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Folks Who Cross without Checking the Weather ...

From Geoff (VA3GNC) and Bunkey Cunliff on board S/V The Everden:  In response to a request from Charles for their impressions about folks who cross without checking the weather ...

Hi there Charles and Dianne. Hope you are keeping well and getting the better of winter up there.

I definitely consider the Ham radio as an important safety device at sea. The most obvious use is normal communications, for instance, to inform someone ahead of time of your sailing plans, and to check back in with them on arrival to confirm you made it safely. Or to keep in touch with other cruisers who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Another use is to check in regularly with the numerous maritime nets to ask for and/or provide information, to pass along messages, and to receive weather updates. Through the southern US and Bahamas, our usual cruising ground, I regularly use the Waterway Net on 7268 at 0745 EST, the BASRA (Bahamas Air Sea Rescue) net on 3696 or 7096 at 0720, or their SSB net on 4003 at 0700, and the Maritime Net on 14300 most of the day. Further north of course is the Mississauga Maritime net on 14122.5 at 0745. Last year for instance, we were anchored in a remote Cay in the southern Bahamas waiting out several days of bad weather with another vessel which had neither HAM or SSB. One morning on the net, I heard a "Boat Watch" for this vessel which was apparently overdue in George Town. They had been unable to call to explain their delay since there were no working phones on the Cay (not unusual in the Bahamas!). I was able to explain their situation, set their friend's mind to rest, and later make further HAM calls on their behalf.

I also use the Winlink packet data transfer system extensively for email, weather information, and news bulletins. Winlink was developed by HAM cruisers for HAM cruisers, and is immensely popular among the cruising community. So much so that two full days of Winlink lectures and demonstration sessions regularly form part of the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) Fall meeting in Melbourne Florida. To use winlink, you need a Pactor 2 or 3 modem to link the HAM radio with an on board computer (laptop in almost all cases from space considerations). The most popular model modem is the SCS PTC-IIe which retails for around $600US. The software to operate the system, "Airmail" is freely downloadable from internet and there is no charge for its use. Other winlink software "Getfax" and Viewfax" allow you to download and view weather fax data using the same modem. "Airmail" is very user friendly and looks like a typical windows based message service; the only difference being that instead of simply "sending" the message, you have to go through a further screen which lets you select the winlink HAM station and frequency you want to use. There are some 30 to 40 participating stations worldwide with the largest concentration in the US, but coverage is essentially anywhere you would want to sail. Each station automatically scans a number of assigned frequencies until a user transmission is detected, after which it will lock on and complete the transaction with that user. Outgoing mail is forwarded on via internet, or directly to another HAM. Incoming mail from internet or another HAM is stored within the winlink system and downloaded automatically to the user when connected. The system includes extensive virus and spam filters; in over 4 years use I have never received a single unwanted message!

The only drawback to the system is its speed; typically 1kbyte per minute with Pactor 2, or 2 or 3 times faster with the newer Pactor 3 (old Pactor 2 modems are software upgradeable). For obvious reasons time is limited to 30 minutes per day with most stations, but this is ample time for normal use, i.e. text only messages and short attachment only. Sending or receiving photographs for instance is not really feasible even with Pactor 3.

The most important feature of Winlink from my point of view is the range of weather and news products that can be requested individually, or ordered on a daily basis. For instance I order up the full text version of the NOAA Offshore Weather Forecast every day, and also GRIB files for the area I'm cruising in, e.g.. Bahamas or Caribbean. GRIB stands for "Grided Binary data" and is a graphical presentation rather like a simplified weather fax picture but without the usual "noise". To keep file sizes small, coastal outlines are coarsely digitized, but isobars are drawn correctly and wind feathers located every 1 or 2 degrees (selectable). By moving the mouse around, pressure, wind speed and direction can be interpolated and read off at your precise coordinates. The data is incredibly compressed; for instance I can download the forecasts every 12 hours for the next five days for just over 2000 bytes (or 2 minutes)!

Note that winlink also has sister products Sailmail and CruiseEmail which use the same modems and are available commercially for use with SSB (The annual fee was around $200US a couple of years ago but could be more now)

After cruising for several years, I'm convinced the most important safety feature on board is accurate weather knowledge. Every morning I listen to my favourite weather forecaster, Chris Parker (who transmits from his boat Bel Ami on 4045 SSB at 0630), then download the NOAA Offshore weather report, and GRIB files via Winlink, then pick up the BASRA weather report (including the Florida Coastal and Nassau Met Office forecasts) via SSB or HAM at 0700 or 0720. In less than an hour I have 5 forecasts which I can use to plan my itinerary. I never leave home without it!

As an example, we recently sailed back from Marsh Harbour in the Abacos, to Lake Worth in Florida. The Gulf Stream, flowing north at up to 3 knots can be delightful in calm conditions, or treacherous with wind opposing current. A series of strong cold fronts with winds frequently clocking through 360 degrees during each cycle, sweep across this area during the winter to complicate matters. From my usual stock of weather data, I noticed what looked like a suitable but narrow weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream 3 days ahead. We sailed that day and the next to position ourselves ready to cross the stream, but tucked in a cozy anchorage (Great Sale Cay) to wait out a strong NW blow the 2nd evening into the 3rd morning. The wind dropped during the 3rd day as expected, and we left at 1630 for a very pleasant crossing, arriving in Florida at 0900 the next morning. Just after we left, I had a call on the VHF from a nearby vessel asking for weather information. He told me he had crossed the previous night from Florida in 25 knot NW winds gusting to 40 knots, and horrendous short seas 12-15ft. I was amazed he left without checking even the local weather forecast which would have warned him of the dangerous conditions. I gave him all the information I had, told him the worst was over, and wished him luck. About 18 hours after we arrived, friends of ours on a trawler arrived. They had a great passage for 75% of the way but ran into building SW winds in the Gulf Stream, and were forced 10 nm north of their intended landfall because their boat was unable to handle the building beam seas. They are experienced sailors and were aware the weather window was short but simply miss-timed their departure.













Congratulations to 

Jeff D'Aigle VE3VLT,

who has recently become our 

Second Vice President 



The Toronto Marine Amateur Radio Club

Phone:  416 486 6025  

Fax:  416 486 0417

Email:  ve3cfl@rac.ca


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