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2014-04-10

The new VHF is a MMSI affair

The boat show special arrived in March. Installation took a little longer.

Sailors, despite all their modern toys, are known for near-medieval levels of superstition. Whistling is somehow related to the attraction of storms to boats at sea, as is the scratching of the backstays to the ending of calms. Clearly, the refusal to leave port on a Friday (which is amusing to me as not only have sailors been historically irreligious, but not even particularly Christian) didn't help the tall ship Bounty.

What is clear is that when Age of Sail sailors weren't passing sewing needles through noses to avoid hauntings, they would assuage their quite-reasonable concerns about drowning or otherwise expiring at sea with a medley of magical wards. They knew, as we still know today, that it is the indifference of the elements and our own inattention that will get us killed offshore, even if the odds are much higher that one will be killed in that most quotidian of ways: on a road...particularly on a motorcycle. Injury, on the other hand, is all too common aboard, which is why we've taken first aid courses.

Sticky buttons and dodgy reception did not endear this unit to me; my equally aged ICOM M-45 on Valiente did and continues to do a better job of basic R/T.


When it came time to replace the elderly Navico VHF that came with Alchemy, I determined to take no half-measures and to appease the gods with the good old belt and suspenders approach. Those who purchase modern boat electronic, particularly in the communications/navigation realm, are aware that there's a lot of "confluence" underway, in which one device can do a number of jobs. So when I heard that a new iteration of the well-regarded Standard Horizon GX-2150 VHF with AIS (the GX-2200) was going to shortly grace the shelves of my local chandlery, I had a "shut up and take my money" moment. Particularly as the boat show price was compelling.

Why have GPS and AIS on one's radio? Well, it's a no-brainer for me: A radio that can tell me, thanks to GPS and AIS, my direction, speed and bearing backs up my plotter, which doesn't necessarily need to be on in open waters. Similarly, having a basic AIS on a simplified, but sufficiently text-supplemented, representation of a circle in space around our boat gives the helmsperson a bearing to other vessels, their CPAs (closest point of approach), their SOG (speed over ground) and, of course, a way to hail them on the VHF through the magic of DSC. DSC, or Digital Selective Calling, is a combination of a sort of paging or hailing system whereby specific boats (ones for whom the caller has an MMSI number) and an emergency alert setup: that's what the "big red button" on handhelds and base unit VHFs is for. So the particulars of one's own vessel, and one's current lat/lon, thanks to the GPS, are sent, depending on the location of the boat's antenna, many nautical miles in all directions. As a bonus, it's estimated that the range of a DSC call exceeds that of a voice call (such as a PAN PAN or the dreaded MAYDAY) by some 15% And let's face it, if you ever do need to push that particular red button, you probably have better things to be doing than shouting into a mic, right?

Hello, sailor: If something like Queen Mary II is in one's vicinity, one wishes to know.
The AIS element I've mentioned before as being what we consider to be one of the more significant advances in yacht gear safety and awareness. While "the oceans are full of things this size" is rather a hyperbolic statement, they are far from empty. Big ships can and should be considered as clueless as a liquored-up elephant herd stampeding a village, or perhaps like a sleeping whale in the path of a sailboat. AIS, the signals of which must be transmitted from all commercial shipping, can give the skipper of a cruising yacht a heads-up and a suggested course of action, which is typically "away". RADAR, which I consider the partner technology to AIS, gives you a chance to avoid rocks, land, (sometimes) debris and those smaller craft, fishers and the like, who are unlikely to have more than an old transistor radio aboard.
The shortest game of "chicken" ever.
So that was the logic of getting the new Standard Horizon product: lots of useful gadgets in one decent radio. I say decent because I have a few SH handhelds with which I am quite pleased, and my initial shipboard tests were very promising. Other equally well-regarded manufacturers, such as ICOM, make similar "combos", but at a higher price, and Not at the Boat Show. So Standard Horizon it was. But first, for those like that sort of thing, I did a "deboxing" to make sure all pieces of the new gear were present:

The SH GX-2200  is relatively compact and could have gone a number of places inside the pilothouse.

All was accounted for, along with the RAM3 remote mic that will be at the outside helm. Many of the functions of the base unit can be replicated from this handheld, which is suitably water-resistant.

The 50-odd feet of cord is handy, too.

Seen below is the provisional mounting. I have an old Signal Mate roll-up "emergency" VHF antenna I used as my mast is still in the rack. Hell, so is the whole boat. Height of antenna was therefore a good four metres. The mounting is provisional in case the VHF affects the Ritchie helm compass, the soft iron ball of which is to the right. So this may be moved. It's very shippy looking where it is, however. The old mount for the deceased "video" depth finder fit quite well.

Out of the box and with a dollop of improvised 12VDC, the GX-2200 rapidly found its bearings without an external GPS antenna.
Job One was inputting the MMSI number I obtained recently (and remarkably quickly and painlessly, he exclaimed in rare gratitude) from Transport Canada. This, for reasons of security, one supposes, is a one-shot deal: you have just one try to get a nine-digit number into the VHF's memory:

While the size of the manual is daunting, the drop-down menus and "soft keys" are logical and easy to suss out.
Checking, checking, squinting, squinting...

Each country has an MMSI "code": I am guessing Canada's is "316". Why, no one may know.

 Then you have to do it a second time. For keepsies, one presumes.

Ar, they be some dirty digits, Skipper...ye'll mar the finish with 'em!
Just a note here that if you have a handheld VHF (the "walkie-talkie") with DSC capability, you tend to load it with the same MMSI as the "mothership". If you, like me, have two boats, however, and shuttle a handheld between them, you can get a number called a Maritime Identity Number. This is a kind of second tier to the MMSI in that it's related to the handheld itself, not the boat, per se. As I have two DSC-capable handhelds, I will likely put the MMSI into the "better" one (it floats!) and get an MI for the other.

Once the (correct and triple-checked) MMSI numbers are input, the results are fairly dramatic. Within seconds of hitting the AIS button, I located several nearby workboats, probably dredging out a runway or something.

"Lubie"? Lubberly.
A quick scan of the manual revealed ways to learn more:

This is the "2NM" setting. Three boats were transmitting AIS data.
Now, it's important to note that this VHF's AIS is simply a receiver. They don't know that I'm around or where. Even if I hit the "call" button, their VHF would simply "ring" at their end and I might not show on their RADAR. For that, I'd need an AIS transponder. A later post will delve into the desirable and undesirable aspects of having one on a cruising yacht.

Given the location, these boats might have been servicing nav aids, such as the suite of local buoyage. The ice is, after all, mostly gone.

You don't lose the VHF part of the radio while you are checking out the AIS signals of surrounding boats. You can have a sort of "screen in screen" setup whereby you can show AIS, GPS, GPS compass with SOG and other data at the touch of a button.
Add caption
And there's the usual bunch of NMEA data wires at the back so all this can be fed to a plotter or even a PC for navigational goodness.  I did a radio check with "Prescott", the closest Coast Guard station, and was told that even with my dubious antenna, I was "loud and clear". I set up the DSC function to do a test call, and that worked in only two seconds, signalling "DSC ACK" (which doesn't mean the radio requires a Heimlich Maneuver, but rather that the DSC call has been ack-nowledged). So functionality has been achieved.
Wonky light in the pilothouse can throw off my camera, it seems.
The power was a different story. Bare wires twisted together is fine for test purposes, but even if the current (pun intended) VHF location is temporary, I prefer to conduct myself (pun intended, again) with a little more professionalism. So I installed Anderson Powerpoles on my DC leads. These "crimp and snap together" doohickeys are superior to ring or Molex connectors that preceded them, and have become very popular among the amateur radio fraternity (I use the term "fraternity" based on the visual evidence of prevailing beardiness), and are considered the right choice for low-resistance and firm connecting.
Conduct yourself accordingly in the wide world of radio.

While it took me some blood and sweat and seamanlike language to figure out how to assemble the things...they require a bit of force to get them to engage properly and I don't have the ideal crimping die...I did get them to work and will use them around the boat going forward any place where solder or other more permanent crimping isn't called for...and quick removal may be.

For the intrigued, here's a helpful instructional video:
And now, with launch approaching, it's back to the boat for me. At least I can listen to WX again.