Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Off The Grid in the Sea of Cortez

It happened again - I've been off the grid long enough that I lost time. A few days ago I awoke to songbirds and the tinkling bells of a goat heard meandering across high seaside dessert mountains. I had a vague sense that it was May, but other than that I didn't know the day of the week or the date. So I suppose a more accurate description is that I lost my sense of the Gregorian calendar. Really, I knew just about exactly what time it was, based on the placement of the sun in the sky. It was 7:30am. I also knew that it was a new moon because I see the moon change every day, I watch the tides change, and experience my monthly cycle matching this primal rhythm. But the day? The date? Not so sure.

The mountainous islands north of La Paz in the Sea of Cortez's west coast (the East side of Baja California, Mexico) are pleasantly and surprisingly remote. I long ago abandoned wearing a wristwatch, so my days flow with the sun, the tides, wind and weather. Without internet or cell phones marking my time, I only become aware of the day and date on the occasions (about once a week) when we check in to a local VHF net or are able to download an email from our SSB radio connection.

It occurs to me that to some of you, what I just wrote may look like some sort of strange code. "VHF net?" "SSB radio?" So I'll explain:

The VHF ("Very High Frequency") radio is the tool that boaters use to communicate to each other throughout the day. Most people with boats on the oceans across the globe are familiar with this radio as it is a required piece of equipment like PFD's and and Oil Discharge Plan. However, in the world of sailboat cruisers it is used not only as a formal tool to communicate between vessels to confirm location and make sure we don't collide, but also as a social networking tool. Here's how it works:

-- Most VHF radios have line of sight range or roughly 25 miles. This can be greater with a beefier antenna.
-- Channel 16 is reserved for hailing and important information or rescue efforts. Other channels are used for various functions, depending on the part of the world where you are located.
-- There is a strict "radio etiquette" used that is not only expected but actually legally required in some countries. For example, it is a BIG no-no to chat with another boat on Channel 16. What one does is HAIL another boat by calling their name three times, followed by one's own boat name. Once contact is made, both parties agree to switch to a different channel reserved for longer conversations.
-- All stations are public. Just like the old party lines, or even before that, when the first telephones involved an operator who would connect you to each other. Your conversation could be heard by everyone in town with a phone, anyone could "follow" your conversation. Same goes for VHF chatting.
-- In the cruiser's world, here in Mexico and other places where cruisers gather, there are often "morning nets" on designated VHF channels. These are places where boaters "check in" and receive local information. After spending weeks in remote areas, it is fun to check in to a local net upon arrival at a port and hear that friends you had met months ago are in the same town. It is really like a cruiser's facebook, a social network where people ask for rides to and from places, sell and purchase items, learn about music and social events, and catch up with each other. Most nets occur once a day every day, so there really is no need to know which day of the week it is!

The SSB radio is a Single Side-Band Radio. A license is required to use it, and some channels require a ham radio license to transmit although most all stations can be listened to. This is an incredible tool.
-- Its range reaches around the globe. One can sometimes pick up conversations in Russia or Japan or New Zealand. When off-shore it is the only way to communicate with people further away from your VHF radio (which is usually everyone).
-- These radio frequencies can now be used like a dial-up modem of the old PC days, and that is how I am sending this email today.
-- Things like solar flares affect the ability to use these radio frequencies, and there are long lists of pre-scheduled nets across the world. This is a reassuring tool that gives ocean-crossing cruisers security that they can reach someone if needed, and gives land-based cruisers like us a way to send and receive basic emails when wifi or cell is not an option.
-- There are even stricter rules about using the SSB frequencies than the VHF, as it is like the old days of dial-up modems - while one person is using it, NO ONE ELSE may use it so messages are kept short and sweet.

Which reminds me, this message is getting way too long and I don't wish to become a bandwidth hog, so I am going to cut this short. The reason there are not photos included with this update is because of this SSB radio connection.

So, embracing the technology of old, I send love and well wishes to all I know back home and I hope you have a slightly better understanding now about why our communication is so sporadic. We are healthy and happy playing around this magical world of snorkeling, diving, dinghy sailing, hiking, resting in hammocks and connecting with new friends. Our months at sea are winding down to a few more weeks, so we treasure every moment. S/V Northern Passage will be put on land in a few weeks, and our "yacht" will become a land-yacht with four wheels and engine traveling all over the continental U.S. before returning to Alaska in August.

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  1. Jen, thank you for this information - it is very helpful. I saw you using some of it when I was in Mexico - now I understand it all better. Not that I like being disconnected so much of the past 11 months, but at least I know you are safe and happy.

  2. Very informative....I enjoyed learning what an SSB is.... a quite amazing tool for modern mariners. I did know what the VHF is - from the 20 years of cruising on my brother's boat, and listening to the calls on Channel 16. When in Canadian waters, I remember that their Coast Guard was always calling out "Securite, Securite" on 16. And I believe I was told that is just their way of saying... "Attention, Attention". Those calls were sometimes scary... as we would sometimes learn that a boat was taking on water, or some other such emergency. I recall that my brother (our Captain)... would then check his charts, to determine if we were close enough to "lend assistance" to the other boater. It is wonderful that boaters have such a code of conduct that they will go to the assistance of other boaters whenever necessary & possible. Boaters always seemed to have a special relationship with the world, & other boaters. But I did not know what the initials VHF actually stood for. So it was great to learn that also. Have fun enjoying your remaining days on the water...before you join the rest of us landlubbers..... Hugs to all, Norene & Lance