About Radio

The primary use for radio on my boat is to collect NOAA weather charts on the high seas. My satellite system is too expensive to use for charts, and I can’t access the internet beyond US and Caribbean waters. The radio and iPad can do a good job. If the radio has been properly installed to avoid interference from the on-board electronics. My newer ICOM has been modified to work on WARC and all bands. In an emergency, and you will not be breaking any FCC laws as long as you use proper procedures, which means you must study and take a General HAM license test (my license is General class.)

If you are an Amateur Radio operator (HAM), you will of course have a Ham radio on board. SSB Marine radios are not designed for HAM communications, and are clumsy to use at best on the HAM service. In an emergency, my experience has been that the Coast Guard will not be able to hear the weak signal from a SSB on sailboat, over the chatter of fishermen worldwide with powerful transmitters.

The amateur bands are filled with people who are listening for emergency traffic - in fact that is one of the prime uses for Amateur Radio (HAM.) In emergencies often the only way to communicate is using HAM.

While on the way to Hawaii with a hurricane fast approaching my position, I could not contact the coast guard for position info on the storm, my signal was too weak. I was then unlicensed to transmit on the general coverage bands, only licensed on the 10 M band, but as it was an emergency I made a call on 20M and immediately was picked up. Within a few minutes another HAM was contacted in Hawaii, and he was a hurricane expert and was able to steer me clear of the hurricane path.

To get NOAA charts

ftp://tgftp.nws.noaa.gov/ is the only valid FTP site for this service.

This "help" file contains a detailed description of the FTPMAIL system

and available products. To obtain another copy of the FTPMAIL "help" file:

-In plain text format-

Send an e-mail to:       NWS.FTPMail.OPS@noaa.gov

Subject Line:            Put anything you like

Body:                    help


This National Weather Service (NWS) FTPMAIL server is intended to

allow Internet access for users who do not have direct access to

the World Wide Web but who are equipped with an e-mail system.

The service is free and no signup is required.  Using FTPMAIL,

users can request files from NWS and have them automatically

e-mailed back to them.  Turnaround is generally less than one

hour, however, performance may vary widely and the NWS cannot guarantee


The charts will be sent to your e-mail box. You can then access the e-mail as usual and download the files you want (ignoring junk mail and so on.) I just sent this email to NOAA and have received the charts in the time it has taken me to write this. Each file is in a CCIT4 TIFF format that has to be viewed in an external application. I save the file to a folder and open the image with Graphic Converter on the Mac. A file is typically 30KB compressed and ten such files take me about 10 minutes to download including the time to access the mailbox (at 4800 baud) This costs about $12 for Sat phone usage.

Today in 2018, I recommend a satellite telephone be on board to contact the coast guard, and to call home. It is a less expensive communications tool than any radio system.

But you can’t use it to get NOAA weatherfax charts with cheap  satellite phone service, though I have a satellite system that can get NOAA weatherfax charts and satellite pictures. It costs $7,000 today (see pictures) . NOAA weatherfax charts are essential for safe voyaging. Computer generated GRIB * charts are not a substitute for NOAA weather charts generated by knowledgable wether forecasters. These charts consist of surface conditions, upper atmosphere conditions, and satellite images. They are forecast up to 96 hours ahead, and are updated every six hours, or every 12 hours. These are the charts used by shipping world wide. GRIB charts are for racing yachts, in my opinion, giving mostly surface conditions, and very useful for getting to the destination as quickly as possible, but not very useful for plotting a safe passage.

* GRIB warning from a UK weather WEB site.

From whatever source, it is important to remember that GRIB files are computer generated forecast files from a National Weather Service computer. These are sent without review, and are offered on an as-is basis. There is no assurance that the data are available, accurate or correct. Systems providing information and the computer models are automated and subject to a variety of failures and errors. By using the data, users acknowledge and agree to these limitations. Consequently, the prudent Sailor will only use GRIB products in the short term (say up to 24 or 36 hours) in the light of other sources of information eg text forecasts, forecast charts generated by man-machine-mix, from the UK Met Office for example, or satellite pictures.

Saildocs, a free service will send you whatever NWS chart you request at a reduced size and quality in half the time it takes using ftpmail.

Send an email to query@saildocs.com

In the body type the names of the fax files you want. Such as

send PPAA51.TIF