Edited by Jerry Proc VE3FAB

The following story, which focuses on CW operations in the merchant marine, was edited and blended from a series of messages exchanged by Jim Haynes, Sandy Blaize W5TVW and Dick Dillman N6VS of the Internet group 'Boatanchors'. The content is based on a presentation from Rod Deakin, a professional CW operator and chief engineer for Globe Wireless, a commercial CW shore station company based in Half Moon Bay, California.


CW, is emphatically, not dead. The US Coast Guard has phased it out, and military ships don't use it, but there are about 150,000 ships around the world that still use CW. Within this group, 11% are of US registry, and the other 89% represent the other nations of the world. The business of providing shore based CW communications for these ships is still a viable one, however, many former owners of shore stations have decided that HF communications is finished, that satellite communications is the wave of the future, so they bail out. Other entrepreneurs, see the vast number of ships out there who run on 'low budgets'. The expense of retrofitting these ships for satellite communications is prohibitive, so some of these defunct shore stations are purchased and operated expressly for this market.

Commercial station KFS, owned by Globe Wireless, has a receiver site in Half Moon Bay, California while the transmitter site in situated in Palo Alto. Another site, housing a receiver and transmitter in Slidell, Louisiana is operated by remote control. A competing company is in the same business with sites in Bolinas and Point Reyes, California. There is a third company situated in the State of Washington and manned by five operators. There are perhaps fifty shore-based CW operators on staff with these stations on the United States West Coast and another, much smaller, group on the East Coast.

One of the leading shore stations in the US is now situated in Mobile, Alabama. This station originally started communicating in the 2 mhz, AM, radiotelephone band using homebrew or modified surplus equipment. It later expanded into CW, HF radiotelephone and VHF radiotelephone. In later years, the owner of this station was first off the mark with SITOR telex. Everyone thought he was foolish and SITOR wouldn't last, but he certainly proved everyone wrong. Tropical Radio & Telegraph used to own station WNU in Slidell and stations WOE and WAX in Florida. WNU eventually took over some of the CW frequencies used by KLC in Galveston when they went off the air. Another company which used to have relay stations all over the world was Portishead Radio based in the U.K. What used to be a thriving business in New Orleans in the 1970's with Lykes Lines, Waterman Steamship, Central Gulf Steamship, Delta Lines and others has withered away to almost zero. In that era, Lykes had about 40 US flag ships. In 1995, they have five, and those may disappear this year. Delta Lines and Waterman are gone. Central Gulf has almost ceased to exist. Marine CW may not go on forever, but the end is not in sight.


In former days, there were a number of commercial radio schools but these have all vanished since there isn't enough enrolment to keep the schools in business. Most of the operators now, are former military people or a few who honed their CW skills as amateur radio operators. Former Coast Guard operators are generally of better quality than former Navy operators. To fill the gap, the Radio Operator's Union also conducted classes for a short time. For those wishing a position as a shore operator, the pre- requisites were good CW skills, a commercial license and a dash of good luck in the hope that some operator would retire. There just aren't many job openings and turnover is very low. The 'training grounds' for Radio Officers destined for U.S. flagged ships are virtually gone and they are a vanishing breed. It's not enough just to get a 2nd Class Radiotelegraph License. One must have at least six months of sea time (standing radio watch) endorsed on the license in order to sail on a US flag vessel as Radio Officer. Foreign licenses are not valid on US flag vessels.

Within the former Soviet Union, there were about six state owned companies running the shipping business. There was one company for each general kind of cargo. Radio officers attended a four year maritime academy and had to pass a 35 wpm CW exam to graduate. Their apprenticeship consisted of working in shore stations for about five years before being sent to sea. Globe Wireless currently employs two former Soviet operators at station KFS. Both of them jumped ship during the former Soviet regime. Amazingly, these operators are trained to send CW with their left hand and copy with their right hand simultaneously! Many of the operators on ships today are from small countries where licensing standards are mediocre and training is hardly adequate.


Globe uses some Press Wireless transmitters that date back to World War II. Also in use, are more modern transmitters using Henry amplifiers. Globe are about to replace those amplifiers with other Henry amplifiers designed especially for their kind of service. These days, transmitters run 5 kw of power. In the past, 10 kw transmitters were used but modern receivers are much more sensitive the old units thus allowing lower power levels to be used. For receivers, they use Kenwood R-5000's in scanning mode and some old Watkins-Johnson models for copying traffic. Newer receivers are also being introduced. Some are made by TCI and others by Ten-Tec. The TCI receivers only have a front panel control to adjust the audio level setting. Everything else is controlled through the ASCII interface. The Kenwood receivers located in Slidell are also controlled through the ASCII interfaces. If one wishes to purchase one of the Ten-Tec receivers, they are in the $3,500 price class.

Today, the Globe Wireless network consists of remote control using ASCII to the receivers at Half Moon Bay and the Slidell site. High speed digital lines (1.544 megabits per second) connect Half Moon Bay with Palo Alto and Slidell. Rod Deakin says that he uses a bug or a paddle driven keyer and types the received copy on a computer keyboard. Keyboard generated CW is never used. The computer monitor has a split screen - one part is for the message and the other part is used for billing information. When a message is received from a ship, Globe re-transmits it to the ultimate destination by whatever means is available. This could entail E- mail, Telex, voice, FAX or in some cases, telegraph cable. For antennas, Globe uses log-periodic antennas and something that resembles a discone. There is no point-to-point HF communications any longer, so the big rhombic antennas are gone.


For years, all the GPO British ships were fitted with 100 watt CW transmitters. The Marconi "Oceanspan", a popular unit, used three 807 tubes in the final stage. The "Oceanspan" had a number of permutations that went from the Mark I to the Mark VII-E version. The later ones had radiotelephone capabilities. Most all the Lykes Lines during the 1950's and 1960's used 250 watt output MF and HF transmitters. Notably, these were the Mackay 2012 and 2017 models.

Other US flagships of the era used RCA consoles or more properly, RMCA consoles. Both types employed dual 813's in the final. Output power levels could be switched from 250 to 500 watts depending on the power supply and modulator originally supplied with the transmitters. The MF rigs operating in the 400 to 500 khz were generally CW or MCW capable. A few companies such as Raytheon, Collins and Scientific Radio tried to build CW stations for US flag ships, but the number of units supplied was very low. Collins was never really into shipboard gear. Their forte was always aircraft radio equipment. Several 'wanna-bees' came and went, mostly supplying someone else's gear with their own name on it. Collins marketed an HF kilowatt station that was essentially the AN/ARC-58 aircraft set packaged for shipboard use. It was never really successful. During that time, RCA and Mackay dominated the marine radio field hands down. Only Mackay remains today, and only a shadow of its former self.


In addition to CW, SITOR and CLOVER digital modes are also used in the merchant marine. Marine CLOVER uses the same modem board as the HAL company sells to hams, but with very different firmware. This was done intentionally to make it incompatible with the ham version of CLOVER. Some of the better features of CLOVER are its speed and its ability to transmit binary files. Big, modern ships, use satellite communications such as the INMARSAT system. Unfortunately, there are still a big percentage of ships that still have HF radio as their only link to the rest of the world.

A description of the operation is somewhat complex. There are several bands of frequencies: 500KHz, a 4MHz region, one band in 6MHz, another in 8MHz, and a few higher up the spectrum. For each of these bands, there is a primary and an alternate frequency. Within these bands, there are pairs of frequencies for five different regions of the world and a pair for worldwide. A ship can call on any one of these frequencies. The shore station transmits on one of its frequencies in the same band, and tunes the receiver to a frequency in the same band told to them by the ship. The shore station transmitters are fixed frequency but the ship transmitters must move away from the calling frequency to handle traffic. The scanning receivers scan 500 KHz, the pair of frequencies for the local area of the world, and the worldwide pair of frequencies. Due to remote operation, the operator is scanning a set of local frequencies and also scanning the appropriate set of frequencies for Slidell. Operators can configure the systems to suit their own preference.

Rod's preference is for Slidell to be heard in one ear and Half Moon Bay in the other. On CW, ships use call signs rather than their names. Ships operators typically don't know much English. Many of the messages are of a fill-in-the-blanks nature, and then with Q signals, Together with these and other universally understood signals, they get by.

CW operation typically runs at 18 to 25 WPM. Shore operators are very skilled at their craft. They love operating CW and became proficient because they wanted to. Many of the radio operators aboard ship have awful fists. They operate CW only because they get paid for doing it and don't care about being good at it. On a four hour watch, the operator on duty will typically handle 50 messages. Some of these are position reports. Ships are required to report their positions and intentions every 48 hours. This information is passed to the US Coast Guard free of charge. Ships also report weather every 24 hours and this is passed to NOAA free of charge. Most other messages are mostly of a business nature and charges apply to these.

There are unusual things that can happen aboard ships. In one instance, it was reported that there was an electrician who really wanted to disembark the ship immediately. First, he sabotaged the generators but some of the crew were able ascertain the damage and repaired it. He then tried to set fire to the ship's cargo using naphtha gas. These actions scared the rest of the crew so badly, that they insisted on making an unscheduled visit to the nearest port to put the man off. The most unusual message concerned a crew member who killed another. The Captain locked up the killer, put the corpse into a refrigerated container, and asked the ship's owners whether to bury the body at sea, head for the nearest port, or complete the voyage and deal with the problem at that time.


Charges to copy messages depend on the distance to the destination. All the rates are actually calculated in gold francs, an international currency. These business messages are typically to the ship's owners and report position, fuel on board, items requiring repair at the next port, supplies needed, and expected arrival times. Other business messages may report medical problems on board ship. Sometimes communications are established with a shore based doctor and instructions for treating the sick or injured are relayed. Very few ships carry doctors, and only those with larger crews carry a nurse. Crew members are usually versed in first aid and CPR training. When the US Coast Guard ceased monitoring 500 Khz for distress traffic, this did not appreciably affect safety. The next day, after the Coast Guard discontinued CW watches on 500 KHz, a ship was in trouble and was calling for help on CW. Commercial shore stations and other ships heard the distress calls and relayed them to the Coast Guard.

To reconcile charges for sent messages, each ship has a billing agent who is usually located in the country where the ship is registered. All of the bills are directed to that agent who in turn, pays the bills and collects from the ship owners. There is little trouble with 'deadbeat' ships. If word gets around that a ship doesn't pay their bills, none of the shore stations will take their traffic. If payment problems arise, the usual reason is a change of billing agents and the resulting paperwork has not caught up. During the breakup of the USSR, there was a problem in receiving payment for Russian marine traffic, but this has since been resolved.

Cruise ships have Radio Officers on duty 24 hours a day. Some are equipped with new GMDSS (Global Maritime Distress & Safety System) satellite equipment which does not require a Radio Officer per se, as the Master or a Mate take can take over the duty of a radio officer or, as an additional duty. These R/O's do not stand a radio watch as done previously. Automatic digital equipment does that job continuously for them by monitoring several HF digital calling channels and a VHF digital calling channel.

The GMDSS equipment carried aboard cruise ships consists of an HF SSB/SITOR telex radio usually covering 2 to 25 mhz, a VHF marine radio (156 Mhz band), an INMARSAT satellite terminal (telex and/or voice), and a satellite EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). The EPIRB sends digital bursts automatically on about 406 Mhz. Each beacon has a unique digital "call sign" that is registered to the ship that emits it. These call signs are received by a special satellite system which is able to determine with a mile or so, the position of the EPIRB. Also tied into the GMDSS system, is a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver feeding navigational data to the digital encoders. The ships position can be transmitted in case of distress.


The GMDSS system will be mandatory for commercial shipping by the year 1999. For those of us who enjoy listening to CW, this very old, but reliable means of communication will get a reprieve for several more years before it too, is flattened by the steam roller of progress.

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