Saturday, May 14, 2005

Mona LisaOver. No, um, out. Bugger.

Ah yes, 'tis the purest joy that is a sailing club safety cover radio refresher course, or something like that. Basically go on a long drive (deLondonwards, early on a Friday evening. My, what fun). Then hang round waiting for people. Then go to get fish and chips because it's cold and windy, with sand whirling through the town, although how it got out from underneath several foot of mounded seaweed I've yet to work out. Then give up on the idea of running back from the fish and chip shop because whenever the stone's wet with spray, I go backwards. Then people turn up, and the barbed comments and the course begins. In some ways useful, but it was too patchy. Some people knew it all, some didn't, so the level kept bobbing up and down. But we're probably an odd bunch to teach, and the guy's an engineer, not a teacher.

He started by trying to compare VHS to a phone, and then promptly came unstuck when the audience didn't suggest the similarities and differences he wanted. But that was pretty much inevitable with such a mixed audience; some people spent the whole time being terribly earnest and confused, others constantly making jokes which undermined the entire thing. I was part of "Oh get on with it, wait, what was that?" camp.

I did learn, after several years, what PTT actually means. I know it's the button one pushes to transmit, even though I had never quite connected Push with Talk (and the requisite To or Then depending on how cheap the equipment is). And suddenly, thanks to a comment by a doctor, we lurch from the arbitrary teacher struggling to explain that in and out can't happen at the same time, to simplex, not duplex, aerial circuitry.

While I followed it, and am not adverse to sudden lapses into the vaguely scientific, I could see other people in the room try to work out what herpes has to do with it, and that's the American name for semi-detached isn't it?

Then it's on to over and out, but never as I just wrote it (unless one's feeling particularly Dukes of Hazzard). I knew this already, even if I invariably use over and then remember I'm supposed to have just finished the conversation, so in my defence it's usually "over, um, out".

We move onto protocols for various things: radio checks, standard communications, channel transfer, use of Channel 16. And then terminology: This is "callsign", the differences between repeat and say again, the lack of difference between send and go ahead (one's made by McVities, and doesn't taste very nice), the chaos that is affirmative, copy that, ok, roger or understood, the cheesiness of wilco (even though the instructor seems to be unaware it's short hand for "understood and will comply"), the two meanings of relay (he forgot to say what they were), standby, Mayday versus Panpan (one's a Bank Holiday, the other a high-kicking Peruvian dance).

The onto the standards for giving Mayday messages (insert Grace Jones reference here), which he he tries to remember, and then halfway through tells us there's an acronym for it. He gives it at the end, and I'm fairly sure most of us didn't get it.

By this point we've already been interrupted by the coastguard just happening to call us up (my, what a coincidence) requesting wind strength and direction, visibility, cloud cover, and then the weather (um, what was all the stuff we just gave you?). Judging for the change in tone in his voice, he wasn't too pleased about the feedback, of either sort (although the type screaming louder than the wind might have won it). But as he called us at a set time, and the course had started late, we hadn't yet covered what we were doing.

We then are supposed to play with the radios, but the laminated instruction card didn't actually work on handset our group had. But most of it could be learnt by simply being allowed to play with the buttons without being shouted at (ah, yes, you can tell I've been a member of that club since I was a child).

Then outside to practice on some toy radios (not on any proper VHS channel). We get sent to pre-determined spots. Cue much silliness. The doctor I'm with (they get everywhere) decides to do a mayday because we're cold and standing in the wind. I bit my lip, as surely it can't be good form to do a mayday, even if it's supposedly off any monitored channel.

The guy running the course occasionally comes in to boss the group with the two youngest people in about (and it's not my group. What's happening? And don't say time). But mostly it's us asking each other stupid questions, or adults berating their younger relations for not using the phonetic alphabet ("Indigo? What's this indigo? In-di-ya. Over"). Just as well the transmit on the handset I had wasn't working so no-one heard me trying to summon Beta, not Bravo. I was Delta, and we just had Alpha talking, so you can see where it came from. Admittedly I might had problems talking to Gamma instead of Charlie.

After completely losing control, and having to endure silly conversations about ambulances going the wrong way (Charlie calls a mayday, and suddenly sirens start to squeal), we get summoned back. We learn we should have stood silently awaiting communication from the instructor. Yeah, it might have helped if you'd mentioned that beforehand.

Back inside, and I've been foiled into my attempt to work compliance or bomb gone into the communications (ah, so it'll just be me with those film references then?). Somehow we get onto the point of squelch, despite all of us having already been using it.

Then moving beyond purely radio, and into the various roles safety crews perform. It turns out one long running problem has been caused by the team leader having one radio call sign, and each safety boat having one. So when the leader is on a boat he has two call signs to respond to.

As so we get to role of Beachmaster. This is getting interesting. Will he or won't he? Oh he will. The instructor passes a question about maydays onto the commodore, as she has more experience of them than him. Now that's just mean.

Of course without the backstory, it doesn't appear quite so mean. Once upon a time, someone capsized. Various people where on rescue boats, including me. The [ex-army] team leader transfers me to a different RIB, takes crew off that, and bombs off to help. He jumps in to help, leaving his young crew in charge of that RIB. I'm on one driven by someone who isn't the best driver of RIBs (yes, I may be related to him). So one RIB hanging-fire with only the driver in it; the team leader in the water, trying to help a guy who refuses to leave his boat; another poorly controlled RIB loitering, with a crew who can't do anything while the boat is not where is needs to be; and the committee boat anchored a mile away. Oh, and all of this, except the anchored boat, is drifting towards the tidal race over a ledge of rock which extends out a long way.

Madame Commodore was on the shore. I'm not sure if she was officially beachmaster, or just being bossy. She's watching through binoculars, which offer her a skewed view of what is going on. She keeps hectoring people over the radio. I end up having to respond and try to communicate her messages onwards, as I'm the only person who is in a safety boat and isn't driving it. She's panicking, because we'll all be swept to our doom over the ledge. I try point out it's still some distance away (bloody miles). She's still demanding attention and things be done. I reply with a very slowly and distinctly spoken "We are. [short pause] Out", with the subtext being "will you bloody well shut up and leave us alone, so the only person with a spare pair of hands can be useful" (bear in mind I had not been relaying the responses her suggestions were eliciting from the team leader and other people on the safety crew, on the grounds it was before the watershed).

I was told afterwards that the people who address her in that tone of voice are few and far between. I'm fairly sure she still hasn't forgiven me. Eventually they get the team leader and capsized sailor on board the other one. Our boat is dispatched to help elsewhere in the fleet. The team leader decides to let the capsized boat drift over the ledge, and then be picked up from the other side, while the owner is taken ashore. He asks Madame Commodore to notify the Coastguard (in a "yes, we do know there's an upside-down boat drifting across a reef. Don't panic" way). She calls mayday.

Mayday: for an abandoned boat. You can kinda see why some people won't let her forget it.

Getting back to normal, the course continues with a couple of anecdotes, including the wonderful local coastguard who would only respond to the correct callsign. Now, that doesn't sound like it's bad, but when he has different callsigns depending on whether he's sitting in his car or not, it becomes easier to understand that it might be annoying (apparently, even in mid communication, he would get into or our of his car, and the callsign would change accordingly. So whoever was speaking to him would have to guess from the silence that he's now switched to the other callsign. Ah, genuine Dorset logic). But then the recognised local version of out is Many Thanks. It's just that type of place.

Wow, did I just get through an entire post on radios, and the west country voices which use them, without one single reference to Smuggler FM? Drat.

Anyway, as The Dambusters has finished (missing Lancs are very useful when learning the 8 times table), I'd better stop. Although Channel 4 showing the film explains why I had the march stuck in my head earlier this week, and wanted to say bomb-gone when playing round on the radios. I must have seen a trailer, and not noticed.

Do, de-do, de-d'-d'-d'-do...

I was searching for a handy MP3 of the Dambusters' March, for those of you unacquainted with the film or the music, but the only one which didn't wanted be to download some .exe for the Ukraine was this catgut-still-in-the-cat version [source], which isn't quite what I had in mind.

After that wince, I think I'd better stop.


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