lurker

Now before you get all excited thinking I am some weird stalker or one of those guys that haunt the dark side of the internet let me explain a bit further. I am talking about radio communications and more specifically the marine single sideband. For those who are not familiar with marine SSB it is basically like ham radio, a throwback to the days of Marconi and Morse code. Well it has improved greatly since those days but the principles remain the same. It is a form of radio communications that allows you to transmit and receive for very long distances, like thousands of miles in some cases.

                I am not going to get into all the technical aspects of this technology or the pros and cons of SSB versus satellite phones, each have their own pluses and minuses. There is plenty of information on both these methods of communication and strong opinions on which is better. I think both sides make good points. For me the decision was easy, I like to play with gadgets and grew up with a father that was a ham radio enthusiast. Another selling point for me was the low cost once a SSB system was set up. Unlike satellite phones there is no monthly fee for use, in fact there are no fees at all if you have an amateur radio license. My cruising is low budget so free weather and emails at sea is a real selling point.

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                I know you are wondering what all this has to do with lurking, well I am getting there trust me. When I got my first marine SSB I read all the information I could find on installations and did what I thought was a pretty good job. I am a certified marine electrical technician after all and this is really not rocket science. So excitedly I turned on the radio and sat back waiting to hear all the other cruising boats out there. Problem one…….what channel do I listen to? There were a lot of channels on this thing and every time I turned to one I got the same thing………………hhhhhiiiiiissssssssssss. Hmmm well surely something was wrong? I looked things over did a little transmit test and everything looked like it was working right. Still I felt like a SETI employee late at night waiting for a signal from ET.

                I talked to a local electronics guy who knows way more about this stuff than I do and after a promise to stop by I went about other projects. One drawback to being in the boat biz is that when I ask a friend who is also in the business to help, they are more than happy too. Problem is they never do because they know they are not going to charge me and there are customers that will pay. As they say money talks.  Not being one to quit without a fight I decided to do some more research online. I soon came across a page on Docksideradio website. It gave all the frequencies and times to listen to the marine “nets.” This made sense you had to listen at a certain time and channel. I played around a bit at the times listed and sure enough the voices started to come in. Some loud some not so, but it was progress.

                This is how I learned to become a lurker. I started listening to the nets in the morning, by doing this learned how to tune things so they worked better. I confess I am a knob turner and do not mind fiddling with things to make them perfect. I think to really get good results from SSB you have to be willing to tinker a bit. SSB is not like VHF or sat phone. It does take a bit of fooling around with to get working well. But then that is sort of the fun. Where’s the fun in just turning it on and having everything work? Hell that is just not how sailing works. Sailing is all about being challenged, at least for me it is.

                Lurking gave me a chance to listen to how these nets work and learn the proper radio etiquette. After awhile of listening I got up the courage to pick up the mic and talk to these people I was listening too. I decided to try talking on the Cruiseheimers net as this group seemed pretty friendly and they were not so strict with doing things the “right” way. Besides I did not have my amateur license at that time so this was one of the few true marine nets open to anyone. You do not need a license to operate on the marine frequencies so it is a good place to start. It was really cool to talk to someone hundreds of miles away. I soon learned I could listen to these boats as they traveled from the Caribbean to New England and back.  Because I have been stuck in the slip I sort of started to live vicariously through these conversations. I got to know them and their travels, it was fun.

                I soon learned that there were several nets open only to those with an amateur radio license. So I decided to go ahead and do just that, get my license. It was not too hard, a few days studying and I was able to take the test. In the past they required you to learn Morse code; this was always what held me back. Basically I was just too lazy to study all those dots and dashes! So without the code part it was fairly easy to get the license. This opened up new frequencies to me and made this useful piece of gear even more useful. I learned how to hook up and use a Pactor modem to send and receive simple emails which I have found are great when at sea. I can download Grib files for weather hundreds of miles offshore all this for free! This was something that really was useful after all.

                So the point of this whole thing is that if you are new to SSB, have one on your boat but do not use it, or are thinking of getting one, do not get frustrated should things not seem to work right off. Take the time to find the nets and listen in a bit, or as the radio guys call it “lurking.” There is nothing wrong with listening and do not be afraid to pick up the mic and say hello. Know that all of those on the nets started with the this  first step. We all had to fiddle with things till we got the first crackling sounds of a distant voice. We all had to push that mic button for the first time. In the long run it is worth the effort and might even find it fun!

Capt. Wayne, KJ4WXF

 

About the author: Capt. Wayne

 

Boat builder, Sailor, Surveyor, and freelance writer.