20 years and still growing

Penta Comstat commenced operation as Penta Base on 27 MHz frequencies in July 1976 in the marine business then operated by Derek and Jeanine Barnard. The purpose was to provide a safety service on weekdays when volunteer rescue and fishing club stations were not operating.

The radio facilities were expanded the following year to include VHF and HF and the station became involved in ocean yacht race communications during 1979 when requested to help with the Sydney – Mooloolaba race and later that year, the Sydney – Noumea, Gosford – Lord Howe Island and Montague Island races.

Yacht race communications then were on the South Pacific itinerant small craft frequency – which was used by most official coast stations as a common working frequency – and was only approved for the duration of each race. The race skeds and safety communications were often disrupted by commercial traffic. Yachts on return voyages after the race and those cruising independently of organised events, were expected to arrange their own communications.

During 1979 – 80 we made many submissions to the Department of Communications for the allocation of a 4 Mhz frequency for yachts and pleasure craft to enable a regular service – and for access to the supplementary HF distress and safety frequencies 4125 and 6215.5.

These applications were met with stiff bureaucratic opposition but support from some yacht clubs, individual members and the media for the 4 Mhz service resulted in the Minister for Communications arranging a meeting in Canberra on 21 February 1981with the Department of Communications, Department of Transport, OTC Coast Radio Service and Penta Base to resolve our communication requirements.

The support for our proposal, and our successful negotiations at the meeting, resulted in the assignment of 4483. Penta Base was licensed to provide a daily service on the new frequency and the supplementary HF distress and safety frequencies. The station was re-located to it’s present site at Holgate in September 1981 to improve the communication service.

Telex facilities were installed in February 1982 to facilitate search and rescue communications and to receive weather forecasts and warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology. Regular daily broadcasts of NSW local, coastal and ocean waters forecasts were established that year and the following year Penta Base commenced the broadcast of high seas weather forecasts – then the only voice broadcasts of this weather from Australia.

The station name was changed to Penta Comstat in 1984 to improve call recognition.

With the allocation of 4483 and the temporary use of 6, 8 and 12 Mhz international simplex frequencies for long ocean races, Penta Comstat was able to provide the communications for most coastal and ocean yacht races in eastern Australia and the South Pacific.

However, it was not until February 1987 – after years of submissions to the authorities – that we were permitted to provide a regular daily long range safety service on the higher frequencies.

It was July 1991 before Penta Comstat received the allocation of a range of HF channels from 4 – 22 Mhz. These were part of the additional channels made available to Australia when the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) introduced the new HF band plan.

International recognition

Penta Comstat gained international recognition when Nippon Ocean Racing Club requested us to provide the communications for the inaugural Melbourne/Osaka Double-Handed Yacht Race. With daily skeds for 64 yachts from 7 nations over most of the 5,500 nautical mile course, this was also our greatest challenge.

We were also contracted to handle the communications for the total distance of the 1991 and 1995 races and also both the Brisbane – Osaka and Los Angeles – Osaka courses of the 1994 Pan Pacific Yacht Race.

The station also received independent testimonials and considerable media coverage for the communications with Kay Cottee and Jon Sanders who both had a close relationship with us during their epic record breaking around the world voyages.

Penta Comstat has been listed as a coast station in the Admiralty List of Radio Signals (ARRL) since 1990. It is recognised by the authorities as providing a safety service for non-solas vessels in eastern Australian waters and the service has been used as the guidelines for small craft safety communications.

The present international coast station callsign VZX was allocated in 1992.

Some achievements

Ocean yacht race communications that previously relied on a radio relay vessel passing positions back to yacht clubs through a number of stations, or by public correspondence, now enjoy a reliable radio communication service – most often direct with the yachts and without the need for a radio relay vessel.

Members returning to home ports after yacht races or cruising independently of organised events have a coastal and long range reporting service that is unique in Australia – possibly the world.

Penta Comstat receives details of all navigation warnings, search and rescue messages and weather for eastern Australia and the Tasman and Coral Seas direct from the authorities and has also been directly involved in many of the small craft distress situations.

The awards to Penta Comstat over the years for their contribution to safety at sea and for their yacht race communications have been many and varied. When Derek received an OAM in the 1980 Queen’s Birthday awards it was considered as an encouragement to continue their efforts to improve the services available to small craft and in 1983 he was also pleased to be made a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International.

Some of the other main awards presented to Penta Comstat include:

Bicentennial Castrol Sea Safety award and Certificate of Appreciation. The awards were a joint initiative of Castrol Australia and the Federal Department of Transport and Communications and was presented by the Federal Minister responsible for Sea Safety, Senator Robert Ray aboard the sail-training vessel Young Endeavour.
Rotary Pride of Workmanship award from the Rotary Club of Brookvale nominated by Middle Harbour Yacht Club. The award was presented by Kay Cottee only hours after completing her solo circumnavigation.
The 1990 Robert Greaves Achievement Award for outstanding service in the marine industry presented by the Boating Industry Association of NSW.

There is also a large collection of yacht race plaques, photos and other presentations that cover most of the radio room walls.

Improving the service

The station has continued to expand the services and to upgrade the equipment to keep pace with the latest technology.

The introduction of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) in 1991 required an extensive station upgrade to maintain a watch on the increased range of distress and safety frequencies.

In January 1992 Penta Comstat was the first maritime station to install Selcall to provide direct contact on all our HF working frequencies from 2 – 22 Mhz. The VHF service was upgraded later that year with the allocation of Channel 78 and the installation of Philips 50 watt VHF transmitters on Channels 16/67 and Channel 78 operating full duplex.

The installation of the new radiotelephone interconnect in October 1993 has enabled the introduction of a ‘private correspondence’ radio telephone service for the use of members at a moderate cost.

From the single 27 Mhz radio in 1976 is there is now 2 x 27 MHz, 4 x VHF, and 5 x HF transceivers including three scanning Selcall and an additional 10 dedicated HF receivers. All broadcasts are on multiple frequencies, with the facility to transmit on up to nine frequencies simultaneously – two on 27 MHz, three on VHF and four on HF frequencies.

The Membership

The original membership list on the wall that was planned to handle 60 members changed to a strip index system and then a computer database that over the years has handled well over four thousand membership records of which only about 1200 are presently financial.

Penta Comstat is not a volunteer organisation and receives no government funding. It is a private radio communication service and while our safety communications are available to the public at no charge, the services provided by Penta Comstat are only made possible by the support of our Members who enjoy a unique personalised communication service.

There are now many stations operating both locally and around the coast but Penta Comstat has continued to provide a service that is not available from any other organisation.

Perhaps best known for our regular coastal and long range skeds, and with an average of more than one thousand reports logged every month from these vessels, Penta Comstat has been able to confirm the safety and well-being of many hundreds of Members for countless family and friends. This has also been responsible for a significant decrease in the enquiries to search and rescue authorities from concerned relatives and friends.

Follow-up action – as with messages and radiotelephone calls – is available only to financial Members which is the reason only these vessels are called on the skeds. Other vessels are welcome to call at the end of the sked with position reports and this information is logged but no responsibility is accepted for follow-up if a vessel fails to maintain reports.

The decision to extend our HF radio communication in late 1993 to include land mobiles has filled a gap in the services available to 4WD vehicles operating in outback Australia – many of them previously having HF radio to use only in an emergency.

Penta Comstat is actively encouraging similar reporting procedures from land mobiles as they do for small craft – with similar benefits for safety and the peace of mind it offers relatives and friends. Although almost all land mobiles have the facility to contact – or be contacted – by Selcall, the skeds have already proved highly successful with an average of about three hundred position reports logged monthly from 4WD’s travelling all around Australia.

4483 to be lost as a yachting frequency?

The frequency 4483 was assigned in 1981 for ocean yacht race communications and for ship to shore communications for vessels on ocean passages when 2524 was unworkable.

Classified as a ‘special’ frequency 4483 was not included in licensing documentation. Vessels were required to show evidence that a need existed before obtaining an endorsement on their licence. The only Limited Coast Stations (LCS) licensed to operate on 4483 were yacht clubs or stations involved in ocean yacht race communications.

For the last 15 years we have spent a tremendous amount of our time and effort attempting to ensure that 4483 be retained for the purpose it was assigned. While our efforts have been reasonably successful, there has been a rapid increase in abuse over which we have had little or no control.

One of the main difficulties has always been the interference from fishing trawlers operating on 4485 – a frequency assigned for their use only north of 18° S (approximately Townsville Qld). The 2 kHz space between the two frequencies is considerably less than the standard 3 kHz, therefore the traffic from 4485 breaks through on 4483.

The assignment of 4483 was accepted after we were given assurance that interference from 4485 should not be a problem because of the restricted use in the Gulf/North Queensland. The problem is that the use of 4485 has not been restricted to the authorised area and trawlers are operating on 4485 all around the coast, including Tasmania and Bass Strait.

Another very real problem is the unauthorised use of 4483 by fishing trawlers in all areas. Although Spectrum Management Agency (SMA) have made some very real attempts to control the use of both frequencies, it would appear that we are all fighting a losing battle.

Both problems have increased in recent years due to:

In September last year we were advised that SMA were considering replacing the yachting frequency 4483 with another frequency in an attempt to resolve the problem. This action would have caused considerable inconvenience and expense to all involved in ocean yacht racing and cruising – just because it was difficult to control the fishing fleet.

After some months of negotiations with SMA, it was agreed that 4483 would be retained for yachting and to minimise the interference problem SMA would:


SMA have advised that it is hoped these steps will greatly alleviate the current interference problem. We agree, but unfortunately it is a little like “shutting the gate after the horse has bolted”.

There are so many radios in existence with 4483 and 4485 included and with most operators referring to the manufacturers “frequency list” as the authority on the use of frequencies, it will be many years before there is any significant improvement.

At least 4483 will in future be included in Marine Brochure RIB38 (which is part of every SMA ship station licence) rather than hidden away as a “special frequency”.

Penta Comstat will continue to provide a service on 4483 – at least while it remains usable. However, it is no longer possible for us to devote the amount of time, effort and resources that we have spent over the last 15 years trying to preserve 4483.

The frequency 4483 is a very good for the purpose it was assigned and our service on 4483 has been really successful – in some ways perhaps too successful. However, we also provide a service on a wide range of other frequencies for an increasing number of Members operating around Australia and the Pacific.

It is now time for those that wish to have the use of 4483 for it’s intended purpose to do something positive about looking after the frequency. Anyone affected by unauthorised operations on 4483 or interference from fishing vessels operating on 4485 south of 18° S should lodge a complaint with the nearest SMA office.

HF Radio update

The dramatic improvement in HF radio equipment in recent years has been related to the rapid advances in computer technology. Most new HF radios are in fact partly computer and partly radio transceiver and can be interfaced with a remote computer to further extend the facilities and operation.

The standard marine HF radio of 10 – 15 years ago with 5 – 10 channels fitted covering the frequency range of 2 – 6 MHz now comes complete with hundreds of channels over a frequency range up to 25 Mhz. The old manual antenna tuning unit (ATU) that had to be carefully adjusted each time the operator changed channel has been replaced by an automatic tuner that “thinks” and has a “memory”.

Access to the required frequencies, the display of channel information and operation of the ATU is controlled by software in the radio in a similar way to software in a computer. Barrett and Codan are Australia’s main HF radio manufacturers and both are building equipment which is probably far more technologically advanced than overseas equipment. In fact both companies export radios all over the world.

Both the Barrett and Codan radios have the ability to scan a number of channels. Selcall (digital selective calling), Pagecall (text messages) and an optional GPS interface are available on both makes with some differences in the other “frills” included.

Pagecall on the Barrett can handle messages up to 32 characters and messages can only be transmitted from a radio interfaced with a computer (usually the base radio). The Codan can handle 64 character messages which can be entered from the display on a mobile or from an interfaced computer.

The optional GPS interface on both the Barrett and Codan radios enables a mobile (vessel or vehicle) to transmit their exact position as part of the Selcall and enables another radio to interrogate the GPS position.

The new Barrett 550 enables one radio (usually the base) to interrogate other radios to check the battery voltage and the state of tune of the antenna the last time the radio transmitted. The new Codan models can accommodate both four and six digit Selcall ID’s, three different scan programs and several Selcall ID’s if required for operation in different networks.

The new model Codans can be controlled from the front panel or the microphone, include a real time clock with date and time stamping of incoming Selcalls and enough customisable options to satisfy any requirement.

Emergency Selcall is an optional extra on the land model Codan that can be programmed to automatically call a designated station on up to four different channels until it receives an acknowledgment of the call – all with the press of one button. If the radio has the GPS interface, the position is included in the call.

Unfortunately, the Selcall system on the Barrett and Codan radios is the only option that is compatible between the two brands. Pagecall and GPS position reports will only work between radios of the same brand and in order to provide this service, Penta Comstat has had to install new models of both the Barrett and Codan transceivers.

Transitting the Pacific Oceans

Penta Comstat this year completed their third successful communications for the Melbourne/Osaka Double-Handed yacht race.

Named the Yamaha Osaka Cup, the race is sponsored by the Yamaha Motor Co. Ltd. and organised by Nippon Ocean Racing Club (NORC) with the cooperation of Sandringham Yacht Club and the civic authorities of both the Port of Melbourne and the Port of Osaka.

The first Melbourne/Osaka Double-Handed yacht race was held in 1987. Melbourne and Osaka are sister cities and the purpose of the first race was to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the opening of the Port of Osaka. Penta Comstat was requested to provide the race communications to 10° N but actually maintained the skeds with most of the entrants into Osaka Bay.

The inaugural event contested by 64 yachts from 7 nations was a great success marred only by the unfortunate loss of the crewman off Castaway Fiji which sank after loosing the keel. The successful rescue of the skipper by David Adams sailing Kirribilli confirmed the need for regular radio communication skeds.

NORC decided to make the race a four-yearly event and Penta Comstat were contracted to provide the communications for the total length of 5,500 nm of the 1991 race when 42 yachts from 10 nations started. That race resulted in the loss of Southern Dufor near Guam but fortunately the crew were rescued by the US Coast Guard.

A decline in entries this year resulted in 27 starters, with 26 of these completing the course to Osaka. The race skeds are maintained until the last vessel finishes, this is between 5 to 6 weeks.

In 1994 NORC organised a further race planned by the Osaka Prefectural Government to commemorate the opening of the Kansai International Airport. This race, the Pan-Pacific, consisted of starters from Los-Angeles, Brisbane, Shanghai, Pusan and Vladivostok. Penta Comstat was again contracted for the Brisbane leg, with a further request to provide the communications for the Los Angeles starters. We were reluctant to handle the Los Angeles course because of the difficulties in establishing a relationship on radio with entrants starting so far away – and also, initially, the 6 hours difference in time.

We agreed to do the Los Angeles course only when NORC were unable to find another station to provide the communications. The sked time was 2 a.m. for the Americans when the race started, but gradually came forward to 5 p.m. as they crossed the North Pacific Ocean toward Japan. The skeds for the Brisbane entrants were a half hour later, and considerable interest was evident from both fleets in the progress of the leaders as they neared Osaka from different directions.

A number of the entrants in the Osaka races have continued cruising after the events with several having travelled to Alaska, Canada, America and the South Pacific maintaining our normal daily long range skeds.

Royal Flying Doctor to provide emergency medical service

The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (RFDS) has agreed to provide emergency medical advice for both land and maritime mobiles through Penta Comstat.

All RFDS sections throughout Australia have been advised of the extension of our HF radio communication service to include land mobiles with a request for assistance with emergency medical advice when required. The NSW Section were also requested to provide access to their radiotelephone medical service for small craft requiring medical assistance.

The response to our requests has been most favourable with RFDS bases in all States offering to make their facilities available for our land mobile service.

Mr Clyde Thomson GM, Executive Director, Royal Flying Doctor service of Australia (NSW Section) has also advised that the Service will provide emergency medical advice to maritime mobiles through the RFDS Base at Broken Hill (our closest base).

Mr Thomson further advised that the NSW section would effect emergency evacuations for land mobiles within their service area and could arrange evacuations by the appropriate Section within other RFDS Service areas.

Penta Comstat will continue to provide Members with the option of talking directly with their own doctor. In some cases there is probably none better qualified to give medical advice – particularly when the person has a medical condition that has been treated previously by their doctor.

Some requests for non-emergency medical advice will continue to be connected to the Gosford District Hospital where the doctors have always been most helpful. However, future requests from any land and maritime mobiles for urgent medical advice will be connected to the RFDS.

The “Flying Doctors” are the experts in remote area medical advice. They were the pioneers of radio-medical services in the outback and now also provide this service to commercial shipping on behalf of the Department of Community Services and Health under the international convention for the medical care of seamen.

Radiophone interconnect an immediate success

The new Radiophone interconnect installed late last year is proving to be far more successful than we ever expected. It replaces the interconnect installed with the 400 watt Codan HF transceiver in 1989. That equipment was purchased to avoid a repeat of the communication problems experienced with the distress and safety situations during the first night of the Bicentennial Around Australia Yacht Race on 8.8.88.

The purpose of the original interconnect was to provide direct radiophone contact with medical or search and rescue authorities to avoid the delays and wasted time associated with relaying information. We were granted a permit by Telecom Australia to interconnect to the public switched network (PSTN) to provide safety communications for vessels at sea.

AUSTEL now control the interconnection into the PSTN and eligible services are permitted to interconnect under their Service Providers Class Licence (SPCL). AUSTEL have approved the registration by Penta Comstat under the SPCL for both our maritime and land mobile service.

The new interconnect can be switched between either of our main HF transceivers but can also be switched to any other HF, VHF or 27 MHz transceiver. This makes it possible to provide safety radiophone calls on any frequency if necessary.

Under AUSTEL’s class licence, the service is no longer restricted to safety communications and Penta Comstat is now providing a ‘private correspondence’ radiophone service for maritime and land mobile members at a very modest cost.

Members are able to receive and make radiophone calls at charges that are based on the cost of providing the service which is available on VHF Channel 78, and HF Channels 429, 608, 836, 1234, 1642 and 2243.

Members are requested to authorise call charges to a Bankcard, MasterCard or Visa credit card. Details of all calls are logged by computer and at the end of each month Members receive an itemised statement of all calls for the month and the amount charged to their credit card.

Full details are covered in HF Radiotelephone Service.

Understanding radiophone calls

All radiophone calls (except some large commercial shipping installations) are simplex communications. It does not make any difference whether the radio channel is a simplex or duplex frequency – the call is simplex. Duplex channels in both maritime and land mobile radio transceivers are used as two frequency simplex – one frequency is used for transmit and the other for receive but not both at the same time.

The important thing for both the radio operator and the telephone party to understand is that only one person can talk at a time. The operation is easier for the radio operator to understand because it is normal procedure to press the microphone PTT switch to speak and release it again to receive.

A radiophone interconnect is VOX (voice operated transmission) operated and the telephone subscriber’s voice controls the base radio transceiver PTT. When the telephone party speaks or makes any sound – or if the phone picks up background noise – the base transmitter changes from receive to transmit.

It is important therefore that the telephone subscriber understands that they should listen until the radio operator stops speaking before they continue the conversation and to resist any urge to talk while the radio operator is still transmitting. The problem is that not only does the radio operator not hear what they say – the telephone party stops hearing the radio transmission as well because both the mobile and base radios are transmitting and neither are receiving.

Some people use the term “over” to indicate when they have finished speaking. This is sometimes helpful initially for those not familiar with radiophone operation. However, if both people make it clear by their operation when they have stopped speaking, it is usually not difficult for them to conduct a normal telephone conversation over radio.

A little more care, particularly by the telephone party, will minimise any disruption to the conversation and help keep the call time and costs to a minimum.
“How to” card now available

Penta Comstat has produced a card to assist Members with making or receiving radiophone calls.

One side of the card provides information for family or friends of Members on how to contact them through Penta Comstat. The other side has information on making radiophone calls from a maritime or land mobile.

The “how to” card includes the special Penta Comstat phone number and provision to fill in information that will assist those wishing to make contact with Members.

A small quantity of the cards are being provided to all Members that have indicated they wish to participate in the radiophone service.

Selcall – digital technology improves HF radio service

Selcall (selective calling) is a digital means of calling and station identification. Selcall encode (transmission of calls) is fitted as standard on all Codan 8528 transceivers. Selcall decode (reception) is fitted as standard to the Codan Outback HF Radiophone and is available on the marine models as an option.

‘Codan compatible’ Selcall is available as a factory fitted option on some other makes and models and can be fitted as an extra to most HF radio transceivers. The Selcall optional fitments would usually include both encode and decode.


Selcall enables direct and positive contact on working frequencies with any station maintaining a Selcall watch. Penta Comstat introduced a Selcall service in January 1992 on all our HF working channels.

All HF transceivers fitted with Selcall have a 4-digit identification number usually referred to as the Selcall I.D. Stations maintaining a Selcall watch are usually scanning a number of channels – up to eight in Selcall mute on the ‘Codan compatible’ system. Selcall mute keeps the receiver quiet until it receives a Selcall addressed to the radio’s 4-digit I.D.

The station calling enters the I.D. of the station they wish to call and the radio transmits a digital code which is decoded by the called radio. The called radio send a series of short beeps (known as a revertive call) back to the radio calling to confirm the call has been received. Then it will ring four times (like a telephone) to alert the operator who can then respond with a normal voice communication. Late model transceivers with a digital display also indicate the 4-digit I.D. of the station calling.

The difference between Selcall and voice calling is that the caller knows the call has been received (by listening for the revertive call) and the station called has been alerted to the call (and on display model radios, the identity of the caller). All this is achieved by pressing less buttons than making a telephone call.

Receiving calls

When the radio being called is scanning several channels, it will stop on the channel used for the call, tune the antenna, send the revertive, then ring to alert the operator, and is ready for voice reply – all automatically.

If the operator is away from the radio when called, it will return to scanning after two minutes but will continue to ‘beep’ to indicate a call was received. On display models, it will also indicate the channel and the caller’s I.D. If more than one call is missed, the radio stores the details of the last 10 calls in memory, but if the same station calls on the same channel several times it is recorded only once. The calling stations can be called back without the need to enter the Selcall I.D.

Selcall is widely used in land mobile communications except by the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia (RFDS). However, it is relatively new in the maritime area with only a very small percentage of HF radios fitted with Selcall and most of these do not have the optional decode fitted. Those vessels that can receive Selcall are able to enjoy the peace and quiet of some secluded anchorage whether it be in Broken Bay, the Whitsundays or a South Pacific island – and be instantly contactable if required – without the need to listen to any other traffic.

Tone Calling

Tone calling is a cheaper option available to both land and maritime mobiles. It offers most of the advantages of Selcall transmit – it alerts the operator of a call – but it does not provide identification of either the caller or the station called.

Tone Calling has been used by the RFDS for many years for after hours emergency contact. Penta Comstat has added this facility to our Selcall transceiver to enable radios fitted only with Tone Calling to contact the operator on our working channels.

Beacon test

One of the main additional benefits of the Selcall service is the beacon test facility which operates on the same channels scanned for Selcall. The radio called decodes the call as a beacon call and instead of alerting the operator, the radio transmits four long tones then immediately goes back to scanning all channels.

The main purpose of the beacon test is to enable the caller to quickly determine which HF channel will provide the best communication at that time. By checking two or three different frequency bands (or even different stations) it is possible to check which stations can be contacted (no contact, no beacon response). and the best channel for communication by comparing the strength and clarity of the tones.

Getting the best results from a beacon test

The best HF communications are provided by the highest frequency that is useable between the two stations. One of the traps with Selcall is that a call will often be successful when voice communication is not possible. This is because the digital tones are transmitted at maximum power output and because tones can be received better than voice.

To obtain the best results from beacon tests, start with the highest frequency and work down then use the highest frequency which obtained a beacon response to make the call. This will avoid the problems of the Selcall being received and then having to change up in frequency to able voice communication