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Old 20-08-2011, 00:23   #1
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Ham on a Budget


The girlfriend and I are planning to leave south for Mexico in a few weeks, and I'd really like to participate in the ham nets... but honestly I'm a little startled at the costs involved to get into it! I've been quoted $1280 to install the backstay isolators, then another $500 for a tuner, $400 worth of copper for an RF backplane (self-installed), and that's all before even purchasing a radio!??

I've heard other options, like running a wire antenna up the mast on a halyard... I'd like something a little more permanent though. Someone suggested running a second backstay of lighter gauge, which might make a lot of sense... especially since we're on a trimaran and running a stay out to the end of a side-hull would be simple.

I'd probably be happy with a used mobile HF rig instead of the Icom M-802 that the local guys all recommend. Get the SGC tuner, or something else? What about these KISS backplanes? What would you do?

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Old 20-08-2011, 00:52   #2
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Re: Ham on a Budget

I had to look up a picture of a Tri. One thing that comes to mind is a simple dipole/wire antenna going from the bow pulpit at the center and the ends going around the perimeter of the boat. Would something like this work or would it get in the way.

Daniel - Rhapsody Blog,
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Old 20-08-2011, 01:45   #3
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Re: Ham on a Budget

You can do the backstay yourself. Just buy Norseman/StaLok insulaters and install them yourself. I got mine off Ebay for a couple hundred. Here's source at about $180 each for 9/32" wire. You can get by with one insulator if your backstay chainplate isn't grounded. Just don't touch the stay when transmitting. Insulators

You can buy two roles of 2" copper strapping for around a $100 per 25' role. Two roles should be enough to get a proper ground running it under the deck on each side of the hull. GEORGIA COPPER - Copper ground strap You can try the Kiss ground. I've heard people swear by it and at it. The sintered bronze grounding plates will work though will probably require a haul out to install. Some people claim you can just go to your bronze through hulls for a ground.

For a radio, go ham. Way more people to talk to and it's all free. An Incom 718 is a little over $600 new, $400 or so used. They can be easily opened up to transmit on all frequencies by clipping a few wires for emergency transmission. You'll need to get your Ham General License but it's not rocket science. I got mine after one days study on one of the free online tutorial sites.

The SGC 230 is a great tuner but $500 anywhere you look. The Icom AH4 tuner will just fine with a Ham radio for around $300. I'll make you a deal on one that was only installed for a couple of weeks. Changed it out because lof a problem with the radio, not the tuner.

If you want email, you're pretty much stuck with a Pactor II Modem which will run you close to a $1,000 new. They come on the market used but never cheap. Be sure the modem has the Pactor 3 software upgrade. Some people claim you can get email and weather information with a sound card in your computer. No experience with it so no guarantees.

For right around a $1,000 you can up on voice with a ham radio. Email will cost you another $1,000.
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Old 20-08-2011, 05:16   #4
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Re: Ham on a Budget

Uhm, I have only VHF license, but first thought is, what output and frequencie/s are you looking for? a regular 1.5mm stranded wire up a mast at an angle is ok up to about 10W. even an inverted-V antenna can be made this way in minutes.
If I was bringing Ham gear on-board I would bring two 15m pieces of regular PVC insulated (same as used for house wiring) as backup even if a permanent system is installed,
with one end towed and other pulled up a mast it could be tuned to reasonable SWR with a simple Pi-tuner, Z-match or similar on most frequencies between 30MHz (10m) and 3MHz (80m).
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Old 20-08-2011, 05:36   #5
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First off, do you mean marine nets or ham nets? You need an amateur radio license for ham nets, normally at least a general.

But either way you'll either need a tuner, long wire antenna, and grounding system, or a simple dipole for each band -- I did the dipole because it's essentially free (used some old speaker wire) as a temporary solution, but since it works so well, I haven't gotten around to reinstalling my tuner.

I just hoist it up to the masthead and tie off the other end to the lifelines. You can find the correct length for each band, or pretty close, with a little searching online. Not sure why so many people want you to cut your backstay, but maybe it's like married people trying to get everyone else married too...

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Old 20-08-2011, 05:58   #6
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Re: Ham on a Budget

The great thing about ham radio is that you CAN do it on the cheap. There are many different installations that could be set up, most given the limitations of your boat, will serve you about the do not sweat it too much.

My very first quick test of my first set of used gear on the boat worked just fine: I ran a wire on the topping lift, insulated at both ends, for the antenna. The counterpoise, I just used the boom. Tuner was a very cheap LDG. Worked.

After that, I experimented with a lot of different equipment and set ups on my boat. My current set up is: ICOM M-700PRO and Yaesu 857D transceivers running to an SGC-230 tuner, backstay antenna and copper foil through the bilge and tied to a thru hull. Works great and I can make contacts 5000 miles away. I also use wire radials to good effect.

The antenna and counterpoise are critical to the success of a rig, but these CAN be done on the cheap. Good advice on the ICOM tuner, but also look at some of the other SGC ones.

SO, your installation has the following parts: Counterpoise, Antenna, Tuner-radio. Just think of it that way, keep it simple.

SO, you can try is the following:

1. Counterpoise: if you can get copper foil from a building supply store, even copper flashing for houses, try that first. If not, dont sweat it, try putting together wire radials for each frequency you want to work. LOTS of info on that in many places. Also, get a good wire strap or copper foil that you can run to a bronz thru hull. You can do either, or both. Simple and very effective.

2. Antenna:
a. A simple dipole that you can run up is a fine idea, but you will need quite a bit of GOOD quality coax to make that work. Another idea....put together a dipole and do not run it up very high...not as good ...but will work. You can do a 16ft/leg dipole (resonant on 20m) or 32ft/leg (40m)...depending on which freq you will work more often...and use a tuner to tune for other freqs. You can also do an "L" shaped dipole.
b. Try a simple wire antenna, run using your counterpoise. You can run a wire antenna from your cockpit rail to the top of your rig. Caution: if you do need strong wire and strong connections...there will be quite a bit of flex on your boat and this will break, fouling your rig.
c. Thus, you might try running a wire up your topping lift. This may not be able to be used as a permanent installation, connected all the time, but you should be able to connect when you need to use it, then disconnet.
d. Alternatively...just spend the money and get a commercial vertical from West Marine. Attach to your cockpit rail.

3. Tuner-Radio. From your GOOD coax to whatever tuner you get. That is important. the proper wires needed to connect it directly to your batteries...proper power feed is needed ...these are power hogs and clipping of your signal will result from low voltage.


Radio - $500
Tuner - $300
coax, wires, connectors, foil(?) - $100?

If needed, you can add to the above: commercial antenna, $200 or so.

Sorry this is so long. Hope this helps. I am no expert at all, so this is just my 0.02.

Fair winds

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Old 20-08-2011, 06:07   #7
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Re: Ham on a Budget

ps - I have read quite a few good things about the KISS-SSB counterpoise. It has a solid principle behind is and at $145, is fairly reasonable, given all the wire. It states that it is resonant on all ham and ssb bands that you need...and so you save the price of the tuner. Might be an option. You could make your own, though the cost of wire and experimentation (cutting various lengths) might come to $100. Do some research on this and if it can give you good service and save you the tuner....could be a good choice. Here is the link I found:

About Us

And for a good discussion of it:

The KISS SSB Counterpoise - Revealed ( with Pics )

Google and find a lot of discussion on this many places.

Again...hope this helps


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Old 20-08-2011, 06:14   #8
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Re: Ham on a Budget


As John and others say, there are lots of options and some are relatively low cost.

I do lots of SSB installs and currently have a bunch of used/excellent ham, marine, and military SSB radios. Among these are Icom M600, M700, Kenwood TKM-707, Ray 152, and others. Also have several tuners. These radios start at about $450.

The KISS-SSB is a good, very easy to install option for a counterpoise.

RE: the antenna, I have used and written about "alternate backstay antennas" for years. Just use 1/8" s/s insulated lifeline with a loop at each end formed with Nicopress sleeves. Hoist it on a spare halyard and tie the lower end off at some convenient place, where the mainsail and boom will clear. You don't need insulators....about 2' of poly line will do nicely.

You will need an automatic tuner. The SG-230 is an excellent tuner, but you're very unlikely to find a used one in excellent condition for $300. The Icom AT130 and AT140 tuners are good choices, too, and can be found for $300-400 used. But, they only work with Icom radios.

Put the tuner underneath the deck near the antenna's base, and run GTO-15 wire from the tuner to the bottom of the antenna. Attach it securely...several options to do that.

Then, attach the RF ground (or counterpoise) to the tuner ground lug. This can be the KISS-SSB radial ground system, a radial ground system of your own making, a wide copper strip to the nearest thru-hull, or several other options, depending on your vessel's construction.

This makes for a very efficient and very robust will hold up in hurricane conditions. Mine has gone thru 5 major hurricanes without damage.

If you like, PM me or email direct at bill at wdsg dot com for more info.


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Old 20-08-2011, 07:03   #9
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Re: Ham on a Budget

I would recommend you look into a used marine SSB radio as many can be used on both marine and ham frequencies. Ham radios cannot legally be used on on marine channels. I like the Icom m710 or M700 pro. I paid $425 for my 710 on ebay. These are great units and you later want to add a Pactor modem for email. The icom tuner by the way CAN be used with any radio I have used one with a SEA 222 worked perfect. This is a good tuner but if you find a good deal on a different marine tuner you can use it as well. It is just nice to use the same brand as the radio as they were designed to work together but this is not a must do.
Forget the cash for the KISS counter pose you can make the same thing yourself with scrap wire I did with some old speaker wire I had. Works great and did not cost me a dime. I found the lengths for the wire here on the forum just do a search.
You only need the copper foil from the tuner to a good ground so buy only what you need.
My total system cost about $750. and I have talked to Europe and the pacific from my dock in NC.
Oh and you must get the Boat license if you leave the country but you need that for a VHF as well. The ham license is only $15 if you take both tests at the some time well worth it. And no code anymore you can study for the test online and be up to speed in a few nights study.
Good luck KJ4WXF
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Old 20-08-2011, 08:07   #10
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Re: Ham on a Budget

If you're really on a budget, you can get a manual antenna tuner for under $50, but its a PITA to change frequencies.
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Old 20-08-2011, 08:30   #11
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Re: Ham on a Budget

Originally Posted by sailvayu View Post
......The icom tuner by the way CAN be used with any radio I have used one with a SEA 222 worked perfect. This is a good tuner but if you find a good deal on a different marine tuner you can use it as well. It is just nice to use the same brand as the radio as they were designed to work together but this is not a must do. ...... KJ4WXF
Yes, Wayne is correct. The Icom tuners CAN be used with non-Icom radios, provided that you wire the four control circuits correctly (START, KEY, 13.6VDC, and Ground) and provided you set the start voltage parameters correctly.

The SGC tuner has several features which make it more desirable for use with ANY HF transceiver, however, including:

1. Non-volatile memory (the Icom tuners use a capacitor to maintain's only good for a week or so, then loses memory settings);

2. Many more memory locations;

3. Wider handling of complex impedences (better technical design); and

4. No need for a control cable at all; the SG-230 senses the frequency from applied RF.

No doubt the Icom tuners are very good, especially for use with Icom radios. Just not as good as the SG-230 IMHO.

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Old 20-08-2011, 08:58   #12
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Re: Ham on a Budget

Originally Posted by roverhi View Post

If you want email, you're pretty much stuck with a Pactor II Modem which will run you close to a $1,000 new.
What about winlink?

Seems popular and looks free.
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Old 20-08-2011, 08:59   #13
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Re: Ham on a Budget

I got a new in box ICOM 700PRO for under 1K. An AT130 for $200 plus shipping (used from a rally boat - check the rally websites) and a Pactor II (no upgrade) on ebay for $300. I plan to try to use the KISS counterpoise and a rope antenna. I figure with cables that'll getr me in under 2K total. My biggest problem has been finding room for the damn tuner -- its huge and I don't have a proper nav station (if I can't come up with a decent solution soon, I may sell the whole lot and rethink). Anyway, if you have time to hunt, you can save lots (you could probably get a non marine rig for under $500 as has been pointed out -- and tuners sometimes sell on ebay for less than I paid). Luck.

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Old 20-08-2011, 09:03   #14
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Re: Ham on a Budget

You dont say if you're a ham...? I think the best mobile ham radio of all time is the Kenwood TS450S. Available used for about $350. (Previous versions are good too 430, 440) The 450 is bullet proof and does packet radio better than most. The marine nets you will want will likely be on a couple of frequencies, so if really on a budget, maybe a manual tuner would be fine.... not like you have to change it alot. Ground planes are a mystery. I've seen the copper plate bolted thru the hull and simply tying a lot of metal like lifeline bases together etc work quite well. Thin copper sheet contact cemented to the hull in the lazzerrette works good. (solder each edge together in at least one spot.) If you dont have a ham license, you just need the radio and antenna to listen. Best tuner, SG230 I would say.
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Old 20-08-2011, 09:04   #15
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Re: Ham on a Budget

G'Day All,

I have on my anti flame suit...

For many years I have used the entire rig - shrouds, stays and mast - as an antenna system. This was accomplished on my first cruising boat (normal FG construction) by running a simple insulated wire from the output of my manual tuner (MFG Versatune) to the chainplate of the backstay. I removed the grounding strap from that chainplate, but left all the other stays/shrouds grounded to the keel. The base of the keel stepped mast was also grounded. For a counterpoise I used braided shielding sleeve material (easier to work with than copper strapping) to a keelbolt (external lead ballast keel).

This system tuned well on all bands from 80 to 10 meters, and I got signal reports that were as good or better than nearby hams using backstay antennas.

At one point I tried putting a bunch of ferrites ganged together at the top of the backstay. Made it easier to tune on the higher frequencies, but made no perceptible change in signal strength. I made no rigorous attempt to evaluate this change.

On our current boat, built of strip planked timber and epoxy/glass I have used a similar approach. IN this case the "ham shack" is adjacent to the shroud chainplate and the wire from tuner to the plate is only a couple of feet long. The counterpoise is copper strap from the tuner to a keel bolt, with isolating capacitors to block DC connection to the steel shell of the ballast keel. The mast is normally not grounded because I found that even with the blocking caps I was loosing paint and anode zinc from the keel at an unacceptable rate when it was grounded. (In thunderstorms I can quickly replace that ground wire).

Again, signal reports are comparable to other nearby hams.

Observed drawbacks to this method: There is more RF picked up by house wiring, and some use of ferrites was required to keep the auto pilots from freaking out when I transmitted. I suspect that it is more susceptible to picking up RF noise from other electrical items on board. I worried about getting RF burns from touching the rigging whilst transmitting, but it has not eventuated in some 25 years of use. I have never used an automatic tuner with my rig and can not comment about their applicability. I suspect that one would work OK.

The obvious advantage of the system is ease of installation and not needing the insulators (expensive and potential failure points).

I have been told by numerous folks that this simple system can not work well. One such comment that I will always remember came from a ham in England with whom I was talking. I was in Tahiti at the time!

I do not advocate anyone's use of this method, but thought that putting it up as the simplest and cheapest antenna for a yacht might be of interest.

Cheers and 73


Jim and Ann s/v Insatiable II now lying Towlers Cove, in Broken Bay NSW for a while
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