Upgrade Your Boat - Part 7 - Communications

By Simon Boyde

Communications and the GMDSS

Cave Canem
is a bit of an old lady, and when we set her up for her first offshore (when she was already 21) in 2005, we took what we thought was good advice on communications equipment on board.

It was bad advice.

Long Feelers all-atwitchThe 'bar-chat' thought at the time was that commercial maritime had adopted a system that was too expensive and irrelevant to most sailors' needs. This oft-repeated position I heard from many sources. Curiously, though, not one of these came from anyone in the commercial sector. This should have raised my normally sensitive feelers, but at the time it was all a bit new, and I had not thought it through nor done any independent checking - except for the internet, but alas most of that repeats this bad advice unless you know where to look.

The Royal Hong Yacht Club - GMDSS courses run by Simon BoydeConfession time: I not only spend my days working at Storm Force, I spend evenings and weekends teaching a GMDSS course - the Long Range Certificate Course - at the RHKYC. Background brief info on the GMDSS is in a separate article to this one so that I don't have to go into great detail on it here.

This updated internationally-recognised course replaced the old SSB radio course we all used to do. The interesting thing here is that these new voice procedures and communications equipment were introduced as part of the GMDSS in the early 1990's and became mandatory for all commercial ships from 1999. I did my old radio course in 1997 and none of this was revealed during that course. I taught the old style radio course in 2008, still unchanged.

Head in SandWhich when you think about it is a bit bizarre because the commercial shipping world changed over around fifteen years before! We are all guilty, me included, of sticking our heads in the sand!

It was always our intention to do this upgrade to the boat slowly, as funds permitted, and to carry on using the boat during the upgrade process. Part of this using the boat means (for me at least) doing the China Sea Race. Which means, now that I actually know about the GMDSS system (which has, after all, been around for 18 years), I am putting GMDSS equipment on board.

GMDSS Communications Equipment

Essentially, for us non-commercial mariners, the GMDSS means, for an offshore boat, the following communications equipment in order of importance:

VHF DSC RadioVHF DSC radio
MF/HF DSC radio
Handheld GMDSS VHF radio
AerialNAVTEX Receiver
Inmarsat C transceiver
EPIRB (and PLBS for those who want them)

Spot what is missing on the list - that's right: no satellite telephone.

If you really want to use a Sat Phone you need one of these...Nice to have, a sat phone. good for calling Mum, great for chatting to your favourite engine man as to why yours won't start, recent models even permit you to surf the internet at sea. (Get a life!). But almost damn-all use in an emergency, unless it has a big dome - a Fleet 77 or similar GMDSS system. Small satellite phones which can fit in your hand utilize Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites which in a rough sea will be out of line-of-sight of the antenna for a lot of the time, which means that your voice communication will be cut off.

My old communications equipment on board was having a bit of bad hair day, and was totally non-GMDSS compliant. Knowing that if you get in trouble it is commercial ships which do the rescue, and knowing (as I do now) that commercial ships will not even be listening to their radios without a DSC alert to tell them to do so, it was time to upgrade.

NAVTEX receiverThis means, for me, new handheld radios, new fixed VHF, new MF-HF radio, NAVTEX, SART, EPIRB and an Inmarsat C terminal.

GME EPIRBThis will give me a DSC alerting ability on VHF (shortrange) and MF/HF (medium and long range). A direct to satellite alerting capability on Inmarsat C. Coastal weather reports and navigational warnings on Navtex, similar information on Sat-C when out of Navtex, and VHF radios with replaceable, non-rechargeable emergency batteries for emergency use, and distress secondary alerting using EPIRB, with homing signals from the same and the SART.

Hand Held Marine VHF

Lots of acronyms here, and lots of equipment. What we chose and why is covered in the next article.

Simon Boyde is a Director of Storm Force Marine and regularly races Cave Canem