Geeks On Freqs

By Douglas Bernon
June 8, 2001
Southwest Cay, Glover Reef, Belize
16 43.068 N 87 51.400 W

With scant amusement, My Personal Commodore observes that I'm morphing into a life-form unfairly disparaged as a radiohead, or in her most pithy phrase, "You're becoming a geek on freq" — the latter pronounced "freak," the nickname for "frequency" among my fellow radioheads out here. She frets that soon I'll march to court and officially change my name to some vowelless, unpronounceable amalgamation composed entirely of capital letters and digits. In the face of this worry, my only legitimate reply must be "Roger, Roger, Honey. Affirmative. This is WCZ6966, Standing by."

I got my first radio in second grade, from my grandmother, who bought me a white, plastic Japanese transistor model not much bigger than my father's pack of Pall Malls, from which some years later I was stupid enough to be filching the contents. My little radio had an earpiece for personal listening, and I came to treasure the private world it let me enter, although I burst into tears when I first saw the radio, because I worried I'd only get stations from Japan and never understand what was being said. I've loved radios ever since.

On Ithaka, not that many months ago, I didn't know how to use our SSB (single-sideband radio) or, even, what it was really for. Now I'm a keen aficionado and want to get my ham license so I can swim with the big fish. On the SSB, we listen to the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) World Service, our favorite, and to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company) as our main sources of information. VOA (Voice of America) and the American Armed Forces Network wave the flag so noisily it seems to drown out everything else they offer.

Here in Central America, my radio day starts at 1230 Zulu, (also known as Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT), which is 6:30 a.m. local time. That's when NOAA's Tropical Prediction Center in Miami broadcasts a fax of their 48- and 72-hour Winds/Seas Forecast for an area that stretches from 30 degrees North (roughly the Florida-Georgia border), down to 10 degrees North (Panama and Colombia), and from 55 to 90 degrees West, which is from east of the Dominican Republic all the way to the Pacific side of things. Each morning, sitting with my coffee at the nav desk, I watch the silent, gray halftones scroll down the computer screen, national boundaries and wind arrows magically emerging and revealing to us a potential version of our future. Increasingly I'm making more sense of weather patterns, so it doesn't matter as much that sometimes the fax is fuzzy and the forecasts are a little screwy. Neither weather nor life, after all, is that predictable, and one relies mostly on the aggregate of several days' faxes in a row.

Photo of a typical morning weather fax This is how a typical morning weather fax looks.

At 1250 Zulu, (6:50 a.m. local) NOAA serves up the High Seas Forecast in hard copy (no pretty pictures, just text), and at 7 a.m. local (1300 Zulu) I used to switch from the 12787.7 freq to 8137 so I could talk to Harold on Sea Camp, when he and Diane were several hundred miles away. We always had to finish our conversation with some dispatch because I had to pull down the 1315 Zulu NOAA faxes of the "nowcast" and 24-hour Winds/Seas Forecast. This fax is nailed down by 7:35 local when NOAA broadcasts the 0600 Zulu U.S. Surface Analysis, but sometimes I miss part of that because at 7:40 a.m. I now switch to 4149 to talk with Frank on Simba who's headed back to the States with his wife Lynda, and I want to talk to Horst and Karen on Flow, who are headed for Panama. To get to Flow, I sometimes have to switch to "12 megs" (that's geek talk for a frequency in the 12000 or longer-distance range). This is a lot of rotating of the radio dial, and sometimes my wrist can get really tired — nothing like junior-high school, but weary all the same.

My conversations at 7:40 a.m. have to be concluded by 8 a.m., because then it's time for the Northwest Caribbean Net on 8188; for roughly the next hour, no one cruising in these parts, and I mean no one, wants to miss it. This a "controlled net," which means one net-controller — a different volunteer cruiser for each of the seven days — serves as the pivot through which all traffic (conversations between boats) travels. There's a standard-format beginning: the formal announcement that "The Northwest Caribbean Net is now open," followed by a request for "Emergency, Medical, and Priority Traffic." Most days there's none. Other days, there have been reports of deaths, boardings, robberies, and mishaps, as well as requests for knowledge about overdue arrivals. When Diana B reported a lost rudder and was inching toward Honduras, other boats on the net offered emergency steering modifications they could make under way, advice on where the currents were close to their destination, and the name and phone number of someone in Puerto Cortez who could assist them. Another cruising boat accompanied them safely in and someone else on the net made arrangements for them for hauling and repair immediately upon arrival. This was the net at its best: cruisers staying in touch and looking out for each other.

After Emergency, Medical and Priority Traffic, it's time for "Check-Ins By Boats Under Way." You say who you are, where you are, your local weather conditions, where you're headed, and when you expect to arrive. Because boats on the move are a tad busier than folks drinking coffee at anchor, they're given the first opportunity to check in and to request traffic. Once that's finished, there's a call for weather; most days, Dave, on Victoria in Roatán, has pulled down the past 24 hours' worth of weather faxes and hard copy and gives a rich, practical, detailed overview of the weather for all the NW Caribbean, as well as "fills" for anyone who wants particular information about his or her specific area. For all of us down here who rely on his wisdom and droll humor, Dave is simply a Supernatural Being.

After weather, net control declares that it's time for anybody else who wishes to check in to do so, generally starting either in Honduras and working north toward the States or vice versa. The standard procedure is to be clear and brief. Today, for instance, I said, "Ithaka, Glover's Reef. Good morning, Louis. No traffic."

"Good morning, Ithaka," said Louis, on Crystal in Honduras, who was net control today. "Any more check-ins, come now."

Photo of friends Horst and Karen on Flow Since we parted company with our friends Horst and Karen on Flow in May, we've been able to stay in touch with them via the SSB as they made progress south toward Cartagena, Colombia.

The first time we tried to check in, we were in Cuba, and I was both excited and nervous. To announce ourselves on the net was a statement of being that was bigger than I felt, so for a week or so I just sat mute and listened. When the Commodore said I was being dorky, I had little choice. So when the net controller was taking check-ins, I tried to summon up my most confident voice, pushed the microphone's talk button and tremulously whispered "Ithaka. North shore of Cuba. No traffic." It was an agony to eek out even that much, and when no one acknowledged me, it felt as if I had been found out fully as a poseur, a wannabe. THAT, I thought, was why net control had good reason not to respond; I've been unmasked as a cruising fraud! In the midst of this version of an on-going childhood nightmare, I did what all children do. With an even louder voice I kept repeating myself every time there was a break in the check-ins, but I still earned no reply. I was feeling angry and loathsome, when Bernadette walked over, smiled, took the VHF mike out of my hand and replaced it with the SSB mike. In my anxious ambivalence, for five minutes I'd been announcing myself on VHF channel 16, which wasn't even turned on. Humbled early that day by the "duh" factor, I pressed the button on the correct mike, and, with a humored sense of renewal, happily announced our location. The net controller recognized a new name, and came back with the sweetest of statements. "Good morning, Ithaka, welcome to the Northwest Caribbean Net." Dude, I thought, this is for real. We're really out here!

When people check in, if they do request "traffic," the controller lists them, and after a segment called "Information Offered or Needed," at the end of the net, he or she calls each boat and says something like "Ithaka, call your traffic." After which I'd say something like "Sea Camp, Sea Camp, Ithaka." If Harold on Sea Camp is "on freq" he responds, and the ethic is to keep this conversation short, or to agree what other channel or freq to switch to for a longer chat. Then, when your turn is finished, you tell the net "Ithaka clear." Of course everyone listens to everybody else, because that's half the fun, eavesdropping being one of life's sneakier little joys. Beyond these perversities, I love using the net to keep current with the friends we've made out here, to know where they are, and when we might meet again.

The segment of the net called "Information Offered or Needed" has been an eye-opener for us. Cruisers come on to warn of dangers; share opinions on new services available; tell of robberies; announce the placement, replacement or disappearance of navigational buoys; or give the sad news of deaths. It was on the net that we learned that Finn at Bluefield Range had drowned. In addition, people ask for waypoints for unmarked reef openings, or wrecks to dive, or customs procedures, or the cost of diesel, or where to have things shipped to in the Río Dulce, or just about anything related to the cruising life in the waters of Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras.

These are not crowded cruising grounds, and most days there are 30 or so check-ins. I suspect that in the entire Northwest Caribbean, at the peak of the season, there are fewer than 100 boats cruising on any given day, which is part of what makes this such a grand place to hang out and also makes the net that much more important. In May, as the spring gave way to summer, and as hurricane season approached, we heard the now-familiar names announcing their positions in increasingly more northern places, and rare clumps of boats — Babe, Turtle Bones, BobAndy, Soulstice, Luturner, and others — gathered together awaiting the right weather window to make the jump back to the States. Meanwhile, a small handful of us still headed south or east for the season, knowing the Río Dulce, a perfect hurricane hole, is no more than two days' sail away.

Photo of reef fish Glover Reef, a coral atoll 25 miles off the coast of Belize where Ithaka is anchored, is known as one of the premier dive spots in the world.

Sometimes the net can be about life and death, safety and survival, and other days, when winds are calm and boats are intact and the weather is your ally, there are interchanges that capture perfectly some of the sweet aspects of life out here. Such was one conversation that occurred recently:

Cruiser: "Net Control, this is the Sailing Vessel "X." Could you tell me please, is today Sunday or Monday?"

Net Control: "Sunday. I'm pretty sure today is Sunday."

Cruiser: "Thanks, Net. Are you sure?"

Not so long ago I felt too green to even say our name. Now Bernadette suggests I should volunteer as one of the net controllers because she said, "While you get an awful lotta stuff wrong, most of the time you know what day it is." I figure when I no longer do, that will constitute a major victory.

This is Ithaka, at Glover Reef. We're clear.