Thursday, December 23, 2010

Happy Yule!

My Blonde Girlsfriends
My Blonde Girlsfriends
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
This year, DrC and I have slipped gently, easily and comfortably into skeptism. Fortunately, skeptics can also be pagans as long as we don't actually have to believe in the Good Fairy, Mother Nature, or Any Other Capitalized Deity -- except, of course, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. We got to this point through a gentle but relentless campaign on the part of DrC's father in the realm of physics combined with beer... specifically Skeptics in the Pub. Through a friend (Steve) of a friend (alien), we met like-minded folk and starting thinking. Thinking is dangerous. Not thinking is also dangerous.

I love to mis-quote Einstein.

So in addition to the other wacky notions such as preparing for the pending zombie apocalypse, getting rid of all our stuff, and letting children play unsupervised on the deck of a boat, you can now add "ignoring the entire holiday season" to the list of Conger family transgressions on normal. We signalled our new conviction that Christmas is a waste of time, money, and emotional energy by getting in the van and driving off for three weeks. Turns out that in New Zealand, this is not a particularly radical notion. When Christmas and New Year fall gobsmack in the middle of summer, spending the two week holiday on the beach is pretty standard. I think DrC has us hiking up a mountain or repelling into a cave or something on Christmas Day. I had to remind him that the tour operators might be taking the day off.. you know... just for the heck of it? But turns out, not so much. Kiwis are pretty practical. Or they also agree that the reason for the season is to make money, a universal commercial consensus that appears to know no borders.

Before you go all "bah humbug" and presume to equate cynism with skepticism, I assure you that the Conger family plans to enjoy ourselves. Once again, we all made each other gifts to exchange on Yule as well as gathered little items for our Santa stocking stuffer extravaganza. DrC made soap this year, I made candy and rollagon organizers, Mera made pou (Maori dance balls), Aeron customized journals, and Jaime made designer t-shirts. I can't say we enjoy this process... inevitably Grandma Sue finishes in August, Mera in October, Aeron in November, DrC two weeks before Solstice, Toast the day before, and Jaime three weeks later. It's pretty stressful, to be honest. The competition. The pressure. The distilled sense of Obligation. On the other hand, it's only once a year. If this is what it takes to get the good doctor to make more soap, I think we're all willing to sacrifice.

Making Soap
Making Soap
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
This year's soap offering is oatmeal honey. Stuff smells fantastic and foams up nicely. Unfortunately, there is a bit too much oatmeal so it sort of falls apart when you use it. You have to gather it up and squish it back together again then set it on a dry spot in the shower until the next time. Soap -- With Instructions. For the first time, the soap is vegetarian made of canola oil rather than the usual lard. And as always, the only animals tested in the development process were our girls; They survived.

The stockings are hung
In the trailer with care
Stuffed with good candy
The children won't share
And wouldn't you know
The Congers are happy
Without all those trappings
Absent the sappy
We eat and we play
We hike and we swim
We drink large pint glasses
Filled up to the brim
And together each day
We thank fortune and fate
For the keys they have given us
To the happiness gate.

Enjoy the Holidays!

~ Toast

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Communication on the High Seas (Part I)

“You can get Internet in the middle of the Pacific? No way!?” – Typical reaction when I post from the ocean

Give Em Sh* Mom!
Give Em Sh* Mom!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Yes way. And at the same time, no... not really.

In a series of articles, I plan to discuss at length the various means that boats in general and Don Quixote in particular communicate with the rest of the world. We'll start this series with radios, in particular, the VHF.

Don Quixote is equipped with two forms of radio communication: VHF and SSB. VHF (Very High Frequency) radio is used for relatively short-range voice communication. It is used by local emergency services, for example, within a municipality. Essentially, VHF is good only for line of sight, though every once in awhile weather conditions will refract signal to our radio from up to 100 miles away.

We use the VHF primarily to communicate with our fellow cruisers and occasionally with naval authorities or other types of ocean travelers such as the big ass floating hotel about to run us down in the middle of the night. Somewhat illegally, we also use the VHF ship-to-shore with the hand held whenever we send crew off the boat and on to the dry. This leads me to a few recommendations for those preparing to cruise:

Security Measure – Do not stint on a good quality, high-powered VHF radio. If you can't tell someone your boat is sinking, you're going to be in a whole lot of water with nothing to hold on to and no one coming to your rescue.

Social Impact - The VHF is the cruiser party line. I don't mean beer and silliness, though there is some of that too. I'm suggesting that without a really good radio you will be completely cut off from the people who are your best resource for advice, assistance, and companionship.

Mirror to Helm - Make sure you can at least hear your VHF at the helm. If you can, put a radio at the helm as well as down below... and if you can only have one, the helm station is more important. When you are about to be run over by an asshat weekender, you don't want to release the helm to run below to yell at him over the VHF.

Handhelds - I recommend one or more handheld VHF radios. Walkie-talkies work, but they do not work nearly as well. I know that at $100 plus a pop, it may seem extravagant. I can't tell you, though, how many times we wished for more than the one we have. The scenario is mostly one of the family splitting up in town or on remote islands. DrC heads off to rummage for hardware, Toast to find the markets, the girls to locate ice cream and entertainment venues. Reliable communication is a boon in these situations.

Radio Protocol - Teach everyone on the boat to master the VHF. One afternoon up in Desolation Sound we listened helplessly over the VHF as the Canadian Coast Guard tried to talk sense into a woman whose husband was disabled – perhaps with a heart condition, hard to tell. It wasn't voyeurism, we literally had no choice. We were underway and so required to leave our radio on the dedicated marine channel... and she literally had no idea how to change channels. I didn't know whether to feel sorry for her or shake both her and her husband until their teeth rattled. She had no idea how to operate the boat or the radio, read the GPS, or describe her vessel. Don't do that to your crew. Even underage crew can become radio experts. Aeron was running net control down in Zihau at age 7.

Family Channel - However, this scenario of everyone in the crew with and on the radio leads to another tip, the family channel. The VHF spectrum in the nautical world consists of roughly 30 channels accessible for receive and transmit by most marine radios. Of those, no small fraction are dedicated to a specific, single purpose. For example, in virtually all U.S. waters Ch. 16 is used exclusively by nautical authorities and for ship-to-ship hails. A private yacht monitors Ch. 16 but rarely uses it except to signal intentions to nearby vessels and to hail authorities or other boats. On establishing contact with another boat, you must immediately switch channels. Authorities will direct you to another channel, but it's a good idea to have a number in mind in advance when calling your own crew. There are two reasons for this: First, getting both parties to actually hear a number on a busy channel can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Second, you might not want the entire anchorage following you and your spouse as you switch channels to argue about what to have for dinner that night. The girls, in particular, attracted lurkers... benign, loving and friendly fellow cruisers who just enjoyed their piping voices and ridiculous requests as we'd head off to another channel to discuss whether or not they could have their third ice cream for the day. Agree in advance that the family always switches to 72 or 68 or ... pick your channel. Program it into your radios as a favorite. Then when you hail family, just say, “Switch to the usual” and off you go. Pick a channel way up there out of the way of most local traffic.

* * *

One of our greatest pleasures in Mexico was watching the kids – ours and those from other boats – blossom into radio experts. VHF protocol teaches us all how to respect and listen, choose our words carefully, and communicate clearly and precisely. Use your radio as a teaching tool and trust that you'll never regret spending the extra money on this particular piece of equipment.

The Girls on the Net
The Girls on the Net
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Back in Back

Daddy's Birthday
Daddy's Birthday
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
It is possible that we have found someone who knows what is wrong with my back. Those who have followed me through the years no doubt remember that periodically I am stricken by horrible back spasms. These can leave me incapacitated for days, even weeks. Muscle relaxants have little effect. When the pain is extreme and refuses to succumb to quantities of wine and pills which would otherwise stop an elephant, DrC puts me on steroidals until the whole things stops hurting.

Now, I'm going to take some time to natter like an old woman about what's wrong with me. I promise I'll do something more interesting in my next article. You can go if you want.

A few months ago, the way in which I experienced the pain changed. Like a frog being slowly boiled, it took me a very long time to realize that I was becoming progressively less mobile. Small spasms in the back were gradually replaced by soreness first in the buttocks on the right side, then a sciatica-like pain radiating down the outside of the right thigh, then a gradual spreading of aches and pains to the entire back, neck, shoulders and down both legs. By the time DrC got back from a trip to the States to noodle with other doctors, I was grim, upset, and on the edge of tears almost constantly.

Now let me just say right up front that marrying a doctor is really probably the unhealthiest thing I could have ever done. Tailors' children have no clothes. Cobblers' children have no shoes. Contractors' families live with torn apart kitchens, and doctors' wives get not the slightest bit of sympathy ever. For the most part, we're also not allowed to succumb in the throws of chronic pain to trips to palliative and reassuring folks like acupuncturists, homeopaths, or chiropractors. It's all so science-y with DrC. Never mind a really great experience I had back in my college days with an acupuncturist in Berkeley, now everything has to be done Right.

Life is a compromise. Despite my strong desire to have pins, crystals, voodoo chants and chicken blood, or any other damn thing that would make the pain stop, DrC insisted that we go about this rationally. We tried an MRI with no enlightenment. A muscular problem in DrC's mind implied the need for a muscular expert. Since we have no medical insurance to speak of, we decided to start with the optometrists of the muscular-skeletal world: physio-therapy.

So off I trooped to Pukekohe Physio, doctor husband in tow to see if we could figure out why I couldn't actually troop any more. Gimpy me limped in. Again, it would lovely to and say I walked out a changed woman. Perhaps that actually would have happened if DrC had let me go to the medium on the same block. But no. Instead, I limped back out with a sheet full of exercises and a really promising explanation of what might have happened to get me to the state I am in.

As usual, it's all Jaime's fault.

No seriously. It starts with the first baby.... and the third. We'll let Aeron share the blame. I was supremely lazy after having children, and never actually took my body back from the butchers that sliced me in half. The muscles along my abdomen can't be called muscles any longer. In fact, I'm not sure what you would call this nerveless, flaccid, floppy goo. My big TIP to preggers and post-preggers women is to do ab-work non-stop for years after you make babies. If I'd done that, I'd probably be in a lot better state with respect to my back. Basically, no matter how careful I am to bend the knees and pick things up with my core, I'm actually always always always just using my back muscles.

Problem 1: No abdominal muscles puts huge strain on the back.

Solution 1: Two whole sheets of abdominal/core strengthening exercises prescribed at minimum of three times daily.

Then I fell off the boat in 2008. It's a good story, funny at the time when I thought the long term injury was to my pride. How wrong I was. In landing on the swim ladder, I probably jammed the top end of the thigh bone into the big round disk bit of the pelvis. There are a lot of big words the PT and DrC were throwing around. I just watched her play with her plastic spine and hip model where the joint meets. It made perfect sense. The nerves all run through there. It's not a back problem per se, it's a joint problem. Yeah, sure, there is probably a weakness in one of those lower disks, but the real problem – the problem that isn't healing – is the damage in that leg-pelvis area.

Problem 2: Injury of some sort causing pinched nerves and pain in hip joint.

Solution 2: Stretches to loosen the surrounding muscles and reduce the overall inflammation.

Auckland Botanical Gardens
Auckland Botanical Gardens
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
So that was nearly six weeks ago. The first few days of the stretch-strengthen routines were hellish. Things got so much worse. But tonight, for the first time, the entire set of movements and exercises felt good. Sure there was still stretchy hurt and a few of the old style twinges, but as I sit here and type, I do not feel the constant dull pinching pain down lower back, through the butt and along the leg. It's a huge difference and a huge relief. I'm optimist for the first time that this might work. Someday, I might be without these discomforts and feel like I own me again.

I think still would have preferred the pins over all this … eewww... exercise.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Good Crew

It Was His Idea
It Was His Idea
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
I wouldn't say that DrC and I are experts at being crew or hiring crew. We've taken on a few, volunteered ourselves on occasion. We've read numerous accounts and spent hours and hours drinking beer with both captains and crews. Over time we've developed a laundry list of attributes and behaviors which we believe make “good crew.” I'd like to offer these to readers of my blog as a starting point for a discussion. For those in particular with experience on either side, let me know what you'd add or change about this list.

A lot of being good crew is about being a courteous guest. It is also about being a competent, contributing employee. Crewing on someone else's boat can open opportunities to learn, travel, and expand your understanding of the cruising life. It is not, however, an easy role to undertake. Here are our thoughts:

Pack Light – Add-on crew doesn't live on the boat. As a result, your stuff is extra, and it will be hard to wedge into existing lockers which are chock-o-block with stuffed owned by the owner's family. Ideally, all you bring with you can fit into a single duffle which you can comfortably fit on your bunk … even when you are yourself lying in that bunk. A small day pack with your electronic toys (e.g. laptop, iPod, books) is also acceptable if it too can fit on the bunk and do double-duty as a pillow.

Be Prepared – Like a Boy Scout, assume responsibility for your own gear. From foulies and life jacket to iPod/laptop chargers and reading material, supply it yourself. Ask the captain in advance regarding linens (towels, bedding), fishing gear, and items. Personally, I'd also take my own GPS, charting tools, handheld VHF, and personal EPIRB since no boat can have too many redundant safety and communication systems.

Food Issues – It is really amazing how many captain-crew relationships die on the issue of food. Set expectations between you and the captain regarding your dietary requirements, food preparation, and clean up responsibilities before you leave the first port and the last grocery store. The more open-minded and less picky an eater you are, the better. And while you shouldn't expect surf-and-turf with fine cabernets every night, you should be fed well. At minimum, crew and captain should eat from the same trough – and yes, we have heard of boats with the captain drinking the expensive chardonnay and the crew expected to survive on reconstituted gatorade drink mix. If you have special, specific dietary requirements, it is your responsibility to be up front in advance. For some items such as your favorite salad dressing, salsa, or tea, bring your own. Someday remind me to explain to you why I must have rice cakes during night helm watches.

Set Expectations in Advance – The pre-negotiation required for food can and should be extended to just about every boat issue. In particular, make sure you understand what the captain expects regarding watch schedules and boat maintenance. You don't want to learn two days out of port that the captain plans to sand down and revarnish the teak deck during your voyage... and you've been volunteered to do the work.

You Are a Consultant – I have a rule as a consultant which I believe applies well to being a crew member. You are on the boat because you know stuff and can do things. In exchange for your labor and expertise, you are “paid” in room, board, transportation, and sometimes even money. If you believe a captain is making a mistake and you have experience and advise to offer, it is your responsibility to do so. Once. However, if the captain chooses to ignore you and your life is not in any danger, keep your mouth shut. Captains need to break things; It's part of their learning process as both sailors and managers. The title captain – like manager, director, vice president, team lead, or doctor – does not confer infallibility, but for most newbies, it feels like it should. Only after breaking something expensive and/or inconvenient do most newly minted authority figures understand that nothing magical happened to transform them when their title changed.

When to Mutiny – On the other hand, no matter how valuable the lesson is to your manager, a captain doesn't have the right to break crew in the process. This isn't the British Navy in the 1700's. No, a boat in the middle of the ocean isn't a democracy. But if your life is in danger and your captain is a royal flaming idiot, you have the right to mutiny. We read about these accounts in sailing magazines, online, and in books. Sometimes, you really have no other choice. While I don't want to blame the victim, my recommendation here is not get on a boat with a captain whose expertise is considerably below your own AND the captain appears to be completely disinterested in taking your recommendations in serious conditions. Hard to figure that out in advance; Try anyway.

Take the Drugs – If you have any tendency to nausea, start taking Meclazine a day before you board. Keep taking it until I tell you to stop. If you start to feel gimpy, take the drugs immediately. Do not use the trip as an opportunity to experiment with holistic herbs, naturopathic patches, acupressure bands, or tantric chants. Unless you know that one or more of these work on you already, save them for your own boat. You have the right to drive your own family nuts, but you have a responsibility on someone else's boat to not vomit on the cabin sole if you can possibly avoid it.

Pitch In – As crew, you should help whenever and where ever you can. Show up prior to departure ready to assist with loading and provisioning. Contribute to cooking, K.P. and boat maintenance during the journey. Don't leave the boat on arrival until the boat is clean and buttoned down tight. Your contributions will ease relations between you and the rest of the crew. More practically, it'll give you something to do and an opportunity to see that the work is done carefully and correctly the first time.

Our New Electric Guitar
Our New Electric Guitar
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Entertain – Find some way to contribute to the social well-being of your boat as well. Do you play an instrument? Sing? Tell stories? You could bring cards or small, lightweight games such as Yahtzee, chess or mancala. Be generous with the use of the media – music, books, or movies – that you packed. Maybe no one will take you up on your social offers, but the offers nevertheless indicate your desire and willingness to be a part of the lives your fellow travelers.

* * *

Now your turn. What would you add, remove or change about this list?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Mera is Our Academic Super Star

I can and will write about this later... something all retrospective and interesting about homeschooling versus public school in New Zealand. Reflections on our year here. Today, I just have to say, GO MERA! Your Mom and Dad are Very very VERY proud and impressed with your accomplishments.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Hidden Side - A Clothing Allowance

Ta Da!
Ta Da!
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
“You have to buy new shoes,” I flatly inform my eldest as I stare at the wreckage of what used to be a lovely pair of black Keds.

Jaime wails, “Nooooo!! There are only two weeks left...” Her voice trails off at my frown.

“Yes,” I pick up her leg and poke my finger through the gaping hole in the bottom of her shoe. She writhes, struggles, and laughs as I mercilessly tickle her toes. “But these are not even technically shoes any more. The very definition of the word 'shoe' is violated by these objects.”

I'd like everyone reading this blog to now stop and subscribe to Freakonomics Radio, a podcast on the “hidden side of everything.” Stephen Dubner and his co-author Steven Levitt explore how economics so frequently results in unexpected outcomes due to the vagaries of human motivation. Their books Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics are must reads. The “law of unintended consequences” is particularly important in public policy, a hobby for which I actually have a graduate degree. When you craft a rule or law or tax, you want to get a specific outcome. However, strangely enough humans will often thwart the objective through some strange reasoning of their own. An example I'm particularly fond of is football helmets which paradoxically increase the severity of brain injuries in high school players by converting the head into a weapon and conferring a sensation of invulnerability to already immortal teenage youth.

Another story I enjoy is that of the economics professor using his children expermientally. His first attempt to potty train his eldest daughter had mixed results. She quickly learned that every time she could reliably produce an ounce of urine in the potty, she would get a candy. As a result, she developed phenomenally good bladder control to the point where she could pump out an ounce of pee every 20 minutes with clocklike precision. Undaunted by this somewhat dodgy result from his first attempt, the professor engaged the same child in an effort to potty train his son several years later. The reward was a candy every time she could successfully get her brother to use the potty. This time, his eldest was more sophisticated. She immediately mastered the basic concept of “what goes in must come out”.

Based on these anecdotal results, I suppose DrC and I should have predicted Jaime's shoes (and Aeron's stained shirts and Mera's shredded skirts) had we thought out our plans more carefully in the light of the professor's experience. But we didn't. Four years ago, we instituted a Clothing Allowance. We estimated our expenditure on clothes for each child, divided by twelve, and began to deposit the money directly into their personal bank accounts on the first of the month. We simultaneously vowed to never buy another article of clothing for any of the children ever again.

One happy, expected and successful result was a dramatic improvement in our mental well being in the check out line at major retail outlets. No more begging for this cute shirt or that colorful pair of socks as we made our way out of Costco with muffins, meat, and batteries. When a package of Dora panties appeared in the cart, a simple, “Okay, that'll be $9 from your account,” would result in their immediate return to the display counter without even so much as a whimper. I was delighted.

In point of fact, nothing appeared on the check out counter. Ever. The girls started shopping at the Salvation Army and Value Village. They haunted yard sales and descended like vultures on the bags of used clothes that appeared at the homeschool resource center. Aeron benefited from her sisters' hand-me-downs while Jaime started acquisitively eying my footwear and her father's sweats. Months passed, seasons changed, and the girls' attire slowly dissolved while their bank accounts grew.

Finally, one day they announced that they wanted to withdraw major sums of money from their accounts. We were visiting their grandmother in the States at the time, and the girls wanted to visit Costco. Secretly, their father and I were relieved. FINALLY, the girls were ready to replace their now completely destroyed wardrobes. Costco shirts, socks, panties, shorts and shoes would be perfect. If we were clever, we might even talk them into getting a sweat shirt or jacket. I pulled out the cash, passed it around, and piled them into the car inwardly pleased with the results of our economic experiment. The feeling of euphoria, however, was premature and woefully misplaced as two laptops and an iTouch appeared on the counter as we checked out.

“What?...WHAT?!” No clothes? No shoes? No cute little jacket?! I was incredulous.

Mera asked worriedly, “We have enough, right? I did the tax math...” her voice trailed off as I glared at her.

“Yes. You have enough.” Grimly, I waited out transactions. Bitten on the ass by my own cleverness, I marched out of Costco trailed by three children in see-through t-shirts, ragged hems, and holey socks lost in a discussion of what freeware to download first to their new toys.

Haka Face
Haka Face
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Fast forward a year to this afternoon in Pukekohe and Jaime's disgraceful footwear. I am going to lose this argument; Jaime is saving for an iPad. Therefore, I have two choices: I can capitulate to her blackmail and “gift” my eldest daughter with a new pair of shoes, or I can put up with a call from her homeroom teacher every day for two weeks until school gets out. No doubt, in the United States we would be reported to Child Protective Services for child neglect. In New Zealand where shoes are not just optional but in elementary school actually forbidden from the classroom, the phone calls are extent of the harassment.

I drop Jaime's foot with a thud and throw up my hands, “Fine. Fine! I'll turn off my cell phone for two weeks.”

Friday, December 03, 2010

Registering for International Service and Rescue

SSB Station
SSB Station
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
UPDATE 7/12/2010: Incorporate comments from readers.
Virtually every country on the globe with navigable waterways has a maritime search and rescue service of some sort. Larger nations with highly capable navies and marine services offer considerable protection and support to the vessels traveling in and near their waters. An important part of preparing yourself for cruising is to enable your vessel to communicate automatically to these services, particularly in emergency situations.

First, a few acronyms and definitions:

Digital Selective Calling (DSC) – A designation under the GMDSS “primarily intended to initiate ship-to-ship, ship-to-shore and shore-to-ship radiotelephone and MF/HF radiotelex calls. DSC calls can also be made to individual stations, groups of stations, or "all stations" in one's radio range.”[1]

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – The United States federal agency responsible for registering and maintaining radio communication licenses.

FCC Registration Number (FRN) – A unique number used by the FCC to identify license holders. This abbreviation is used synonmously as the username on the FCC web site. The idea is that a single FRN can be used to register multiple radio operators and devices. If you already have a HAM and/or operator license, you probably were prompted to register with the FCC. At that time, you would have been assigned an FRN. If not, the first step is to go to register on the FCC web site and obtain an FRN.

Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) -- “An internationally agreed-upon set of safety procedures, types of equipment, and communication protocols used to increase safety and make it easier to rescue distressed ships, boats and aircraft.”[2] While small craft are not required to maintain radio equipment capable of participating in the GMDSS, it is a very good idea to do so anyway. Most SSB radios include DSC capacity which enables them to participate in the GMDSS.

Maritime Mobile Service Identity (MMSI) – “A series of nine digits which are sent in digital form over a radio frequency channel in order to uniquely identify ship stations, ship earth stations, coast stations, coast earth stations, and group calls.”[3] For US flagged vessels, you can register with a third-party such as BoatUS for an MMSI valid for coastal waters in the United States. However, you must register with the FCC when taking your vessel outside U.S. waters.

SA – When you register a wireless device with the FCC, you must select a radio service type. An SSB radio on a recreational vessel is considered a Maritime Mobile device of the category “SA – Ship Recreational or Voluntarily Equipped”. According to the FCC “Smaller ships used for recreation (e.g., sailing, diving, sport fishing, fishing, water skiing) are not required to have radio stations installed but they may be so equipped by choice. These ships are known as "voluntary ships" because they are not required by treaty or statute to carry a radio but voluntarily fit some of the same equipment used by compulsory ships.”[4]

Universal Licensing System (ULS) – An online tool maintained by the FCC for the purpose of using “any PC with Internet access to research, manage, renew, and pay any applicable fees for your wireless licenses through a password-protected account.”[5] The FCC site is, to be blunt, very poorly organized. Use this link to go directly to the ULS home page. Typical of most cruisers, Don Quixote's ULS account includes: the captain's radio operator license, our HAM and SSB call signs, and our international MMSI.

The two principle methods used by cruisers to communicate distress automatically are an EPIRB and the emergency signal issued by an SSB radio. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) is a dedicated device which broadcasts a maritime distress signal. As of February 1, 2009, all EPIRBs carried by U.S. flagged vessels must transmit at 406 MHz, as satellites no longer receive transmissions at 121.5 MHz. BoatUS provides an excellent guide to how an EPIRB functions. A single side band (SSB) radio can transmit a digital signal call. Both of categories of device communicate with the Cospas-Sarsat satellite monitoring system. The system is monitored both domestically and internationally by maritime rescue services.

To take full advantage of publicly available search and rescue services, you must register your emergency beacon and obtain an MMSI. EPIRB and SSBs broadcast a the MMSI to the satellite monitoring system. Since in an emergency, you might not be able to follow up these signals with a call to explain who you are, how many passengers are on your vessel, and what you look like on the water, you must register your devices in advance with this information. In many countries, you can register your device domestically for free. If you plan to spend a long period of time in a single country, it is a good idea to do the research to identify and register with these agencies. For example, in the U.S. you can register your beacon with BoatUS. In New Zealand, you can't register a U.S. device, but you can contact them and they will “keep an eye open” for your beacon. The agency is the Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). I envision this as “a guy” with a stack of email messages next to a radio receiver. It sounds ricky ticky, but the RCCNZ is reknowned for saving people and boats; So however they do it, the system works.

Mera Monitoring the Net
Mera Monitoring the Net
Originally uploaded by toastfloats.
Unfortunately, registering with individual countries does not provide you with comprehensive, global coverage. Vessels which travel in international waters must also contact their domestic communications agency to register for an international MMSI number. Obtaining an international MMSI number ensures that your vessel is included in the International Search and Rescue database. The theory is that this database is maintained throughout the world. If you happen to have an emergency in the Tasmin Sea, both Australia and New Zealand will be able to know from your EPIRB or SSB signal the name and size of your vessel, your emergency land-based contacts, your emergency equipment, and the number of passengers routinely onboard.

The process of registering your emergency devices is fraught with the usual challenges and frustrations associated with government agencies. Everything that follows from this point applies to U.S. flagged vessels only. Readers with vessels flagged in other countries must do the research for their domestic requirements.

Steps to Register Your Emergency Beacon

1. Gather the following:
- FRN username and password – If you do not already have one, go to the ULS home page and register.
- Credit card
- EPIRB identification number – This number can be found on the side of an EPRIB device.
- A computer with a connection to the Internet and either Internet Explorer or Firefox web browser

2. Browse to the ULS home page and log in with your FRN and password.

3. Apply for a new license. As of the time of this writing, the link to apply for a new license is found in the left column.

4. Complete the form as prompted. Note that your vessel is a category SA radio service, you do not already have an MMSI (even if you've registered for a free one with a local service such as BoatUS or RCCNZ). The objective is to associate a new MMSI with your existing EPIRB and ensure that it is registered in the International Search and Rescue database.

5. Pay for the application. As of November 2010, the fee for registration is $160USD.

6. Monitor the ULS until your application is approved. Then print the resulting license. This process can take 10 days to 3 weeks. In our case, it took two weeks.

[1]"Global Maritime Distress Safety System: DSC." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
[2]"Global Maritime Distress Safety System." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.
[3]"Maritime Mobile Service Identity." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .
[4]"FCC: Wireless Services: Ship Radio Stations: About." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .
[5]"FCC Universal Licensing System (ULS): About ULS: Getting Started." FCC: Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. .