My husband John and I had a book-sales booth at a West Coast boat show, and we were scheduled to give a seminar called Ham Radio for Cruising Mexico.
That morning, a young couple visiting our booth slowly browsed my guidebooks to Mexico and Central America, said that circumnavigating was their dream, and they were in the process of outfitting their boat for just that goal. They bought my books, so I signed them ‘Smooth Seas to Jim and Judy.’
So, I invited them to our ham-radio seminar.
To which Jim replied, “Ham radio! You are nuts? We just bought Starlink; it’s super easy,” said Jim. “We’ll operate our business while cruising paradise.”
Judy said, “Yeah. Our boat’s gonna’ have satellite internet and stream movies all the way around the world,” said Judy.
Jim said, “We already bought a sat phone and an InReach with texting. Why on earth would we bother with more?”
WHY ON EARTH
Well, Jim and Judy have a point: all their gizmos are absolutely brilliant. But, do you know their common vulnerability? They all rely on satellites, so they’re vulnerable to sudden failure. What if Jim and Judy were half way to Hawaii and suddenly the all their satellites went down? And a whale broke their rudder. What if they were searching for a safe anchorage outside Baja before a hurricane hit?
No, forget streaming movies; we’re talking having no GPS, no electronic charts, no satellite phones, no satellite compass, no nada!
Satellite failure is more common that we like to admit. It can be due to those huge “coronal mass ejections” that our sun has been flinging at Earth lately. Also in the news, satellites have been hacked by foreign and domestic bad guys. Satellites and civilian GPS signals have been intentionally dithered, as boaters experienced in the 2010s, and actually shut down.
HAM RADIO NETS
Most boaters who are also “hams” (amateur radio operators) say that it’s the ham radio networks (nets) that offer them the most practical value while voyaging and cruising. The nets provide free world-wide marine communications – boat to boat and boat to shore. Ham nets give boaters a chance to palaver regularly with a curated group of hams and share info. The nets also offer listeners at least two valuable services for free: Weather (official forecasts plus onsite weather reporting gathered from fellow boaters) and emergency assistance instantly – even on the high seas.
Go ahead, listen in; it’s free. Anyone with a SSB radio can “monitor” the different ham nets to hear what’s going on, like rescue and recover work for the Lahaina fires. Ham radio nets are a purely volunteer public service that’s regulated by the FCC, and they’re free listen in. If you’re having any emergency, you can always call in for help even if you’re not a licensed ham.
Here are four Ham radio nets that serve Mexico’s Pacific cruising grounds, the Sea of Cortez and west to Hawaii.
Chubasco Net: meets on 7.192 Mhz LSB, 40-meter band. In winter starts at 1545Z, summer 1445Z. The Chubasco Net covers the U.S. and Mexico Pacific coast, all the Sea of Cortez, south to Manzanillo, west to Hawaii.
Sonrisa Net: meets on 3.968 Mhz LSB, 80-meter band. Starts at 0630 PDT. The geographic range of the Sonrisa Net is smaller, centers around the central and lower Sea of Cortez, yet more boats check into this net.
California-Baja Net: meets on 7.2335 Mhz LSB, 40-meter band. Starts at 0815 Pacific Time. Covers California and the outside of Baja.
California-Hawaii Net: meets on 14.340 Mhz USB, 20-meter band. It runs daily 1600 to 1700 Zulu. This ham net transferred hundreds of emergency rescue messages during the deadly Lahaina, Maui, fires while cell-phone towers and underground cables were burned out of serviced.
VHF vs HAM
Ham nets are formatted like boaters’ familiar VHF nets – but on steroids.
Morning Cruisers’ Nets on VHF are a backbone of the cruising community. First-timers in Mexico quickly learn to tune in at 0800 (usually on VHF channel 22) to these English-speaking VHF nets that operate from boats within marinas and anchorages at all Mexico’s cruising ports. VHF is purely “line of sight” communications.
Ham nets operate on HF or high frequencies, so they cover a vast geographic reach. Voice signals can actually bounce off the earth’s ionosphere. Ham nets can instantly link multiple radio operators (stations) located thousands of miles apart, even if some are aboard boats in the middle of an ocean, or in Coast Guard aircraft or scattered across a continent.
In both cases, someone must volunteer to be Net Control for a few weeks. He or she usually calls for a round of boats (VHF) or stations (ham) who wish to check in with that net. My friend Jeff Nelson, call sign Kilo Six Gulf Echo Tango, has served as the volunteer net-control person for the Chubasco ham Net.
Ham and VHF nets follow similar formats.
Except, on ham nets, the first activity is “Emergency Traffic.”
“Anybody having an emergency? Medical, mechanical or otherwise? Licensed or not, if you’re having an emergency, please come back now to Gulf Echo Tango.”
Everyone stays silent for about 10 seconds to listen for any weak radio signal possibly trying to call for help. Dozens of hams listening are ready to relay the weak station’s plight and launch the whole network into emergency action.
After a silent moment, the net control asks checked-in stations in other frequency radii to put out a call for any emergency or priority (low battery) traffic in their vicinity. One by one, nothing was heard today.
But personally, I know of at least a dozen maritime emergencies expertly handled by ham radio nets: May Day rescue after a sailboat sank, Coast Guard alerted to pirate attack on motoryacht, two vessels diverted to assist an endangered Transpac rower, Coast Guard standing by a motoryacht taking on water while halfway to Hawaii, for example.
After the emergency traffic, ham-net formats sound like any VHF cruisers’ net, shifting to the all-important “weather.” In ham nets, another volunteer disseminates official NOAA forecasts plus several onsite weather reports that he or she has gathered from other boaters underway. Two ham boaters listening to the same net might be thousands of miles apart, in remote or undeveloped corners of the planet – or crossing oceans.
VHF nets’ focus is local weather, which gains importance during hurricane season.
Last comes the sharing of local news, same format but a big difference between hams and VHF nets. Hams may share tsunami warnings for Alaska to Japan, or the new check-in procedures for Raitai or Mumbai.
VHF boaters’ news is local – like a jellyfish warning for divers in Agua Verde, or which La Paz store as the cheapest cerveza, where to get propane tanks refilled, who’s selling their used snorkel gear for how many coconuts.
Finally, the net-control people on both VHF and ham networks close their net frequency and turn it over to whoever wants to use that clear air space to meet more contacts.
I hope to talk to you all on the air someday. Wishing you 73s, Pat Rains, Kilo Bravo 6 Hotel Bravo India.