Mexico Report: How to get weather from floating hams

Many places along Pacific Mexico’s beautiful 3,400-nautical mile coastline have absolutely zero cell-phone coverage, and lots of popular cruising ports still have no internet, this is surprising for a lot of first timers.

Weather reports are broadcast on VHF radio (Every boat has a VHF radio, right?) but only in the larger ports by the Navy or Port Captain, usually once a day at 8:00 a.m., and only in Spanish. Rapid Spanish. So, to find out what’s going on weather wise, boaters would always have to hang out within VHF range. Boring!

With no cell phones and no VHF service, how’s an ocean-going boater anchored inside Mag Bay supposed to find out what’s going on outside? Is it blowing five knots from the south, or blasting 20 knots from the north? Is it a good day to cross the Sea of Cortez? Did that tropical depression forming off Manzanillo ever ramped up into an actual hurricane?

The simple answer is amateur radio – also known as “ham” radio.

MORSE CODE?

Wait, before you cringe, you can listen in! You do not need to be a licensed ham radio operator to listen in and take notes on their daily broadcasts. You don’t need to pass any Morse Code tests you just have to listen in. The FCC regulates it as a free public service.

To listen in, it takes a single side-band radio (SSB) capable of receiving the ham frequencies on lower sideband. If you don’t already have a ham-capable SSB radio, ask around on the VHF net for who’s got one on their boat or at home. Lots of boaters get started this way.

The floating hams are just networks (nets) of individual ham-radio operators, widely dispersed over land and sea both. Whether floating or land based, they meet together on a particular frequency at the same time each day. You’ll need to tune the radio to the designated net frequency at the given time of day. (See the Networks below.)

HOW’S IT WORK? LET’S LISTEN IN.

About 15 minutes before the net is scheduled to begin, whichever ham has volunteered to serve as that day’s Weather Person asks on air:

“This is N6AWX, the Weather Person for the Chubasco Net. Any vessels underway in the U.S. or Mexican waters, please check in now with your weather.”

Any floating ham can chime in now and share his or her weather and sea conditions from their specific location. Some days five or six vessels underway share their weather from locations up and down the coast of Southern California and Mexico. Today only one floating ham checks in with their weather report, and that’s N6HOY who is passing outside Mag Bay.

The Weather Person gathers any on-site reports and combines them with the latest official weather forecasts from the National Weather Service and with Mexico’s national meteorological service. That consumes the 15-minute warm up period.

On the hour, that day’s volunteer Net Controller person opens the net and begins the actual broadcast:

“OK, this is N6CON, the Net Control for the Chubasco Net.” After a brief legal description, he or she says: “Any ham stations who want to check in with the Chubasco Net, come now with your call sign.” Expect 10 minutes of controlled chaos, while multiple hams pile up with their call signs. The Net Control acknowledges each ham one at a time, then they move on.

“OK, this is Net Control for the Chubasco Net. Does anyone have any emergency or priority traffic? Only emergency or priority traffic, please come now.” (Wait 10 seconds.) “Nothing heard. Let’s move on to weather.”

 “Thank you, net. This is N6AWX with the weather. This is a volunteer amateur effort, so be aware that we can make mistakes.” He or she then disseminates the latest NWS forecasts for the coastal and offshore waters, region by region, from Point Conception down to Puerto Vallarta. And because only one underway vessel has reported weather that day, they are asked to share their report.

“Good morning, net. This is N6HOY. I’m currently southbound along the outside of Magdalena Bay. Right now I’ve got 15 knots of wind from the west-northwest, which is down a bit from the 18 knots we had overnight. We still have five foot seas at 12-second intervals. And we’ve got big swells rolling in from the west at 15-second intervals. Last night the front passed over us, so we’re expecting the wind to lay down a bit over the next 24 hours. If anybody has a weather question from outside Mag Bay, please come back to N6HOY. Over.”

If nobody responds, the Chubasco Net Controller moves on to general business. But today someone speaks up with a weather question.

“N6HOY, yes, this is KB6HBI. We are crossing from Barra de Navidad and presently about 100 miles out on our approach to the Cape region. We are planning to round Cabo Falso and then sail up the Baja coast toward Mag Bay. My questions to you are, first, how big are those big swells from the west? And due to that west swell, do you think that by tonight, there might be enough lee in the little bay southwest of Punta Tosca for us to anchor there tonight? Come back to KB6HBI. Over”

“KB6HBI, this is N6HOY. Although the northwest wind is starting to drop here, the west swells are still about 10 footers. They have remained that big and from that direction all through the passing of that front. It’s weird, but they’re not dissipating even though the front passed.

 Of course I can’t advise you what to do, but if you mean Punta Tosca at the southwest end of Magdalena Bay’s outer islands, then no, I personally would not expect to find any lee there tonight. Due to the continued big west swell we are experiencing here, I would expect to find breakers there now and tonight. I hope that information helps you decide. This is N6HOY. Are there any further questions on the weather outside Mag Bay? If so, come now. (Wait 10 seconds.) Nothing heard. This is N6HOY, standing by with the Chubasco Net. Over.”

“N6HOY, this is KB6HBI again. Thanks for that swell report. We just decided to head into Cabo San Lucas tonight and wait there, but we’ll check with the Chubasco Net tomorrow morning. Thanks, net. This is KB6HBI, out.”   

WHAT ELSE IS IT GOOD FOR?

Besides the niftiest and most accurate on-site weather reporting any boater could wish for, the floating ham networks also provide emergency communications for any boat with a problem, from fire to mechanical, from medical to personal.

When any net asks for “any emergency or priority traffic,” quickly jump in and ask for help. Even if you’re not a ham, just say, “Yes, help, we need help.” And say your name, boat name, location and what the problem is. This is about the equivalent of broadcasting a Pan Pan for a problem, the last step before you holler a May Day.

The net can then summon help for you. They might link you with a doctor or hospital, or reach the nearest Coast Guard or Navy vessel to come to your aid. When InReach and other satellite phone systems aren’t available, some hams still have the equipment to provide a personal “phone patch” so boaters can talk to non-ham family members worried about them back home.

SEA STORIES

We all have our ham sea stories. As a novice boater, my first encounter with ham radio occurred when I was anchored with five other boats in a very remote cove in Mexico. In our dinghies, we all clustered around the only boat that had a ham radio, listening to the morning net for weather and news. That’s how my neighbor boat found out that they were grandparents for the first time. Joyous occasion.

It’s not always fun stuff, however.

When armed pirates boarded our boat in the Caribbean and threatened us with guns, by good luck we had already checked in with one of the local nets. When I turned up the volume and broke into the net with “break-break, emergency,” that Net Controller knew how to handle it. He quickly linked me directly to an officer at Coast Guard Miami, and I kept the frequency open for an hour describing to him our location and situation. The Net Controller had asked the rest of the hams to move off to a different frequency. Of course, most stayed on that frequency to listen in, and thankfully it all ended safely.

 

NETWORK FREQUENCIES AND TIMES

Here are just four networks that provide great services for SoCal recreational boaters who go adventuring down Baja and Mexico.

Chubasco Net (40-meter band) meets on 7.192 lower sideband at 0745 Pacific Time. (Same time regardless of Daylight Savings Time.

California-Baja Net (40-meter band) meets on 7.2335 lower sideband at 0815 Pacific Time. (Same time regardless of Daylight Savings Time.

The geographic range of the above nets is as far south as Puerto Vallarta and as far west as Hawaii, depending on conditions in the ionosphere.

Sonrisa Net (80-meter band) meets on 3.968 lower sideband at 0630 Pacific Time. The geographic range of the Sonrisa Net is smaller than the above two nets. It centers around the central and lower Sea of Cortez, and more boats check into this net.

Amigo Net is an SSB net that meets on 4.149 upper sideband at 0700 Pacific Time, but hams can check in here too. Boats with a commercial transceiver radio use this net. That radio requires only a simple No Code Test station license. With that, you can transmit on commercial frequencies legally, and the radio is capable of also transmitting on ham frequencies – if the user has a ham license.

WHERE TO GET A HAM LICENSE?

All the information is free when you visit http://www.arrl.org/ham-radio-licenses

Even if you never intend to get a ham license, here is a good quality radio that allows you listen in to all the interesting and useful ham nets and take advantage of your fellow boaters’ on site weather information. This radio is “receive only” and does not transmit.

Wishing you all 73s!

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