By Isobel Harry, This is Manitoulin April 2020
For 16 years now, seven mornings a week for 62 days in summer, the retired Island schoolteacher, former principal of Manitoulin Secondary School and keen sailor, Roy Eaton, leaves his home nearby and climbs the stairs to the second floor of the Anchor Inn in Little Current. Behind the doors of the conference room he sits at a table on which is positioned a microphone, arranges a few sheets of paper, and begins the 9 am marine radio broadcast of his Cruisers’ Net on VHF Channel 71.
Greatly encouraged to start a Cruisers’ Net by Bruce O’Hare, then the owner of the Anchor Inn and a Rear Commodore of the Little Current Yacht Club, Roy took up his offer of free space and equipment and set up for his first broadcast “in a very tiny, very hot cubicle under creaky stairs at the Anchor Inn.” The room the Net occupies today has windows, a large table for helpers who record the call-ins, is spacious, air conditioned and bedecked with “155 burgees (club pennants) and flags donated by visiting boaters.”
In the old days, “cruisers” were under sail, motorless and with a reputation for extreme toughness in long distances, but the term today includes sail or motor yachts built for long distance sailing and with permanent living quarters (often quite spiffy) onboard. There are thousands of cruisers each year on the North Channel, Canadian, American and international sailors, first-timers and veterans, exploring the “Number One freshwater cruising area in the world,” according to Roy’s survey of top boating magazines’ “Best of” lists.
He rhymes off the reasons: “The purity of the water of the North Channel,” he says, adding, “the great variety of protected, five-star anchorages, the white quartz formations glinting in the east, Baie Fine, the only true fjord in North America, the pink granite of the Benjamin Islands in the west.”
Behind the mic, Roy always starts each broadcast with “First, is there any emergency, medical or priority traffic?” “‘Boaters helping boaters’ is what the Cruisers’ Net is all about,” he explains. “It’s a community and if someone is in trouble, there’s always ready assistance.” This is followed by the marine forecast for the North Channel and northern Georgian Bay.
Then it’s on to the news of the day. “Sometimes, you’re out on the water with no TV, internet or the daily newspaper, you’d like some news highlights.” The news is followed by sports reports and local events of interest to boaters, half of whom are American.
The second half of Roy Eaton’s broadcast is the ‘safety feature’ of the program, when boaters call in with their locations and itineraries. With the help of volunteers, a record is kept of all the calls: questions, concerns, relays to fellow boaters who are out of range of their yacht’s transmission.
In 2019, Cruisers’ Net received 5,217 calls. Roy has “hundreds of stories,” he says, of times when the Net assisted people in mild or serious distress: the woman with little boating experience whose husband had a tooth so badly infected that he was incapacitated, for example. Cruisers’ Net to the rescue! A dentist, sailing nearby, heard the call over the Net and raced to help. “One fellow had a fish hook embedded deep into his hand. We found his location and a doctor was there in 15 minutes.” And many other tales: an older couple’s broken mast and the young man who repaired it, the spare parts painstakingly found and replaced for a stalled power boat, mishaps magnified by this occurring on the ‘big water’ with no-one around.
Roy Eaton’s Net is fully licenced as a shore station, and is registered with the Canadian and American Coast Guards and the Air Search and Rescue unit out of Trenton. They have his phone number, as do most of the boaters on the Cruisers’ Net who also have his number at home in case of no cell service on the water. “We look for assistance. I’ll help boaters fix their radios,” he says of the free testing service offered by Cruisers’ Net.
Socializing is all part of cruising, and the two highlights of the sailors’ social season at the end of July and August are hosted by Roy and Margaret Eaton on Little Current’s waterfront. And every Friday afternoon in summer the Cruisers’ Net Happy Hours are in effect at the Anchor Inn, with upwards of 30 boaters enjoying hors d’oeuvres generously donated by the Anchor’s new owner, Denise Lytle-Callaghan. Donations from boaters and local businesses such as the Anchor Inn, Dreamers’ Cove, Turners, the Little Current Yacht Club and help from volunteers keep the Cruisers’ Net on the air year after year.
Only once was Cruisers’ Net out of commission, “when the power went out across Manitoulin Island,” says the commodore of the airwaves. “Now, the radio tower on the roof of the Anchor Inn gives a height of 110 feet above water and there’s a continually-charged 12-volt battery backup – so that won’t happen again!” VHF Channel 71