Many of you that know me, know I am a Ham Radio operator. You probably remember me being very active in it and doing lots of weird things that probably made little sense to you, but were very interesting to me. You’ve seen big antennas at my home and lots of radio equipment. You think I do this stuff all the time.
Well, truth be told, I haven’t done much with it lately. It’s still there to be done, in fact there are new challenges in Ham Radio that I haven’t even scratched the surface of. But it’s taken a back seat to other things, other hobbies, for the past few years.
I do enjoy one thing every year and try to, once a year, take advantage of an event in Amateur Radio I’ve always enjoyed: Field Day. This year (and last) I went to Webster NY and joined with a bunch of friends in a county park where we set up and operated radio equipment for 24 hours in the exercise called Field Day.
Field Day is a North American thing. It’s – on the surface – an emergency preparedness and public relations event. The idea is to set up radio stations in a location where they didn’t exist prior to the weekend. There’s a lot of rules about how early setup can begin, but it’s basically to get you to set everything up as if it were an emergency response. Ham Radio clubs and groups of people, even groups of one, do the same thing all over the US and Canada this one weekend in June and see how many other groups they can communicate with.
Now, how do you gauge your groups effectiveness? Well, there is a points structure and you earn points for the contacts you make with other stations. There are also bonus points for certain other activities that support some of the goals of the exercise. Things like demonstrating what we do to the public, or receiving a special bulletin, or communicating using satellite in orbit.
Of course there is a class system. It wouldn’t be fair for one guy sitting in a tent with a tiny radio and a wire in a tree to compete with a big club with a dozen transmitters and 50 members working to keep them running. So just like there are classses in race cars or sailing, we compete in certain classes.
The group I work with, the Rochester DX Association, usually competes in the 3A class. That means 3 transmitters and all must operate off an emergency source of power. Just like any other sport, there are complicated rules and what this ends up meaning is we have about six stations set up and a really big generator for power.
The three transmitters in the 3A classification are the traditional HF (shortwave) stations and they all go like crazy to talk to as many other stations as possible. We get 24 hours from Saturday afternoon through Sunday afternoon to do it.
Add to that some other stations that complete some of the bonus categories or are allowed, but don’t count in the class. We have a VHF/UHF station. They operate on 6 meters and up. It’s often short range, local to regional, but can sometimes get some spectacular distances in the right conditions. This year they had some success on 6 meters, I believe. Some of the guys in the club are also in a VHF club and really take this seriously. They have mobile rover stations that can drive to mountaintops and put up a small tower for the VHF contests. There is also a satellite station, which is sort of like part of the VHF station, in that it operates on VHF/UHF, but it’s different enough it is almost separate. They actually can make contacts with stations through orbiting satellites high above the earth. I’ve never done it, but I’ll take their word for it.
Then there is one more bonus station that I was recruited to be part of. It’s called the GOTA station. GOTA means Get On The Air and it’s meant to be a non-competitive, or low key station that lets a club let people who don’t get on the air from their own home participate in Field Day without taking one of the serious stations away from making lots of contacts and points. It operates with a different callsign from the rest of the operation, so it can work stations that have already been worked at the other stations.
Now, what does this have to do with me? I’m – technically – inactive. I haven’t been on the air since last years’ Field Day. So, I’m an eligible operator for the GOTA station. Even though I have been a serious contester in the past. Even though I can copy 30 wpm CW with ease. I get to sit down at the “casual” station and make up to 100 contacts which are all pure bonus. Another clause in the rules says that if the club provides a “coach” to “guide” the GOTA operator, extra points are awarded. Up to 500 contacts can be done this way and each operator that does a block of 20 contacts adds to this bonus.
So, I was a ringer for the GOTA station.
Another aspect of the rules is that voice contacts are easy, so they count as one point each. Morse Code and digital mode (Teletype etc.) contacts are harder, so they count as 2 points each. Now, you’d think that on voice, you could exchange information quickly and make twice as many contacts, so the point difference would equal out. That’s true. Sometimes. Other times, especially when it’s late at night and you’ve already talked with most of the stations you can hear, it’s hard to keep up the pace. We call it rate. The ability of the CW (Morse) stations to cut through interference and to work stations with very low power makes it possible to keep on making contacts most of the time.
The three main stations are planned as 2 CW stations and one Voice station, but at certain times, they decided to put all three of the on the more points-productive CW mode. I was called on to sit in at the Phone (voice) station on 80 meter CW Saturday evening. It was a blast working there. We had really good antennas. The dipole was at least 80 ft. high. I was able to put a lot of contacts into the log before they switched to phone later.
The good thing about that, is when they did put the station on the bands for voice, they hadn’t already worked anyone and they could get on and work every station. (You get to work any callsign once on each band and mode.)
Why do I go all the way to Rochester to do this? Why not find a closer club? Well, the clubs closer to home aren’t as competitive with this. The Rochester club won the 3A class last year and set the goal to do it again this year. It’s the most competitive class in the country and has the most entries, so that’s a real acheivement. I like contesting, and while some people will tell you Field Day isn’t a contest, I say it is because there is a score. It may be a lot of other important things as well, but part of it – and the part that attracts me – is the competitive aspect of it.
Why be competitive? Why do I like contesting? Well, some people like to just get on their radios and chat with each other. That doesn’t get me very excited. I don’t know about you, but I get tired just talking to people, especially people I don’t know well. It’s kind of like going to a cocktail party every night of the week. “Nice weather were having, isn’t it?” gets old fast. Contesting doesn’t demand that social aspect. The goal is clear – exchange the minimum information to make the contact and get a point as quickly as you can and then move on. There are probably hundreds of different aspects to Ham Radio that one can dabble in. The main one I’m interested in is contesting.
Field Day – despite it’s non-contest status – is the first contest I – and many other Hams – ever participated in. Fourty years ago, I had just become a Ham and our local club set out to do Field Day. They ran a 2A class station and had two stations set up in the back of rental trucks, an innovative shelter arrangement. I was a new Ham and mostly hung around and helped set up antennas and do the grunt work. But later at night, when the other operators had gotten tired and decided to call it quits, I got my turn. I remember working SBB (voice) with a Civil Defense-owned Drake TR-4. It was state-of-the-art for that time, and since I had no equipment that even had a microphone, it was a treat for me to work stations using voice. I got to use all those phonetic letters that I learned, or could imagine and got my fill of voice operating that night. All the logging was done on paper back then, so I kept my own log and double-checked to see if we had worked the station already with what we call dupe-sheets, a grid-arrangement where we put the stations callsign once they were worked. There was a system where you only had to write down the suffix of the callsign in a box. The columns were the zone or number in the callsign and the rows divided the suffixes alphabetically. The first half of the alphabet on the front, the last half on the back. Prefixes were kept by boxing, underlining, double underling, etc. We only had K, W, WA and WB prefixes back then. Thank God computer logging came along before we got all the prefixes we have now.
Anyway, I kept going all night until someone rolled up the door of the truck and the sun and chirping birds came in on me. I was ready for relief and a cup of hot coffee.
I’ve been addicted to Field Day ever since. I’ve done Field Day with a local club more times than I can count. We’ve done it in parks, at peoples homes, with 100 watts, or 5 watts. I’ve done Field Day with a couple other friends who were also Hams and no club at all. I’ve done it with other clubs in the Buffalo area. About the only way I’ve never done it is all by myself, although I’ve always wanted to go camping and do a QRP Field Day on my own.
I took the Field Day bug and got into some contests too. I remember an early Sweepstakes contest. Sweepstakes is a contest in November. One weekend is CW. One weekend is Voice. They’re seperate contests, so you can do one or both. Being a real contest, besides having points for each contact you make, there is a multiplier, in this case ARRL Sections. You try to work someone from every Section, because you multiply the points from contacts by the number of sections you reach. Big numbers result.
I decided to get high-tech and borrowed a second receiver from a friend who thought I was nuts for wanting to do all that CW. I set up his receiver and my own on either side of my table and had both of them fed into my headphones. I don’t think the headphones were stereo then, but it would have been nice if they were.
What I would do is line up a likely station to work on one receiver as I was logging the information another station was sending me on the other. I’d then very quickly spot my transmitter to the other receiver and call that station. While he was sending, I’d search for another candidate on the first receiver. Pretty crude by today’s SO2R standards, but it helped my pitiful search and pounce methods.
Later on, with modern transceivers, I got more serious about contests and often put in strong efforts in my favorite contests. Sweepstakes was always my favorite, but some others were fun as well. IARU was a later contest I always enjoyed. The CQWW and WPX contests were always too long (36 hours) and while I dabbled in them, never did a serious entry because of that. Some of the state QSO Parties were a lot of fun as well. California, Texas, Virginia and Pennsylvania were the best. I once went with a couple friends to Pennsylvania to participate in their QSO Party from a spot where four counties come together. I’m looking forward to the revival of the New York QSO Party this year.
So why have I been inactive for a few years? I don’t know. I’ve not completely lost interest. I’ve been distracted by some other things, but that doesn’t seem to stop other people. I guess, just a lack of energy and a lot of procrastination. I’m thinking of getting back into it more, though. Probably not at the level I was in the past, but it would be nice to be able to do a contest or two from home.
It’s been 40 Years this summer since I first became a Ham Radio Operator. I was 16 at the time and I still remember the agonizing wait for the mailman to bring that first license. I’m thinking of writing more about Ham Radio here. Hey, it’s my blog. Read it if you want, or not!