Just a Little Further

The Blue View – HF Radios on the Cheap

In this day and age, almost every offshore cruising boat we encounter has the capability of long distance communications at sea. While more and more boats have both satellite transceivers and high frequency (HF) radios aboard, because of the upfront and ongoing costs, most of us have to choose one or the other. Both have their pros and cons, and when we started cruising, the cost/benefit ratio definitely favored the HF radio. Now, however, with the costs of satellite communications dropping and the reliability improving, the decision is not so clear cut. For us, the much lower operating expenses and the ability to participate in radio nets were the deciding factors, and if we were starting out again today, I think we would still opt for an HF radio.

The upfront expenses of a complete HF radio system can be quite high. Installing a quality radio and all the components it takes to get the system up and running can easily cost more than $5000! We installed our system for far less than that. Here are some of the ways we used to save money without compromising quality.

hf radio components

The heart of an HF radio setup is the radio transceiver. We opted to go with an Icom IC-706MKIIG HAM radio for a couple of reasons. It was considerably less expensive than the typical marine radio, and it allowed us to communicate on the HAM radio frequencies, as well as the marine channels. It has a maximum transmission power of 100 watts vs. the 200 watts of most marine transceivers, but this hasn’t been a problem. The 706 is no longer available, but the newer Icom 718 will work just as well. The cost of the 718 is $600 versus $1850 for an Icom M802 marine radio. There are a few compromises to be made, however. The biggest is that since the Icom 718 is essentially a HAM radio, the assumption is that the operator is more knowledgeable – more of a geek – than the typical marine radio operator, and the radio isn’t as straightforward to program and operate. In addition, while the radio operates on both the HAM and marine frequencies, the operator must have a HAM license to transmit on the amateur radio frequencies.

icom 718

Since we use our radio for sending and receiving emails and text weather reports as well as voice communications, we needed a way to connect our computer to the radio. This was done with a PACTOR modem. We chose an SCS PTC-IIIusb modem. The newer Pactor DR-7400 transmits and receives at twice the speed and is a few hundred dollars more. The older unit works fine, but I would opt for the faster model if I was starting from scratch. Expect to pay about $1700 for the modem and all the cables.

pactor modem

If we always transmitted at the same frequency, we could tune our antenna length to that frequency and simplify the system, but since we transmit at a number of different frequencies, we need an antenna tuner in the system. We use an Icom AH-4 tuner that works as well as some of the more expensive marine models. The cost for an AH-4 tuner is around $225 while the marine version, the AT-140, costs about $450.

The next component is the antenna. Most boats use the backstay as a single long line antenna. Since the backstay is usually grounded at one or both ends, for it to act as an antenna it must be electrically isolated using backstay insulators. I’m not a big fan of this approach. One reason is the cost – each insulator costs between $250 and $450 depending on the size and brand. Another reason is that we know of two boats that were dismasted when a lightning strike disintegrated a backstay insulator. Instead, we use insulated lifeline wire and have rigged an antenna that is totally separate from the backstay. The cost is much less, the performance is just as good, and we don’t worry about losing our backstay in an electrical storm.

backstay insulator

 

antenna

So, adding everything up, the cost of our system if we were to install it today would be $2750. That would be a big hit to our budget, but it would be a lot easier to manage than the $5300 that the typical marine version would cost.

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  • David Lynn

    Hi Catherine,
    Thanks for the feedback. Buying the gear second hand is a great way to save on the costs. The Pactor is the highest cost item of the setup, and there are probably a lot of used Pactor 3 modems out there now that many people are upgrading to Pactor 4’s.

  • Catherine

    Great summary David. We have just re-started our cruising life, and have used our HF radio and Pactor modem. As HAM radio became our hobby during our time ashore we have a HAM radio and a marine radio on board. We recommend to cruisers to buy a marine set, due to the more complex knowledge needed for the HAM radio to operate on general frequencies, like you said. The marine sets are simple to operate in an emergency or stressful situation too. We bought our marine transceiver, auto tuner, pactor modem and antenna all second hand at reasonable prices.