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De-mystefying HF for Cruisers

De-mystifying HF for Cruisers

(c) 2004 D Kerr

The HF transceiver is still the workhorse of blue water Cruisers. It provides reliable communication when we are far away. It can be a godsend when there is an emergency. Dave Kerr helps you decide if your older radio is still useful.

If you are sailing from the East Coast to Lord Howe Island, circumnavigating Australia or sailing around the South Pacific you need to figure out how to stay in touch or call for assistance should it be needed.

Our recent reader survey showed that there is still confusion about HF services in our region. This article summarises the current facilities and assesses their adequacy. We've also been testing several DSC capable HF radios for those seeking to upgrade or equip their boat and the results will be published next month.

Reader Survey.

In May 2004 we asked readers of Cruising Helmsman to give us their assessment of recently-purchased HF radios, particularly those equipped with digital signalling (DSC).

Surprisingly, we received lots of comment on HF/VHF facilities- even though we did not ask for it! This feedback revealed knowledge gaps as well as dissatisfaction with some aspects of current services. As a result of the reader interest, I have contacted the State run Coast Radio stations, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) and specialist Global Maritime and Distress and Safety (GMDSS) experts in the US, UK and South Africa, to present as complete a picture as possible of the current situation.

What does a blue water cruiser want?

o The ability to send a distress or urgency message quickly and know someone is acting on it.

o Someone reliable to know our last position, course and speed in case of disaster if we are unable to send a distress message or activate an EPIRB.

o Reception of weather and warning information.

o General communications (ordering parts, contact with family and friends).

We'll describe the fit between these requirements and available services after looking at what's on offer.

Marine satellite communications are still too expensive for many cruisers. Non-marine satellite phones are now smaller and cheaper but very susceptible to the marine environment; they only allow a one to one contact, whereas radio potentially allows many people to hear your call. Thus HF radio remains the first choice for most blue water cruisers.

Some history- the Big Shutdown.

In June 2002, the network of Australian Maritime HF stations run by Telstra was shut down. The stations were powerful with excellent antennas and staffed by highly trained and experienced operators. They had provided a high quality 24hr per day voice listening watch, skeds, position reporting, distress communications, radiotelephone (HF/VHF) and other services for many years.

What replaced this network?

The brief answer is that not everything was replaced. The introduction of DSC meant that those with the equipment could transmit distress information much more quickly and reliably. HF and VHF telephone services ceased and  Australian Coastal VHF coverage thereby reduced. A State based Coast Radio service was established to provide a more limited voice watch but only on three frequencies.

So, what do we have now?

HF stations in Wiluna WA (call sign VMW) and Charleville Queensland (call sign VMC) provide DSC facilities, frequent automated weather broadcasts and a Weatherfax service. We were in the Solomon Islands during the changeover to VMC/VMW and can attest to the high quality of these new weather services.  Other cruisers agree that there has been a big improvement.

VMC/VMW can ONLY be contacted using DSC. Basically you call them by setting some options on your radio (which must be DSC capable) and then pressing a button. VMC/VMW (or VIC- rescue coordination) will then come onto the nominated voice channel. After that, everything is largely the same as it used to be before 2002. The problem is that you need DSC to contact VMC/VMW and this typically costs several thousand dollars and often requires total replacement of your existing HF radio.

State-run HF stations were put in place to provide a Coastal (but not High Seas) HF voice monitoring service. The mandate for this service was a 24hr listening watch for Distress (Maydays) and Urgency (Panpan) calls. With one exception, there are no skeds or position reporting arrangements. I'm not sure about you, but I want someone responsible to know where I am, where I'm headed and to raise the alarm if I do not report on a regular basis. The State run Coast Stations typically will not do this or handle AUSREP reports (which will be discussed shortly.)

Cruisers in NSW have found that Coast Radio Sydney will not even answer calls made directly to them! Most of the Coast Radio stations use scanning receivers (so they could miss your call), often with compromise antennas in sometimes noisy locations, so it's clear that the Coast Radio stations are a poor replacement for the original Coast Stations. The two higher frequencies being used are very noisy with (illegal) Asian fishing traffic. In many cases, the staff monitoring voice traffic also have other busy jobs (like supervising port shipping) which further compromises the situation.

Who's listening?

The Coast Stations maintain a 24hr voice listening watch on 4125, 6215 and 8291kHz. As mentioned, most of them are only listening for emergencies and there is no requirement to run skeds, monitor the apparent disappearance of vessels or even respond to routine calls. Those listening are usually engaged on other tasks so the HF watch is a secondary function.

Ships no longer keep an HF voice watch- they use DSC. VHF voice watch will also be replaced by VHF-DSC in February 2005.

Penta Comstat (a privately run station) has reduced its voice watch to 0700-1000 and 1600-1900 each day. They only monitor their own channels now that the former distress/calling channels are reserved for distress only. In an emergency, you can contact Penta using Selcall at any time. However, Penta can't always guarantee to be there. At some time in the future, the owners will likely want to retire from being locked to a radio station day in and day out. The station is in a remote location (for low noise) and is also integrated with their accommodation, so it is unlikely someone will take over when they retire. See �Keeping in Touch at Sea" May 2002

Ham Radio.

Amateur Radio licences are becoming easier to obtain with the recent discontinuation of the Morse Code requirement. You can use a (suitably equipped) marine radio to transmit on ham frequencies but you cannot legally (except in emergencies) use a ham radio on Marine bands. Many sailors hold ham licences. There are skeds and nets to keep in touch and you can raise another ham somewhere in the world 24hrs per day.

Email & Radiotelephone links.

The volume of email over popular Sailmail and the amateur Winlink equivalent has increased exponentially. For many cruisers, it is now the way they communicate with family, friends and suppliers. This state of the art technology will often get a message through when HF voice is unreadable or blanketed by other signals.

We have used Penta Comstat's Radiotelephone linkup to speak with loved ones at special times like birthdays or the death of a friend. It works well but may disappear when the owners retire.


The AUSREP positive position reporting system is run by AMSA. It is intended for larger ships but they happily track smaller vessels. If you fail to report on schedule, they initiate action to find out what has happened and if necessary commence rescue efforts. The system is intended for an area bounded approximately 200NM off the Australian coastline, but people have used it outside those limits. You can report via DSC initiated contact with VMC/VMW, Penta Comstat or Hobart Coast Radio. AMSA will accept email, but will NOT launch a search should a scheduled email fail to arrive.

Yotreps (CH May 2004) is a volunteer run system which shows yacht locations on the web and shares weather observations. Update is by email through Sailmail,  Winlink or Ham skeds. Data is sometimes used by search coordinators. However, no action is taken if a vessel ceases to report.

You can do your own tracking via friends or family members but the authorities may not act quickly if contact is lost and your shore team does not sound convincing.

Penta Comstat continues to provide positive reporting facilities so that the authorities will be contacted if you disappear. Russell Radio in N.Z. provides similar facilities.

There are a number of "nets" where like minded people keep track of one another, weather conditions etc. Examples are the "Sheila Net" (CH July 2004) and the "Pacific Seafarers Net".

What happens in other countries?

The transition to automated systems has also happened in other places. However, other countries have not been as fast as Australia to disband voice monitoring. South Pacific countries have limited voice watches, skeds and weather services.

How's DSC going in Australia?

AMSA provided the following interesting statistics for nine months of the latest financial year. All figures are per month:

Calls addressed to VMC/VMW were a staggering 28,226. This was broken up as follows:

0.5 Maydays.
Nine Panpans.
13,652 Securite messages.
Five Distress Relays.
1,426 non-distress messages (such as AUSREPs)
12,090 DSC test calls. DSC test calls are growing by approximately 50% per annum and have become an issue in the US where they threaten to mask real distress calls!

Approximately 250 MMSIs (See Glossary), which are necessary for 406 EPIRBs and/or DSC, have been issued to Australian recreational vessels. The number of these vessels with HF-DSC is unknown, but I'd guess less than half this number.

Ships often use Inmarsat instead of HF-DSC for their routine contacts. They are  required to monitor three of the DSC channels at all times when on the move. When there is a genuine emergency, it seems that ships use HF-DSC rather than rely on satellite.

I spent a couple of weeks monitoring the HF-DSC channels and found that DSC is being used very effectively to notify ships of EPIRB alerts and other emergencies in their area of operation. I picked up one Mayday and one PanPan from the South and North Pacific and the response from N.Z. Search and Rescue authorities was impressive. 

How well are a blue water cruiser's requirements met?

o  "To be able to send a distress or urgency message quickly and know someone is acting on it."

How? Realistically EPIRB, Inmarsat communications or HF. If you are relying on HF and do not have DSC then you might well have trouble being heard (depending upon time of day, your position and circumstances).

o Someone reliable to know our last known position, course and speed in case of disaster if we are unable to send a distress message or activate an EPIRB.

How? AUSREP,  Penta skeds or a private arrangement.

o Reception of weather and warning information.

How? Voice Broadcasts by radio receiver. Mail text or "Grib files" (see Glossary). Weather fax by HF radio.

o General communications (ordering parts, contact with family and friends).

How? Email, Radiotelephone by Penta.

The Bottom Line.

The first item above is the main challenge. The others can be satisfied using a non-DSC HF installation. When we were dismasted in the Coral Sea, we raised Penta easily but Gladstone Coast Radio and Gladstone VMR were not contactable by HF even on a prearranged sked. We were well outside the designated 200NM range. We used email via Penta to communicate with Gladstone until we came into their vicinity. Without Penta, we would have been out of contact with the mainland. So, you can still get by without DSC if you use Penta or another reliable mechanism to track your movements. It's also assumed you have EPIRBs. However, there is no doubt that having DSC improves your safety and gives you more options, particularly if things go wrong. DSC will also usually get through even when voice is unreadable.

Box 1: Coast Radio
All monitor 4125, 6215 and 8291 with warnings on 8176.

Hobart: Stands apart as a well equipped, well run, high quality station which runs skeds, position reporting and provides an excellent range of HF services. Their multiple antennas are first class and located in quiet locations. They run multiple receivers and transmitters to 1,000W. Good backup systems. No DSC. Excellent reports from cruisers.

Perth: Remotely operated 100W transmitter at Maylands with separate dedicated receivers in a quiet location 50Km East of Perth. Port Hedland has a 100W scanning transceiver remotely operated from Fremantle Water Police Base. No skeds, DSC or position reporting. Police multi-task. Good cruiser reports.

Darwin: Scanning receiver but there is a plan to add three dedicated receivers. Operator has other duties. There are no position reports, skeds or DSC. Transmitter is 100W. Operator is believed to multitask.

Adelaide: I had no response to my queries. Located at Port Augusta and run by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Believed to use a single antenna (I have heard that this is not in an optimal location) and 100W scanning receiver. Staff are very experienced radio people but I understand they are not marine oriented. No DSC, skeds or position reporting.

Run by the Sydney Ports Corporation, so staff multi-task. Single scanning tranceiver to 100W and the antenna is not optimal for location or noise.

Gladstone and Cairns:
I had no response to my queries. My personal experience with Gladstone indicates their antenna may be in a sub-optimal location. Gladstone itself is a busy industrial city with plenty of electrical noise pollution. I am only guessing when I suggest they might be using a scanning 100W tranceiver like most of the other states. No DSC, skeds or position reporting.

Box 2: Penta Comstat skeds and forecasts

Time            Freq/chan
0725 & 1625    NSW Coastal Forecast Ch 608, 802 & 4483kHz
0735 & 1635    Sked and Qld Coastal Forecast Ch 429, 608, 802
0800 & 1700    Long Range sked Ch 802, 1203, 1602
Times are NSW local times

Box 3: Weather VMC/VMW
Each area is covered by six forecast transmissions per day every four hours.
VMC (0700-1800EST) frequencies 4426, 8176,12365,16546
VMW (0700-1800WST) frequencies 4149, 8113, 12362, 16528
VMC night frequencies 2201, 6507, 8176, 12365
VMW night frequencies 2056, 6230, 8113, 12362

See the following web site for further detail.

Box 4: Weatherfax Australia
This service provides synoptic charts, radio propagation information, warnings, wave heights, sea temperatures and a wealth of other information. You can pick up the latest schedule at 0015UTC and 0030UTC from either station on the frequencies marked * below.

VMC 2628, *5100, *11030, *13920. 20469
VMW 5755, *7535, *10555, *15615, 18060 

For full details see:

Box 5: DSC Frequencies
DSC frequency  Associated voice frequency
2187.5*         2182
4207.5#        4125
6312.0#        6215
8414.5#*        8291
12577#        12290
16804.5#         16420
*monitored by ships (plus one other frequency)
# Monitored by VMC/VMW

Box 6: Reader Feedback Summary.

Most readers were happy with whichever radio they bought. Comments on specific radios will be discussed in the article next month.

There is a lot of confusion about the State-run Coast Radio network.

There was a lot of comment on the volunteer stations spread around the country.

a. Many comments about being unable to contact VMRs on designated HF frequencies due to the "volume being turned down", poor/noisy antenna installations and the major focus on busy VHF traffic.

b.  Some 24hr VMRs transfer their VHF night watch to a yacht, significantly reducing range.

c. There was good comment about the VMRs in NSW working well together despite overlap of some stations.

d. Much more varied comment about Qld stations- some excellent, some poor but a general lack of working together with transiting yachts.

e. The VMRs in some States are geared mainly to day recreational vessels and not equipped to pass tracking sheets or notify the authorities if a transiting vessel does not report. They are surprised when yachts contact them to be tracked! This is a potentially dangerous situation.

f. Several reports of excellent HF service from Hobart Coast Radio.

g. There are many parts of the Australian Coastline  not covered by VHF making HF necessary when circumnavigating.

h. Several reports of Sydney Coast Radio not answering direct HF calls. AMSA have said this is their right (the mandate is for distress and urgency) but they would prefer that Sydney Radio did answer. It's hard to figure out how effective Sydney Coast Radio might be if they only respond to emergency calls!

i. VMRs and Coast Radio Stations do not have VHF-DSC or HF-DSC.

Box 7: DSC in a nutshell.
DSC is an automatic means of signalling an operator at the other end of a radio connection. It's like the change, many years ago, from telephone operators to automatic dialling. DSC allows "packaged" messages to be sent, including a vessel's position. DSC can be used to make test calls, contact the operators to pass an AUSREP or other message and to signal Maydays and Panpans. See "The Radio Revamp" CH November 2002

Box 8: Glossary.
MMSI Maritime Mobile Service Identity. A unique number for each vessel using 406 EPIRB or VHF/HF DSC.

Grib- Synoptic charts compressed efficiently into an email message (using HF Sailmail/Winlink) which can then be  displayed graphically. Simpler than Weatherfax.

HF- "High Frequency". In practice, HF is used as shorthand for both Medium and High Frequency.

EPIRB- Electronic Position Indicating Radio Beacon.

VMR- An abbreviation for Volunteer Marine Rescue organizations around Australia.

Winlink/Sailmail- Email over HF Radio. Requires a special HF modem such as the SCS Pactor Modem.


1.Intro Photo.
2."Dismasted- who will hear you?"
3."Penta Comstat has reduced its voice watch"
4."Schematic of the excellent Hobart Coast Radio setup". [DIGITAL]
5."The Hobart Control Room" [DIGITAL]
6."Shore stations need multiple large antennas in a quiet location"

Author Box

David Kerr is a regular contributor who has a keen interest in Radio, Electronics and Sailing.

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