February 20, 2010

Communication & HAM Radio - Then & Now

We just spent three days in Mexico City - between that and running about to see the sights here in the Teotihuacan area, we are way behind in getting our news out! The Internet is super, makes blogging possible, but the author is still the weak link in the plan.

So, I'm gonna go back to sailing days and admit how really bad we were about communicating then! I've had this piece pretty much ready to go....

Communication was way different back in our sailing years. We had to find ways to be in touch with folks back home and with other sailors, too.

We left California and sailed to Mexico in 1989 with high tech equipment - an electric typewriter! We wrote a letter home once a year - or occassionally twice (BTW we don’t have kids). We'd look for another sailor who was heading for the states from Mexico, Panama, wherever, and was willing to carry the stamped letters. Our incoming mail was handled by a stateside mail service, sent via first class mail to a post office or American Express office. It was not unusual for us to receive a bundle at three month intervals.

Our VHF radio, a boat-to-boat device everybody uses, had about a 25-mile range. They’re not much use when making a passage unless there are boats nearby, but work fine in an anchorage. Where there are many boats within range, they tune in to VHF at the same time each day to get news and gossip on a regular “net.” See the typewriter, VHF radio and radar screen in this pix of our nav station.

Here's San Carlos, a large anchorage with a daily net. But, even with a VHF, cruising – traveling by sailboat to distant places – was essentially a solitary experience at any time we were underway or anchored in a remote bay. That's one reason why sailors have such a fun time when they get together!

This is La Mouette in remote Bahia Santo Domingo, up north in the Sea of Cortez. Our dingy's on the beach, where I, G, rowed in to go snorkeling. I came came face to face with my first sea snake here and leaped out of the water! They're poisonous, but anatomically have a hard time opening wide enough to bite a person. So they say.

To solve the isolation situation, long distance radios - HAM and Marine Sideband, were used aboard many boats to talk with each other and with radio operators ashore in the states. The two technologies differ in output power and the frequencies available for use. And, you have to pass a TEST to get a HAM license!

For several months of our first trip, we used only VHF radio. Then, in summer 1990, we anchored in Baja’s Puerto Escondido (in Spanish, Hidden Harbor), a spectacular anchorage surrounded by protective hills on all sides, just south of Loreto. It's a popular Sea of Cortez “hurricane hole,” gathering place, and home base for boats who have been in the Sea for years.
Oh, the potlucks and music at Puerto Escondido!

One morning a HAM radio was offered for sale on the net, and Chuck jumped at it! He’d been trained as a radio operator in the Army Reserve, and dreamed of returning to the air waves. He installed the radio in our nav station, with a long wire antennae running from the top of the main mast to the mizzen. Lee W6NPQ and Karen WK6B Leonhard, long time aficionados, administered the novice exam in technical and code skills at the local trailer park. Chuck became a HAM with call sign KC6NLS!

HAM radio increased our ability to reach help should a problem occur at sea. It also opened up communication with sailors from Mexico to Panama. Every morning, dozens of boats tuned in to a 9 am HAM net where they listened to weather reports and major news (mostly sports scores) from stateside operators, and gabbed about location, passage, helpful tips, and general gossip.

Using HAM, Chuck connected with stateside HAM’ers who had equipment to make “phone patches” and transmit his voice over the telephone. Like this: Chuck’s mom would hear, ring, ring, and pick up the phone. “Hello ma’am, I have Chuck on the line, go ahead.” “Oh, Chuck, are you OK?...‘Over’.” Pause. “Hi, Ma, we’re in Panama…‘Over’.” The conversation continues over occasional static! While sailing, HAM was our stateside communication method. It is still the method used for boat-to-shore voice communication today - unless a boat is close enough to shore to use a cell phone!

Chuck's call sign is now AH6NR. He still uses HAM radio to connect with his radio operator pals, like Randy KH6RC, who has a home and B & B on the Big Island of Hawaii, where we stayed last summer. Randy works a lot with cruisers crossing the Pacific. When we're in Mexico, Chuck participates in marine HAM networks that assist cruising sailors in the Sea of Cortez. Here’s Chuck’s HAM radio antenna installed on our rig, and Randy's big tower, too.
Today's sailing folk also benefit from MANY advances that enable boat-to-internet access. HAM radio based services such as Air Mail, and Marine Sideband services like Sail Mail make it possible for boaters to use internet from anywhere. Just imagine – a sailing blog can be updated daily from offshore! With email you can solve equipment problems, communicate with businesses, and have access to current news! When we sailed, we’d occasionally tune in to international shortwave broadcasts, but usually would hear almost nothing about current events for months. I don’t think we were any the worse for that...there's a wonderful focus about being fully wrapped up in your own day to day experiences, and having to be completely on your own.

In 2006, we had a serendipitous reunion of HAMS in San Diego. Ilah WA6EDG & Jerry KE6YY, who did many of our international phone patches; Chuck, Jack VE3EED, and Wally AC6BA.

Today we have an Internet satellite service, but no satellite TV. Internet gives us communication, news and entertainment. We use SKYPE for phone calls to the states. Stateside or in Mexico we have breakfast listening to NPR radio. On Sunday, we tune in to our favorite New Orleans community radio station, WWOZ, to hear New Orleans music and the old-time music broadcast by our friend Hazel the Delta Rambler, which is followed by two hours of great Cajun music. Try it some day! Here is a station link:  http://www.wwoz.org/blog.

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