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November Mike November

November 18, 2004

When you're caught out sailing in lousy weather, it's often tempting to blame November Mike November

November Mike November
Gave me the good weather news:
Told me I was going on
An easy downwind cruise;
Well I guess he got it wrong
And that’s hard to excuse
‘Cause I’m tossing up my cookies,
My body’s one big bruise --
I got the three days out,
Forty-five knot wind blues ...

(E. Quinn, Three Days Out Forty-five Knot Wind Blues)

Nothing affects a cruiser's life as much as the weather. Weather defines your daily activities, your passage-making itinerary, your comfort, and -- most important -- your safety. After one or two weather mishaps, we've learned to take weather broadcasts very seriously (see our December 13, 2001 entry, "How's The Weather?"). When we're cruising coastal and inland waters in Canada and the US, we listen to the WX channels on our VHF radio. Offshore and in the islands, we rely on our HAM (amateur high frequency) radio. In the last few years, there's been a veritable explosion in the number and types of weather products available over the radio waves: voice forecasts, weatherfax transmissions, and -- the latest marvel -- GRIB files. With special software and an expensive modem connecting your computer to your radio, you can download GRIB (gridded binary) data that will tell you just about everything you could ever possibly want to know for any one degree latitude by one degree longitude grid on the earth's surface: wind direction and speed, wave direction and height, barometric pressure, air and sea temperature, precipitation, and more.

The biggest challenge now is not having insufficient information, but having TOO MUCH information. On the east coast of North America, if you're feeling overwhelmed by 500 millibar charts and water salinity data, you can always turn to the old man of weather forecasting, November Mike November. November Mike November is the callsign (NMN) of the US Coast Guard station that transmits the National Weather Service's offshore and high seas weather forecasts for the North Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico. Four times a day, in his stilted computer generated voice, November Mike November predicts what's in store for you for the next five days. We're big fans of his, often rising at pre-dawn hours to hear his advice. Whenever we've experienced bad weather during a passage, it's usually because we've been impatient and haven't heeded his warnings carefully enough. Of course, no one likes to admit they were foolish, so a lot of bad decisions get blamed on November Mike November, as suggested in Eileen's song, "The Three Days Out Forty-five Knot Wind Blues", quoted above.

A year ago, Eileen sang "The Three Days Out Forty-five Knot Wind Blues" when she was performing in Annapolis during the US Sailboat show. After the concert, an amiable man came up and laughed, "Hey, I love the song you wrote about me. I'm November Mike November!"

He hastened to add that he was also known as Steven Godfrey, and that he was the executive officer of CAMSLANT, the US Coast Guard Communications Area Master Station Atlantic. Stationed in Chesapeake, VA, he and 130 other Coast Guard personnel are responsible for broadcasting November Mike November as well as directing and coordinating the daily operations of the three other Atlantic area Coast Guard communications stations: NMF in Boston; NMA in Miami; and NMG in New Orleans.

We traded e-mails with Steve and his wife Gina this past spring and summer. They're Boat US members and live full time on their Pearson 385 sloop "Gina Marie" in Salt Pond, VA. In June, Gina wrote us, "Steve is now the commanding officer of CAMSLANT. We have played your song to the crew over and over again. I was wondering if on your way south this fall you could stop in and play for us. It would probably be a great party at the club on base and I know the guys would love hearing you." Well, how could we turn down a request by our revered friend November Mike November? We immediately accepted the invitation.

CAMSLANT was about midway along our migratory path from Ottawa, where we had been visiting Eileen's parents, to Florida, where we had left "Little Gidding". Steve had told us that he was a little off the beaten track and he wasn't kidding. After a couple of wrong turns on the beltway around Norfolk, VA, we ended up on a side road in the middle of the Dismal Swamp. CAMSLANT is one small part of the US naval base Northwest, a sprawling 4800 acre site staffed by around 2000 military personnel. Steve met us at the security gate. "Let me give you a tour," he beamed.

Eileen and the commanding officer of CAMSLANT, Steven Godfrey, aka November Mike November

CAMSLANT turned out to be housed in a simple low-rise building that would not have been out of place in any modern suburban industrial park. The only features that suggested its real function were a few antennae standing in a neighbouring field -- and even these didn't appear too unusual, given the number of satellite dishes that are mushrooming everywhere these days. "The antennae here are just for receiving," Steve explained. "Our big transmitter antenna is located off-site at Pungo Field, some 17 miles away."

In a display case in the front lobby of the building was a polished brass code key and a plaque inscribed with the date March 31, 1995. "That was the last day of our code transmissions", Steve said. David thought of all the hours he had studied code in order to qualify for his HAM radio license. He wondered aloud if anyone other than radio license examiners practise code anymore.

We walked down a few empty corridors; the place seemed unusually quiet until we reached a closed door covered with security warnings. "This is the operations deck," Steve said as he admitted us into a large room filled with people and computers. For a communications centre, there wasn't much talking going on; most staff sat in front of monitors and keyboards, not microphones. Steve explained that CAMSLANT had two missions: providing all Coast Guard internal communications for the Atlantic and Caribbean, including high frequency radio and satellite messaging for over 1,900 Coast Guard units; and serving civilian mariners. Only emergency calls via VHF radio are directly received by Coast Guard rescue coordination centres; all other voice and digital distress calls are routed through CAMSLANT. "We process 600,000 messages per month," Steve said. The room certainly seemed to be humming.

But where was November Mike November? Steve led us to a cramped glassed-in cubical. He tapped on the door and a young man emerged and introduced himself as Petty Officer Sanchez. "This is what it all comes down to," Steve chuckled. "One little booth manned by a single petty officer." Officer Sanchez looked a little bewildered. We told him that we thought he was doing a great job.

Before we left the building, Steve gave Eileen a CAMSLANT tee-shirt, ball cap, and brass coin. He told her that the coin was a special merit award and that she was only the sixth recipient to be honoured. "Of course, we only started handing them out this morning," he added.

Later that evening we attended a "Pirates of the Caribbean" party at the base social club. We could hardly recognize Steve in his costume. "Hey, what side are you on?" David asked. "I thought you folks were supposed to PROTECT us from pirates!"

Our pirate friends Steve & Gina (standing) and Joan & Greg

Eileen played a few songs, ending with "The Three Days Out Forty-five Knot Wind Blues". When she got to the November Mike November chorus, the crowd cheered and clapped and joined in. After she finished, several people thanked her for the performance. "I should be thanking YOU," she responded. "You might not realize how important your radio broadcasts are. The work you do really affects our well-being out on the ocean."

Most of the crew at the party knew very little about sailing on small boats. The exceptions were a couple of friends Steve and Gina had invited, Greg and Joan Conover. Greg and Joan have painstakingly restored and outfitted their Morgan Out Island 51 sailboat, "Growltiger", in preparation for an Atlantic crossing next spring. Steve told us that he felt it was important for his staff to meet people like us and Greg and Joan. "I want to instill a sense of purpose about what they do. Their mission will mean more to them having met people who use their services out there."

For our part, we were glad to be have been introduced to some of the faces behind the radio broadcasts we receive. Eileen read the inscription on her coin, "No Call Unanswered".

"It's good to know there are real people who answer those calls," she said.

David & Eileen