“This is Pintail, over”

11 September 2017

On passage from Porto Heli to Ormos Molos on Idhra we heard a message over our VHF radio.

“This is Marla, Marla, can anyone hear us?”

The Greek Coastguard, Olympia Radio, answered.

No reply from Marla.

Another boat tried calling them.

No reply.

Marla called again, “Can anyone hear us?” He obviously couldn’t hear anyone’s replies.

Olympia Radio put out a call to all ships who might be able to contact Marla. Was it a Mayday call? It was reassuring that they were treating it as if it might be one.

This communication made us realise that we have used our radio very rarely this year and yet it remains one of our most important bits of equipment on the boat. It is one way in which we can communicate with someone who might be able to help us if we get into trouble.

We have the radio on, listening on channel 16, all the time we are at sea. Often, for entertainment, we will eavesdrop on communications between other ships. Mostly it is tankers checking what course they intend to take when they are on a potential collision course. Coming round Ak Maleas in the Peloponnese we heard two tankers having a very fractious conversation because their CPA was only 500 metres.

(We have to admit that we didn’t know what CPA meant until our first crossing to France when we received our first radio call from a tanker asking us to alter course because our Closest Point of Approach was too close for comfort!)

The radio is not always used for such formal purposes. In the Tyrrhenian Sea, we heard the incessant banter of Italian fisherman between boats. In the Maddelena Islands we heard the skipper of a superyacht talking to a helicopter pilot to coordinate getting models on deck for a photoshoot. One lone watch I heard someone say, in a suitably creepy voice, “this is the radio” as if it was talking to me! And we’ve got to admit that apart from speaking to marinas or harbourmasters about finding a berth we have recently mostly used the radio to check in with SV Toy Buoy on passages with them and we may also illicitly have used it to make social arrangements.

There are strict rules about using the radio. Before we left we had to take our VHF radio licences. We learnt the etiquette and rules. It was a while before I felt confident making calls. Even though I have spoken to large audiences and done radio interviews, there is something about knowing how many people might be hearing you that made me nervous. I would get all tongue tied and make gaffs. Only once or twice have I made the classic “over and out” boo boo. “Over and out” is a contradiction in terms. “Over” means I am waiting for your reply. “Out” means end of conversation. It has been a constant source of frustration to me, as a stickler for the rules, that no one seems to follow them.


The call we heard the other day made us realise that the Greek Coastguard is probably the best we’ve encountered so far in the Med. Back home we were used to hearing Thames and Dover Coastguard on the radio all the time. We spoke to them routinely to check our radio was working. The British Coastguard do like to follow the rules. We heard one sailor get a dressing down in the Thames Estuary. “I think I’ve run aground”, he said. Thames Coastguard replied “where are you?”. He said “I’m ” to which a frustrated radio operator said “in the traditional way could you please give me your coordinates.”

In Portugal, Spain and Italy we rarely heard any communication from the Coastguard. In Italy the automated weather and navigation warnings they broadcast were so incomprehensible even in English as to be useless to us.

In Greece, however, it has been reassuring to hear them responding promptly to calls. We heard a distress call as we left Argostoli on Cefalonia, soon after we arrived. An Italian yacht had hit some rocks and were calmly and quickly talked to. The weather and navigation warnings in English are clear – although sometimes we have had trouble finding the channel they are being broadcast on depending on where we are.

So what happened to Marla? As we were sailing between Idhra and Dhokos islands we were passed by a superyacht. The AIS identified it as Marla.

“It doesn’t look in distress”, I said.

Stefan replied “No, he probably ran out of champagne!”…


One thought on ““This is Pintail, over”

  1. Watching “saving lives at sea” and it’s the Yarmouth lifeboat on Isle of Wight, during round the island race with over 1,000 boats taking part! Someone’s rudder broke and 4 crew were thrown into the sea! Glad you’re safe and sound!


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