Out in Cayenne’s cockpit, we’re more likely to be listening to the marine radio than the stereo. Back when we sailed on Puget Sound, that was the case for both Brian’s Nereid and our Northern Crow, but what heard there and what we hear here are very, very different.
Radio communications in Puget Sound are pretty limited, for recreational boaters. We make short, clearly enunciated calls to friends or marinas on Channel 16, move our brief conversations to a “working channel,” and then sign off. We make jokes about the yahoos on powerboats whose conversations go, “Vessel ahead, this is vessel astern! Is that you?” “Vessel astern, this is vessel ahead! Yeah, it’s me! Is that you?” But at least the yahoos do their chattering on working channels, rather than on 16.
Down here, the yahoos are known as “Bubbas.” And they do their chattering right on Channel 16. “Hey Bubba! This is Bubba Bubba! I’m over here, and the fish are pretty bad! How are the fish over there?” Once, I heard a guy out of the blue on Channel 16 ask the world, “Does anybody know what the weather’s going to be in the (Gulf) Stream tomorrow?” Not a word of identification, and who the heck was going to answer him at midnight, anyway?
Since we don’t know anyone on other boats around here, it was a bit of a surprise when someone hailed us by name on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. Turned out it was the big ugly powerboat behind us, just telling us to slow down so he could pass us quicker. That’s like those people who get behind you on the Interstate and flash their lights at you to get over. I once had a idiot who did that to me when I was in the right lane already — did he think I should be on the shoulder, or just not allowed on the road at all?
Some of our more interesting interactions by radio have been with bridge tenders. When we took the boat out for the first time from Seabrook into Lake Pontchartrain, we discovered that we had to call the bridge tender on the radio, rather than using a horn to get his attention. That was a problem, because we didn’t know what channel he was monitoring, and the chart didn’t indicate what the bridge was called. You can’t just turn on the radio and say, “Hey, you on the bridge up there!”
Once we figured out that it was the “Seabrook Highway Bridge,” we were able to call him. Using proper radio protocol, we hailed him with “This is the sailing vessel Cayenne, approaching from the waterway, and we’d like to request an opening.” His answer, spoken in a Cajun patois, was “Jest a minute, and I git dis bridge open fuh yew!”
When we left New Orleans and headed for Florida, bridge communications got weirder. The next time we went through a bridge, we were behind a couple of other boats. Obviously, they’d already contacted the bridge tender, so we thought there was no need for additional radio chatter. Wrong! As we passed under the open bridge, he blew his horn five times (the signal for “What the hell do you think you’re doing?! I’m closing the bridge on you!”) and on his loudspeaker, demanded to know if we had a VHF radio. When we responded via the radio, he gave us a talking-to. So much for avoiding idle chatter, Puget Sound style.
In Venice, Florida, there were three bridges, and we had to figure out which was which. We called the “Venice Street Bridge,” and the bridge tender responded, a bit huffily, “This is the MAGNIFICENT Venice AVENUE Bridge.” When we were under that one, I swept off my hat and gave him a formal bow, rather than just the customary small wave of the hand.
A few bridges later, the friendly bridge tender called us on the radio after we went through. “Have a nice day, Cap’n (on this side of the country, they call anybody with a boat “Cap’n.”). Your next bridge is the Mmmmfffa Mmmmmfffa.” Now, I should have responded with, “Did not copy. Please say again all after ‘next bridge.'” But I assumed he said, “Palm Avenue,” so I pulled up Microsoft Streets and Trips to confirm it. There was no Palm Avenue anywhere on this side of the state! I was panicking as we approached the bridge, about to resort to, “Hey, you on the bridge up there!” Suddenly reading my mind, the bridge tender called us on the radio. “Red sailboat approaching from the north, this is the Tom Adams bridge.” Oh! That’s what he meant!
The truth is, these bridge tenders probably get a little wacky, locked up in a little booth all day, watching us free spirits steaming by on our boats. The ones on the swing bridges probably suffer from a fear that the bridge will get stuck in the open position and they won’t even be able to get off. And yesterday’s fellow on an old pontoon bridge in North Carolina took the cake. He’d been unable to open the bridge due to low tide for a couple of hours, and there were a half dozen boats anchored in front of him, waiting. A boat called ahead to say he was coming down the waterway, and could the bridge stay open until he got there. “Aw, shoot, Cap’n, I can’t hold the bridge open unless I can see you. Can you put another log on the fire?” After we passed through the open bridge, I saw one last sailboat make it through. I guess he found another log after all.