A beacon of sound and support (in the fog)

What often happens in Maine did: fog. How thick was it? Suffice to say, one year we could only electronically determine that we had “made harbor” each night. Even then, we were only half certain we were “in harbor” at all. Rarely did we see the shore. Rarely did we see anything. I began to think: perhaps it is possible in this fog to cruise the Maine coast, make an unseen harbor each night because our GPS says that’s where we are, leave each subsequent day in fog for another harbor, turn around when the GPS says we’re at Roque Island, return the same way, and never see land the entire trip!

Since sightseeing is out of the question in thick fog, and swimming in Maine is something one does only to avoid drowning, the question becomes: what does one do at the end of an anxious day of cruising in pea-soup fog? The answer is simple: as a way to unwind, you go for an evening row in the fog. And you tune into “Chang Radio,” VHF channel 72 on your maritime dial. Never heard of Chang Radio? Well, you have now.

Here’s the formula for fun in the fog at night after you’ve spent all day in the fog that day:

  • Make sure you have plenty of fog (you’ll have it);
  • Wear a wool sweater and foul-weather gear (you’ll have them);
  • Place one adjustable baseball-style cap on your head, visor forward (the old fashioned way);
  • Add a waterproof flashlight, a pocket compass, a light stick and your favorite fog-cutting beverage to the accumulated moisture on the rear seat of your dinghy;
  • Bend the light stick to cause it to illuminate and insert the glowing object (pay careful attention at this point) into the rear of your baseball cap;
  • Finally, add one fully charged handheld radio, set on channel 72.

After ensuring that your ship station and shipmate(s) are also monitoring channel 72, shove off for distant unseen shores. Relax. Just float. Then row gently along the edge of a nearby foggy island or coastline. Shine the light to the bottom of those crystal clear Maine waters for your personal nature show. Watch lobsters and crabs scurry. Play with the phosphorescence with your oars. Row out to a nearby harbor entrance bell or whistle if you dare.

And listen.

Listen for the silence.

And listen for the sounds that only the fog can lift to life: a long swell sliding up the sloping granite ledge of a fog-shrouded shore; the distant muffled horn of a lighthouse; a lone dog’s bark emanating from within the dense pine woods; the whoosh of a gull’s wings somewhere overhead.

And then listen for Chang Radio, the cruising man’s radio. WCNG, channel 72 on your VHF dial.

Its pioneering broadcast evolved one summer during my friend Bryan’s marathon evening fog rows in Chang Ho’s dinghy. It was after he had been gone upwards of two hours and I’d figured I’d lost both a friend and a nice rowing skiff. When he finally returned that night he decided that next time he would bring the above-listed paraphernalia with him so I could monitor his progress and not worry about the prospect of a search expedition. In the next several harbors, Bryan’s fog rows got longer and longer still, until one night the light stick, which usually sprouted from the back of his black baseball cap like some radioactive energy leak, disappeared from view. I called him on the VHF to make sure he was okay. No response. I tried again. And again. Finally, I heard him. Faintly. He said he was fine, and headed out to Bell 4 off Frenchboro, navigating by sound only. Really neat, he said. But getting a little lonely. He needed some music. Could I play something from the mother ship through the VHF? He made a request. I found the cd and broadcast a song to him. Later he called in and asked for a report of tidal conditions. I broadcasted the answer. Later, he called in another request (the country singer Lyle Lovett, as I recall). I broadcasted. I began to give a little introduction to the song. “This one’s going out to all you fog lovers everywhere,” I said, feeling like a fog-saturated DJ. “And this is the voice of Chang Radio, WCNG 72, the Cruising Man’s Frequency,” I crooned. And, legal or not, Chang Radio was born.

The broadcasts continued every night in each fog-filled harbor. One night, when I was on a fog row in a special place way Downeast called The Cows Yard, I called in a request. Bryan introduced it, telling a little about the band. His voice modulated in a true DJ manner. And the more he talked the more he couldn’t stop. He began giving Chang Weather, Chang Notices to Mariners regarding buoys we’d found missing; Chang Radio tips on varnishing, on mending sails, on GPS operations; on secret harbors; on what’s wrong with America. He spoke of Chang Radio’s sponsors, about the size of our broadcast facility and the megahertz of power in our transmitter. To our audience he must have seemed lit up. Bonkers. A cross between Wolf Man Jack and Rush Limbaugh!

Except, of course, there was no audience. Except for me (or Bryan), there were never any listeners. Not a soul out there. But still he went on, announcing that a particular song request was brought to our listener(s?) by Ronzoni spaghetti, a major Chang Radio sponsor. Several requests later, somewhere around midnight, he’d added two more sponsors: Apelco GPS and Myers’s Rum. I could picture him sitting there in Chang Ho’s tiny, supply-packed cabin, his eyes landing on “sponsors” as they fell on various products in the galley and nav area around him.

Anyway, that’s how it all started. Maybe you’ve never heard us. Perhaps no one’s ever heard us. Perhaps no one ever will. But that doesn’t mean we’re not out there, somewhere, shrouded in fog, a beacon of sound and support, ready to serve each and every fog rower in our broadcast area. WCNG. Channel 72. The Cruising Man’s Radio. Standing by.

David Roper’s latest novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released last June and is available from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. His forthcoming book, “Beyond Mermaids,” will be out next year.

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