VHF Radio and the Party Line

Attention: The following was given to me quite some time ago by our dear Laura. Because I've been so filled with ire and other emotions as of late, I haven't needed to pull the guest columnist card. Clearly, that is out the door this week as I am so exhausted that I fear that any original piece would read like something written by a woman attempting English as a second language. I'm too tired to bloviate any longer. Much to your delight, here is another one from Laura. I love her, I live for her and I am so glad to have her on standby. Thank you Laura!

VHF Radio and the Party Line

I grew up in an era where no one's mother worked outside the home, soap operas were religiously watched every day by both moms and kids (and we all hated Erica because she was so mean to poor old Chuck, and I felt bad when All My Children ended after a 41 year run), and listening in on your neighbor's telephone calls was a given.

It was called the party line and as many as ten people could share one single circuit which meant only one conversation could take place at a time.

It worked like this; every home's phone had its own individual ring cycle and when you received a call, no one else on your party line was supposed to know about it. But sometimes technology would run amok and when your phone went ding ding instead of ring ring you instantly knew a party mate/neighbor was receiving a call, and every self respecting female picked up her phone, placed a discreet hand across the mouth piece, and avidly listened in.

It wasn't until years later at the ripe old age of eighteen and I started working at the telephone company, that I realized that this whole ding ding issue was what was referred to as a 'case of trouble' and should have been reported as such, but of course seldom was!

This was all brought home to me when we moved onto our boat a few years ago. Normally, I didn't pay much attention to the VHF, but during our trip down the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway) we were forced to as cruisers would radio their intent to pass us on either our port or starboard side. I hate to admit it but we hardly ever had a chance to reciprocate as we usually moved along at a sedate speed of 5 knots and rarely passed anyone.

Then we arrived in the Abacos and entered the wild world of The Cruiser's Net.

Goooooooooooooood Moooooooooooornnniiinnng Abacos!!!!!!!!!!! was the screaming announcement that woke us up every morning at 8 AM via channel 68 on our VHF.

Ouch!!! Didn't they know we'd had a few too many Wilbur Wow Wow's (our name for any and all Bahamian drinks) the night before, and we weren't quite ready for so much cheer?

Anyway, the Cruiser's Net gave us the daily weather forecast (hardly ever correct) along with all the current events taking place for those who might be interested. After that, channel 68 was wide open for cruisers in need of contacting other cruisers and Hans soon realized I was listening to our VHF radio with a little more alacrity than usual. I had apparently channelled the 1950's housewife from deep within my soul and I just had to know what was going on with our fellow cruisers.

Now, you might ask, "Well, if people are calling each other on a public channel how can you be accused of 'listening in'?"

Because Channel 68 is a 'hailing channel' only, that's why. You hail your friends, ask them to move to another channel, and then continue your conversation. So when anyone we found to be even remotely interesting asked their friends to go up one (move to channel 69), we were on it like flies on doggy doo.

And I have to tell you, I never thought that listening to our VHF radio would rank right up there as a memorable Bahamian experience along with white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters.

But it did.

Hans and I rarely transmit over the VHF but we've found that some people can't seem to exist without it, and it pleases me to no end to find and excitedly point out in any of our new anchorages, some of the most prolific VHF users we've overheard. In this way it also makes the Bahamas seem like a small town as opposed to a great expanse of Cays since you hear the same people over and over.

This brings me to a cruiser whom we heard all the time and yet thankfully never met. 'Starship' had been on the radio 24/7 and I swear the captain slept in his bunk every night with his radio firmly in hand. He hailed other cruisers all day long, and whether they answered or not didn't matter to him as he apparently had a long list from which to choose. As for the hapless sucker who was stupid enough to respond, well, he then ended up running errands, lending tools, and being stuck on Starship's VHF speed dial (I know, I know, there is no speed dial on a radio, it just seemed like it).

One day Starship wanted to know if there was any room in an anchorage he anticipated using and this is what we heard: "My Girl, My Girl, this is Starship."

No answer.

"Elizabeth, Elizabeth, this is Starship."

No answer.

"Crazy Cat, Crazy Cat, this is Starship."

And by now Hans and I were snickering and I commented that I bet every one of those cruisers was crouched down below and giving their partners a shushing sign and forbidding them from answering. But when we heard his plaintive wail, "Any boat in Little Harbor!!!! Any boat in Little Harbor!! This is Starship!!!" and no one answered (even though you know someone out there had to hear him), Hans and I literally collapsed in tears of laughter. I can only assume that his reputation and his overuse of the VHF preceded him.

I have no idea if he found a spot in the anchorage or not as I was busy listening to a conversation between cruisers who had the latest weather update.

I only hope that technology doesn't catch up to the VHF like it has to our telephone system. Life on the water would lose a little of its fun without this particular party line!