SSB: Some Simple Benefits
Aboard Cayenne, which has raced in four Pac Cups – and placed in two, we have a simple slogan that represents our hierarchy of values: “Safety, Friendship, Performance.” As it turns out, when we are in or near first place, we are willing to swap the last two, but safety is always first.
The marine SSB we have on board is not only a race requirement, it fits into all three of these values.
Safety. First and foremost, the SSB is a safety tool. As 2002 Comms boat, we used the SSB to support six racers with serious gear problems, not only keeping their family informed of status but also relaying repair and medical information. We monitored fellow sailors making offers of aid in every race whenever the need became known in the fleet.
This so-called “party-line” effect can be of great benefit at sea, particularly when sailing in a group. The public nature of SSB calls allows a sailor to call on his peers for advice and, if need be, assistance. Of course, you can reach the Coast Guard or other authority for help as well.
I believe that the radio is more consistent with the spirit of the sailor. With the satellite phone, a popular and often-mentioned alternative, you make a single call to a single party. With that call, you effectively are asking someone on land to coordinate your assistance. Rather than manage your own affairs alone or with your fellow mariners, you are often turning yourself over to some land-based authority. I prefer self-reliance.
The self-reliant sailor may use the SSB radio to receive weather fax transmissions using a simple sound card connection to a computer. This weather information is critical to planning a safe passage, and indispensable to planning a swift one. With an additional investment, the radio serves as an e-mail device, albeit a slow one, to keep in touch with loved ones and/or taunt co-workers back in their dreary little cubicles.
Friendship. In the Pacific Cup, our 5 p.m. conversation time on the radio a.k.a. “Children’s Hour” can be a place to share the fun of the trip. For many participants, this is a highlight of the day while also providing an informal check-in and advice forum where desired. Those with the desire to do so can also call back to land (as did some of my crew every night) or even just work the airwaves and talk to fellow operators.
One crewmember just wanted to use the shortwave to listen to BBC soccer scores. Yes, I am sorry to report, it works for that too.
Performance. A significant reason race committee requires a radio check-in on the open airwaves is to allow all racers to know where their competition is. If you are competitive at all you want that information as quickly and accurately as possible. The roll-call check-in gives each boat a status report on the fleet that is less than an hour old.
By contrast, an Iridium or e-mail check-in to a central authority must first get processed and then relayed to each boat by some means. This means delay. It further means that each boat must invest in whatever new means of receiving that data the committee invents. Most of us are well-advised to steer clear of something that a committee invents.
This of course raises the question of the missed check-in. Where the failure is due to equipment failure, we try to accomplish a relay, perhaps by VHF, so that no harm is done. If the call-in is missed anyway, then there is a penalty, just as there is for hitting a mark or being over early. Where the failure to check in is intentional, then some mud-sucking skipper is trying to gain an unfair advantage on the fleet by running “stealth.” This puzzling move is rare and has not been seen to provide an advantage overall in the race. A skipper that engages in this dismal tactic is rightly criticized.
The rest of us can share in a safe, fun, and fair race with daily updates and a sense of group adventure as we cross the ocean.
The Future. At some point, no doubt, there will be full-time real-time position updates sent by and available to all boats. A light version of this has been implemented in the Sydney-Hobart race and will surely be seen in other races. All boats will have telephones, and maybe we just set up one big conference call or satellite chat room to handle all the items discussed above.
The gadget fans among us will enjoy yet another gizmo. Some tacticians will miss the “okay, let’s gybe right after roll call” aspect of the radio check-in. Some of us will miss that certain sense of freedom that comes from an imperfect to the land – not so far off to be lost, but not so tethered as to seem to be just around the corner.
Today. For today, we ought not consign the radio to the same quaint spot occupied by the sextant, the taffrail log, and the record player. Your SSB provides you with a significant tool in the race for critical communication functions, while providing all racers with fair competition.
Modern radios install fairly easily compared to even five years ago. Simpler antennas and more modest ground requirements have taken some of the black magic out of the process. Learning to use the radio, while daunting at the outset, proceeds fairly quickly and is far easier than trimming a spinnaker, at least at night.
In any case, there are many folks around who are more than eager to help you with questions and issues you may have. In time, you may come to love the radio!
Michael is the Skipper/Owner of Cayenne, the WMPC Communications Vessel in 2002, backup in 2004, 2006, and aboard VALIS in 2008 and scheduled for 2012. Cayenne also races and has placed third in division in her last two races. For communication, the boat is equipped with an Icom RT-710 (precursor to the 802), a Pactor modem and a succession of laptop computers. Cayenne also carries an Iridium phone to call wives at the half-way party.