of the reader a basic knowledge of marine terminology, yacht construction
methods and seamanship. If you don’t understand concepts or specific details of the content herein,
we strongly recommend you consult a marine radio professional for clarifications prior to making
equipment purchases or attempting an installation. Do the job once and do it right the first time.
About the author
Eric Steinberg is the owner of the marine electronics and consulting
company Farallon Electronics, located in Sausalito, California. He is a FCC licensed Marine Electronics Technician specializing in electronic systems on performance yachts. His areas of expertise
include SSB / satellite communications, navigation, weather systems and yacht racing instrumentation. He is a sought after racing yacht specialist with in-depth experience on performance boats
from IMS Maxis to Melges 24s and was a member of the America True challenge for the Americas
Cup 2000. Eric has been sailing since he was 5 years old and has many ocean miles to his credit.
Eric may be contacted at 415-331-1924 (office), 415-331-2063 (fax) or
Farallon Electronics 415•331•1924
Materials, Manufacturers and Vendors
• 150 watt Marine SSB radio & tuners
Icom, Furuno, SGC (electronics dealers)
• Copper ground strap
Newmar, Farallon Electronics
• Copper braid, 1” tubular
Farallon Electronics
• RG-8U, RG-213, RG-8X, GTO-15
Ancor Marine Products (electronics
dealers & chandleries)
• Backstay insulators
Navtec, Ronstan (rigging shops)
• Whip antennas
Shakespeare, Glassmaster (electronics
dealers & chandleries)
• Marine heatshrink tubing
Ancor Marine Products (electronics
dealers & chandleries)
• Ferrite chokes, type 31 material
Farallon Electronics
• Crimp terminals
Ancor Marine Products (electronics
dealers & chandleries)
• UHF PL-259 connector
Amphenol (electronics dealers & chandleries)
• 3M 2242 sealing tape
Farallon Electronics
• UltraTorch pro soldering and heat tool
Farallon Electronics
• Crimping tool for non-insulated terminals
Klein Tool, tool supply stores, Home Depot
Ancor Products
Farallon Electronics
©1998 - 2003 Eric Steinberg, Farallon Electronics
2346 Marinship Way, Suite 101, Sausalito, CA USA 94965
415•331•1924 415•331•2063 / fax
Farallon Electronics 415•331•1924
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