The Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is an annual event, starting on Boxing Day (26th December), racing a distance of around 1170km from Sydney, NSW to Hobart, TAS, Australia. This race is considered one of the most difficult yacht races in the world, and proves to be one of the sporting highlights around the Christmas period.
As part of the race itself, yachts must participate in several HF radio activities including position reports and declarations, making it an event that amateur radio fans like to listen to, despite the advent of more modern “instantaneous” satellite based tracking technology. In fact, around that time, my previous article in 2012 about the race skeds was the most viewed article of the day. It has been many years since that article, and I thought it was well worth a revisit in a more serious manner, as a way of preserving the “feel” of HF radio operation before it disappears into the depths much like how analog NFM based scanner radios don’t hear much on the air nowadays thanks to the move to encrypted, more spectrally-efficient digital transmission modes.
As boats travel long distances, often away from land, they need communications which are capable of spanning the long distance reliably. VHF radio is mostly line of sight and limited in coverage, whereas satellite-phone based systems are expensive but can be quite reliable and offer high-rate data services.
In-between all of this is the “good-ol” HF-radio, which is capable of spanning long distances because of its penetrating properties and ionospheric propagation modes. However, HF radio is very “crowded” spectrum-wise, and is unpredictable with propagation varying due to space weather events. It also requires large antennas to operate efficiently, and is subject to interference by man-made and atmospheric (lightning) noise. It has a very different character to the crystal-clear sound you get from a good VHF signal or a mobile phone, and it is considered difficult to operate by many mariners and even pilots alike who use HF when flying trans-oceanic routes.
This “character” manifests itself in many ways. One of them is fading, where stations will have a time and frequency varying “fade” due to movements in the ionosphere causing the propagation path to change. This causes constructive/destructive interference cycles which can make a signal go from readable to noise and back again over the course of a few seconds with altered frequency response. Another is the signal to noise ratio, where having hiss and heterodyne tones in the background is considered normal, as would having a radar station put in periodic “blips” into the signal and static crashes from lightning. Finally, you can also get doppler and multipath effects causing echoey and wavy sounding voice. As a result, many times it is difficult to copy HF radio voice correctly the first time around if the signal isn’t optimal, and this results in the need for a lot of patience and repeating messages slowly to ensure the message is correctly received. Luckily, human brains are relatively good at picking out signal from noise.
However, because it doesn’t require any reliance on external satellites which can fail, and can be rather low-cost in comparison, HF services still persist, with even low-rate data (e.g. PACTOR/Winlink stations) for e-mails and text weather bulletins, and voice phone patch stations around to allow casual mariners cost-effective communications. Distress frequencies and listening watch schedules on HF are well established practices.
Thanks to more modern technology, automatic antenna tuner units have become common, allowing shorter non-resonant pieces of wire to act as antennas and have their reactances tuned out so as to enhance the coupling of radio energy into the antenna and protect the transciever from damage due to high antenna SWR, however, the radiation pattern of such random-length antennas can be asymmetrical, resulting in inconsistent performance. There is also a need on every frequency and antenna change to “tune” the antenna, resulting in transmissions of tones or “human whistles” to provide the radio energy required for an ATU to determine the best inductor/capacitor combination to tune the antenna.
However, HF use in the sense of shortwave radio by regular citizens is quite on the decline in developed countries which has resulted in the scale-back of many HF/SW services, and HF/shortwave work in crowded cities is becoming very much impossible due to the multitude of noise sources including Ethernet over Power adapters and many poor quality power adapters, solar garden lights, LED globes, etc. Shortwave is also “changing” with broadcasters experimenting with digital modes, including DRM, which may eventually make analog shortwave and the analog character a thing of the past, along with internet and satellite distribution.
Methodology and Caveats
This year, instead of going “high-tech” like the past, I’ve reverted to using my Icom IC-R75 communications receiver. This is a conventional desktop HF radio, the kind that receives one channel at a time. This choice was made because it is very “authentic”, and it is also a hair more sensitive than the SDR options I have available, resulting in better copy. The antenna used was a Wellbrook Communications ALA-1530L loop antenna, which is the best antenna I have available, and the only one to achieve decent copy on some signals (compared to my other loops and 15m longwire) due to the high-noise suburban environment I live in.
This was connected to a computer sound card for audio capture, and plotting using the Spectrum Lab software. The Spectrum Lab software was used with an NTP synchronized computer clock to give a visual spectrum representation of the received audio, and to provide the image with an absolute time stamp to be able to pin down the transmission time and date. Because of the use of a conventional receiver, latencies were low, so time stamp accuracy should be within the second.
Of course, if I had to click record every time a transmission came up, I would be missing a lot of them. Instead, I set up a screen recorder app to record the software’s output including the audio from the sound card for later processing. The recorded files were transcoded into FFV1 AVI files (lossless) to be cut, watermarked, audio-normalized, reassembled and then finally encoded for uploading. The presence of the spectrum video made editing much simpler, as I could now visually identify the presence of transmissions, even unintelligible ones, while scrubbing through the clip. The use of SSD work-disks made this process a lot faster as it allowed me to scrub through hours of video in a matter of minutes.
The result of the monitoring was over 2Tb of screen-recording capture files, over 4Tb of intermediate I-frame only files, which became just over 15 hours of uploaded footage separated into 23 separate videos. To avoid browser crashing, and to avoid unusual behaviour, I have not embedded videos into this posting, and instead, have linked them later on in this post for those who want the HF radio experience.
Of course, there are a few caveats – one is that I am not living in a radio-quiet environment which results in a noise floor that is probably about 10dB higher than those living in the bush. This results in difficult copy of signals which might otherwise be very easily copied elsewhere, and the introduction of noise. Another thing is that due to HF propagation, it is very possible that signals I copy clearly are not received by their intended boat, so don’t be surprised if the recordings say the signal is 5/5 but is barely audible on the recording, or if they say it’s bad atmospherics but it’s perfectly audible. It is also the reason for many of the conversations sounding one-sided, but another reason is probably due to the difference in transmission power and antenna radiation pattern between yachts.
Another thing is that due to screen recorder limitations, there are gaps in the monitoring where no recording was had due to crashes or the need to split files which takes almost half an hour. As a result, several transmissions which may have been heard were not recorded in these videos.
HF Radio Operating Procedures
Unfortunately, I had went off my past information rather than confirming the information fresh this year, so I had to do some “rediscovery” and noting that some of the information I had wasn’t accurate. Instead, the full HF radio operating procedures are available in the 2015 sailing instructions document, publicly available online (which I didn’t realize until I went looking). This document is much more comprehensive than the often-quoted notice of race document.
A summary of the monitoring-relevant information is as follows:
- Two HF frequencies are used, namely 4483khz and 6516khz in USB mode with continuous watch by JBW and Hobart Race Control.
- 6516 khz is used during 0700-2000 hours, local time (UTC+11)
- 4483 khz is used during 2000-0700 hours, local time (UTC+11)
- Other than that, VHF radio channel 16 is also used with continuous watch by the radio relay vessel JBW and channels 16, 21, 81 by Hobart Race Control.
- Most skeds will be conducted by JBW, or Hobart Race Control if JBW is unable to do so.
- Position reporting skeds are done at 1905 hours on the first day, then at 0005 hours, 0735 hours and 1705 hours (UTC+11) subsequently on the appropriate frequency. Weather reports may be issued.
- Positions are noted as degrees and whole minutes at the time of the sked.
- Listening sked is conducted at 1205 hours each day calling for missed position reports and may provide weather.
- Green Cape declarations must be made at 37 degrees 15 minutes south to declare that the boat has fully operational HF radio, required number of liferafts, operational engine and batteries, satisfactory crew, boat and weather conditions. This declaration must be given over HF radio.
- Wind strength and wave height reports are to be given to JBW when wind strength exceeds 40 knots except where instructed by JBW.
- When Tasman Island is true north, boats shall call Hobart Race Control on VHF channel 81 and advise rounding time and ETA to finish. Updated ETA to be advised at entrance to Derwent River, finishing call to be made immediately on clearing the finish line.
- Boats retiring shall advise JBW of position, reason for retirement, port of destination and ETA. Retired boats will continue to be called at each sked until they have confirmed their arrival at their destination.
As a result, we can expect some relatively frequent radio action because of the regular skeds, as well as the need to make declarations and reports. The 2015 race is no exception, being quite chatty because of the severe weather causing a large amount of the fleet to retire.
Before the race starts, and indeed, at least several days before, boats are required to undergo radiochecks with approved partners to ensure their radio gear is operating. While I didn’t monitor a few days in advance, on the day of the race in the hours before the start at 1300 hours, most of the boats came up on HF to check with JBW that they meet requirements, although some did come up a bit too early.
Position Reporting Skeds
Position reporting skeds are regular routine checks by race officials as to the position of the boats. These routine transmissions are often followed by weather, and happen three times a day, regularly taking up to an hour to complete, and might be considered slightly boring. Such arduous schedules demand co-operation from all yachts to report their position quickly and accurately, preferably first time, with penalties imposed for those missing position reporting skeds. These reports also consume lots of crew time, so a full time radio operator seems to be a must, as they will have to stay to take down the weather, relay for other yachts, or correct an incorrect readback from JBW. These showcase the propagation conditions, as well as the differing signal strengths from different yachts.
I had missed the front end of the first night sked because I had gone off my incorrect information to expect this on 4483khz when it was on 6516khz. As with previous years, there is a hetrodyne at 2khz from Voice of the People Korea, a station transmitting at 6518khz. I have filtered this out digitally, although because of doppler, I found even the automatic notch filter on the DSP board on the IC-R75 wasn’t able to take this out, so it is likely those operating would have to contend with constant “whistle”. The local weather conditions were relatively stormy, explaining the static crackles from time to time.
The second sked at midnight was a very well received sked on the whole, with decent propagation, and this was consistent with past reception experience. The 4483khz frequency is more noisy, but the signal to noise ratio was much better.
This was followed up by the morning sked with one of the worst propagation results on record. Again, interference from 6518khz is present, but it weakened as the sun rose and its intensity was manageable (not filtered) until it eventually disappeared. Its low signal strength compared with other days suggests propagation was very poor and indeed, it appears it was with virtually no copy of JBW at all in the first half. Some signals started to sprout in the second half, mostly yacht-side signals. JBW became readable towards the end, although it did sound like it had “clipped syllables” at some stages which could be propagation, or could be high SWR protection kicking in on the radio or insufficient voltage to the radio at high transmit powers.
This evening schedule was copied with fading in and out as is normal with HF, with the glorious white noise background.
Not as good as the previous midnight sked, but is possible to copy but weakly with slow fades.
Propagation is better this morning, with the interfering station being stronger to the point it needed to be filtered. Again, at the beginning, it is mostly yacht-side transmissions being copied, with JBW being copied best towards the end of the sked.
Slightly better than the last evening sked, with fading, but a stronger SNR.
Another midnight schedule, copied with a moderately good SNR and slow fading.
Interfering station is coming up fairly strong, but JBW is just faintly audible for sections at the beginning as it fades deeply in and out. Even through to the end, JBW is not well copied with reliability, and the interfering station disappeared. It seems it was another difficult morning on HF.
Weaker than average afternoon sked, with JBW only barely at the noise level, getting better towards the end, but not as good as previous afternoons.
Weaker than average midnight sked with quite deep fades into the noise. It seems that as the race progresses to Hobart, the increased distance makes transmissions less likely to be received from the relay vessel, however, Hobart Race Control comes through exceptionally well in those later days. For example, messages including Heartbreaker’s tracker not working, ask them to turn on AIS, Duende position received by telephone, and Mission Performance position are clearly heard as if the transmission is next door. As a result, it’s not only distance but the signal path that makes or breaks the link. Skeds start to get shorter from this point, as some boats have finished and many retired boats have made it to their ports of choice, meaning they are not being called at the skeds.
Rather unusually, this is the first morning sked where the JBW signal is coming through quite well despite deep fades. The interfering station and the whirring jamming from China are both audible, but the carrier has been digitally filtered out. Hobart Race Control are also well copied
From here-on in, I’ve generally only monitored the skeds because of the lack of unscheduled traffic, as most yachts had already finished. Unlike prior days, the sked is conducted by Hobart Race Control, likely as JBW is no longer needed or has reached the finish line anyway.
Midnight sked conducted by Hobart Race Control, very well received with a strong signal. The sked is relatively short.
The final sked I recorded, but probably not the final sked conducted, as the last yacht crossed the line on 1st Jan at 9:09:30am. In fact, at the time of the sked, there was still seven yachts remaining to finish. If there was a Sked 16, there would be just one yacht remaining to be called, so on the whole, it seems I got “close enough”.
Listening skeds are conducted everyday, although from my monitoring, it seems they weren’t long enough or extensive enough to warrant their own video. The exception was this one which had several position report requests and weather messages. Other listening skeds may have unknowingly been grouped into the next part.
Reports and Declarations
Aside from skeds, there is the general operational traffic which consists of wind and retirement reports and declarations from boats as they pass Green Cape. I’ve cut and bundled this traffic into separate videos, with the majority of the traffic happening in the second day, hence being cut into three parts. It seems from listening that some have been given mid-sked and are hence included in the respective sked videos instead. Full listings of the events in the clips are provided as well in the Youtube description for clickable access. Long segments of noise have been cut out to make it more enjoyable viewing/listening.
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151226 0545 1645 JBW HRC signal check 1:40 20151226 0610 1710 Dare Devil retires 4:10 20151226 1136 2236 St Jude keel difficulties (partial) 5:11 20151226 1150 2250 HRC yacht tracker Koa direction enquiry 6:41 20151226 1156 2256 HRC Comanche phoned in retirement 9:01 20151226 1205 2305 St Jude retires 10:51 20151226 1207 2307 JBW confirmation (not audible) 11:41 20151226 1223 2323 Koa steering damage, Comanche withdraws retirement 15:11 20151226 1229 2329 Perpetual Loyal retires 17:31 20151226 1239 2339 Koa retires 19:41 20151226 1418 0118 Ichiban (partial - missed transmission) 19:56 20151226 1428 0128 Rambler Green Cape declaration 21:26 20151226 1518 0218 HRC Comanche position enquiry 22:26 20151226 1629 0329 Ragamuffin 100 communications difficulties 27:26 20151226 1651 0351 Maserati communications difficulty 28:46 20151226 1654 0354 HRC relays Green Cape declaration for Maserati 31:26 20151226 1725 0425 Pazazz retires 33:56 20151226 1741 0441 Rush relays Pretty Fly's retirement 37:56 20151226 1744 0444 Ichiban Green Cape declaration (great signal!) 39:46 20151226 2034 0734 HRC pre-sked signals check 39:56 20151226 2153 0853 Celestial & Victoire declaration, Not a Diamond contact 43:26 20151226 2201 0901 Unidentified transmission (too weak) 44:56 20151226 2214 0914 Victoire relays Blackjack's retirement with injury (bad atmospheric) 47:16 20151226 2217 0917 Victoire relays message for Blackjack from JBW 49:06 20151226 2241 0941 Chutzpah relays Hollywood Boulevard's Green Cape declaration 52:46 20151226 2554 1254 JBW calling She's The Culprit EPIRB activation
Having heard the radio conversation in this recording, it was quite interesting in regards to Comanche that Hobart Race Control received a phone message about their retirement (6:41 video time), which they very quickly withdraw (11:41 video time). Swift reporting makes for articles like this one which claims Comanche had retired, but then actually went on to win the race this year. Several relay operations were witnessed. Blackjack’s retirement was big news due to the injuries sustained, as was the accidental activation of an EPIRB on She’s The Culprit which was not contactable for a while.
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151227 0213 1313 Hollywood Boulevard retires, relayed by Chutzpah 2:40 20151227 0217 1317 Frantic retires 4:00 20151227 0221 1321 Teasing Machine declaration 6:00 20151227 0704 1804 Avalance retires, Yeah Baby declaration, HRC 11:50 20151227 0710 1810 China Easyway retires 13:20 20151227 0713 1813 Heartbreaker declaration, relayed by Chutzpah 16:10 20151227 0715 1815 Patrice gives ETA 17:30 20151227 0742 1842 Wild Rose declaration 19:00 20151227 0744 1844 Rambler Eden Harbour 19:50 20151227 0746 1846 Mayfair declaration 20:50 20151227 0747 1847 Mayfair declaration (continued) 21:40 20151227 0753 1853 Heartbreaker declaration 23:30 20151227 0754 1854 Heartbreaker declaration (continued) 24:30 20151227 0901 2001 Frequency change notice 25:40 20151227 0903 2003 Mission Performance declaration 27:40 20151227 0912 2012 Visit Seattle, Mahligai declaration, HRC 34:20 20151227 0924 2024 Patrice Six declaration 35:30 20151227 0938 2038 TSA Management declaration (weak) 36:20 20151227 0947 2047 LMAX Exchange, Clipper Telemed declaration 41:00 20151227 0952 2052 Climate Action declaration 42:29 20151227 1006 2106 Discoverer declaration 43:29 20151227 1029 2129 JBW radiocheck 44:49 20151227 1036 2136 Wax Lyrical declaration 45:49 20151227 1053 2153 Unknown declaration (weak) 47:09 20151227 1057 2157 Derry declaration 48:59 20151227 1111 2211 Papillon declaration, Blackjack leaving Jervis Bay 51:59 20151227 1125 2225 Unicef, Maxi Ragamuffin declaration 55:19 20151227 1129 2229 Ark declaration 56:39 20151227 1136 2236 Great Britain declaration
The tail end of the retirements were seen, with many more declarations this time around. There was some frustrations as some yachts tried to wing it and give declarations in plain English rather than as in accordance with the sailing instructions, resulting in a need to redo the declaration to meet requirements, consuming precious radio time. There was one blooper, at 25:40 video time where Mission Performance was called Mission Impossible by JBW, although nobody seemed to notice.
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151227 1140 2240 IQ Komodo, Midnight Rambler declaration 3:20 20151227 1232 2332 Last Tango declaration 4:40 20151227 1237 2337 Shuguang call JBW (runt) 5:00 20151227 1254 2354 Unidentified declaration (weak) 6:10 20151227 1256 2356 Calibre declaration 8:00 20151227 1403 0103 Unidentified declaration, HRC, Patrice signoff 16:10 20151227 1426 0126 HRC attempts PSP, CV10 declaration 21:10 20151227 1448 0148 HRC enquires JBW sat-phone coverage 22:10 20151227 1509 0209 Ichor Coal declaration 23:20 20151227 1511 0211 Ichor Coal declaration (continued) 23:40 20151227 1523 0223 HRC enquires Ichor Coal declaration 25:00 20151227 1544 0244 Courrier Leon declaration difficulties 31:30 20151227 1557 0257 Courrier Leon declaration difficulties (continued) 44:00 20151227 1610 0310 Courrier Leon confusion 48:20 20151227 1615 0315 Azzurro declaration, HRC enquires 51:00 20151227 1620 0320 Chancellor declaration 52:30 20151227 1626 0326 Courrier Leon more confusion 56:00 20151227 1633 0333 CV5 declaration 57:30 20151227 1647 0347 King Billy declaration
Nothing too special here, although the radio did hit a snag with communicating with the French crew aboard Courrier Leon who did not give their declaration in the form required and was left unsure if everything was okay, or whether they needed to do something, and the language barrier combined with the noise of HF radio conspired to make conveying messages difficult.
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151227 1655 0355 HRC confirms Patrice call 2:30 20151227 1728 0428 HRC missing declarations for Qingdao, Calibre, Duende 6:20 20151227 1731 0431 HRC enquires Duende call 8:00 20151227 1750 0450 HRC missing declaration for Challenge 9:10 20151227 1847 0547 Unidentified declaration 10:30 20151227 1919 0619 Another Fiasco declaration 13:20 20151227 2010 0710 Courrier Leon calls JBW 13:50 20151227 2014 0714 Courrier Leon calls JBW (again) 14:40 20151227 2128 0828 Attempt to contact Takani (also via Chutzpah) 18:40 20151227 2146 0846 Enchantress relays position for Flying Fish 22:30 20151227 2149 0849 Enchantress relays message back to Flying Fish 23:50 20151227 2152 0852 Flying Fish declaration 25:40 20151227 2202 0902 Qingdao late declaration 28:40 20151227 2209 0909 Unidentified weak signals (hard to hear) 34:50 20151227 2236 0936 Ocean Affinity radiocheck 35:30 20151227 2352 1052 Ragamuffin 52 declaration, HRC checking late declarations 39:00 20151228 0124 1224 JBW describing upcoming listening schedule
Missing declarations were being chased up, with more relaying happening. Unscheduled transmissions begin to quiet down as most boats have passed the Green Cape declaration point.
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151228 0349 1449 Haspa Hamburg race intentions 4:20 20151228 0352 1452 Haspa Hamburg continues racing 6:00 20151228 0356 1456 Haspa Hamburg declaration 8:40 20151228 0358 1458 Haspa Hamburg responds to JBW 9:20 20151228 0402 1502 Haspa Hamburg (weak, unintelligible) 10:20 20151228 0408 1508 Haspa Hamburg tracker reset enquiry 11:29 20151228 0416 1516 HRC reset enquiry 14:59 20151228 0441 1541 Haspa Hamburg reset instructions 16:39 20151228 0655 1755 Myuna declaration 18:09 20151228 0803 1903 Calibre position report 19:19 20151228 0813 1913 HRC confirm shortwave frequencies 20:59 20151228 0833 1933 Calibre AIS failure 22:29 20151228 0900 2000 JBW frequency change announcement 23:19 20151228 1908 0608 Call for Devonport race 24:09 20151228 1930 0630 Morning Weather Report 29:59 20151229 0107 1207 Unidentified (weak, unintelligible) 30:39 20151229 0117 1217 Unidentified (weak, unintelligible)
Haspa Hamburg is the star of the reports of the day, with clarification it intends to continue racing. The last boat in the fleet, Myuna, makes her declaration, and Calibre reports an AIS failure for informational purposes. Interestingly, a call for Davenport race was heard on this frequency, which I’m not really sure of what race this is – maybe it’s the Melbourne to Devonport race?
VTime UTCDate UTCend Localend Description 0:00 20151229 0656 1756 Yeah Baby missed sked report 1:20 20151229 0727 1827 Radiochecks 2:30 20151229 0738 1838 HRC testing remote radio 7:10 20151229 0742 1842 Call for HRC 7:50 20151229 0748 1848 JBW acknowedges 8:00 20151229 0817 1917 JBW signal check 9:10 20151229 0818 1918 JBW standing by 9:20 20151229 0841 1941 Azurro radio testing 11:20 20151229 0900 2000 JBW frequency change announcement 12:00 20151229 1114 2214 Indian reporting ETA to finish to HRC 13:30 20151229 1924 0624 Morning weather report
A very interesting day, as it seems JBW may have nearly finished the race at this stage, so was testing with Hobart Race Control in regards to some remote radio system.
This has been my most comprehensive radio monitoring exercise to date, and it has been a pretty interesting experience. I have never followed the Sydney to Hobart race radio so closely before, and JBW’s patience and experience in handling the tough situations and the co-operation of other yachts in relaying for those with weaker equipment really shows how much patience is required to effectively operate HF over long distances. While it was a race I’m sure some would have liked to forget, I have at least preserved the HF radio side of things for posterity. Given they are all required to carry satellite phones and a satellite real-time yacht tracker, it could be a matter of time before HF marine radio procedures become optional, rather than mandatory, and crowding around a hissy, noisy radio becomes a thing of the past.