Radio 101

Even in this day and age of satellite phones and internet capability on private yachts, the good old radio is still the way to keep in contact with other vessels. Both our VHF and our SSB radios played a role in our Atlantic crossing and as I struggled to write about our mostly boring trip across our last big ocean, I found I was using a big chunk of the post to explain radio communication. I know a lot of you are not sailors or radio nuts and I felt I needed to give a brief explanation of their uses. The information made the blog post too long and it was already boring. I decided to write about the radios in a separate post.
We have two radios on Peregrine; a VHF (very high frequency) and a SSB (single side band). The VHF has a transmission range of about twenty-five miles and transmissions from a SSB can be heard over thousands of miles.
A net is kind of like a radio party line. Marina residents often have a local net scheduled for a particular time of day, usually in the morning. People tune in and ask for or give information. Social events are announced and everything from selling a sail to somebody being robbed may be talked about on this informal check in. That type of net is done on the VHF.
A cruisers net is done on the SSB. For the most part a circumnavigators schedule is dictated by Mother Nature. It would be pretty stupid to set off for a long crossing during the hurricane season. So, at certain times of the year hundreds of sailors set off from point A to get to point B. Some of the passages can be long and nets are organized to keep in touch. A time is set up and people check in with Latitude and Longitude, weather conditions, sea conditions and their conditions!
There are also weather nets; these are run by dedicated land-based ham radio operators. They cover a specific area and yachts sailing those waters check in to hear what the weather should be in the area they’re in. Very often the sailors will contact the Net operator and give him/her their boat name and location. Then they need to check in daily until they’ve reached their destination. The Net operator might have a quite a long list. He goes through his list, hailing boats. When a boat answers the hail it gives its position with a brief description of weather and sea state. The operator gives the cruiser a forecast for his immediate area. Radio controllers have been heroes too; they have contacted family members or the Coast Guard in emergencies. Very often they provide a reassuring voice in stinky conditions. These guys must be a bit crazy as the nets are a labor of love and operators don’t get paid for what must amount to at least three hours of work every day.
On Peregrine, we have to turn off all lights while the SSB is on otherwise all you’d hear is static. Even without interference the SSB is always making noises over the voice of the transmitter. The voice is buried behind static and oo-ee-eeees and all kinds of scratchy, whining, whistling and clicking sounds. I will never forget tuning into Russell Radio on our Fiji/New Zealand—New Zealand/Fiji run. It was always dark during transmission and the only light inside Peregrine came from the red digital numbers on the radio. We were often in uncomfortable conditions and is was so nice to hear the incomparable Des telling us that things would change for the better in a day or so. We sat in the dark and listened to voices trying to break through the crackling and whistling. I was often scared during these transmissions because of the sea state and not being able to see in the dark and I thought of movies or news reels showing people listening to the wireless during a ‘lights out’ situation in WWII. Of course we weren’t hungry or waiting for a bomb to drop on us but being huddled on the settee in the dark and wondering if we would be knocked down was enough to spark my over-active imagination. We really looked forward to our half hour or so with Des; it was the highlight of our day. We were one of the many cruisers who dropped by to thank him and give him a donation when we got to NZ.
I couldn’t help reminisce about Des especially since we had a similar encounter with Herb of Southbound II for our Canary Island to St Lucia crossing. Tune in time was again at O-dark-thirty and even though conditions weren’t threatening, they very uncomfortable. We couldn’t be heard by Herb and didn’t sign in but we looked forward to our brief listening time each night. Transmission was lousy and we missed a lot, but Hey, what else was there to do?
Okie-Dokie, now that you have successfully completed Radio 101, I will post an Atlantic crossing piece.


  1. I never knew of the significant role of radios, especially short wave and amateur, until I found letters from them to my great-grandmother alerting her to her son's capture in WWII. The hams and short wave listeners were tuned into Germany and Japan listening for American POW messages. They were a godsend to us.
    Thanks for your blog.
    Lisa Spahr

  2. Hi Lisa,
    Your book, WWII Radio Heroes: Letters of Compassion, sounds like it might be the kind that should come with a few boxes of kleenex.
    Thanks for dropping in.


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