Shortwave Hero Keeps Ears Open for a Chance to Help
When Bill Whall says a storm is brewing, boaters get off the water.
They know he’s blind. They know he can’t see darkening skies or flashes of lightning. But they trust his ears--he’s got the sharpest set they know.
“I can tell how far away a storm is by how much static I hear over my radios,” says Whall, an amateur radio enthusiast who has spent the last 20 years monitoring the shortwave airwaves on New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. In those two decades, he’s come to the rescue of countless stranded and sinking boaters, often because he was the only one who heard their radioed calls for help.
He does it all from the comfort of an easy chair in his living room, where five radios, the phone and the remote control are within reach. He’s been blind since 1975, so he relies on a talking clock and thermometer to tell him the time and temperature every half hour.
In an average day he makes more than 20 calls to weather stations, the state’s Marine Patrol and the police, using a phone that has a bump on the 5 so he can tell which numbers he’s dialing.
“I don’t need to see to help people,” he says.
Whall’s primary goal is to link boaters and islanders to people on the mainland. When a storm blows out phone lines to the lake’s island homes, people reach Whall on Channel 16 and he calls home for them.
A few years ago, when a doctor who was touring the lake on a pleasure cruise was needed to perform emergency surgery in Boston, Whall called the boat and alerted the doctor.
And when a teenager showing her boyfriend her father’s new boat smashed into a rocky island on Thanksgiving Day several years ago, the only person she could raise on the radio was Whall.
“It was 35 degrees out there,” says Marine Patrol Capt. Thomas McCabe. “Nobody else heard those kids. If he hadn’t heard them, who knows what might have happened?”
Whall lives in a modest house in tiny Melvin Village with his wife, Helen. She doesn’t mind when he eats his meals in his recliner so he can keep listening to the radios, and she doesn’t complain when more than $30 of their monthly Social Security and Veteran’s Administration checks goes to pay for the phone calls he makes. She’s even learned to sleep through the bursts of static from the two radios in their bedroom.
They don’t take any money for helping people and have kept the same dollar bill in a living room drawer for years, ever since a stranger who borrowed the phone left the money as a gesture of thanks.
“It might sound kind of dumb, but if people come to New Hampshire and spend hard-earned money for boats, oil, food and gas and put coppers into the state and the businesses on the lake, then that’s payment enough for me for helping them,” he says.
Whall has a long history of public service. He served in the Navy, worked in hospitals and was the only non-firefighter commander of the American Legion Firefighters Post 94 in Boston. After he had four heart attacks in less than a year in 1971, he stopped working and started getting involved in VHF radios, and kept doing it even after he began going blind.
Many boaters don’t even know Whall’s full name.
“I don’t meet 90% of the people I talk to on the radios,” he says.
Last May, McCabe decided Whall deserved more recognition for his work and nominated him for the Bunzl Boating Safety Award, the highest honor the American Boat and Yacht Council awards.
Whall won, and even months later a look of awe crosses his face when he talks about it, as if he’s surprised he’s meant so much to people.
How much? Ask Paul Phillipe, an accountant from Manchester, N.H., who called Whall for help a decade ago after his boat sprang a leak.
“He probably saved us and the boat for sure,” Phillipe says.
Mary Lou Hahn of Plaistow, N.H., wrote Whall a letter last February thanking him for his work, which gave her a sense of security when her late husband was boating.
“Bill let me know my husband was safe,” she says. “It meant a lot to me.”
Whall wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to monitor the radios. Around 11 a.m. he calls WBZ Radio in Boston to report New Hampshire’s weather. At noon he shuts off the radio to nap, but at 2 p.m. he’s up again, ready for another shift.
Respecting the water, he demands that others respect it too.
“I really don’t like when kids get on the radios and say, ‘Mayday, Mayday,’ ” Whall says vehemently. “They’re putting people’s lives in danger.”
One of his saddest nights was that of the so-called “Perfect Storm,” which struck the North Atlantic in October 1991 and claimed the lives of the crew of the fishing boat Andrea Gail in Gloucester, Mass.
“I could hear the Coast Guard trying to raise the Andrea Gail over and over,” he says. “It was frustrating knowing there were boats out there in bad shape and nobody could do anything about it. But then again, oceans and big lakes do not forgive mistakes.”
At midnight, when the lake is smooth and still, Whall prepares for bed. He turns the volume down on the radios, then signs off, saying the same words every night: “Good night, Coast Guard, stay safe.”
Then he can sleep.