Radio Waves

I remember the CB radio craze of the 1970's, when it seemed that every car on the road sprouted an antenna and took the airwaves like Jerry Reeves in "Smokey and the Bandit." Although most drivers are now glued to cell phones, cruising boats continue to live in that wide-open world, the wonderful realm of radio.

When we were sailing on Chickamauga Lake in Tennessee, having a radio aboard was not all that critical. Except when we traveled in a group with other boats on a weekend adventure, we might have gone months without ever using our VHF to do anything more than listen to the weather forecast. That situation changed dramatically when we left Tennessee to go cruising. I was glad we had spent the money to put a radio (actually, an Icom command mic) right there at the helm, because we use it every day.

In theory you can get through a lock or bridge using horn signals or by pulling on a chain at the lock, but in reality most lockmasters and bridge tenders expect to hear from you on the radio and may get irate if you don't follow that protocol. In Norfolk, I watched a bridge tender close the bridge in front of a trawler that didn't answer when he called them on channel 13. The trawler was probably on 16, not realizing that in Virginia all bridges monitor 13. They sat there, trapped and incommunicado, for twenty minutes before finally asking for and receiving an opening.

In popular destinations such as George Town and Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas, cruisers tune in each morning to cruising nets that include announcements, items for sale or trade, weather, and advice of all kinds. Most of the social scene revolves around the radio, and there are plenty of cruisers who spend two or three hours each morning sitting in front of their VHF and SSB microphones. When coming into a new anchorage, it's not unknown for a vessel to call for someone who may not be anywhere in the vicinity, just to announce themselves. Underway or sitting at anchor, it's hard not to resist following the dramas on the VHF radio. In our first year of cruising we've listened to two or three boats sinking, dozens that are aground, one man overboard, a couple of obviously false distress calls, and at least 10,000 requests for radio checks. What is it about radio checks? I understand the need to verify a new installation, but the constant stream of requests for radio checks on inland waters baffles me. "Loud and clear, Captain," is the inevitable and often meaningless response, given that the two boats might be right next to one another and half the time neither station mentions their location.

Radio Nazi's are on constant patrol, waiting to pounce on anyone who makes contact with another boat and doesn't move to a working channel within the first few seconds. "Get off sixteen!" they bark, their nastiness almost more troublesome than the original conversation. The Coast Guard is more polite, usually breaking in with a standard fifteen second speech: "Vessels conversing on channel 16, be advised that channel 16 is an international hailing and distress frequency only. Please shift your traffic to a working channel. Coast Guard out!" Unfortunately, even that spiel can get a little annoying after a few dozen repetitions, especially when you couldn't hear the offending vessels in the first place. In some areas there is a concerted effort to get boaters to use another channel (typically 9) for hailing and routine calls, but evidently with little success. The problem could be that many boaters haven't mastered the simple concept of scanning more than one channel at a time. Every boat needs to monitor channel 16 in case of emergency. Bruce Van Sant tells the story of a cruiser who drove his boat right up onto the reef despite repeated calls of warning on the radio. Even at anchor, dinghies may break loose, anchors may drag, and social events come at you out of nowhere. It pays to have the radio on.

Wake Wars, our own nautical version of road rage, are regularly conducted on Channel 16. It's a sad fact of life that some boaters will fail to make a slow pass and rock a slower boat, occasionally knocking food off plates or putting water through open portholes. Legally, a boat is responsible for any damage caused by its wake, but judging from the radio the most common result is extreme psychological trauma. For some, the best revenge seems to be a verbal response, often in colorful language not approved by the FCC.

More than once I've heard the offended boat attempt to bring the other to justice by reporting them to the Coast Guard, who naturally have little interest in adjudicating the case over the airwaves. In the most extreme case I heard, I dearly wished they would at least try. We had just anchored off the huge Coast Guard station at Cape May, New Jersey when a raging male voice came on channel 16 to blast a boat that had crossed his path a little too closely. Nothing unusual there...until the man called the offending vessel a "boat full of Gooks" and declared that he would be waiting at the dock with a gun when the boat returned to port. "Wouldn't be the first time I've killed Gooks," the man added. No one--not the other boats, not the Coast Guard--said anything in response. I'm fairly certain it's against the law to make death threats on Channel 16 (not to mention stupid, since the Coast Guard is likely to be recording everything said), but I'm not sure there was any response that would have made that particular ugly American repent.

Every so often real drama does play out over the VHF. I remember listening for days as the Coast Guard broadcast a notice to mariners to be on the lookout for a small sailboat that was days and finally weeks overdue in the Gulf of Mexico. The boat might well have been safe at a dock, their radio turned off, but you had to wonder as the calls went on, day after day. I remember listening to the Coast Guard calmly assisting a charter fishing boat with an elderly passenger aboard who had suffered a stroke. I remember listening to another Coast Guard EMT give instructions on administering CPR to a boat off the Cape Fear inlet, real life and death being played out as a hundred boats listened.

Some incidents are serious but borderline comic. I cannot say for certain that the following radio transmissions were all part of the same drama, but if not it was quite a coincidence. We were making our way into Beaufort, North Carolina, listening to two powerboats converse on channel 16. The lead boat was offering some dubious advice about how to get through a tricky spot:

"You're going to want to get up on a plane," the first boat said, "it gets real shallow up here."

Get up on a plane? Were they crazy? Sure enough, a minute later, a woman's voice: "Houston, we have a problem!"

A few minutes later, we hear a man calling the Coast Guard to say that their boat is rapidly taking on water. Both the Coast Guard and Seatow respond immediately, the Seatow captain reporting that he is at full throttle and will be there in ten minutes. "I appreciate that," the man on the sinking boat says, "but we won't be here in ten minutes!"

Fortunately, the boat was able to drive back into shallow water and didn't sink far. Just to make the scene complete, somebody who evidently had not been listening to the drama suddenly broke in and spat, "Thanks for the wake, Seatow bastard!"

Where would we be without our radios? You love it, you hate it, you listen and take part in the ultimate maritime party line. Jerry Reeves doesn't know what he's missing.

Title Photo: The famous Liberty Bull in Philadelphia seemed an appropriate backdrop for the topic of radio freedom.

Copyright © 2007 by Rodger Ling. All rights reserved.