On my radio

It’s amazing the places that sea kayaking takes you. I don’t just mean the physical places, but also the new learnings and skills that one must acquire. For example, if someone had told me a few years ago that I would now find myself possessing an official VHF Radio Operator’s License, I would have greeted them with incredulity to say the least.

A VHF Radio is a fairly vital piece of kit for anyone planning on going out on the sea as, signal permitting, it provides a direct connection to safety, in the form of the rescue services or other vessels in the vicinity. This could quite literally mean the difference between life and death in an emergency. I think it is fairly clear to any kayakers who have ventured out into less than pristine conditions, that, regardless of the skill levels present, an unstable situation can all too readily go pear shaped and one can never ever presume that “it won’t happen to me”. In addition, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that a party of sea kayakers could assist another vessel in distress and indeed we have heard one such story.

We recently purchased a handheld marine radio and have been listening in on the various channels from the comfort of our house mostly. Without an Operator’s License, however, it is verboten to transmit any messages. So we could only listen on in bemusement at the chit-chat between yachts out on the Clyde, and the perhaps more colourful conversations of the local fishermen. It certainly didn’t seem to present much in the way of the “roger, wilco, breaker 1-9, ten-four” type transmissions that I had imagined after years of ardent movie-watching. It became apparent to us that perhaps the rules weren’t quite what we had thought, or perhaps not everyone followed the rules! The Coastguard broadcasts did, however, add a bit of decorum to the proceedings.

On Saturday, we went along to an all-day class hosted by SeaTrek Training at Kip Marina which included an exam at the end that would determine whether or not we were worthy of a license. I confess to fretting a little over the prospect of a test as it’s a long time since I sat an exam on anything. I suppose that, at some level, I was concerned that the part of my brain that had previously been relatively efficient at quickly storing information was all used up. I strove to do my very best and to hang on our instructor’s every word. Alan and I both gave up our Friday night pool session to do a little advance preparation and used the time to memorise the distress and urgency calls word for word (a fun-filled Friday night was had by all).

The class turned out to be very useful and informative. I do think that it helps to be interested in a subject, unlike so many classes I’ve attended in my life previously. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I was beginning to imagine that I’d perhaps missed a calling with the Coastguard.

Aside from the fact that, without a license, you are not permitted to transmit using a VHF radio (except in an emergency situation), the major deterrent to doing so is what might be called stage fright. The prospect of your stuttering message being broadcast to all and sundry across the waters is a daunting one and there is a certain fear in the novice mind of not getting the script right. But the course taught us that there is no script, just a format that you should adhere to, especially in relation to distress and urgency calls. And there is no special language (it’s not CB!), although there are a few special calls that seem to have been created by someone who was very bad at French (“seelonce feenee” being my personal favourite).

We duly sat our exam, the start of which provided me with a flashback to previous tests of yesteryear as I eyed up a somewhat unexpected question and immediately concluded that I was about to fail spectacularly. Fortunately, I managed to corral my brain and get it to co-operate and disgorge its recently acquired channel number and call memorisations, among other things.

I am pleased to say that Alan and I both passed, only getting one question wrong. To those of you with a suspicious mind, we each had a different question wrong (not that Alan would let me copy over his shoulder anyway). With some new-found confidence, we are ready to take to the airwaves, although hopefully for nothing much more than the occasional radio check.

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