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Old 02-14-1999
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Sue & Larry is on a distinguished road
The Single Sideband Radio and the Cruising Sailor

SIDE BAR
  • How the single sideband radio works
  • John and Sheila had planned their escape for years and were excited to finally be underway.

    On a crisp fall New England morning, they left Newport, RI, on Mary Ellen, their 40-foot sloop, cleared Block Island, and set a course straight for the Caribbean—or so they thought.

    But on day four John realized they were in big trouble. The weather forecaster on the Single Sideband radio advised him that Mary Ellen was sailing right into a developing gale. John was told to expect 45-knot winds with seas building to 20 feet by the following afternoon. His best option was to change course and head for Bermuda.

    "Damn," John muttered. He knew they could reach Bermuda but he had no approach charts for the island. How could he safely make landfall on a reef-strewn shoreline without the guidance of the chart? "Why on earth did I leave Newport without charts for alternate landfalls en route to the Caribbean?", thought John. Should he risk attempting landfall at an unfamiliar coastline or should he press on into the path of a strengthening Atlantic gale?

    Fortunately, John and Sheila made it safely to Bermuda. Not only did they get the information they needed to make landfall at Bermuda but they also got it in minutes. Here's what happened:

    While on the daily SSB weather net, John put out a call to anyone anchored in Bermuda. He immediately got an answer from the owner of Piper. Like the Mary Ellen, Piper was en route to the islands. But she had made a scheduled stop in Bermuda. The owner was waiting for favorable weather. With his guidance conveyed over the SSB, John and Sheila got safely into Bermuda and dodged the potentially dangerous storm.

    This is a true story. Sue and I, then on our way south and anchored in Beaufort, NC, heard the forecast on our SSB. Then we heard the call for assistance, followed by the response from Piper. Had Piper not responded, we were ready to help. (We had charts of Bermuda aboard Safari and from our anchorage on the Carolina coast, could have provided waypoint and other navigational information.) I am certain that many other listening sailors would have also been ready to assist, if needed.


    It is important to be able to plug into local knowledge via the SSB radio when cruising. Sailors new to the area could become aware of this bar off Newport, Rhode Island.

    This is one reason why today's cruising sailors are not racing off to replace their single sideband radios with newer satellite-phone technology. Cost is another factor, but I'll address this later.

    Sue and I almost didn't buy an SSB radio for Safari. We didn't want to buy old technology and be stuck with a piece of equipment that we thought would be going the way of the eight-track tape player. Many people we'd met had expressed the same opinion. But most of these folks hadn't been cruising and hadn't been using an SSB radio on a regular basis.

    Although we had bought our single sideband radio primarily for safety, we've discovered that it's also our central source for communication, as well as entertainment. Now, after a lot of experience on the water, we've come to realize the value of the SSB to our cruising. The sat phone and the SSB actually serve two very different purposes. Ultimately one day, we'd like to have both aboard.

    With SSB radios, the distance your signal travels and its clarity will depend on the atmospheric conditions, the frequency you're operating on and the time of day or night. In addition, it takes a little time and patience to learn how to operate an SSB at full potential. But the SSB allows us to accomplish something that is unique: reach hundreds or even thousands of fellow sailors at once. Best of all, you can ask questions and gain valuable information from the people who are out there doing it. And you don't need to know a single phone number to reach them. Who better to talk the Mary Ellen into Bermuda than a sailor who had just made landfall there?

    Larry connects to a world of cruising sailors via the SSB radio.

    Nearly everywhere you cruise you find a network of sailors willing to help one another. The single sideband is a way that information is exchanged. Options range from nets to set frequencies that are used for hailing, distress, or general communication. Many of the nets run by cruising sailors are controlled nets, which means there is a pre-determined structure or format that's followed every day. These nets center around any needs that cruising sailors in an area may share in common. Weather, repairs, emergencies, contacting friends, or just general information—like who has the cheapest diesel on the East Coast-might be discussed. (By the way, it's on the ICW at Coinjock, NC.)

    Down the road when satellite phone prices drop considerably (particularly airtime) and Internet connections at sea can be made more easily, the newer technologies may take over. But today and in the foreseeable future, the single sideband radio remains the lifeline that connects cruising sailors. We certainly are not giving up ours.

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