Breaking the Ice with a Net

(You can listen to this via podcast here)

On the ocean, our radio is almost like a telephone (power permitting). Now, back in Australia we have used our HF (SSB) to speak to buddies in New Zealand. The crackle and buzz moving us to melancholy; we remember how great the radio was on our travels. There’s the one time we realised ignorance is bliss and the other time the radio proved its potential to save lives.

‘Net’ or ‘Sched’ example

‘Good morning, this is the East Atlantic Safety and Security Net on Friday 26th December. This is Jackie and Noel on board Mariah II. Could I have a radio check please?’

The sun is still sleeping, it is 5 am; a scratchy voice looms eerily into the darkness, someone can hear us, so I continue, ‘Are there any emergency or priority calls?’

I wait one minute, silently praying that the radio stays quiet.

‘Nothing heard, does anyone have weather details they can share with the Net?’ (someone always knows something, if not I translate our Weatherfax picture).

‘Now we’ll proceed with the vessels underway, Frodo, Frodo, come now with your report please.’

The yacht Frodo responds, ‘we are at…’ giving position, heading, wind direction and wind speed, boat speed and confirms all is well. Then I continue with the boats on my list that have already joined the Net.

‘Are there any other boats who would like to join the Net?’ (underway or in port).

 ‘Any news for the Net?’ (This could be funny, informative).

 ‘I’ll close the Net now and open up the frequency for boat to boat traffic.’

During our Atlantic crossing the Net list grew to over thirty yachts, spread right across the vast ocean. Our American friend Carol on the yacht Star Cruiser, who started the Net, divided the list into eastern and western Atlantic and recruited us to lend a hand. In our log book we noted every single detail, including how many on board and names. In the latter part of the Net, vessels in port are given the opportunity to impart information if they wish. As Net Controller it is presumed that you know the answers to all sorts of obscure questions. It’s here you become adept at fielding off the queries, someone, somewhere always has some sort of answer. At the end, the Net has to be officially closed and then opened for boat-to-boat traffic. It is courteous to call up your buddies on the frequency that was used, then immediately select an alternative frequency, and ‘meet’ them there for a chat.

SSB HF Radio Cruising Nets and Scheds

Responsibilities both ways

On the oceans you are not alone. During our last few years of cruising we were often Net Controllers and this creates its own responsibilities. Being able to log umpteen boats’ positions, given the plethora of accents and transceiver qualities, can be hard while hanging on, but if a boat that is on your list doesn’t ‘come up’ one day, as Net Controller you are responsible for following up that boat’s whereabouts. This could be as simple as asking the rest of the group to look out for the boat (you will have a description and last known position twenty-four hours ago) and informing authorities on making port. Looking at it the other way, there is also some onus on the boats taking part: if you join in, you MUST ‘come up’ each day. Of course, if you no longer want to continue, that is fine, but you must inform the Net Controller or somehow pass a message along.

I’d rather not have known that!

The Indian Ocean crossing, the radio Net, which we maintained twice a day with ten other yachts, was a good break from routine (and speaking to each other!). It also made the ocean seem a bit more friendly and not as empty or frightening. All was well with the world until we were two days out from Oman. A pirate attack was reported; automatic rifle fired through the rigging, knife at the wife’s throat, ransacked boat, lots stolen, but fortunately no casualties. After hearing this shocking news we stepped on deck. On the horizon sat a fishing boat which took on sinister tones and instead of the usual wave or quiet contemplation, they received the view of Mariah’s stern. We demanded full speed ahead from our poor Yanmar. It took two hours to leave the fishing boat on the horizon. It felt like two days. We still had 400 miles to the area of attack, so we thought we had better calm down and reduce the revs from the red line on the tachometer.

Dummy Infantry

The Net continued, information was collated, we plotted the attack on our chart. It happened off the coast of Yemen. From Oman, we would pass the coast of Yemen in order to reach the Red Sea. Cape Town was sounding like a good place by this stage. Nerves were fraught. At Salalah in Oman, a meeting was planned. In the meantime we spent solitary hours designing camouflage nets, grenade launchers and dummy infantry to stand on deck. The meeting was to take place at the local ex-pats’ clubhouse and chaired by one of the more apparently knowledgeable yachties. He’s American, our friend who goes by the name of Ed, on board Dream On. Ed’s served time as a marine or so the whispers went. There were various ideas put forward, such as, ‘can the French Navy form an escort?’ Apparently they were sympathetic to the ongoing problem, but they could not help. All private vessels enter these waters at their own risk. There were some radio distress frequencies we could use. These were for the US Navy, the French Navy, and the Yemen Maritime rescue services. However, none of these stations would guarantee a response, and if they did it was unlikely that they could have reached us in time to be of any assistance during an attack. ‘Marvellous,’ Noel murmured. ‘If the cavalry arrives they can help sift through the wreckage!’

Those with guns on board had been discussing whether to open fire on sight or only if they had to. Most of the Yanks wanted to start firing as soon as they left port. Then, presumably, not stop firing until they reached New York and that was only to re-load. The trouble with guns, is that you need good ones. The reports we had received was that the pirates had automatics and approached the boats firing into the rigging. Do you open fire in return to save your radio and hidden American dollars? By this time Noel was wondering where we could buy Navy Bofors, find a place to mount the critters and join the Yanks heading to New York. The pirates, we were informed, travel in high powered speedboats and carry radio-monitoring equipment. Using this gear is apparently how they have located yachts that talk between themselves on VHF. Personally, we thought Ed should be given a carton of Rum, armed with a few Uzi machine guns and let loose. The final plan was for everyone to maintain close quarters to each other under sail, which was interesting as there were no two boats the same, maintain strict VHF silence and only use the HF (with too many frequencies to detect) on set contact frequencies that were not divulged to anyone else. This was the great plan. ‘What happens if a boat is boarded?’ Noel asked. ‘Do we ram the culprits, if it’s a matter of someone’s life at stake?’ This was greeted with silence as everyone, including myself, pondered the reality of such a scene. Do we ram or observe; or head for the horizon, blocking out the sounds of mayhem behind? The meeting ended. We were stunned with real and imagined horrors. We adjourned to the bar. Two weeks later, despite having a tense nine-day sail, we experienced no troubles.

Make your cruising dreams a reality

Crazy consultation across continents

Again, in the Indian Ocean, the daily Net’s value was successfully tested. It was Noel’s first attempt at Net Controller. We remember it vividly, because in the part where you pray no one answers (‘any emergency or priority calls?’) the radio crackled into life with a distress call. For a second we looked at each other in stunned silence. Pulling himself together, Noel took down the details. The caller in distress was a crew member, his skipper’s head had had a run in with the boom. He had lost all feeling down one side and the crew were understandably worried. The fleet leapt into action. Within what seemed like just a few minutes, via the HF Radio we had the Australian Air Sea and Rescue on standby. ‘Just give us the ok and we are on our way’. An American Doctor in the group gave a number of a New York specialist to another boat with a satellite phone. Imagine – in the middle of the ocean, we couldn’t even see these other boats and there was a New York specialist ‘treating’ a patient over the sat phone and then via radio! The injured skipper was lucky, suffering only bruising on the brain and made a complete recovery. As for the rest of us, we felt like commandoes, flying into action. After the adrenaline had calmed we realised the unparalleled value of daily communication.

Licences & equipment

Noel and I have our commercial radio licence for our equipment on board and anyone can join a Net (and run one if they desire) if they have a radio call sign, providing they are not HAM Nets where you would need a HAM Licence. The volume of information received over our radio is staggering. Indeed, we would have missed out on Borneo if we had not heard the exultant experiences of fellow boaties who were already there. All you need is a radio that can transmit and receive. Of course, it has to be long distance (HF SSB). At times you can find yourself skipping through several frequencies, so it is a good idea to become completely familiar with your set.

Who’s out there?

It can be daunting, but rewarding and good fun once you get over the nervousness of realising your voice is booming into several dozen boats. The reasons for the Net are obvious: if you go missing, someone has your last position within twenty-four hours; if you need help, a fellow sailor maybe just over the horizon. While observing radio etiquette you can still have fun. To have the day brightened with stories of a boat’s head breaking in mid use or hearing about ferocious eagles tearing at birds and fish, leaving dead heads and entrails all over a yacht sailed by vegetarians, is amusing (for the listeners!). The most rewarding outcome is making friends with people from all over the world. The usual shyness of being the new kid at the anchorage is overcome, as often there are boats there we have already spoken with. The ice is broken; it’s like opening a jar of coffee, instant friends.

Radio Networks

There are literally hundreds of radio Nets all over the world, the following list contains but a few. Ensure you listen first to identify the format and to see if you can join. If they are HAM, you will need a licence, many are amateur and anyone can join in, some are professional and require a nominal fee. Most Nets provide comprehensive weather.

Remember that Nets constantly come and go and change frequencies/times. The best source for current radio Nets is chatting to other sailors. (This was last updated in 2013.)

NAME TIME FREQUENCY AREA COVERED
Sonrisa Net 0730 hrs (PDT) 3.968 MHz Sea of Cortez
Russell Radio

New Zealand

1800 hrs (NZ)

1830 hrs (NZ)

1900 hrs (NZ)

6.516MHz

4.445 MHz

4.417MHz

South Pacific
New Zealand Wx Net 2000 hrs (Z) 7.080 New Zealand
Med M/M Net 0700 hrs (Z) 7.085 MHz Mediterranean
Comedy Net 2040 hrs (Z) 7.087MHz Australia, South West Pacific

(very informal – multipurpose)

Harry’s Net 2000 hrs (Z) 7.095 MHz W & S Pacific
Baja California M/M Net 1530 hrs (Z) 7.238 MHz Coastal Baja & California
Caribbean M/M Net. Saint Croix 1100 hrs (Z) 7.241 MHz Caribbean
Chubasco Net 1445 hrs (Z) 7.192 MHz Mexico West coast
The Namba Net 0815hrs local time Vanuatu (Z + 11) 8.101 MHz Operates May to October, sister Net to Sheila Net
Radio ‘Peri-Peri’ E. Africa 0500 hrs (Z)

&

1500 hrs (Z)

 

8.101 MHz then,

12.353 MHz (after weather)

Indian Ocean & South Atlantic

(both times, both frequencies)

Caribbean Safety & Security Net 1215 hrs (Z) 8.104 MHz Safety & Security issues in the Caribbean
Panama Canal Connection Net 1330 hrs (Z) 8.107 MHz Pacific from Mexico to Galapagos, Atlantic from Belize to Colombia (emphasis on SW Caribbean)
Panama Pacific Net 1400 hrs(Z) 8.143 MHz (Alternatives: 8.137, 8.155,6230) Panama to Galapagos (depending on propagation – Southern Mexico to Ecuador too)
Cruiseheimer’s Net 1330 hrs(Z) 8.152 MHz US East Coast & through Eastern Caribbean
Sheila Net 2200 hrs (Z) 8.161 MHz NE Australia, New Guinea, Louisiade Archipelago, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Noumea
Rag of the Air Net 1900 hrs (Z) 8.173 MHz SW Pacific
Northwest Caribbean Cruisers Net 1400 hrs (Z) 8.188 MHz Mexico to San Andres Island, Colombia
Coconut Breakfast Net 1730 hrs(Z) 8.188 MHz French Polynesia
Coconut Breakfast Net 1830hrs (Z) 12.353 MHz West of French Polynesia
Herb Hilgenberg’s Southbound II Net 1930 hrs (Z) 12.359 MHz

 

Atlantic & Caribbean (reaches into Pacific later in the broadcast)
NAME TIME FREQUENCY AREA COVERED
French Net 0300 hrs(NZ) 13.940MHz French
‘Le Reseau Du Capitaine’ Net Montreal, Canada. Bi-lingual operators 0700 hrs

Montreal time

 

1830 hrs Montreal time (emergency traffic & weather)

14.118 MHz Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific

 

 

Mississauga Net 1245 hrs (Z) 14.122.5MHz Europe, Med, Atlantic, Caribbean & Central America
European M/M Net (Italian and English) 2000 hrs (Z)

 

(1900 hrs (Z) between 30/3 & 20/10)

14.297 MHz Weather for E & N Atlantic & S Atlantic between Africa & Brazil
M/M Service Net 1700 hrs (Z) during winter

 

1600-0200 hrs (Z) in summer

14.300 MHz Atlantic from Cape Town to Greenland, the Eastern Pacific & Gulf of Mexico
UK M/M Net 0800 hrs (Z)

& 1800 hrs (Z)

14.303 MHz UK, Med and Atlantic
Confusion Net 1900 hrs(Z) 14.305 MHz Pacific
Pacific Seafarers Net  0300 hrs (Z)

 

14.300 MHz Pacific (HAM)
Robby’s Net, Australia 1000 hrs (Z) & 2300 hrs (Z) 14.315 MHz Australian waters
Tony’s Net

New Zealand

2100 hrs (Z) 14.315 MHz South Pacific, Australia Area

HAM Net

Pacific Inter Island Net 0800 hrs (Z) 14.315 MHz Micronesia to Hawaii
Tony’s Net, Kenya 0500 hrs(Z) 14.316 MHZ Indian Ocean and Red Sea
South Africa M/M Net 0630 hrs (Z) &

1130 hrs (Z)

14.316 MHz Indian Ocean & South Atlantic
Arnold’s Net (South Pacific) 0400 hrs(Z) 14.318 MHz South Pacific
SE Asia M/M Net 0025 hrs (Z)

0055 hrs(Z)

14.323 MHz SE Asia
California Hawaii Net 1600 hrs(Z) 14.340 MHz Pacific E, NW and Hawaii
Manana M/M Net 1900 hrs (Z) 14.340 MHz US West Coast to Hawaii
Trans Atlantic Net 1300hrs (Z) 21.400 MHz Med, N & S Atlantic & Caribbean

Zulu (Z) = Greenwich Mean Time

M/M= Mobile Maritime

Some basic Do’s and Don’ts

DO:

  • obtain a Marine Operators Licence (see your local telecoms authority)
  • register your vessel as a maritime station (see telecoms authority-SSB only)
  • listen first, wait until any traffic is finished before talking
  • identify yourself with name of vessel (authorities will require your call sign)
  • ensure all crew familiarise themselves with the radio and how to call for help
  • tune your radio off frequency (so you are not interrupting station)
  • say ‘over’ when you have finished your bit and want the other party to respond
  • be brief and clear
  • keep your radio in working order, your safety may depend on it
  • be considerate of others, they may want to use the channel
  • keep a log of all details of any distress calls you may hear
  • listen in if it is a ‘Net’ you cannot join (e.g. Ham Net if you are not licensed), they have useful information
  • enjoy!

DON’T

  • operate radio in an electrical storm
  • talk-over people (if working channel is in use, go back to calling channel and pick another)
  • keep talking on a frequency when an established ‘Net’ is about to start
  • assume all channels can be used
  • wait until you have cast off to set up and use the radio
  • be afraid to ask
  • use profane or obscene language
  • transmit fraudulent messages

Setting up your own Net

  1. Be confident your radio is up to the task (receives/transmits well)
  2. Check there is not a Net already running
  3. Select a marine frequency, check it is free and there is good propagation at the time you choose
  4. Double check with authorities and locals that selected frequencies are free
  5. Pick a suitable time, bearing in mind crossing time zones/nightshifts
  6. Decide format, keeping it informal and friendly
  7. Ask for volunteers straight away, your Net will grow and can become lengthy and tough on your batteries
  8. If you need to change times/frequency mid journey, give everyone a few days’ notice – always check into the old frequency
  9. Spread the word
  10. Have fun and enjoy meeting new people

Propagation

Use 2 MHz frequencies when within close range (50-100 miles daytime, a greater range can be expected on all frequencies at night).

Use 4 MHz frequencies as the normal daytime frequency for distances greater than 50 to 60 miles and for night-time communication.

Use 6, 8, 12, 16 and 22 MHz for daytime and night-time communication when distance or propagation prevents satisfactory operation on 4 MHz.

Generally, the higher the sun and greater the distance, the higher frequency you need.

Try to use the lowest frequency possible for communication.

We hope this article shows you the wonderful benefits of a good radio system. Satellite phones work well but you miss out on the social bonding that the radio fosters.

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