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Info and entertainment at sea

Jun 20, 2013

Do-it-yourself radio nets for ocean passagemaking

Nadine Slavinski’s husband Markus on a radio net.

Nadine Slavinski’s husband Markus on a radio net.

Long bluewater passages can be daunting, for seasoned hands as well as for sailors venturing into their first major offshore adventure. Safety is one cause for concern, and potential loneliness is another. But you don’t have to go it alone, even on the open sea. With single sideband radio, you can reach across the ocean to communicate with sailors thousands of miles away. It isn’t necessary to join an organized sailing rally or tap into a tightly regulated net: we cobbled together our very own radio net for our Pacific crossing and found the result an unqualified success. This “homemade” radio net enhanced our ocean crossing experience in every way — with weather information, advice on fixing gear, and a healthy dose of comic relief during a month-long Pacific passage.

A meetup offshore. HF radio nets allow voyagers to stay in contact even when not sailing in close formation.

Creating your own radio net can be easy, especially if you are following the seasons along cruising routes where sailors congregate in stepping off points such as the Chesapeake Bay, the Canary Islands, or Panama. We found a crowded anchorage full of cruisers in the Galápagos Islands in March, most of them equipped with SSB and like us, looking for “company” heading west. All it takes is an agreed-upon time and frequency. Of course, sailors can also tap into established venues such as the Pacific Seafarer’s Net, but some of these nets are quite formal or longwinded, and require participants to hold ham radio licenses (unlike informal nets operating on marine frequencies). For this reason, a small yet robust net of five to 12 boats offers the perfect combination of safety in numbers without being overly rigid.

Our radio net was initiated by two crews, ourselves aboard 35-foot Namani and our friends on 42-foot Astarte. Early on, there were only three boats underway, so checking in was an easy-going, unstructured affair. As more boats set off and joined us, we moved to a more formal structure, with Markus of Namani and Michael of Astarte alternating net control duties. Some of the late-comers were crews we had recruited before setting off, but several were boats who just happened to stumble across our fledging net on the air. Our choice of frequency proved fortuitous in this regard, since we used 8143 kHz on the upper sideband two hours after the fading Panama Pacific Net that was familiar to many cruisers. Soon we had a dozen boats in our international group, all 35- to 50-foot monohulls that set sail within a three-week period. Every good team needs a name; one early proposal was “The Close Reachers,” reflecting the frustrating conditions encountered by the first to depart, but we eventually settled on the “POST” net (an acronym for Pacific Ocean Sailing Tribe, a gang that soon developed clan-like characteristics). Most were heading for the Marquesas, while a few set a more southerly course for Easter and Pitcairn islands.
 

Spanning an ocean

The 8-MHz frequency served us well throughout most of the passage, but when the POST net boats spanned the entire 3,000 miles between the Galápagos and Polynesia, we turned to an alternate 12-MHz frequency. Invariably, some boats have better SSB transmission than others, so relays were necessary to compile the entire group’s information. This was another time we were thankful for the relatively small size of our group, since relays can quickly grow monotonous, not to mention energy-consuming for short-handed crews in the midst of never-ending watch schedules. We met for 25 to 30 minutes each morning, with the net stretching a little longer in its most sociable and humorous late editions.

What if a yacht failed to call in one morning? In our group, each vessel put forward an individual request as to whether the Coast Guard should be notified with a message of concern should they fail to report for two successive days. This would corroborate a possible EPIRB signal without creating waves of panic in case of a more innocent loss of power or transmission ability.
 

Heike of the yacht Victoria works the net with her two radio assistants.

Unexpected fringe benefits

Our initial aim in creating a net was to be able to report our position to an outside source daily so that we wouldn’t disappear unnoticed into the depths of the Pacific in the event of some disaster. However, we soon discovered a number of practical advantages to our net, such as hearing local weather and sea conditions observed by other boats. For example, when the first crews to depart ran into a powerful contrary current, those behind knew to follow a more southerly course. It proved extremely valuable to have a real-time picture of what might be developing ahead or behind throughout the passage. Similarly, the first boats could also inform the others about what to expect once they had made landfall.

Another advantage of the net was the ability to solicit technical advice. Astarte’s steering problem was discussed and correctly diagnosed, and Mary Madeleine’s seemingly serious gearbox problem was resolved by advice from Adventure Bound. This extended to discussions about sail configurations, both in the immediate sense and for future reference. How were those under twizzle rig (twin foresail setup) coping with the rolling swell, in comparison with a prevented main and poled out genoa? Was the money invested in a pricey lightweight sail paying off?

Members of the net also pooled resources. For instance, when Adventure Bound couldn’t make contact with a radio ham on Pitcairn Island, Astarte stepped in to help, using onboard SailMail to contact the islander. Another example was the guessing game among Marquesas-bound cruisers concerning arrival procedures: would there be dire consequences to visiting spectacular Fatu Hiva before officially clearing in on Hiva Oa? Several boats e-mailed ahead for the latest update, which they then shared through the net.

Several members tuned into one of several other radio nets as well, creating a tangled web of cross-alliances. We on Namani had two appointments each day, including the POST net and a German-speaking “Funkrunde.” Greg and Danielle, francophone Canadians aboard Mary Madeleine, also tuned into the evening French-speaking net. Several of our members likewise reported to the Pacific Seafarer’s Net. By connecting with a variety of nets, each crew could filter and pass on pertinent information to our small group, thus keeping us connected to a much wider network — a global village, if you will, united by the sea and bouncing radio waves. Once, a mysterious flare was reported on a different net; this information was passed on to us, and thus 12 more crews were alerted to a potential vessel in distress (happily, it turned out to be a false alarm). As Barbara of Astarte aptly put it, our net was like Facebook on the ocean.

Above all, we enjoyed the social aspect of the net, especially as the long passage stretched into week three and then four. Crews tallied fishing scores, commiserated over poor conditions, and shared many a laugh thanks to good-humored sailors who revealed their funny, funnier, and funniest sides. In fact, when we offered Katydid’s Robin, the only single-hander in our group, to shorten his time on the air by moving to first in the roll call, he replied with a vehement “No! This is my social time!”
Cast of characters

Hiva Oa in the Marquesas was the end point for the Pacific Ocean Sailing Tribe (POST) net.

Our radio net quickly developed a two-part rhythm. The first 10 to 15 minutes of radio time were dedicated to position and weather reports, followed by a sociable second section of advice, banter, and jokes. On the open sea, days can be rich in overall impressions but generally uneventful, and the net let us glimpse life beyond our own limited horizons. It was a little like watching TV, and in fact, we had the choice of several channels.

It all started innocently, with Darramy’s fishing success drawing calls for advice on lures. This led to a few episodes of the cooking channel, featuring Adventure Bound’s recipes for all those tasty fish. The latter crew also spun off an adventure channel, chronicling Zimbabwean Bruce’s antics in the deep blue sea (going overboard to clean the hull in a calm, he ended up spearing two mahi-mahi!). The father-son team aboard Sophie issued a race report, racking up consistent daily runs of 160 to 180 miles. Meanwhile, the Dutch couple aboard Happy Bird offered a home-improvement program shortly after Roderick sent Yvonne (grandmother of two) up the mast in a heavy swell to recover a parted halyard. Ever-upbeat Michael of Astarte ran the weather channel, with Brian of Darramy reporting painstakingly exact measurements from his “wavometer” (2.3-meter swells on every sixth wave) and “cloudometer” (37 percent cloudy skies). Brian also directed the comedy network, starring his imaginary crewmember, Roger the cabin boy, who would be sent off on errands up the mast and even to other boats with various complaints. We laughed ourselves silly and knew that our friends were all doing the same in their not-so-solitary stretches of ocean beyond our horizon.

Since few of the POST net members had met in person before setting off, it was great fun forming a mental image of each person over the air. Even more fun was actually meeting many of the cohort in French Polynesia. As it turned out, a number of other boats (equipped with SSB receivers only) had been tuning in, too. We discovered this when perfect strangers greeted us in the Marquesas and said they had been tracking our progress all along.
 

A contrast

The POST net and our German-speaking “Funkrunde” make for an interesting comparison. Both consisted of approximately 12 boats exchanging positions and local conditions over roughly half an hour. However, each went about this in a different way. While the POST net operated via established net controllers, the German Funkrunde subsisted for two weeks in a much looser (and decidedly un-Teutonic) system. Rita of Aninad would simply come on the air, hail a friend, report the basics, and exchange a few pleasantries. The friend would then call on another vessel and initiate the next two-way chat, while the rest of the group patiently listened in and noted each vessel’s information. Each boat would eventually draw in another, in no established order. This seemingly haphazard method worked because the crews were already familiar with each other from a group dinner in the Galápagos, and if someone was left out, well, they could be counted on to pipe up at the end!

Eventually, the German fleet spread out and transmission clarity faded, so they also shifted to a designated net controller. The task fell to Heike aboard Victoria, who not only possessed strong transmission capability, but also a clear voice and perky radio personality fit for professional broadcasting. Interestingly, most calls on the German net were made by the female members of each crew (most of whom were couples, plus three families with young children), with Corinna of Moin handling much of the relay work. To keep things interesting, Heike pulled her 6-year-old son, Niklas, into the fray, allowing him to hail each boat on the roll in turn. Who couldn’t resist a smile when his sweet, tiny voice came on the air? This kind of personal touch is only possible within a small-scale net, allowing a scattered group to become a community, no matter how far-flung.

The main challenge for both nets was accommodating the last crews after the majority had made landfall. Ideally, a team of net controllers should stay on duty until the last boat arrives safely in port. Poor SSB transmission within the mountain-ringed Marquesas made it difficult for those at anchor to communicate with vessels still underway, though e-mail progress reports via SailMail could still get through. In addition, the last three POST boats were able to sidestep to another informal net and thus maintained direct outside contact throughout the entire crossing.

Our experience shows that informal radio nets can be great fun and bring many advantages. With a few like-minded crews and a decent SSB set, sailors can cross oceans with a feeling of safety and camaraderie, regardless of the region they explore. In fact, many of the crews remained friends throughout their Pacific travels.

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Nadine Slavinski is the author of Lesson Plans Ahoy: Hands-On Learning for Sailing Children and Home Schooling Sailors. With her husband and son, she sails a Dufour 35, Namani.
 

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