Archive for the ‘Weather’ Category

Greetings from KB3ZCB and KB3ZCA

December 1, 2014

Sailing stretches the boundaries of my comfort zone even when we’re not on the boat. When we set sail on Next Boat our offshore communications options are satellite phone and single sideband (SSB) radio. Writing this blog post helps me organize the bits and pieces of information I gathered from my research to decide which option best suits us. I may update this post should those more knowledgeable provide different information.

The satellite phone itself is expensive and then we have to pay a per minute plus airtime fee to talk. The fee ranges from $0.15 to $2.00 (approximately). Incoming calls are quite a bit more. We can use the phone to obtain email and weather faxes. The sat phone does not require a license to use. Finally, it may not work in overcast or storm conditions as the phone needs to communicate with a satellite.

SSB radio communication is free after the initial hardware purchase but we need licenses to use it. We can also download weather data and email for free using the SSB radio. Local radio “nets” allow boats to check in with each other and are particularly helpful when traveling in a group and for obtaining local knowledge.

We are leaning towards relying on the radio and having a sat phone as backup.

When I was a search and rescue volunteer the team used Family Radio Service (FRS) radios. FRS radios are small, hand-held radios that enabled us to communicate over very short distances. I remember as a kid they were referred to as “walkie-talkies.” No license is required to operate an FRS. In SAR I was notorious for avoiding using the radio. I can’t explain why. It wasn’t fear. More that I just didn’t want to deal with yet another piece of equipment. I relied on my team for communications.

Halcyon is equipped with a fixed marine VHF radio and multiple hand-held marine VHF radios. We use the marine radio to talk to other boats, marinas, and restaurants. The radio is also our primary way of (hopefully never) contacting the U.S. Coast Guard in an emergency. No license is required to operate marine channels on a VHF radio as long as we use them on U.S. waters.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates radio communications in the U.S. There are three amateur radio (ham) license classes: Technician, General and Extra. Technician class is the entry-level license and allows us access to certain amateur radio frequencies. The General class license allows us additional operating privileges. The Extra class license allows us to operate on all amateur radio bands. We have to pass a test at each level of license in order to sit for the next level. John and I sat for the amateur radio Technician class license test a few years ago. Now we’re studying to upgrade to the General class and Extra class licenses.

Seriously, there is very little you need to learn to get a ham license you shouldn’t know anyway to be a self-sufficient cruiser. -Dave Skolnick

Because we intend to sail Next Boat outside of the United States, it is our responsibility to know and follow the laws of the countries we intend to visit. Knowing the laws is part of leaving a clean wake and Plan A for not going to jail and/or potentially incurring massive fines. Outside of the U.S. we need licenses to operate both the VHF radio and SSB radio. The boat also needs a ship’s station license for VHF and SSB radio. Each country that we visit may require a license fee but that’s research for another day.

Researching the regulations is a joy.

The U.S. and Canada share an automatic reciprocal agreement. The U.S. national association for amateur radio, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), says that we need to carry proof of U.S. citizenship and our valid amateur radio license. However, the Radio Amateurs of Canada website states “There is no need for paperwork or other formalities when exchanging visits between Canada and the United States.” In any case, privileges extended depend on the class of license and we must abide by Industry Canada rules.

The ARRL link to Mexico’s reciprocal regulations took me to this lovely site that provides instructions for obtaining a visitor’s license: Licensing Information for Mexico. In one sentence it says “It should be easy and streight forward [sic]” and the very next sentence says “The comment…’This is not an easy, or inexpensive, process’ is still relevant today.”

Most European countries allow U.S. citizens to operate an amateur radio under the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) Agreement. This agreement states that, like with Canada, U.S. citizens do not need additional licenses or permits, but are granted operating privileges that more or less match the General or Extra class levels of license obtained in the U.S. If we want limited reciprocal operating privileges we need our General class licenses. If we want full reciprocal operating privileges we need our Extra class licenses. Our Technician class licenses do not allow us any privileges.

In order to reach a personal preparedness level that matches the range of Next Boat, we need to go the distance with the licenses. This is where my comfort zone gets shaky.

I admit that I ignored advice to learn the material for the Technician class test and not just study to pass the test. I read the first two chapters of the study guide then I took the practice exams until I consistently achieved a passing score. If Morse code was still required, I’d still be sitting here trying to get my words per minute count up before taking the test.

Now we’re studying to upgrade to the General class license and I have to backtrack and learn the theory behind what I memorized for the Technician class test. Topics for this test include electrical principals, circuit components and radio wave propagation. It assumes knowledge of the Technician class topics. John works with this stuff every day and it should be a breeze for him.

I have a syllabus for an Extra class training course. Beads of sweat broke out just reading that required for the course is a “scientific calculator that you can operate.” Huh. AND I need to know trigonometry. Egad.

Math doesn’t come easy to me. I took Advanced Placement (AP) math in high school. I can say with confidence that I’ve never experimented with illegal substances so I’ll attribute agreeing to take those AP math classes to momentary lapses in judgment that occurred repeatedly over two years. Or aliens. John and my 18-year old niece are going to be my tutors to get me through these last two tests. Unlike in high school I now have the discipline to learn the math. I’m still going to struggle but it helps that I have a real life application for it.

We bought an inexpensive VHF radio that I can program as well as a shortwave radio receiver. I listen to the local radio clubs on the VHF. The shortwave is to listen to the marine nets and to learn how to obtain weather fax and email over the radio and get comfortable with how it works way before we need it on Next Boat. I’m practicing all of this using my Linux machine so one of John’s tasks is to make sure that Next Boat has a laptop with Linux installed. Having the radios in hand also helps me retain and apply what I read in the study guides.

Soon you’ll be listening to all the Persian hip hop you can stand. -Bubs

Not so long ago I made fun of the car with the fourteen 10-foot whip antennas on the roof. No way would I ever be that nerdy. When we got our Technician licenses I pooh-poohed my friends who asked “So when are you putting up the radio antenna tower on your property??!!” Sigh. Not only are we searching the Internet for DIY antennas, but John, bless his heart, brought home 300 feet of wire for an antenna. PINK wire. That is probably why it was never used. Also, who knew that the then-obsolete TV antenna my friend cut off the roof almost 15 years ago could have been useful now?? Despite our pink antenna only being about 25 feet in the air, we did hear Radio Africa one day.

We still need to get the wire antenna at least 100 feet up. We were sent instructions for using a slingshot and building a potato launcher. The guy who hunts on our property with his crossbow said the bow would send it into orbit. Oh well. It was worth a try.

KB3ZCB and KB3ZCA 73


We’re Ready, Irene

August 26, 2011

The full force of Hurricane Irene has not yet hit the Chesapeake Bay area but already I see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Fellow sailors.

Irene is our first hurricane as boat owners. We experienced one or two tropical storms but nothing of consequence; nothing that caused us to put Halcyon on the hard before the end of the season. Irene’s path changed overnight so that the intended track is farther west than originally forecast. “Plan for the worst, hope for the best” is all one can do when trying to deal with a moving target such as a hurricane. We take it day by day, listen to the experts and shake in a bit of our own common sense, then we hope that we made the right decisions.

The marina hauled Halcyon Thursday morning. I wrapped extra line around the outside of the mainsail cover and removed the dodger. As the yard staff motored her over to the lift, I was still on board packing up small stuff that I didn’t feel like replacing should she float away to the Azores: sailing gloves, paper charts, GPS puck, various power cords, hand held VHF radios, an unopened bag of Cheetos. I decided that the Blue Coat gin had to fend for itself. Sorry. I put the bottle in the galley sink to give it a fighting chance. There was only enough left for half a cocktail anyway.

After I jumped off the deck and onto the floating dock I stood by as she rolled past me in the travel lift to her temporary spot until after the storm. Barnacles clung to her rudder and belly and stringy muck wept brownish goo onto the gravel below. I must have looked sad because one of the men stood by me as she passed and said “I’d rather my boat was on land than in the slip.” I felt better.

As soon as forecasters predicted that Isabel would have a major impact on the east coast, John and I spent some time deciding whether to have Halcyon hauled or keep her in the slip and add lines and fenders. We waited until a few days before the storm was expected to finalize a Plan A and Plan B, but we did not wait until then to come up with a plan. We take a chance on damage with either decision but we did have to wait to see how the storm would track to implement one or the other. Too many people wait until a day or two before a major storm to start figuring out their options and then waste precious time that should be used to prepare their boat. Often it is too late. In the case of a major storm, with a large number of boats to haul out, marinas may not have time to get to someone who waits until the last minute. Our marina mailed a request to slip holders months ago and asked for instructions. Haul out was done in the order the instructions were received in their office.

But, for all those who asked for advice seeking reassurance what I saw was a gratifying amount of help generously offered by more experienced sailors. It started Monday in the Sailnet chat room and forums and emails amongst my sail club members. First we began monitoring the weather and the discussions were truly enlightening. By late Tuesday the favored weather sites had been identified and narrowed down to two or three. Those three sites remained open on my browser for the rest of the week. Then the discussions turned to hauling out, adding extra lines and keeping the boats in the slip, or taking the boats to a hurricane hole. Pros and cons of each choice were thrown out for debate. Many variables influenced individual decisions including: Location in relation to the storm, type and condition of docks, type of boat, experience of the boat owner.

By Wednesday things started to ramp up. Hurricane parties were planned amongst dock neighbors who helped each other remove sails and canvas and even boats in preparation for hauling out or moving to an anchorage. Help was offered to strangers and new friendships began to grow. We checked on each other via email, the chat room and in person.

Now, for those of us who planned ahead, we wait. We did all we can do and there is nothing left but to keep our fingers crossed, take care of our family and homes or maintain lines through the night and hope that our boats survive to sail another day. Whatever happens, a few more gold pieces were added to our pot.

To Go, To Not Go

June 15, 2010

When it comes to most things, I tend to err on the side of safety. When it comes to sailing in bad weather, I err so far on the side of safety that I’m hanging onto the edge by my fingertips.

This past weekend we had planned to take a potentially 5-hour sail north from our marina in Rock Hall to Worton Creek Marina and meet some other boaters for dinner. The plan was to stay overnight at the marina and sail back to Rock Hall on Sunday. We looked forward to the trip and the camaraderie at the other end. Thursday before the trip I started keeping an ear open to The Weather Channel. The forecast from Thursday until Saturday morning was for thunderstorms both days. In near 90 degree heat and high humidity, the default forecast seems to always favor possible thunderstorms. As we packed the car on Saturday morning we decided to head to our marina and take another assessment when we arrived. Saturday morning was overcast and drizzly and at times downright dark but Rock Hall weather can be drastically different from our home two hours north in Pennsylvania. If we decided not to go once we got to the boat, there would be any number of projects we could still do.

The forecast didn’t get better once we arrived. The red weather alert icon on my BlackBerry didn’t go away so we decided to stay in Rock Hall and drive the 20 minutes to the restaurant later that evening. My concern was the return trip on Sunday. If we didn’t have to work Monday we wouldn’t have had a problem either staying another night at the marina to wait out the bad weather or anchoring out in a protected cove on the return sail.

Things happen for a reason. Deciding not to go proved beneficial in many ways. First, we met the couple who own the Catalina 387 several slips from ours. Preferring to spend most of their time underway, they happened to be in the slip that day to change the oil. We talked about our past boats, our current boats, bigger boats, other boats, our families and our boats. It was a nice beginning to what we hope will be a continued acquaintance.

The owners of the boat in the slip next to ours gave us crucial information about the 2.5 mile shoal in front of Rock Hall. That morning they went aground past the point at which the charted shoal should have ended. That told us that we must continue to the next buoy (at least) before making the turn west towards the center of the bay.

Then, on my way to the marina facilities, I happened to meet up with the man to whom we gave our last boat. We hung out for a while and answered some head-scratching questions he had about the boat and the trailer. He is a cabinet maker and I got some tips on restoring the wood in our cabin.

On Sunday some friends and their 4-month old pit bull puppy drove down for a day sail. While we didn’t have enough wind to enable Miles to stick his head over the gunwale and have his ears flap in the wind, we discovered that both Halcyon and John will survive getting peed on. We also, for the first time, saw rays in the Bay. I did some research and discovered that they are cownose rays. John will be disappointed to know that they find oysters just as tasty as he does. In the four years we’ve been sailing on the Bay this was a first.

The storms? A couple of the boats heading home from Worton Creek experienced torrential downpours and 35 knot winds. One couple had to anchor out for the evening. My knuckles, white from hanging on to the far edge of safety, don’t hurt so much anymore.