Saturday, April 30, 2011

SSB - A Fiasco Only Partly of Our Own Making.

London, ON

Communications has become of increasing importance to us as we contemplate crossing a major body of water.  Single Side Band Radio seemed to offer the possibility of extended communications ability.  What a waste of time and money it has been.

We purchased, in 2005, an ICOM 802 SSB and a pactor modem to allow us to have email and other data capabilities.  A large dynaplate was installed on the hull as we knew we had to "ground" the radio to the sea if we wanted it to work properly. 

It is possible to have a SSB modified to permit use of the full range of frequencies available to ham radio operators and we had this done.  A ham licence was obtained by me to keep us all legal and everything.

All very nice but the radio has never worked very well.  We frigged around with the antenna and the dynaplate.  We strung miles of copper ribbon everywhere.  Miles of wire have been installed and removed and relocated and cursed by us. 

Short description: SSB is a major headache.  Some of the radios work well enough in the Bahamas and their owners believe they are the cat's ass.  All they have right is the ass part.   The Bahamas is so small an area that no one can tell if their radio really works.

Worrying that the radio was malfunctioning we took it an authorized ICOM service centre in Florida.  After testing the service centre provided us with a bill for $880 of work and told us the transmitter section of the radio was buggered.  All our poor radio could muster was 10 watts of power on transmission.

We declined to have the radio repaired.  For $880 we could buy a new full feature ham radio and use it (after modifying it to handle SSB frequencies.  It's complicated - I'll tell you about it sometime).  

Some things the service centre told us bothered me.  They said they would have to desolder a bunch of parts from the radio and replace them - resistors, transistors, capacitors and so on and they allowed $500 for this.  Now this did not ring just totally correct.  

We re installed the radio and went to the Bahamas on the clear understanding that our radio would only receive - not transmit.

Our understanding was incorrect and the radio transmitted just fine but reception was faint beyond 200 miles.  Data transmission was very very difficult.

Returning to the USA we sent the ICOM to a much better repair facility, Clairmont Skyland TV in Atlanta, GA.  They ran it through its paces and after 8 hours of bench time called to tell us THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THE RADIO. The techs were broadcasting in real time at 100 watts.  Reception was a dream.

Although expensive the diagnostic time was invaluable.  The guys at Clairmont Skyland recommended a few things to try with respect to our antenna as this seemed the next logical problem area.

We also learned there is no authorized ICOM dealer in Florida.  At all.

So if you have a steel boat maybe SSB is a good idea.  If your boat maker epoxied 100 square feet of copper screen in your hull at time of manufacture maybe SSB is a good idea. If you have an older production fiberglass sailboat SSB is a disappointment unless you consider the very limited range of the Bahamas sufficient.  Even then you may not be happy much of the time.

Now all you guys can tell me how great your radios work. 

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