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Cruising with Ham Radio


Bob Avrutik – N1RA

Part One

Before I retired in 1987, I worked for Philips Medical Systems, a division of the world wide Philips organization, based in Eindhoven, Holland. My job required travel regularly to Europe and often my XYL came with me. This turned out to be a BIG mistake. When I retired I had had enough traveling and was just content to stay home and play with Ham Radio. However my XYL loved to travel and has recently worn my resistance down and has persuaded me to go on cruises with her. The food is excellent and the sightseeing trips are both interesting and educational, but the cruising between ports is boring. A previous cruise, in May of 2002, was along the coast of China, with stops at many interesting and unique places like the beer factory at Qingdao. All the beer you could drink and free peanuts. While on that trip the idea of trying to operate Ham Radio on the next one sprouted in my mind and grew to overwhelming proportions. My camera recorded the anatomy of the ships railing, for antenna placement, and sketches recorded its details and measurements so that I could design an antenna mount that would be safe and provide a good ground connection. The stateroom we were going to have had a veranda with a sliding door and just inside a small desk was situated that had both 115 and 220 volt AC receptacles.

When we got back from that trip the cruise line was contacted via our travel agent to inquire if Ham Radio operation was permitted on their ship. They informed me that I had to have a Bahamian license [C6A] as the ship was registered in the Bahamas, and then I had to get the Captains permission.

The C6A license was obtained by sending a letter to the address below along with a copy of my US license, a copy of my US Passport identification page and a $25 dollar international money order. After many phone calls to various financial institutions I discovered that an international money order is only obtainable, at a reasonable cost, from the US Post office. It took about 3 months to get the actual license. I requested the RA suffix to match my US call. The license actually gave me two calls: C6A/N1RA and C6ARA.

Executive Director and Secretary
Public Utilities Commission
P. O. Box N 4860

Attn: Chizelle A. Whymms

My request was then forwarded to the ship's captain, via the travel agent, with a copy of the Bahamian license and a list of the equipment I wanted to use. His response was Negative.

While on that cruise I had a private talk with him regarding his reasons for not letting me operate. He offered only the safety factor. I think safety and security were his main concerns, as there was a lot of publicity about the terrorist attack in New York City at that time. As I stood up to leave, he said that I should try again. Maybe I had convinced him that I was not a terrorist and would be a safe passenger.

Our next cruise was in July/August 2003, around the British Isles ending in France. Again, a request was sent via the travel agent with a copy of the July 2002 QST article about a Ham operating on a cruise ship in the Pacific. The response this time, to my delight, was a positive YES. The Captain wanted a complete list of the equipment I was to bring aboard, the power I would use and the frequencies I would be operating on. This revved up my engine and shifted me into gear to do a lot of planning. For equipment I decided to use the Yaesu FT100D, which I had installed in my car and the matching screwdriver vertical antenna with a duplexer. This gave me coverage from 7 through 440 MHz. Since I prefer to use CW, I had to get a key that didn’t weigh too much. I purchased a MFJ travel key. This key proved to be difficult to use and had to be held in place to prevent sliding. The four round rubber feet were removed and replaced with 4 suction cups to hold it in place. The two rubber feet on the paddle arms were replaced with triangular plastic pieces. These provided less friction for my thumb and forefinger and provided easier keying.


I used the key on my home rig to get adapted to its characteristics. It was usable, but not comfortable. Trying to improve my keying, I removed the heavy base from a Bencher key and, using it as a template, drilled matching holes in a 1/8” X 3” X 3 ¾” plastic plate. Four suction cups as legs were added to keep it from sliding. This made a tremendous reduction in weight of the key, and it was a pleasure to use.


Since the rig was rated for 100 watts output, a light weight 25 Amp, 12 Volt switching power supply was selected, capable of operation from either 115 VAC or 220 VAC. The antenna to rail mount was constructed from the pictures and sketches, I had taken on the Chinese trip, and consisted of a steel plate curved to fit over the ship rail to prevent it from slipping seaward. It would be held in place with a flexible stainless steel clamp around it and the railing. The Super Gainer [K44], trunk mount from the car, was attached to this base. This provided flexible positioning of the antenna. The grounding system consisted of a thick flexible wire mounted and soldered to the plate and arranged to clamp on a vertical post supporting the railing. The clamp fastened to the post with a pointed screw, to cut through the paint.


Because of the ships Bahamian registry, my C6ARA call had to be used while the ship was in international waters, and my US call, N1RA, while in the territorial waters or at anchor or dock in England, Ireland, Scotland, Guernsey Island, or Rouen, France. My US call was required because the Bahamas is not a signatory to the CEPT Treaty.

Doing research at ARRL Headquarters with the help of John Hennessee [N1KB] and other ARRL personnel and at the website:


it became apparent that even though the US, and the other countries we were stopping at, were signatories to the CEPT Treaty, for some, I had to obtain local permission to operate.

An e-mail to England:

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received a prompt, positive response from Denise Carter, who stated that I had to use my US call sign when in their territorial waters or at dock or anchor, as follows:  M/N1RA/MM.

To obtain permission from Ireland a request was sent to:

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Derek said “no problem,” use the following call: EI/N1RA/M while on the ship in our territorial waters, and if you operate ashore use EI/N1RA/P.

Since both Scotland and the Isle of Guernsey are part of Great Britain, they were covered by Denise’s response. For France, it was not necessary to obtain local permission.

The following would accompanied me on the trip:

            - letter from Crystal Cruises giving permission to operate aboard the ship
            - copy or the e-mails from England and Ireland
            - copy of CEPT Treaty
            - copy of ITU Regions and operating frequencies
            - copy of the Marine channel frequencies
            - copy of the bill of sale for the radio equipment in case US Customs or airport    security had any questions about the origin of the equipment
            - FT100D manual
            - rig, power supply, antenna, antenna mount,
           - extension coax, duplexer, key, mike
           - power supply cables, 220 to 115 volt receptacle
          - adapter and a small kit of tools
          - a paper Log [a laptop was too heavy to carry with luggage for two, on a two week cruise, plus the additional radio equipment].
          - a GPS unit, which had a world map in memory, and a digital camera rounded out the extras.

I was now ready for the trip!



Our trip around the British Isles started off with a flight from Kennedy Airport, in New York City, to London on British Airways. I approached it in a very happy and festive mood, however this soon changed to a little apprehensive when the limo driver got us to the airport a half hour later than expected due to the heavy city traffic. After waiting on the check in line for ¾ of an hour we were politely told that our flight had been canceled. My mood went from festive to [festive – 100%]. They would try to get us on an earlier flight. When that turned out hopeless, a later flight was suggested and booked for us. My mood now rose to [festive – 95%]. We were to be met at London Airport by representatives of the cruise line and they would be expecting us on the original flight. After much arguing, arm waving and minor threatening the airline gave us a free phone card so that we could call the cruise line and inform them of the change. Of the 6 public phones on the wall we discovered that only one was working and that was in use. Mood now [festive – 99%]. Finally the cruise line was contacted and they said “NO Problem”, we will be there when you arrive. That knocked -50% off of my mood rating. As we checked the suitcases in, out of the blue, I was requested to put my carry on bag on the scale. In all my years of flying I had never been requested to do that. They informed me it was overweight, and had to be checked with the suitcases. Since my radio equipment was in the carry on bag it was heavy, but I didn’t feel comfortable letting the cargo handlers toss it around. Another verbal and time consuming battle ensued with the check in clerk and then her supervisor. All this action and aggravation resulted in no change to the ruling and I had to check the bag. Mood rating now back down to [festive –99%].

For over 6 hours I sat on that plane and prayed to the Communication God to have my equipment arrive safely. In London all went normal. We were met by the Cruise line personal and bussed to a hotel for rest, food and refreshment and then on to Dover to board the ship. See picture #1. Once aboard, with trembling hands, I slowly opened the carry on case and inspected the rig and power supply. They appeared fine. I quickly connected them, without an antenna, and applied power. Lo and Behold, NOISE! My mood now rose to [festive +99]. I gave the XYL a hug and kiss and started to unpack the rest of the gear.


Mounting the antenna on the ship railing and grounding it went much easier than anticipated.


The nylon line on the body of the antenna was used so that if I lost control of the mount or antenna they would not fall into the sea. A small wooden doorstop I had brought, to keep the veranda sliding door from chopping the coax, was put in place.


My operating position was on a small desk just inside the door.


The key was held stable by its suction cups to a 9” X 12” X 1/8” plexiglas plate, which in turn was held in place by the weight of the Power supply and rig. The duplexer is shown on the desk.


After one more prayer to the Communication God, I fired the system up and tried it on all bands from 7 – 144MHz. The antenna tuned to minimum SWR on all bands and I got full output except on 6 meters. A radial was available for that band, but didn’t bother to connect it because in Region 1, where I would be operating, maritime mobile 6 meter operation, is prohibited.

My prayers were answered and everything operated better than hoped for. My mood soared up to [festive +100%],

At this point I decided to bite the bullet and take the final step to notify the Captain. The letter from Crystal Cruises, giving permission to operate, was forwarded to him with an invitation to inspect my setup. The following morning there was a message on the phone that he would come to my cabin at 1030. Right on time, a knock on the door announced his arrival. It wasn’t the Captain, but the Ass’t Captain and he brought the Ships Carpenter in case I needed any assistance mounting the antenna. They both inspected and mechanically tested the antenna mount and pronounced it more than satisfactory. I described the equipment and demonstrated its operation for them. The Assistant Captain, who was very interested, even played with the key and said he used to use the code, many years before. He also stated that there was no problem with me operating on the cruise. I was now in [festive mood +1000%]. My two questions to him about territorial water limits and the use of my GPS to give our ships position out to contacts were answered positively. He said that if I used 12 miles, that would be fine as they did the same, but it did vary for some countries. He had no objection to my giving the ships position. Now I was set to have fun and enjoy the cruise.

My first contact, later that day while in the English Channel on the way from Dover, England to Dublin, Ireland, was with JA5PL on 20 CW . This was also my first QSO using the C6ARA call. Between eating, more eating, snacking, sightseeing and watching the evening entertainment, my operating time was severely limited. Instead of helping to support Caesar’s Palace after dinner with the XYL, I went on the air and managed to have over 200 QSO’s with 40 different countries. I operated as C6ARA/MM, EI/N1RA/M, MM/N1RA/M, GU/N1RA/M and F/N1RA/M. Logging the contacts in a paper log was time consuming but a Laptop would have added too much weight to my baggage. Luckily, I was not interested in the number of QSO’s, but the quality of them. I met a very nice, courteous group of Hams and the voyage turned out to be a real pleasure and exceeded my wildest dreams.

One day when on the veranda my next door neighbor leaned out around the partition and asked me what that thing was doing on my railing. I explained what it was and what I was doing. He became quite interested and said that the fellow on the other side of him, whom he was traveling with, was also a Ham. He called him and we all had a nice three- way over the verandas. A few days later Lee, WB5NFL, came over to see what I was using. I think his interest in Hamming and Cruising perked up a little. Before the trip I had a QSO with GU4CHY, [Guernsey Island], from my home QTH, and mentioned that I would be stopping at his Island on the cruise. He invited me to visit him when we were there. At anchor at Guernsey, I heard Dick on 20 CW. We had another nice QSO and he invited me ashore. The ship was about to leave so there was no time to go, though I would have really enjoyed meeting him.

During the entire cruise I kept pondering what I would do for QSL cards. I could have some made up, but this never turned me on. The ship had a picture post card showing it and its sister ship in beautiful color. If I could get enough of these and print all the calls I used on the back there would still be enough room for the QSL label with the contact information. At the reception desk, I asked for about 250 of these. When asked why so many, I tried to explain to the gal how I would use them. I guess I got through to her as she turned around, opened a closet and pulled out a stack about 3” high. She started to count them and then turned around and pulled out another 3” stack. When asked if this was enough, I said YES! There must have been at least 500 cards in that pile. The cards were larger than a normal QSL [5” X 7”], and I wondered if they could be handled by the Out Going QSL Bureau. Upon arriving home I contacted Martin Cook, manager of the ARRL Outgoing QSL Bureau, to find out if he would accept cards this size. Martin said yes, and sent me a sheet with all the rules and procedures. The rules stated that I as long as one of the parties of the QSO was outside the USA, the Bureau would accept them. This simplified my QSL process and each contact was sent a card via the Bureau.


If you are ever thinking of Hamming and Cruising may I suggest that you do a thorough job of planning beforehand. With all the bases covered, you will reach [festive mood +1000].