Frank's Blog - Yes, Finally
Radios - 23 March, 2016
I made the comment in my last entry that I didn't have enough on any one subject for an entire rant, but I have changed my mind. After spending
several days running up the ICW in northern North Carolina and southern Virginia, I find I have a lot to say about VHF radios. I will admit that, prior
to the past few days, our radio usage has been fairly light. We had to call the odd swing bridge or talk to another boat about to pass us, but the
radio chatter on most days was very negligible. That is not the case at this end of the ICW (and I suspect the same would be true at the Miami
end). We are now in an areas with a significant amount of marine traffic and the radio usage reflects that change.
Now, I want to start off by saying that this is not like the "good old days" PCP (pre-cell phone). In those days, the VHF radio was the only way of
communicating locally with other boaters, the Coast Guard and even the telephone company. Yes, there are VHF radio channels set aside so that
people can use their radio to contact the local phone company and get them to connect you with a telephone ashore. In those days, almost
everyone had a radio and used it.
Nowadays, I think most people have a radio. I am not sure that they are all using it. The law says that you need to monitor Channel 16 (the
"hailing" channel) when you are operating, but there have been a lot of instances where I have tried to raise another boat to figure out what he is
doing, only to get no response. Part of that may be the problem of trying to call someone by describing them - "black hulled boat near green can
number 7, this is the sailing vessel Rockhopper, approaching your bow" is not the easiest thing to say on the radio and if the transmission gets
garbled at all, it is almost impossible to figure out who is calling whom. Add in the problem that channel 16 has a default power setting of HIGH and
you are now calling every boat in a ten mile radius, all of whom may be trying to figure out if you are calling them. Then, let's say that the
"black-hulled boat" you are calling is actually dark green - and you can see how well this process is going to work. The person you called may not
even be listening, but even if she is - she may not be able to figure out who YOU are calling!
The new whiz-bang invention, Automated Identification System, was supposed to fix all of that. Basically, it is another radio system that broadcasts
to everyone around you your name, size, speed and direction of travel. It is wonderful - in theory. As usual, the process breaks down between
theory and practice. First off, the boat that is receiving has to have a receiver. This is another cost of boating. Then, both the system transmitting
and the system receiving have to be working correctly. More often than not, my AIS receiver tells me the MMSI number of the boat that is crossing
my path, but nothing else. Not the name or the direction or the speed. So, I still can't call them except by using the MMSI number. That works, but
only by using a feature on the VHF radio called Digital Selective Calling.
DSC is another whiz-bang invention. Basically, when I punch the MMSI number of the radio I want to call into my radio, it sends out a signal with
that number coded into it on a special frequency that DSC radios are supposed to listen to all of the time. The radio with that MMSI is supposed to
respond, all of the other radios are supposed to ignore it. The DSC radio I am calling is supposed to make some sort of special tone that the radio
operator can hear, and then switch automatically to a working channel and let my radio now it has done that. Then my radio is supposed to switch
over to the same channel so that the two boats can talk. Again, great in theory, but to be honest, I can't tell you if it actually works. I have never
gotten a call that way and I have only tried to call one or two other boats.
You see, in order to place that call, I have to input the number I want to call into my radio. My radio doesn't have a keypad for number entries. So,
in order to dial in the nine-digit MMSI number, I have to go to that screen, then scroll up and down for each number, and hit a special key when I
am on that number. I have to do this while the boat is moving around and while I am keeping an eye on the other boat. Usually, about half way
through the process, after I have screwed it up two or three times, I give up and hope that the other boat doesn't run into me.
Of course, the other problem is that the radio itself may not be working, a fear that causes the dreaded "radio check" call. Every day, especially in
areas with high recreational boating, I hear someone call out on channel 16 for a "radio check." This then causes a cascade of "reading you loud
and clear, good buddy" responses, which may end quickly or may go on until someone, usually the Coast Guard, comes on and reminds people
that Channel 16 is not to be used for radio checks.
There are two problems with radio checks. The first, obviously, is that it ties up the channel. The second is that it doesn't really do anything. If
someone responds, you know that your radio is working to the point that someone, somewhere, can hear your voice and decipher what you said. If
no one responds, you don't know if the radio is broken or if everyone is ignoring you because five minutes before you decided to get on the radio,
the Coast Guard chastised a bunch of boaters for doing radio checks.
In my last homage to whiz-bang inventions, I have to say that there is one whiz-banggie thing that SeaTow does to alleviate the radio check
problem. In a lot of places on the East Coast, SeaTow has set up "automated radio checks" on the VHF frequencies in the mid 20s (25, 26, 27, for
example). When you make a call on one of these channels, the SeaTow base station automatically records your transmission and then, when you
finish, it transmits a short commercial about SeaTow and plays back a recording of what you transmitted. This not only alleviates the VHF channel
congestion (these channels get very little traffic otherwise) and lets you know exactly how far your radio is transmitting (you know where you are
and you can look up the location of the base station), it lets you hear EXACTLY what you sound like on the radio. If you are a mush mouth or a
whisperer, you will hear that.
You can even practice transmitting until you are good at making yourself heard and understood. You can experiment with keeping the microphone
at different distances from your mouth, standing at different locations in your boat and speaking faster or slower. I know this idea is a horror to
some people, since it implies that they are not naturally perfect at everything boating, but we all could use a little practice to improve our skills.
Of course, all of this is useless drivel, because everyone knows that cell phones are so much better for communicating while boating. That must
be the case, because I can't tell you the number of boaters I have seen in the last 1,000 miles who are glued to their cell phones while zooming up
or down the ICW. Why, it's almost as many as you see wandering through Wal-Mart, shopping with one arm while holding the phone with the
other. In fact, they might even be the same people....just sayin'.