Velella's Drift

An account of Velella's voyage from Seattle to New York via Panama, 2009-2011

The Magic of HF Radio

I remember in middle school the annual trips to Fry’s, staring in wonder down the aisles full of technology. But that was always for computer games or a faster computer on which to play them: Purchases within societal norms. I wasn’t the hardcore techie. I didn’t bring food into the store, wear a Hawaiian shirt over my beer gut, or dig with sticky hands through the bargain bin in search of cheap diodes, circuit boards, or ferrite clips.

SSB intricacies

But working on our SSB, I came pretty darn close. I realized, as I was trying to explain what an SWR meter is, how bad I sounded. “I need to check the impedance in my HAM radio to see how many ferrite clips I need.” The clerk had no idea what I was talking about.

I say HAM radio because most people have at least a basic understanding of what HAM radio is. Not true for SSB, although they are essentially the same. Both HAM and SSB operate on high frequency radio waves, which give them their signature long range. While HAM stations and SSB transceivers pick up the same frequencies, certain channels are “locked” for transmitting. To gain access to these channels, the operator is required to get a HAM license from the FCC. It’s more effort than is necessary for us, and hopefully keeps us out of the uber-nerd category.

Nessie helping Prescott with wiring

The idea of high frequency radio on our boat blows my mind. We can communicate with people 500, 1000, 2000 miles away, using the same frequencies as my childhood walkie-talkies. With an expanded range we have access to a varied and bizarre list of non-commercial stations. There’s a community college in Texas that broadcasts the BBC, and a naval base in Puerto Rico that carries NFL games. Though we bought it for weather information, it will also be our major source of entertainment. Our options are limited though, and will change as we head south.

By far the coolest thing about our radio is the Pactor modem, a gift from Meghan’s dad. Similar to the modems of circa 1994, this device transmits data information through sound. We hook up our laptop to write our emails which are compressed and sent to the Pactor. The Pactor converts the data into a series of chirps and whistles, and then our antenna spits them out across the ocean. They are picked up by one of fourteen stations around the world, converted back into data, and sent through the internet.

The data transfer rate is about 1 kilobyte a minute. This likely means nothing to you, until you consider that a good cable internet connection is 1,000 kilobytes per SECOND. In other words, 60,000x faster than our connection. If you remember 15 years back to using your dial-up modem, it still operated 900x faster than our SSB.

For this I’m profoundly glad. While it’s a great consolation to receive emails from friends and family, part of the rationale behind our journey is to unplug. I don’t want to look at the internet, or any screen, for the next 9 months. The SSB gives us enough contact for comfort, while allowing communication to remain precious. In the early days of the internet, I had to wait patiently for each email to download from the internet. The SSB harkens back to the early days of the internet, when email was transitioning from postal mail to the instant messages of today. I’m already anticipating our nightly ritual of booting up the SSB, turning on the laptop, and gathering around to see what word we get from friends and family.

All we can hope for are one or two paragraph emails. We’ll get some basic weather information, but surfing the internet is out of the question. We can LOL from the middle of the Caribbean, but without the trappings of modern technology. Which, in my mind, is the magic of HF radio.



  justinwi wrote @

“…and hopefully keeps us out of the uber-nerd category.”

Writing a book about applying WoW tactics to real life landed you in the uber-nerd category long ago my friend. Embrace it…LARP’r.

Btw, this post opens you for the best of all Denial of Service attacks: death by lolcat. If we attach & email a daily summary of the best fail pics, celebrity mug shots, and lolcats…

Consider getting a “low-bandwidth” only email address and only giving it to the friends & family you really trust. The rest of us won’t be able to help ourselves:

  Papa wrote @

great post, near-U-N
your conclusion confirms that you’ve not lost sight of the real horizon
fair winds

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: