Author’s Notes: This story was written long ago, when cell phones were still mostly just phones. I admit to having changed my attitudes towards the things as they have evolved. I now own a “Smart Phone”, although I sort of backed into it, and have sent a few text messages, although I am not proud of it. I can also get email on it, even though I currently have to have an additional account to be able to SEND email messages. I also recently purchased an iPad, which I use as a tiny computer. With it I can update on the road – even from a deer stand. My wife told someone that although I resisted the iPhone, now I love it. Not exactly. I “love” my wife, my son, my dogs, my golf cart, most of my guns, and of course my truck. I USE the iPhone, but I guess I do like it better than the earlier versions of cell phones that this story was about. Those, remember, did not have GPS or map capabilities – or any other of the dreaded “APPS” we are now afflicted with.

“Six-Pack Gets Connected”

“Did you hear about the nearsighted fisherman who got his cell phone mixed up with his hand-held GPS? Tried to punch in the coordinates of his favorite fishin’ spot, and called his mother-in-law instead! Scared him so bad, now he don’t trust any battery powered appliance that general size and shape. Threw away his ‘lectric razor, his calculator, and the TV remote. Got a beard a foot long, does his taxes on his fingers, and he’s been watching public television so long he has a British accent!”

My star deckhand and first mate, Jack “Six-Pack” Pierce, had seen one of our charter customers pull out a tiny “flip” phone and punch it up. “Those things don’t work too good out here in the Gulf, anyway, “ Six Pack continued, “Unless you get on the offshore oil rig network, and then you’ll be spending so much money on a call, you won’t have enough left to give me an’ the skipper a decent tip!”

In his own unique way, Six Pack had hit on two really good reasons that cellular phones are not the answer to offshore communications needs, – three, if you count the accidental call to the mother-in-law. When cell phones first crawled from the mud in the swamp of emerging technologies, a lot of the big offshore boats began to carry them for emergency use. The reasoning was that sometimes it can be difficult to get the Coast Guard – or anyone else – to answer a call for help on the VHF marine radio, but there is always someone to be reached on the telephone. Phone calls could be made over a single sideband radio, of course, or even a VHF, but coverage wasn’t all it could have been, and per call prices were high. I once called my third wife over the sideband from a 45 Hatteras tied to a drilling platform 65 miles offshore of Freeport, Texas, to tell her I wouldn’t be home that night. The only marine operator we could connect with was in Mobile, Alabama, and my ex to this day thinks I was in a bar on the other side of Mississippi. The first cell phones – the “bag” phones that were the approximate size of a small home or business phone – had more battery power than the downsized modern units and could be connected to an external marine antenna to allow calling from fairly long distances offshore. I recently bought two of these in second hand stores, only to find out they are linear, and the cell companies will not connect new service to anything but digital units. Cell phones get tinier with each new generation, and their range is pretty much limited by the distance to the nearest repeating tower. Out of Freeport, 8 or 9 miles is about the maximum distance one can expect to broadcast back to shore, although a friend called me from 18 miles out once to report he was out of fuel and needed a tow. I’m sure he regrets now that that call went through!

There are satellite bouncing phones that have virtually unlimited range, but the expense is more than most of us want to bear for what peace of mind they might bring.
The offshore oil companies have their own repeaters on production platforms, but the price to use them for outsiders runs around $2 per minute, I am told. In an emergency, this would be fine, but not for calling your buddy to tell him you found some snapper biting over the German Charlie rocks. Believe it or not, some fishing writers were touting cell phones for just that purpose when they first became popular, saying they were more private than conversations on VHF. Certain Republican Senators a few years back found out that cell phones and private conversations are not always one and the same thing, and VHF radio transmissions are free, so which would YOU choose? I always used passenger pigeon seagulls, myself.

On the subject of emergency calls, the U, S, Coast Guard doesn’t believe cell phones are the solution to the problem, and advises mariners to still rely on VHF radio. As a backup, however, it certainly wouldn’t hurt for every offshore boat to carry a cell phone or two.

When smaller cell phones began to show up in bars and on the docks, my friend Bob Hall predicted that one day there would only be personal phones, and everyone would have one. Sort of like an old movie I saw where the phone company was taking over the world and implanting their equipment in everyone’s brains. Of course, Bob also told me the story of dropping his glasses off the dock at the Turtle Club on Clear Lake, and asking a friend to dive to try and find them. Not only did he find the glasses, but also a whole bunch of pagers settled into the mud. Bob figured they came from guys sitting around drinking, and sailing the offending beepers into the water after one too many calls! (Or one too many cold ones?)

I can identify with that. The calls, I mean. At first I thought having a cell phone at the boat would be a great way for my wife to call when something came up around the home that needed my attention, but it has grown into a monster with a dial tone! She seems to have a way of sensing when I am most indisposed, and picks those times to call – probably for sport. I am not exaggerating much when I say that I can spend 30 minutes crawling, twisting, and wiggling into position under a diesel engine with a wrench in one hand and a light in the other, with my face barely above the bilge water and mosquitoes flying in my nose, not knowing how I’ll get back out – or even if I’ll be able to get out without having someone pull the engine – with absolute certainty that the phone will ring just as I find the nut I need to tighten. Almost as certain is that I won’t get to the little demon before it stops ringing, and when I call my sweetheart back she will have something important to discuss, such as “What do you want for lunch (I’m drinking beer and working on the boat – I need no food under these conditions)? Or, “do you think I should take the garbage out today, or wait until garbage day?”

Oh, well. I probably had the wrong size wrench under there, anyway!

The fact that I can’t convince myself to just push the “OFF” button on the phone shows my own weakness of character. I leave it on in case there was an actual emergency, a customer calls wanting a fishing trip, or an editor rings with a lucrative writing assignment. Instead, I get lunch menus, garbage consultations, and wrong numbers in Spanish – which I do not speak. I have not digressed to the point of wanting games on my phone, however, or text messaging. When I do, someone please get the shark pistol out of the cabin and put me out of my misery!

Six Pack continued to poke fun at the customer with the phone (the rest of the guys on the trip had them, too, but were keeping them out of sight). “Whatcha doin’ with that thing now? It’s got stuff runnin’ all over its little pint sized screen.”

“Wireless internet. “ mumbled the target, serious as a heart attack, “ I’m bidding on some stuff, selling some other things. Don’t you ever get on E-Bay?”

“ So it’s really a SELL phone, huh? Naw, when I do some important buyin’ it’s usually on West Bay, normally late at night. Christmas Bay works pretty good, too. Water is shallow enough you can just about run for it, if ya’ have ta’. Now, Matagorda Bay is too damn shallow! Skeeters’ll eat you up down there before you could get any business conducted. I never get much north of Alligator Cut, myself, so I don’t know ‘bout East Bay – that wuz what you said, huh? Trinity Bay is deeper, and it’s close to a lot of back roads. ”

Sometimes I wish Six Pack was on the phone, so I could switch him off!

About MikeH

Texas hunter and fisherman for 50 years, published outdoor writer since 1979, licensed charter boat operator from 1982 to 2013. Past Member, Board of Directors, National Association of Charterboat Operators, current member Environmental Advisory Committee to the DOE and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Married to Dorothy since 2000, one son, Michael who is recently married and living in Nederland, Texas. My wife and I live in Oyster Creek, Texas, near Freeport, and have a hunting property outside of Brazoria, Texas.
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