Wednesday, April 15, 2015

VHF Radio Etiquette and how to Communicate over the Airwaves

Sailing is one of those things where the modern sailor totally gets to be off the grid. You can be completely by yourself, one with nature and full of peace and quiet – often a spiritual experience. But occasionally, the sailor needs to actually communicate with the outside world, whether it’s for necessity or just to talk to another boat nearby.

When you are out on your boat, a piece of equipment that should be in every gear bag or permanently installed in your boat is a VHF radio. Of course, there are tons of other comm devices available on the market: cell and satellite phones and two-way radios just to name a few; but the VHF is the standard, go-to communication device that all sailors, and boaters for that matter, should own and know how to use.

We know the pros and cons of the VHF and one particular pro of the VHF is the way it transmits. The frequencies VHF’s transmit on are very public. There is no such thing as a private or confidential VHF radio conversation. This is very important to note because there are definitely some do’s and don’ts of taking over your VHF.

We have put together a little etiquette guide for you, the modern sailor, on what you should and should not be doing when you use your VHF radio:

Be Clear, Be Clear, Be Clear.
Talk on the radio clearly so that the other users have no problem understanding what you are saying. There aren’t any subtitles for VHF conversations so speak as clearly as you can.

If you want to really one-up your buddies, learn the NATO phonetic alphabet and numbers – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie…  Not only will you earn cool points from everyone, you will make things a lot easier to understand when saying letters and numbers over the airwaves.

Keep the commercial and other dedicated channels for just that, commercial and dedicated messages. Unless you have a reason to be on those channels, keep your VHF on Channel 16 for hailing and monitoring.

You should know how to call someone over the radio. What’s the use in having something if you don’t know how to use it? When you want to call someone like another boat or a harbormaster, say the intended recipients name one to three times and then immediately follow with your boat name. For example, “Harbormaster, harbormaster, harbormaster, this is the sailing vessel Stern Scoop. Over.” What you don’t want to do is say something like, “I need to speak to the harbormaster. Over.” No one will respond to you mostly because they don’t know who just made the call.

When they respond to you, “Stern Scoop, this is Harbormaster. Over,” you can then move your conversation to another channel unless you have a very quick message. Always move your conversations to an open channel meant for conversing. In other words, don’t use Channel 16 for talking to your buddies about where you guys are going to meet up when you make it back to the docks.  There are channels set aside for this. Call your buddies up on Channel 16, but then move the call over to Channel 68, 69, or 71. "Harbormaster, this is Stern Scoop. Switch Channel 68. Over" "Harbormaster. Switching Channel 68. Over."Once you are done with your conversation, switch back over to Channel 16. "Stern Scoop. Switching back 16. Over." "Harbormaster. Switching back 16. Out."

If you are using VHF radios on board your boat to talk to your crew when you are docking your boat or grabbing a mooring ball, use Channel 72. This channel is dedicated for Non-commercial intership communications. Still, be clear and concise and use the proper language to finish each transmission with "over" or "out" if it's the end of the communication.

Always make sure someone else is not already talking on the channel you are on. Ensure that the channel is clear before starting your conversation. You wouldn’t want to interrupt a distress or emergency call already in progress.

There is a big difference between “over” and “out” and each of these words has a distinct meaning. This isn’t rocket science, but you do need to make sure you know the uses for each of these two words. “Over” just means that you are finished speaking and awaiting some sort of reply. If you end your transmissions with “out,” you just ended the conversation.

Not all sailors swear like sailors. Don’t live up to the stigma of talking like a sailor over the VHF airwaves. I’m not going to list any of the examples here, but you all know the words to avoid (and most of them have four letters). Even if you are talking amongst your crew while docking the boat, remember that others can still here you so keep your manners in check.There are actually laws against using profanities over the VHF and you could be fined for doing so. Basically, you want to talk on your VHF only using words you would use in front of your grandmother’s bridge club.

If you keep these guidelines in mind, you’ll be comfortable using your radio and speaking to other boaters pretty quickly. Just remember to be confident and clear and you won’t have any issues using your radio for recreational purposes or in time of need.

Stern Scoop back to Channel 16, Out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Roger, Roger" – Communicating out on the Water and the Portable VHF Radio – The what’s, why’s and how’s that make them awesome!!!

People get out on the water for all types of reasons. They set sail on a peaceful cruise to have just that, peace and quiet. Until they don’t and they need to talk to the outside world. We have several ways we can do this.

For the most part, we use VHF radios to talk to other people, boats and businesses that are either on or near the water. You use your VHF to call other boats in the vicinity of you when other forms of communication don’t or may not work – like a cell phone or two-way radio. If you are sailing in a highly charged regatta, you definitely want to monitor the VHF channel that race committee is using. They will be posting and commenting on anything relevant to the regatta such as course changes and delays and everything that is important. They can’t do this over cell phones or two-ways. If you need to contact the dock master at the marina, he is probably walking the docks with his portable VHF clipped to his belt.

Two-way radios and cell phones also serve their purpose when we need to talk to others. Their major drawback is that we need to already know who we are calling (or at least know their phone number for cell phones or the exact frequency for two-ways), two-way users have to be on the same frequency as you and cell phone users must have a signal. You can’t call the bridge operator on the phone if you don’t know the phone number, but you know they are monitoring Channel 13.

The Standard VHF Radio
All boats longer than 20 feet are required to have a VHF radio onboard. These are the standard, go-to radio since they can really transmit over long distances (up to 10 miles or more). They have big whip antennas and serious wattage output so they can be heard for miles. Since they are hardwired to your boat, the battery lasts as long as the battery on the boat does.

The Handheld VHF Radio
This is the “little brother” version of the standard, hard mounted VHF radio. It can do just about everything the standard VHF can do, just on a smaller scale with one huge advantage over big brother - it can be carried around with you since it is small and is battery powered with a built-in antenna. The range on a handheld VHF is around 1 to 4 miles on flat ground (or water) versus 10 for the big guy above.

Personal Two-Way Radios
Popular with hikers and moms and dads, personal two-way radios are the ultimate in portability without worrying about cell phone service. As long as you don’t get too far away from the other handset, communicating with these little units, works only for one-to-one talking – not for broadcasting to large groups.

The Cell Phone
The ultimate in talkability. Talk to anyone and everyone on this little device. Want to have dinner at that cool little restaurant near the docks once you get back to shore tonight. Better call and make reservations. Look up the restaurant’s phone number on your built-in browser and give them a call. What??? No service, what to do next? Cell phones offer the ultimate in communication as long as you are located near a cell tower. If you are not near a tower, you could literally be up the creek without a paddle and no way to call for help.

So, now that you know the ways we, as boaters, can talk to one another; you decide you want to get a Portable VHF Radio. That’s awesome. Portable VHF’s have some uses that make the standard, built-in VHF look like Gordon Gekko’s cell phone from “Wall Street”.

So, why is a portable VHF so great?
First and foremost, it’s portable. They have rechargeable batteries that can last up to a full day or more on standby. Many built-in VHF radios aren’t that convenient to the cockpit of a boat if the boat even has a built-in VHF. They may be located in the cabin without a remote microphone near the helm. This is where a portable comes in. Because of their size, they are able to move around with the captain of the boat and always be within reach.

Need to talk to your crew while you are docking your ’51 Sou’wester? Hand the mate on lines the portable and grab the main VHF, or even another portable, and you can prevent any mishaps to your classic’s gelcoat when coming in to the docks perhaps a little hot on a windy day. The same goes for grabbing a mooring ball. It’s much easier to communicate with a portable VHF rather than yelling over engine noise. Now you can make it to happy hour at “The Boatyard” with no problems. 

It’s a good idea to have a portable unit as a backup. Cell phones aren’t always reliable on the water. If there isn’t a cell tower, you’ve got no service. In another country that operates on a different cell frequency than you do; the VHF will work. As long as you are within range of another VHF, you can be heard. Remember, just because you can’t hear someone else, they may be able to hear you.

And finally, VHF’s are versatile. Say you are on a weeklong cruise and you have been given the joyful task of going ashore from your mooring to do a little provisioning for dinner but your boat mate wants to keep the dinghy “just in case.” Have him take you to the docks and take the portable VHF with you so you can call him when you are ready to be picked up. Or, to call a water taxi since he decided to take a nap.

No don’t let all the buttons and knobs on a VHF radio intimidate you. All VHF radios essentially have the same functions. You’ll want to read your manual for the specifics as they are all a little different, but they tend to work in the same way and are user-friendly once you know how it works.

Here is a list of the main functions of a handheld VHF radio:

Power – this powers the device on and off.

Push-to-Talk (PTT) – on all VHF radios, you have to push this button while talking and is usually located on the side. Just remember that you have to let go of the button after you say “Over” so you can hear what others are saying.

Volume Control – you can raise and lower the receiver volume

Squelch – use this to reduce static.

Lock Feature – you can lock the radio to prevent accidentally hitting buttons can changing settings

Often, there will also be easy access to the weather channel and channel 16.

A portable VHF radio has its place just like your regular VHF and cell phone. But knowing what it’s good for and how to use it are the key to turning your sailing and boating experiences into memories. Once you know when and how to operate your radio, you’re ready to power it on and transmit!

Roger, Roger…

ICOM IC-M24 & IC-M36 Handheld VHF Radios at

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Easiest Way to Set the Rake on Your Opti Mast

The APS Opti Mast Rake Measuring Kit

This is no April Fool’s joke, Opti sailors, coaches and parents. APS has created the most amazing, mind blowing, stupendous, innovative, easy to use, rig tuning tool ever. No foolin’!

I’m selling it pretty hard, but honestly I think it’s an awesome tool and a great innovation that will let parents, Opti racers, and coaches of all levels get their boats set up correctly, get the most out of the sail, and balance the boat -   making sailing easier.

On the first page of every sailmakers tuning guide, there is a reference to how critical mast rake is to properly set up the Optimist.  The problem is, that this is not an easy job. You generally position a tape measure or, in some cases, the rare metric tape measure, at the top of the mast and move the mast butt while someone else reads the tape to get to the correct length (a 2-3 person job!). I knew there had to be a better way so the rig tuning tool was created which makes setting the rake on the Opti an easy, repeatable, one person job. Having consistent and easy to remember settings for rake will make setting up for the current wind conditions simple. Even the non-sailor parent can help their Opti racer get the most out of their sail and boat and focus on more important things as they look towards the podium.

The OPTI150 kit includes all that you need to easily and consistently measure and duplicate mast rake and even includes a quick tuning guide inside the handy Harken case. This tool will change your setup forever and is a must have for anyone who has ever spent way too long setting up boats the morning before a big regatta, or any club with opti racers.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blocks Discussion Part 3 of 3: What are the Advantages and Uses of Plain Bearing Blocks?

The plain bearing block is the original block and has paved the way for more advanced and higher performance blocks like the ball bearing and roller bearing blocks. With the simplest construction and least amount of moving parts, they are generally made of a plastic or metal sheave (wheel) rolling on a metal pin or bushing. In some instances, they were made of Bakelite (1940’s or so) or even wood (think Mayflower). Like most things, manufacturers have made improvements over the years adding low friction metal sleeve bearings and side-races of ball bearings designed to reduce friction between the cheek and wheel when the block is loaded unevenly, but not take any of the actual load. New designs of blocks were developed such as the modern ball bearing block (Harken 1967) to reduce friction in order to run more smoothly and, later, by roller bearing blocks for easier adjustment under high load.

Despite this, plain bearing blocks still have their place in the world of sailing blocks. For one, they have the highest strength-to-price ratio of any block we sell making them extremely cost effective. They are a good, all-purpose block - a jack of all trades. They don’t run as smoothly as a ball bearing block but they’re stronger. They may not adjust as easily under high load as a roller bearing block but they’re less expensive. Are they always the best block for the job? No, but they can be used in most any application. For these reasons, plain bearing blocks are often used as Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) on many production boats.
Plain bearing blocks are great for high, static loads lending themselves to be especially well suited for halyard turning blocks, runner/backstay blocks or vangs.

Check out the video for more info:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Blocks Discussion Part 2 of 3: What are the Advantages and Uses of Roller Bearing Blocks?

Roller bearing blocks are easily taken apart with a hex wrench to clean or replace parts. The high-load, Torlon self-lubricating roller bearings are either in a cassette or as loose individual rollers and bear the load of the block. The small, Delrin ball bearings around the sides of the sheave only take side loads when the block is unevenly loaded (and prevent the sheave from rubbing directly on the check plates of the block). The Torlon rollers provide a greater surface area (spread the load out) than ball bearings and provide the block its high working loads. Ball bearings would flatten out and not roll freely under the same high loads, and a properly sized plain bearing block would handle the load, but with more friction.

Probably the greatest advantage of roller bearing blocks versus a plain bearing is low friction – lines will run faster and adjustments are made easier with roller bearings. When compared to ball bearing, rollers may not necessarily run quite as freely, but they offer significantly higher working loads - A ball bearing block may only be able to offer about a third of safe working load versus a similar sized roller bearing block.  What’s the catch?  Why not use roller bearing blocks in more applications?  Cost!  They are significantly more expensive than both ball bearing and plain bearing blocks. 

Where to use them?  Roller bearing blocks are designed for high load applications that are adjusted somewhat frequently and need to operate with a minimum amount of friction.  They are usually found on boats 35’+ and are perfect on things like backstays and mainsheets, afterguys, guy leads, tack lines, etc.
Maintenance:  Hose blocks with fresh water to remove dirt and salt.  Do not use Sailkote on roller bearings (nor ball bearing) blocks.  Rollers (and ball bearings) require just a bit of friction to entice the desired rolling.  This stuff is too slippery and may impede rolling.  Stick to One Drop if lubrication is required.

While more expensive, roller bearing blocks are unbeatable for high load, high performance situations requiring low friction.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Blocks Discussion Part 1 of 3: What are the Advantages and Uses of Ball Bearing Blocks?

We're highlighting ball bearing blocks as part one of our three part discussion on blocks, their characteristics, and uses.  The other types of blocks you will see on a boat and in our subsequent discussions are roller bearing and plain bearing. 

What is a ball bearing block?  In its simplest form, it is a housing containing a rolling sheave with balls lining the race on the either side of the sheave.  The balls reduce the friction by minimizing bearing surface and rotate between the moving surface and the non-moving part of the block; therefore allowing lines to move more quickly through the block.  For example, when you want to turn downwind and ease the mainsheet quickly, the less friction there is in the mainsheet system, the faster the boom will swing.  

What types of ball bearings are there?  The main differences you will see in performance come from the types of material the ball bearings are made of.  Delrin is the most common material found in blocks.  It has very smooth running characteristics and is appropriate for low to moderate load applications.  It is not as hard of a material as the other options and in applications where the block is loaded up for long periods of time, the balls can flatten, decreasing the performance of the block.  Torlon is the most common choice of material for high load applications, and is a self-lubricating material which reduces maintenance.  These characteristics also mean it comes with a higher price tag.  Stainless steel balls are capable of withstanding the highest loads and are also found in ball bearing blocks, but since they are heavier and require more maintenance than the other two, they are less common.

What types of applications are ball bearing blocks appropriate?  Anything where you need low friction with low to moderate loads, meaning just about everywhere.  These are definitely the most common blocks you will see on a boat.  For dinghies, you will almost exclusively see ball bearing blocks. As you get into larger boats (30’-35’), ball bearing blocks are still the most prevalent, especially in applications where low friction is desired, but you will also start seeing plain bearing and/or roller bearing blocks in high static load applications, where the line is set under load and not frequently adjusted.  The diagram above gives a good "rule of thumb" look at the selection process for the different types of bearings and materials.

A quick word on maintenance…  If your ball bearing block is not running well, you can try a drop of One Drop.  If that doesn't work, you probably need to replace the block.  Absolutely never use Sailkote on your roller bearing blocks, tracks, etc. as this will over lubricate your bearings preventing the bearings from rolling properly and causing flat spots in them, impairing the function of the block. 

Check out the video below to see more on ball bearing blocks!