Communication – can you hear me now?

Morro Bay mooring field at sunset
Morro Bay mooring field at sunset

It seems fitting that I should give a bit of information about communication.  We receive a lot of questions on this subject from friends and family.

We are about to head out of Morro Bay.  It’s been absolutely lovely here.  We have become fans and supporters of the local community radio station, recharged our refrigeration system, kayaked the bay, beach combed, become frequenters of the farmers market, supporters (and impromptu members) of local bands and we have encountered the most generous people.  But now we are preparing ourselves for an incommunicado state…  no cellular service!  duh duh duhhh….

Kayaking the bay
Kayaking the bay

Tonight we hoist the anchor and push off for a short 12 hour sail down just south of Point Conception to an anchorage called Coho, rest for a day or two and then a short jump to San Miguel, one of the Channel Islands.  Once in the Channel Islands we can expect very little of our usual type of communication.

Yes, we are up to date on the terrible oil pipeline break that has created a huge oil slick off of Santa Barbara coast.  No, not sure it will force us to change our plans.  It is awful and it makes me want to install an electric motor in Banyan so we are completely un-reliant on oil and therefore not adding to the problem.  Cameron is yet to be convinced.

The Morrow Bay ROCK and then there is my world standing in front of it.
The Morrow Bay ROCK and then there is my world standing in front of it.

Back to communication:  To keep up with work and play I have been relying on cell service (iphone hotspots) and coffee shops to get some wifi but the farther we go, the more often we will find ourselves in areas where neither will be an option.  So HOW are we going to update our FACEBOOK WITHOUT WIFI!!!  OMG…

The biggest deal is emergencies right?  If we are in trouble, how are we going to let someone know that we need help?  How will we update people when we are out in the middle of the ocean… do cell phones even work out there?!? – No.

Yes, that is a washboard ladies and gentlemen.
Yes, that is a washboard ladies and gentlemen.

If we are cruising in coastal waters (which will be about 98% of the what we do) We will have the luxury of picking up our phone and very likely, getting service.  If in the US this is already done, if outside the US and we plan to be in the country for a while, we will most likely get a local SIM card and data plan for a short time as it’s usually pretty affordable – but we wont be streaming Netflix.  We may purchase a larger amount of data on a SIM card and install it into a router that would project a boat wide wifi signal.. but we are not quite there yet.

Watching a local band in support of the local community radio station
Watching a local band in support of the local community radio station and yes, A is rocking her bonnet. Ever the trend setter!

In the middle of the ocean, it’s a little different.  Here is a breakdown of our communication equipment on board Banyan.  This is where it gets really boring or very interesting depending on your level of interest so, if I’ve lost you, see ya next time! and if you’re in for more… you will not be disappointed:).  This is a very big topic and there are many many options, this is just a list of what we do and have aboard.

  • Very High Frequency Radio (VHF) We have the Standard Horizon GX 1700 with internal GPS.  VHF is the tried and true local communication tool that we will get the most mileage out of on Banyan.  We have a hand held VHF that lives in our ditch bag (more on that in another post) as well as a recently purchased and installed (by Cameron) VHF with a longer range.  We can listen to the NOAA weather reports, shipping traffic and the Coast Guard emergency frequencies as well as tune in to local harbor control stations.  We can call other ships in our vicinity, call into a marina we would like to stay in and communicate with friends on other boats.  It’s generally a short range, line of sight communication tool (20 – 60 miles).  Sitting in the Monterey marina, we were just able to pick up the shipping traffic channel from the SF bay, so we feel pretty good about it’s power level.  You can monitor multiple stations at the same time and there are generally accepted stations where emergencies are broadcast by those in trouble and then re-broadcast by the Coast Guard if necessary.
Three clumps of otters hanging out in the morning.  Otters and seals have been everywhere!
Three clumps of otters hanging out in the morning. Otters and seals have been everywhere!
  • Single Sideband Radio (SSB) – ICOM M802.  Marine SSB radio is a great way to communicate at long distances (6000 miles+) and with groups or individuals. We can listen in to and contribute to the many world wide and local “Nets” which are organized groups of cruisers who share weather data as well as other local information – this info is invaluable and creates a great sense of community among cruisers.  It acts like the old party lines and everyone gets to listen in.  We can communicate individually with other boats by going to another frequency that is less traveled in addition to chatting with SSB or Ham operators around the world…and even to the International Space Station!  It’s quite amazing really.  This can also be our link to the world as we can get the BBC, NPR and VOA (Voice of America). I won’t get into all the details of it but it’s longer wavelength makes the signal able to bounce off the stratosphere and it can go a very long way in the right situations.  We have also joined a service called sailmail which will allow us to send and receive email (text only) via the SSB radio.  This is also how I might be able to blog and update Facebook in the middle of the ocean – sans photos of course, but at least it’s a way to stay connected.  Where emergencies are concerned, the major advantage of SSB is that with one call, you can potentially communicate with a large number of people at the same time with the most range.  Both Cameron and I are Ham’s and are licensed by the FCC to operate on the Ham frequencies.  This basically means that we can operate on the less crowded and wider reaching frequencies, we also have access to yet another email service call Winlink – Bonus.  For our purposes, it is a great tool on many levels.  We can also connect to land phone lines via the SSB using a tool called “ship to shore” and have a good gab with the folks at home.  Cameron has just finished the self described “EPIC” installation of the ICOM M802.  It has been weeks in the making and he deserves a huge pat on the back for cramping himself into claustrophobic locations, reading cryptic diagrams, pulling up the floorboards at every turn, connecting all types of wires, and generally getting out of making meals and homeschooling (I say this lovingly as I’m VERY happy to have a functional SSB). So props to Cameron for his diligent work in getting this thing working… it has been a journey.
And up come the floorboards... again
And up come the floorboards… again
A common sight while I work in the galley
A common sight while I work in the galley
  • Satellite Phone.  We have an Iridium 9575 Satellite phone for emergencies as well as for my work.  At $1.00/min I won’t be chit chatting about the mundane, but if I need to speak to clients, our family doctor or we need to get in touch with our insurance provider to discuss evacuation, it will be well worth every penny. The sat phone also provides texting for less expensive communication and we can connect the sail mail system with it as well, but I imagine we will use this more as an emergency tool due to the other communication options we will have.
  • 406 MHz Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).  When all else fails the use of an EPIRB has been proven over and over again to be an effective tool to let the authorities know that you need help and are in critical danger.  It’s just what it states, a beacon – not a means of back and forth communication.  We have registered our EPIRB so if we set it off, the authorities know who we are, what kind of vessel we are on and how many people could potentially be on board.  They will then call our Parents to confirm that yes… we are potentially in the area where the beacon originates from.  When they confirm that it’s indeed a real emergency, the most amazing network of government and private assistance goes into action.  They will do any number of things: attempt to get ahold of us via SSB or Sat phone, send out airplanes to do a fly by and confirm our location, send out government ships or reroute private ships already in the area to look for us and pick us up.  They will possibly even drop people and equipment to aid us until they can get a commercial or a government ship in our area to come pick us up.  A family who we have followed and been in touch with had their own experience with this and they did a fascinating interview with my favorite radio show “This American Life” about their experience.  If you want to be riveted to the radio for a while, check it out.  This is a similar system to SARSAT which is a more land based version used by mountaineer’s, spelunkers and adventurers in general.
Our little ladies posing for the grandparents in Morro Bay
Our little ladies posing for the grandparents in Morro Bay
  • Global Positioning System (GPS).  When talking to Adelaide’s second grade class about our upcoming trip, Cameron described this as our address…  I wish I could send our Amazon boxes to our GPS address…  I include this because, when you need help, it’s handy to know where you are.  Aside from using the stars, noon sightings with our sextant and sight reduction tables, we will rely greatly on our GPS coordinates.  We have three GPS devices on board just in case one or two of them decide to give out.  We have one on our main chart plotter along with an emergency hand healed GPS device that lives in our ditch bag and we have a GPS on our VHF radio.  So, hopefully the sight reduction tables will get soggy and dusty…
The ROCK and other sea life
The ROCK and other sea life

Thats a round up of how we will manage to communicate and what Banyan has aboard.  This has been an FAQ from friends and family and I have several other “FAQ” posts that are on deck and in the hole, but if you have a question about what we are up to, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email or post a comment or connect on Facebook.

Until Then,

Happy Trails!


  1. Jim Pence says:

    Hi Cameron, Anne and girls:
    It appears you spent 9 or 10 days in Morro Bay and enjoyed every minute of it! We wish we could have stayed another day in SLO so we could have visited you guys. Anne, please know how much we enjoy receiving your blogs. Also, I make it a point to forward them to Fr. Angelito.

  2. Erin Bernhardt says:

    Hi Vawters!
    We love seeing you through the photos and blog. What an adventure you are making. The whale sighting must have been amazing. And I’m so proud of your faith, family bond, and perseverance!

    We are now returning from a mini-adventure ourselves to Indiana to see everyone. We missed you guys, but you were there with us in stories and laughter!

    Cam, I’m disappointed that I didn’t make a point to go visit your parents. I will need to do that next time. Did get to see the Stokely’s, Bakers, Leffel’s and others, though and it was a really nice reunion. Unfortunately Mary Leffel was just diagnosed with cancer, and it is very advanced. Has moved from her lungs across her body. It’s a sad situation for Bo and everyone. But, I got to talk with them a bit yesterday and know that God is present and pray that he will bring hope and healing to them as they go through this. Say some prayers for them.

    I put up a banner for Pam’s birthday with some photos that included the sailing trip and our ladies mud-bogging excursion…. How fun. -Anne you looked like a model in the latest Motorcross magazine.

    Anyway, we miss you and love you. I am glad to see that you are prepared with all the communication modes! We’ll be following your journey. -girls have a week vacation in October, and I was thinking we could come meet you somewhere along the Mexico coast. If you think it’s possible to plan, give me some potential coordinates and I could check into it!

    Love to you, Adelaide and Isa!
    Erin, AJ, Anna, Morgan

    • Anne Vawter says:

      Erin! So great to hear from you. Sounds like a good trip home. I’m so sorry to hear about Mary Leffel. We will send some prayers up for her.

      We would LOVE to see you guys in October. We will email you soon with our most likely location.


  3. Debi Vawter says:

    Love reading your posts. Sounds complicated to me. Sounds fascinating.
    Were you surprised to hear from Zach and Katie? We are so excited. And did you hear Chad and Rena have another little one?
    Cruz, born on the 18th.
    Love you all and give Adelaide a big birthday hug for us.
    Love Aunt Debi

  4. Erin Bernhardt says:

    Hi Vawters!
    Tried to leave you a message, but don’t see it inthe comments, so not sure it went thru. We love and miss you!! I’m so proud of your journey, faith, and perseverance! We miss you. Had our own little adventure up to Indiana this past weekend. Great trip and we missed you guys! You were there in spirit and story. :-). Celebrated Pam’s 40th and created a banner with photos that included our BVI trip and the girls mud-bogging excursion… Annie you looked like a model in motor cross magazine. 🙂

    Cameron- Bo’s mom has been diagnosed with cancer and it is pretty advanced. Say a prayer for them. got to see them over the weekend and of course they are scared.

    Love you! Be safe.

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