A sense of community is something that most people on both land and sea strive for...The feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves is a natural desire that drives many of us. After all, we are social creatures and the instinct to group together is as basic as the good ole "fight or flight" response. On land, this desire manifests itself in things like organized religion, political factions, book clubs, yoga organizations, and ethnic groups (to name a few). At sea, the most obvious manifestation of this basic human need is (drum roll please...) the Cruiser's Net.
We first came across a Cruiser's Net in the floating utopia that is Georgetown, Bahamas. We had never heard of such a thing before but when our friend's told us to tune in, we did. As many of you may (or may not) know - the primary form of communication for people who live on boats is their VHF radio. A "net" refers to any marine radio "program" that has a predetermined time and channel to which anyone in range can tune in. It is much like a radio show, however in addition to simply listening you can actively participate by making announcements, asking questions, offering goods and services or introducing yourself. While there are "nets" that connect boats while underway crossing oceans, most are all held in port at anchorages and harbors. They are all over the world and can range in size from large (with a hundred or more participants) or small (less than twenty). Some of these "nets" are incredibly organized and regimented with designated announcers and protocol, while others are loose, casual and more ad hoc. They can last anywhere from 15 minutes to one hour and cover a litany of topics. Usually, your cruising guide will tip you off to a local net if it's a large one, but if not - you can always ask a fellow cruiser if a "net" exists and what days/time it does so.
The net in Georgetown, Bahamas, for example, was one of the very large and organized nets and was run by a fellow who went by the zany moniker "Rockin' Ron". Every morning at 7:00 am (I *think*, don't quote me on that) you could tune in to channel 68 and hear the announcements of the day, complete with slightly exaggerated and often amusing radio voices. While not all nets are daily and as organized as this, most cover several categories:
- New arrivals - this is where new arrivals to the anchorage announce themselves by saying something like "Hi, we're Brittany and Scott of Rasmus". For many this is a great section because it's how you know if friends on boats you know or have heard of through the grapevine (or the internet, such as via a blog) and wanted to connect with have arrived.
- Weather - this is usually done by a designated person who is either an amateur meteorologist or someone who will relay what they hear from a professional meteorologist like Chris Parker. While we have found that relying solely on the weather from a cruiser's net is not advisable, it's still a nice service and good to cross check with whatever weather source you use.
- General announcements - these include announcements for things like organized bus trips to grocery stores and yacht chandleries, social outings, card games, hikes, pot-locks, dog shows (yes, there was a dog show when we were in Georgetown!) and more...
- Goods/services to trade or needed items - while I should mention it is illegal to sell any goods or services from your boat without proper documentation and duty paid (though many do in a "hush hush" manner), it is legal to trade. People offer everything from haircuts to charts to boat parts. This is how we found a replacement dinghy and motor for the one we lost and it is also where we announced (in Trinidad) that we had food to give away and thankfully gave it all to a cruiser in need who had tuned in. You can also announce here if you are in need of something and see if anyone might have it.
- Maintenance questions/issues - if you have a question or problem regarding anything "boat" (from your masthead to your keel bolts) this is where you can pose your query and almost always there is someone in the anchorage has experience with your particular problem and will offer to help.
- Departures - this is where people say their goodbyes and tell where they are going, and sometimes little flotillas can emerge from this section.
- Miscellaneous - this is for any straggler announcements or any queries that don't fit into one of the above categories. Sometimes people will give a riddle, an inspirational quote or relay a hot national or local news story in this category.
About 15 minutes before each net commences, you can tune in to another designated channel and let the controller know if you have something particular to announce or share. If you miss this because you oversleep due to too much rum the night before (cough, cough) but have something to say, it's easy to chime in while the net is underway. The host will announce what category he/she is moving to ("...and now onto gggeeeeeeneral announcements..."), make the announcements that he/she knows of and then ask if there is anything else from any other boats. It is at this point you will get on the radio and say your boat name. Once the host acknowledges you with a "Go ahead (insert your boat name here)" you are free to say your piece.
It's very important when making an announcement or asking a question to first say your boat name VERY slowly and clearly because this is how people will find you after the net. When Scott and I would listen, we listened in with a pen and paper and wrote down anything that pertained to us whether it was something we were interested in doing (and the name of the boat organizing it if it required an RSVP) to a part we needed (and, again, the name of the boat who had it). When the net finishes - the floodgates open and it is at this time that someone will hail you if they have what you are looking for or want what you offered or visa versa. From there, you change channels and make the necessary arrangements. All in all, the whole thing is pretty neat.
While Scott and I have admittedly been bad "netters" the past two years and rarely (if ever) participate or chime in, we have decided that next season we're going to make more of an effort to tune in regularly when they are available because they really are a great source of information, resources and - best of all - potential new friends.