Radio Rage -May 9, 2002
This past December 12th marked the 100th anniversary of Guglielmo Marconi's first transatlantic radio transmission. Despite the popularity of cellular phones and the advances in satellite communications, most boaters still rely on Marconi's invention to communicate. But things have changed a lot in the last hundred years. If Marconi was alive today and tried to duplicate his feat, more than likely he'd be greeted with cries of, "Hey, buddy, this frequency is in use!" or "Break, break, can anyone give me a radio check?"
The radio waves are carrying more and more flotsam and jetsam these days, and sometimes it's not very pretty. Witness the time David politely asked the seemingly mild-mannered guy on the boat anchored next to "Little Gidding" whether he could schedule his e-mail transmissions not to interfere with the morning weather report. Our ears were still ringing from the high-pitched chirps that had totally obliterated our faithful friend, November Mike November. His response was to suggest David relocate our Yaesu transceiver to a part of his anatomy where we're sure its manufacturer's warranty would be voided.
We've learned that just as you would think carefully before recommending remedial driving lessons to a motorist on a jammed LA freeway, you should use discretion in suggesting to any boater that he change his radio behaviour. The consequences of a well-intentioned comment could be an explosion of what we call "radio rage". The language fired your way might melt your speakers.
Whether it's the VHF radio used for short distance communication or the HF radio (marine single side band or ham) used for longer range contacts, radio abuse is growing with the burgeoning number of people out there picking up microphones. One strategy down south for mitigating interference on overworked channels is to establish radio "nets". The idea behind a net is to take traffic off the official hailing and distress frequencies and to introduce a hall monitor (net control) to keep things orderly. There are morning VHF nets in a number of ports where large numbers of cruisers hang out: Marsh Harbour and George Town in the Bahamas, Luperon (Dominican Republic), St. Maarten, Rodney Bay (St. Lucia), Trinidad, Puerto La Cruz (Venezuela), the Rio Dulce (Guatemala), and Isla Mujeres (Mexico) to name a few. On the high frequencies, ham and SSB nerds can permanently plant themselves next to the radio and switch from one HF net to another as different bands open up for different locations with the passage of the solar day.
In George Town, where we've spent the past couple of months, the morning VHF net is well established and highly structured. Net controllers volunteer for a week of service at a time. David just finished his stint as net control. It was an ear-opening experience. He had his first inkling that he may have got himself into something over his head when the previous week's net controller brought over the "script". There were eleven pages of typewritten notes.
The net begins with what is most important to cruisers: a weather report, relayed by a selfless soul who spends the morning downloading weather faxes. Then we have announcements from various shore side businesses about the goods and services they offer. If it's Monday, there's "rake and scrape" dancing at Eddie's Edgewater. On Friday, Two Turtles has its popular happy hour and barbecue. Every day Exuma Markets lists the faxes, phone messages and packages it has received (this is one of many free services the store offers to boaters, making them the most popular business in town).
After the business items, it's time for community announcements. There might be a bake sale at the community centre to raise funds for the local library, or maybe a cruiser will offer to give free water colour instructions to budding artists. The volleyball aficionados always announce the scheduling of an afternoon game. The bridge zealots plea for new players.
Finally, it's time for the "boaters general" category of announcements. Cruisers call in looking for information on everything from reviving a comatose laptop computer to checking into Cuba. Others call in to offer help. Who wants to claim the pair of sunglasses left on Volleyball Beach? Does anyone need crew heading north?
The net closes with one of the cruising boats offering "the thought for the day". By this time, David has just about sprained his hand furiously scribbling notes and his voice is hoarse after forty minutes of moderating the air waves. He announces the net is clear. Pandemonium breaks out. Everyone tries to call at once. The working channels are clogged. Some people forget to switch their radios to low power and bleed over onto adjacent channels. A few impatient types stomp over other conversations rather than waiting for the air to clear. The outraged victims respond by keying their mics so that no one can hear anything.
At this point, we're grateful for the most marvellous feature of Marconi's invention, a little button labelled "power". When radio rage is rampant, we lean over and turn the damn thing off.
Cheers, David & Eileen