Potter Place station. The railroad tracks for the old Boston & Maine RR were between the picnic table and the station. It’s a remarkable preserved building including the telegrapher’s desk! The snow was deep! It was almost up to the heght of the table bench seats. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
“Listen, I’ll get on your shoulders and I can reach it using the shovel.”
Jim Cluett, W1PID, was serious. But keep in mind he’s 71 and I’m a spry 65 years of age and there were at least 12 inches of snow on the ground.
No, we weren’t reenacting a segment of some old Laurel and Hardy movie, but anyone watching us might have thought so.
Jim, Dave Benson, K1SWL, and I had decided a few days earlier to take advantage of the balmy 43 F weather in central New Hampshire. The first thing to realize is temperatures like this might not be felt until the end of March so we didn’t hesitate to do our first outing of 2018.
I’m on the left, Dave Benson, K1SWL, is in the middle and my mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID is on the right. Jim loves Potter Place and visits here regularly with his wife to ride bikes along the old railroad line that’s now the delightful 60-mile-long Northern Rail Trail. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
PotterPlace Is Perfect
We agreed to operate at the restored PotterPlace railroad station in Andover, NH. Not too many decades ago quite a few Boston and Maine steam trains would race by or stop at the station platform just a few yards from where we were set up on a picnic table.
On this day, we just had one or two snowmobiles putter by on the railroad bed that’s now the Northern Rail Trail bike and hiking path stretching from Franklin NH to Lebanon, NH.
PotterPlace is a great halfway point for Jim and me to meet Dave as he lives west of Andover and Jim and I live east.
The Errant Water Bottle
Jim decided to set up on a box under the roof overhang of the station. Dave and I chose to use a picnic table Dave had cleared of ice and snow the day before as he happened to drive by PotterPlace.
It’s important to realize it was my job to deploy my 29-foot vertical wire antenna attached to a 9:1 unun and a 15-foot counterpoise wire. I got out my bright green halyard line, spread it out and tied it to my handy 8-ounce water bottle. Rotating it with my arm I made a perfect launch up into a bare oak tree. The bottle soared up about 45 feet and I expected it to fall to the ground as it always does.
You can see me starting to swing my rock-filled water bottle. I’ve spied the perfect branch and this should be a routine halyard deployment. Rarely do I have an issue. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
It didn’t. Somehow the line got snagged on some tree wart on a branch. Jim had taught me years ago to tug gently on the line to try to get the bottle to overcome the resistance.
It didn’t work. I got frustrated and started pulling hard on the polyester cord, the bottle jammed in a notch about 35 feet up in the tree and the cord broke.
Damn it! I hate losing water bottles.
The same thing happened to me at my own house back in October as I was relocating my shack dipole antenna. That’s a story for another day.
Dave got out his padlock and parachute cord and moments later the antenna was up, but I wasn’t a happy camper.
We decided to use my Elecraft KX2 and within a few minutes, we were on the air. Jim had already scored at least two QSOs as I struggled with the antenna setup.
Here’s the radio setup. It’s an Elecraft KX2 powered today with a BioennoPower 3 Ahr LiFePhos battery. I store everything in the orange Pelican 1200 case. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
After a few minutes, Dave said, “Hey look, the water bottle’s almost down!”
I couldn’t believe it and rotated my head to see the rock-filled bottle about 12 feet up in the air!
Dave had a round-point shovel in his truck and the game was on.
Jim came over from the train station and started to toss the shovel up at the bottle hoping to coax it down the rest of the way.
His throws didn’t work and I tried to do the same with hapless results.
“Listen, if I get up on your shoulders that will give me enough height to swat at the bottle,” mused Jim.
I thought, “Hmm. I think I can support his weight in this snow. I want the bottle back. Let’s go for it.”
Moments later Jim climbed up onto the picnic table and a moment later he was balanced on my shoulders. I only did this because if I dropped him, we’d both fall in the soft 12-inch snow cover.
Jim is about to grasp the shovel out of the snow to bat at the water bottle. We were crazy to do this for a $3 water bottle. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
The bottle was dangling about ten feet away from the table and I made my way over there. Jim was bobbing back and forth on my back as his outstretched arm with the shovel in it tried to hook the bottle so he could pull it down.
It didn’t work and I was rapidly running out of muscle power to continue to hold Jim up. I kneeled down and no one got hurt, including the water bottle.
The Garbage Can
“Listen, let’s stand on the garbage can that’s over at the station. Surely that will give us enough height.” Jim always has good ideas.
He went over, pulled out the plastic liner and brought the heavy can to the bottle retrieval area.
All the while Dave was just immersed in watching us bumble about trying to snare a $3 water bottle. No doubt he was laughing, but being the polite soul he is, he kept his thoughts to himself.
Jim clambered up onto the can first and had no luck. I got on and within a few moments was able to swat it with enough strength to bring it down out of the tree.
After the celebration ended I finally got on the air and made three QSOs, two of them DX.
Here I am spinning the VFO dial on the Elecraft KX2 trying to find a strong signal. This photo was shot by Dave Benson, K1SWL. I’ve notified him that there’s a defect in the camera that seems to create round fleshy-colored spots in the photos. I didn’t have time to photoshop this image to produce a true representation of what the camera saw. (cough, cough) Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Here are my three contacts.
Dave and I shared the KX2 and had great success on 30 meters.
Just before packing up we were very lucky to hear Joe Everhart, N2CX, who was outdoors as well in New Jersey doing a Parks on the Air activation.
All three of us each had a short Morse code conversation with Joe exchanging signal reports and pleasantries.
We were all in a great mood and the outing was far better than any had guessed it might be. I feel we would have been happy having just two contacts each and not getting back in the car and truck frostbitten.
I never was cold at all and am blessed that I can still continue to learn more about outdoor radio and QRP from the two legends that allow me to tag along.
Words of Wisdom From Jim Cluett
Driving home Jim said, “Water bottles are like old friends. They’ve worked hard for you on past outings and it’s hard to leave them alone stranded up in trees.”
Truer words have never been spoken. I’m glad my water bottle is safely in my backpack waiting for the next outing!
Jim Cluett, W1PID (messages in green) wanted to go to the Pemigewasset River just east of Profile Falls on this late winter day. The temperature was already above 40 F, so it shouldn’t be too bad. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Just as I was getting ready to move two water softener drain lines, I got a text message from my friend Jim Cluett, W1PID.
The plan was to set up along the shore of the Pemigewasset River just east of Profile Falls. Profile Falls is one of New Hampshire’s many dramatic waterfalls and is located about two miles south of Bristol, NH.
The weather was warm for this time of year in central New Hampshire. It was above 40 F by mid-morning when Jim texted me.
The Icy Trail to the Pemigewasset River
Late February in central New Hampshire can be icy. Daytime thawing freezes at night. Add to that we were going to a Corps of Engineers flood control basin where January flooding created massive sheets of ice we needed to navigate to get to the river.
Hundreds of acres of land next to the river had flooded seven weeks ago during bitter cold WX (weather). While the water as still at flood stage it froze. The fractured ice you see is about six inches thick. When the liquid water under the ice receded, the ice sheets collapsed down to the soil, but there are many places where there are voids. You can see all the footprints in the snow on the trail. That’s a woman dressed in orange walking her dog. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
The Towering Pine Tree
A towering majestic pine tree that’s at the top of the riverbank is about 1/3 of a mile from the parking lot. Jim and I were headed there to sit at picnic tables. The trail is very level, but had a layer of soft snow covering the ice that was suspended 16 inches or more in places above the frozen soil.
This friendly pine tree loves to help us harvest QSOs (QSO = a conversation with another radio operator) out of the ether. It’s hard to get a halyard line tangled in this tree. Jim is being careful on the slippery trail. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
I didn’t waste any time getting my antenna into the huge pine tree. On my first throw, my water bottle soared over a branch about 40 feet in the air and dropped down perfectly straight just 7 feet from the corner of the picnic table.
“What’s he doing? For goodness sake, I’ll have my first QSO before he even gets his radio out! This will be a first. He’s ALWAYS beat me in the past getting set up and making a Q (a singular QSO).”
That’s the thought that popped into my head as I was turning on my radio all while Jim was mumbling and cursing as he walked back and forth and back and forth across the ice between two trees.
Minutes after this photo was shot, Jim would be staring up into the branches contemplating how he was going to get a wire up, down and sideways in all these branches. You can see the glare ice he had to deal with. I’m sure that slowed him down. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Sure enough, my first QSO happened within three minutes of getting on the air. It was a DX (international) contact with Bruno, F5NTV in France. Thousands of operators in the Midwest and Western USA are jealous of us because we can get international (DX) contacts as easy as we work those west of us across the fruited plain of the USA.
Jim’s worked Bruno many times before, but he wouldn’t today.
Here I am happy as a clam after my QSO with F5NTV. I’m keeping my hands warm with my Morse muff made by Ms. Margaret Lohmann, one of my AsktheBuilder.com newsletter subscribers. My head is warm with my SOTA (Summits on the Air) hat. It’s amazing Jim had the composure to take this photo after futzing around for fifteen minutes with his antenna. Copyright 2018 Jim “Grumpy” Cluett
The Howling Wind By the Pemigewasset River
Walking to the river the air was calm, we were both warm and it was delightful. But once I started to set up on the one table, I noticed the wind.
It was gusting and biting. When the WX starts to get your attention, it’s never a good thing. At one point a gust blew my Rite-in-the-Rain log book and launched my pen into the mud.
Within 30 minutes Jim and I were packing up to walk back to his car. My hands got cold because I had to take them out of my wool Morse muff to spin the VFO dial and write in my log book. Jim complained that everything on him was cold.
I made three QSOs in just under twenty-five minutes and was thrilled. Here’s my log for the outing:
Here’s the mighty Pemigewasset River as it flows next to us when we come to this peaceful place. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Even though we were chilled, Jim and I agreed it was great to get out. The weather forecast for the next two weeks is promising. Let’s hope for some sunlight next time!
Winter field day 2018 at Acadia National Park started gloomy, but ended quite well. Wind and a balmy temperature of 42 F took away some of the pain. Minutes after taking this photo I had my 29-foot wire antenna hanging from the top of the birch tree with no leaves. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Winter Field Day 2018 – All Alone at Acadia National Park
Today was another first for me in this amazing hobby. I was one of a handful of people at the most magnificent USA National Park east of the Mississippi River – Acadia National Park.
There was no doubt in my mind I was the only amateur radio operator there planning to participate in Winter Field Day.
I decided to setup operations with a view to the Atlantic Ocean and found a deserted parking lot just south of the Gorham Mountain trailhead along the stunning one-way ocean drive. I was about one mile south of Sand Beach.
CLICK THIS IMAGE – orCLICK HERE – to watch a video of what I saw and where I was set up. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
“Well that’s odd. Why won’t the connector attach to the radio?”
I thought that as I tried to rotate the outer ring of the male BNC connector to my Elecraft KX2. Normally the BNC connector slides on, rotates and locks into position.
After two attempts, I took it off and looked at the end.
“How did the center male pin get bent? No worries, I’ll straighten it with my knife.”
I pulled out my Sog Flash II and proceeded to not only straighten the center core of the connector but then snap it off completely. It’s my favorite pocket knife of all time and I’ve yet to tame its power.
“Are you kidding me? (Shaking head, but maintaining my cool.)
It all happened so fast I was still in shock. Don’t tell me I’m not going to be able to get on the air! I didn’t have a spare PL-259 female / BNC male adapter even though there’s more than enough room in my Pelican 1200 case for one.
Something inside me said to text my mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID. God does work in mysterious ways. Little did I know it but he was minutes away from walking out his door back in central New Hampshire to go on a walk with his lovely wife Judy.
I moaned in the text what had happened and how my day was now ruined.
Seconds later my phone rang.
“Listen. You can just use a piece of wire to save the day. Strip the end and shove it into the tiny hole on the side of the radio. Wrap the other end around the center of the large coax cable. Take another piece of wire and attach it to the side screw on the body of the KX2 for a counterpoise. I’ll call you when I get back from my walk.”
Here’s my hack for the broken BNC connector. Believe it or not, it worked and worked well. The small stub of yellow wire is the counterpoise that extended from the radio out on the ground about 15 feet. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
It worked! While it took about 15 minutes to get the right combination of folded wire strands to fit snugly into the female receptor on the side of the radio, it was worth it.
I powered up the radio and it tuned perfectly on 40 meters. There were quite a few stations calling CQ WFD. It was time to hunt.
I’m all set to make a few contacts just 250 feet from the Atlantic Ocean. The only thing that could have been better was blue sky and 75 F. Oh, it would be great if my wife Kathy was there too! Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Within a few minutes I scored my first QSO and just over the border to Canada. What fun!
After an hour of fun, I looked at my watch and thought I’d better break down. With the deep overcast, it was going to get dark in a hurry.
This was my view from my truck. The bright yellow cord is the halyard holding up my thin 26-gauge yellow wire. The wire is attached to a 9:1 unun. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Moments later my phone rang and it was Jim.
“How’d you do?”
I told him it was a successful day and that just three years ago I’d never have been able to do a contest like this.
“Hah, three years ago you would have had negative QSOs. Operators would have told you NOT to send them QSL cards because you were such a poor operator.”
We both laughed quite hard. Jim can get away with ribbing me because he labored through the dismal times of me clawing my way up on the CW curve. He’s earned the right to poke fun so the memory of my single-digit word-per-minute (WPM) speed never fades.
But now I’m not such a dreadful operator . Am I great?
Am I respectable?
I think so but absolutely have a long way to go.
Am I having fun and getting better each outing?
Yes you bet I am.
Fun and not getting skunked are my primary goals each time I operate outdoors. If I make it to 20 WPM some day, all the better.
Here’s a screenshot from the K3Y SKCC event webpage about the K3Y Special Event. 2018 Copyright 2018 SKCCGROUP.com
I’ve always wanted to master sending Morse code using a traditional straight key like the operators of old. It’s a deep-rooted feeling I’ve had for decades.
K3Y SKCC Event – A Safe Place To Hone Skills
I started transmitting and receiving Morse code in the late winter of 2013. Jim Cluett, W1PID, has been my mentor on this magic journey. It all started on a frigid dark winter night in central New Hampshire at a Boy Scout meeting.
Watch this video of the meeting to see what re-ignited that decades-old smoldering fire inside me about sending Morse code:
I drove home alone from that meeting bound and determined to become a Morse operator. Little did I know how arduous the journey was to be and how many plateaus I’d rest upon as I transformed from an apprentice to a journeyman.
Straight Keys Create Music
I’ve use a Bencher paddle the past five years to send Morse. Paddles and the electronic counterparts in modern radios do all the heavy lifting when it comes to sending Morse.
A point often overlooked is how they work together to create what I call droid code. It’s plain, it’s blunt and it has little character.
Here’s the simple straight key I used today for the K3Y SKCC event. Looks like I didn’t get all the dust off! You can see my Bencher paddles farther back on the green rubber pad that keeps everything from moving around. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Listen to a straight-key operator hold down the contacts on the last “dah” of the letter K and your head will be on a swivel.
Sooner or later, the cadence of a straight-key or bug operator will be music to your ears. You don’t get much of that using a paddle.
Straight Key Night Turns Into a Passion
I’ve come quite far in my Morse journey. I could write about that for another hour.
It’s important to realize that as you get better with Morse code, it’s like going up a set of steps. You work hard to get to a flat spot.
The stairway is very long and I’ve got many more steps to take, but I got to a landing just three days ago when I dusted off my straight key and participated in the ARRL’s Straight Key Night.
I was instantly hooked and Jim told me the next day about the K3Y SKCC event.
Pileups At Your Speed – Great Training
The year 2016 was instrumental in my Morse journey. I was very active in the ARRL NPOTA event. Throughout the year I activated national parks in several states. On sacred and hallowed ground in southern Pennsylvania I managed a 90-minute CW pileup I had only dreamed of doing.
For one thing when the event ended, I felt an emptiness. I loved the thrill of working a pileup.
Last year I got involved in the Parks on the Air event to fill the vacuum. What fun I had! My most exciting POTA activation happened deep in the coastal redwood forest of northern California. I was at Mendocino Woodlands State Park.
My takeaway from all those events was that if you want to get better at something, say using a straight key, then do it in a setting where it’s just for fun and there’s minimal pressure.
That’s what this morning was all about.
Just two days ago I signed up to do a one-hour shift for the K3Y SKCC event. I had a blast and worked 13 operators in an hour.
Here’s my scratch log I kept as I was on the air for an hour. What fun! Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Yeah, that’s a pretty slow pace, but it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that I had fun and my confidence jumped up to the next step.
Be brave. Become an operator in a fun event to hone your straight-key skills. You’ll never regret doing it!
Here’s my humble straight key. I got it for free from Dick Christopher, N1LT. It does the job assuming you can scrape the rust from your fingers! Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
“I need to call Jim and thank him!”
Jim Cluett, W1PID, is my very good friend and amateur radio mentor. He always loves hearing how I harvest happiness from the hobby.
Moments before I had just completed a fun conversation with Pete, AA2AD, in Pennsylvania using an old-fashioned straight key sending Morse code.
The way radio communications were done one-hundred years ago.
Straight Key Night – It’s Popularity Is Growing
The American Radio Relay League ( ARRL) sets aside January 1 of each year to honor the deep legacy of Morse code and the humble straight key that was used by millions of radio operators through the years to send simple dihs and dahs.
A dih is the short sound you hear in Morse code while the dah is the longer tone.
Straight Key Night begins on New Years Eve in the USA because radio operators across the world use Universal Time, a modern name for Greenwich Mean Time. When it’s 0:00 January 1, 2018 in England on the prime meridian, it’s 7:00 PM ET here on the East Coast of the USA where I live.
Believe me, there is. More than you can ever imagine.
What does all this have to do with Straight Key Night you wonder?
My straight key conversation, operators call them QSOs, with AA2AD gave me the same thrill a mountain climber must feel when she/he summits a particularly tough peak.
Or the thrill a student must feel after winning the state or national spelling bee contest.
Perhaps you’ve worked hard at some task that’s taken weeks, months or years and finally achieved your goal. You know the feeling.
Modern Radios Do All the Keying Work
Straight Key Night is special because you cast aside your modern electronic keyers like you see Jim use in the video above. Most modern radios contain computer chips that create perfect spacing of the dihs and dahs. Some computer programs will send Morse for you through your radio if you just type the words you want sent.
This is sterile and stale Morse in my opinion.
Straight Key Night puts you into a time machine.
You go back in time and send Morse using your brain and precise movements with your hands and wrist. Spaced bursts of electromagnetic energy are thrust up into the atmosphere awaiting someone to answer you.
When they do, the fun begins.
It’s important to realize that sending Morse code using a straight key is an art form. What’s more, it’s not easy to send Morse using a straight key if you do it just once a year.
While it’s like riding a bike, you can get rusty. During my QSO with Pete I sent something like, “Sorry about my rusty code.”
“No rust to my ears. HI.” Pete replied. The HI is a Morse acronym for laughter.
Don’t Bother Me!
Using my modern smart phone I touched the photo of Jim to call him about my QSO with Pete. I couldn’t wait to tell him how much fun I had. After all, Jim’s determination pushing me down the Morse pathway was directly responsible for my transformation into a somewhat respectable radio operator.
The phone started to ring, but all of a sudden I heard through the radio faint Morse.
“W3ATB de WB3GCK”
Someone’s calling me! I immediately cancelled the call so I could converse with a fellow low-powered outdoor radio operator Craig La Barge, WB3GCK, who also lives in Pennsylvania.
Twenty seconds later my phone started ringing. It was Jim. I sent him to voice jail so I could have an extended conversation with Craig.
Be Brave – Just Do It
I finally called Jim after finishing up with Craig and we had a great conversation. I thanked Jim for exposing me to the magic of Morse and for his unending patience with me.
“When using a straight key, slow is better. It’s easier to form the letters the way they’re supposed to be done.”
Jim was so right as I noticed that when trying to speed up, I had a tendency to chop off the last part of a dah.
My advice to you is to get out that straight key and scrape the rust from your fingers.
Within minutes I’ll bet you have a wide smile on your face. If so, tell your story in the comments below to encourage other operators!
This is a standard chalk reel used by carpenters, roofers and other trades. A chalk reel makes an excellent wire antenna winder for outdoor ham radio operators. It’s got a 3:1 gear ratio so it winds back the thin wire very fast. CLICK THE IMAGE NOW to have one delivered to your home. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter – W3ATB
Wire Antenna Winder – Works Well With Thin Wire
I first discovered a wire antenna winder when talking with a fellow ham Hanz Busch, W1JSB back in 2014. Hanz told me how he had a standard chalk reel that contained a wire antenna.
How clever I thought.
I’m the AsktheBuilder.com guy and prior to that worked as a custom builder and remodeler for decades. You can imagine how many chalk reels or chalk boxes have been in my tool belts!
Wire Antenna Winder Works Fast
Years ago chalk reels took lots of turns to get the string back into the box. New chalk reels are geared so the string is sucked back into the winder like a kid slurps spaghetti into his mouth at the dinner table.
I loaded 60 feet of the thin wire onto the spool inside the reel and still had leftover room on the spool. I estimate you can load about 100 feet of wire onto the spool. If you attempt to put more on, there’s a good chance some of it may not stay in between the sides of the spool.
Look at the photo below showing the excess space on the spool.
Other brands of reels may have a larger internal spool allowing you to load more wire.
Why is the Gearing Important?
You’ll appreciate the gearing speed if you need to break down your outdoor radio station in cold or threatening weather. I saw about 18 months ago that Steve Galchutt, WG0AT, built one so he could scamper down from his SOTA activations when the storm clouds rolled in on top of his Colorado peaks.
Here’s the inside of the chalk reel. I loaded about 60 feet of wire to mine. You can see that the inner spool is just about full. I’m sure you can get 100 feet of 26-gauge teflon-coated wire on it, but not much more. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
What Kind of SWR do you get?
I’m able to achieve a 1:1 SWR with the antenna when I pair it up with my Elecraft KX2 and KX3. Both have the factory-installed Elecraft tuner.
Here’s the list of radios I use outdoors:
MFJ 20M Cub
and other assorted QRP radios
I discovered you can get a perfect 1:1 SWR match with the Elecraft tuners if the total wire length is 29 feet.
Keep in mind that the total length of the antenna extends from the tip of the antenna down to the unun or banana plug you might use. My jumper cable is 3-feet long so I removed insulation from the 26-gauge wire at 26 feet from the end of the wire where I soldered a loop to the chalk reel hook. 26 + 3 = 29
Here’s the wire antenna winder in action. The 26-gauge teflon-coated wire extends up 26 feet into a tree. A 3-foot jumper cable is clipped to a bare section of the wire and to a 9:1 unun sitting on the ground. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
This small loop of micro cord allows me to attach the wire antenna winder to a carabiner that’s hangs from a loop from my North Face day pack that I take on my outdoor adventures. It’s important to realize clipping it to my backpack ensures it won’t swing around if it’s windy. In addition, you need strain relief so the antenna doesn’t get disconnected. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The blue arrow points to a 4 mm section of the wire where I removed the plastic insulation. The alligator clip connects here. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
All things considered, the chalk reel adds just a tiny amount of weight to your backpack, but the advantage of retracting the wire fast and keeping it clean is a big advantage.
“Jim, you were standing too close. You should stand back here to get a better angle.”
“You think that’s my trouble? It’s the G * * D * * * thorn bush!”
It had been three and a half years since I had heard my mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID, get upset about throwing a water bottle up into a tree. Moments before blaming the bush, Jim had let loose of a short length of parachute cord that was wrapped around the neck of the bottle. The other end connected to a thin polyester cord that would act as a halyard to pull an antenna up into a tree.
This is the wicked thorn bush that grabbed onto Jim’s polyester cord and stopped the vertical ascent of his water bottle. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
QRP Radio Outdoors
I was quick to notice this anger issue is apparently weather related. The last time there was a foot of snow on the ground, a stiff wind was blowing and the sky was a layer of lead that looked like it could drop on us at any time.
In those conditions you have but minutes to get on the air before your fingers become too numb to be effective. The last thing you want is your partner playing patty-cake on 2 meters while you tussle with a tangle in a line.
Yesterday was the opposite. It was an unusually hot and humid early fall day in central New Hampshire. The lack of recent rain plus the heat made the leaves all around us like ancient brown brittle pieces of parchment. They crackled as we walked and sat on them.
The branch Jim was trying for was but 35 feet off the ground. It was an easy toss. He’s made ones like this countless times on other outings. My guess on those days he was surrounded by unicorns, rainbows and mild weather.
The red arrow points to the pine tree branch that was waiting for Jim’s easy throw. The evil thorn bush is just at the edge of the leaves at the bottom of the photo. Jim next to his car stewing about the branch. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Prior to setting up our equipment Jim and I had worked up quite a sweat out in the brilliant sunshine on 90 acres that I own. The back of my truck was loaded with brush-cutting tools, a bucket of brass and other gear. It’s that time of year to improve the look of the land and to do clean up.
Testing Two QRP Antennas
Jim and I had decided to see how a resonant 20-meter dipole antenna would compare to a 33-foot vertical wire when connected to two Elecraft radios. I had my new KX2 and he brought his time-tested KX3.
We had set up at the end of the gravel driveway at the top of my land. We were in the shade and that made it tolerable.
The axis of the resonant dipole antenna was almost perfectly NE – SW. While we tried to get the other antenna perfectly vertical, it probably had a 3-degree slope to the northeast.
KX2 vs KX3
We connected the radios to the antennas and got to work. I connected the resonant dipole to my new Elecraft KX2. Jim connected his Elecraft KX3 to the 33-foot wire with a 9:1 unun to help bring down the resistance on the simple wire.
Here’s Jim hard at work. He’s pretty darn good at CW after doing it for 50+ years. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
DX With HB0/DL5YL
Fortunately 20 meters had some activity. The first station we both worked was HB0/DL5YL. It was Tina.
She was pretty fast for me running I suspect at 20 WPM or better. Jim could easily copy her and he worked her first.
Here I am trying to be comfortable on the dry leaves and bumpy ground. The KX2 sure is small! Copyright 2017 Jim Cluett
It was fascinating that her signal strength was the same to both our antennas, but Jim didn’t seem too amazed by that.
After Jim signed off with Tina, I sent out my call sign using the very compact Elecraft paddles that connect to the front of the KX2. I call them mini Begali paddles.
These are the Elecraft KX2 paddles. They fit a KX3, but you need an optional thumbscrew. I love them. They work really well.
They work surprisingly well when you get the tension adjustment so all the slop is gone in the back and forth movement.
Tina gave me a 559. I was pretty happy with that considering my 5 watts of power.
“She sent 88. Do you know what that means?” Jim was quick to point out as she was signing off with me.
“Yes, hugs and kisses. I’m not a complete dolt you know.”
We both started to spin the VFO knobs on our radios and came across AD9Y. He was blasting out at 100 watts but said the QSB was bad and he couldn’t copy my call sign.
Jim tried him several times and really extended the space between each letter / number of his call sign. It worked and Jim had an extended conversation with him while I got up and stretched my legs.
My only other contact was with HG14HST. He was so strong to both Jim and I that I thought he was behind me. As you’d expect, I got a 599 signal report. He was smoking fast and I had trouble sending my call sign at the faster speed not being used to the paddles.
Jim had worked a few other stations that were far too fast for me. We decided it was time to leave and packed up the equipment.
Antenna Test Results
As far as we could tell with this simple non-scientific test, there was no real difference between the dipole and the vertical wire. Incoming signals registered the same on both radios and we both got the same signal reports from the operators we worked.
One More Throw
Once everything was packed away, Jim said, “I’m not leaving here until I get that bottle over the branch.”
He set up his gear one more time and made a perfect throw.
Here’s Jim twirling his water bottle just a fraction of a second before letting it fly. You can see the blurred bottle to the right of his head. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
That’s one of the many things I love about Jim. He’s not a quitter. He wasn’t going to let that thorn bush get the best of him!
As you might expect, it was a very fun day I’ll never forget. When Jim gets upset, it’s short-lived and laughter soon follows any frustration.
We both know that soon the snow will be flying in that same spot. Who knows, we may go back on a frosty day to see if we can get that bottle over the tree in one throw!
Reprinted with permission of the author, Jeff Herman, KH60. Jeff granted me permission so that his personal maritime radio experiences will not be taken to the grave with him. I’ve added the large descriptive paragraph headers to help maintain reader interest and engagement. Thank you Mr. Herman for allowing me to curate your unique and touching perspective of maritime radio. – Tim Carter, W3ATB
I recommend you watch this video first and much of what Jeff writes below it will make more sense. You’ll also get a feel of what it was like being a marine operator.
The following seven-part series has been recorded for the historical record. We are witnessing a never-to-return era of communications style and format that was so perfect that nothing will ever be its equal. I am very glad that I was able to be a part of it, if only for three years at the US Coast Guard Radio Station Honolulu, call sign NMO.
In July of 1977, as a 3rd Class Radioman Petty Officer for the U.S. Coast Guard, I received orders to report from Coast Guard Group Monterey, CA, to Coast Guard Radio Station Honolulu in Wahiawa, Hawaii. I had graduated from Radioman School a year earlier concluding 5 months of training in code, propagation, radio fundamentals, ITU procedures, and other disciplines. The minimum code speed needed to graduate was 22 words per minute; mine was 25.
Radio Honolulu, NMO, is situated on a huge plot of land owned by the Navy, centered in the pineapple fields of Oahu. In addition to NMO, the Navy and the Marine Corps had their Central Pacific Communications command based there as well.
By the way, NMO has the longest overwater microwave link in the world; Oahu to the island of Kauai for VHF marine band operations. NMO was set up with the following glass-enclosed operating positions: 500 kc CW, HF CW, HF and VHF voice, air-to-ground, RTTY, Fleet Broadcast, landline TTY, and the Chief’s desk. From where the Chief RM sat, he could watch all of the ops to make sure no one fell asleep; pity the poor operator (op) who was caught sleeping while on watch!
Coast Guard Public Interface
The Coast Guard is the only military service that communicates directly with the public. Thus, we had to know when to turn off the military radio jargon, particularily on 2182 kc, the MF international voice calling and distress frequency and channel 16/156.80 Mc, the international VHF voice calling and distress frequencies.
The voice op was kept busy monitoring over a dozen voice channels: 2182 kc, the 4, 6, 8, 12, and 16 Mc high-seas SSB ship-to- shore frequencies, four VHF repeaters for channel 16. NMO had a microwave repeater on Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. There were four repeaters for VHF channel 23, and whatever else the Chief felt should be monitored.
Several times each radio day, the voice op had to make weather (WX) broadcasts, Notice To Mariners, etc.. on all these frequencies. The timing was critical so the clock had to be checked frequently.
High Frequency Morse Code Ops
The HF CW position required 2 ops using two racks each consisting of: four Collins 651S digital readout receivers scanning the CW calling bands on 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, and 22 megacycles (Mc). In daytime hours, one op would take 8 and 12 Mcs – the other operator would take 16 and 22 Mcs; at night time, one operated 4 and 6 Mcs – the other would have 8 and 12 Mcs.
So, an operator might have 8 Mc scanning in his left ear and 12 Mc scanning in his right since the receivers automatically scanned a preset band of frequencies. For example, the 8 Mc calling band for ships calling shore stations runs from 8360.4 to 8374 kcs.
A ship calling us might have to send our callsign 20 to 30 times (no 3 by 3 format here!) while our receiver scanned. The NMO op would then hear, from the highest to lowest to highest notes possible (within 1 to 2 seconds) of our callsign being sent; he would quickly shut off the scanner, tune in the ship and turn off our CQ tape. When no traffic was being passed, we would keep the transmitters busy sending:
CQ CQ CQ DE NMO NMO NMO QRU QRU IMI OBS AMVER QSS 4 6 8 12 16 22 MHZ AR – (sort of an advertisement for traffic), and the exchange might go some thing like this:
NMO DE KNFB OBS 8360 K
KNFB DE NMO R UP
That meant the ship has a weather observation. (Every 6 hours starting at 0000Z every ship worldwide takes an OBS and passes it, at no charge, to the closest shore station).
This ship wants me to listen for him on 8360 kilocycles (kc); he’ll continue to listen to me on NMO’s fixed transmitter frequency. Notice the signal ‘UP’. This means: `I’m shifting up to that freq’. Any exchange ALWAYS ends with `dit dit’ (and hams thought they invented that!).
Having one ship calling in at a time was rare. During the OBS hour, not one ship would call, but dozens and dozens would be calling. All of this traffic was monitored with both ears and the receivers scanning! The NMO operator would have to line them up numerically:
KNFB DE NMO UR NR 1
R 8360 TU
WSLH UR 2
R 12561 TKS
7XYM UR NR 3
DE 7XYM 8370 R UP
JGFD UR 25
OK UP 8375 TU
Then, the op would copy the WX OBS from each ship one by one.
Get Data Fast
After working that group of 25 ships he’d turn on the CQ tape again and scanners, and dozens more ships would pounce on him. Since WX is time-sensitive, it was a race to `collect’ as many OBS as humanly possible. A lazy op might only get 100 during a 30 to 45 minute period.
Small Room – Big Responsibility
Sitting adjacent to the HF CW position was a smaller room, enclosed on three sides in brick and painted off-white. The fourth side was glass which also included a sliding glass door, affixed with a small sign which simply said ‘MF CW’. This little booth of modest appearance was well out of proportion with respect to the role that MF CW had played in the history of maritime communications.
Inadvertently or by intention, the Chief’s desk was positioned so he had a direct view of the MF CW booth. The Chief’s position had a compliment of Collins receivers, and one was always tuned to 500 kc. More often than not, I’d get a glimpse of the duty Chief listening, with a gleam in his eye, to the evening traffic on 500 Kc.
Giant 24-Hour Clock
Upon entering the MF position, one was struck with the sight of the largest 24 hour clock known to mankind. It had the most unusual red markings on its face. Two red wedges, starting from the center and flaring outward covered, respectively, minutes :15 to :18, and minutes :45 to :48.
These, of course, were a blatant reminder to the operator of the two worldwide silent periods (more one these later). In addition, each of the twelve five-second intervals around the perimeter, had the first four seconds blocks marked in red with the last second left white.
The sequence was: 4 seconds red, 1 second white, 4 seconds red, 1 second white, etc., around the entire circumference. These markings were to aid the 500 kc operator in manually sending the distress auto alarm: key down 4 seconds, key up 1 second, key down 4 seconds, key up 1 second, etc., for one minute. More on the auto alarm later.
Multiple Receivers Capture Signals
One’s attention would next be drawn to two Collins 651S receivers mounted in the operators console. The top receiver was locked on 500.000 kc and the bottom was usually a few hundred cps on either side of 500, say 499.500 kc. This, of course, prevented missing signals with whom our receivers were zero-beated with.
The audio from these two receivers was fed into a 12-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, as were all receivers and transmitters at the station. One track was reserved for WWVH time signals. A second 12 track tape recorder acted as a back-up to the first. Reels were changed at the beginning of each new radio day (0000Z).
On a panel next to the two Collins receivers was a telephone-type rotary dial with four red lights above it. If digit 1 was dialed, the first red light would be lit, indicating our MF xmtr was on 500 kc in the A1 mode; if digit 2 was dialed, the second red light would be lit, indicating the transmitter was on 500 kc in A2, or MCW (modulated CW), mode. More on A2 later. Dialing digit 3 shifted the transmitter to 440 kc, A1 mode which was NMO’s working frequency. Dialing digit 4 shifted the transmitter to 512 kc, A1 mode (more on 512 kc later).
I’m not sure if this was against FCC or ITU regulations, but our 500 kc transmitter was ALWAYS set to the A2/MCW mode when I was at the key; I hope there is a statute of limitations concerning this possible violation! I loved the musical notes A2 produced. Since our transmitter site was at least 5 miles away, on the 4000 foot peak of the Koolau Mountains, we enjoyed full duplex transmission.
MF CW Radio Log
At a right angle to the operators desk was a typewriter containing the MF CW radio log. During radioman school, we were instructed to attempt to log every signal we heard on 500 kc (an impossible feat), but at worst, make an entry every 5 minutes according to ITU regulations. If no signals were heard within a 5 minute period, which would never happen at night, then one would enter:
NO SIGS 500 2308Z
NO SIGS 500 2313Z
BEGIN SILENT PERIOD 500 2315Z
END SILENT PERIOD 500 2318Z
KPH KPH KPH DE WNKL WNKL AMVER 425 K / WNKL DE
KPH R UP / UP / EE / EE 500 2320Z
NO SIGS 500 2325Z
Thus, whatever we heard would be typed directly into the log. At right angles to the log typewriter, was a second typewriter which was used to copy traffic from ships to NMO: OBS, AMVERS (Automated Merchant VEssel Reporting), Dead Head Medicos (medical reports handled free-of-charge), and other non-commercial traffic. By U.S. law, Coast Guard stations cannot handle commercial traffic, for that would take revenue away from the commercial stations.
Keys & Shifts
Sitting on the ops desk was a Vibroplex chrome-plated bug and a cheap straight key screwed onto a thin sheet of plexiglass. I, of course, only used the straight key. Shifts at NMO ran like this: 12 hours on; 12 hours off; 12 hours on; 72 hours off.
The day watch started at 0700 and ended at 1900 (local); night watch ran from 1900 to 0700 the next morning…yawn. During my off hours, I rebuilt an old wooden sailboat that doubled as my home. That enabled me to collect money from the Coast Guard for off-base housing. What a life, huh?
No Love For 500 Kc
No one on my shift had any particular love for the 500 Kc position. “What fools!”, I thought. Even though we were supposed to rotate positions every 3 hours, I volunteered to remain at the 500 position for the full 12 hour shift, especially during the night watches. I loved it!
It was from this modest console that I would spend the next three years of my life. The things that I copied would, at times, amaze me, cause me laugh so hard I would fall out of my chair, or cause me to break down weeping.
To this day, I cannot forget the ship’s op with whom I was working a distress. He stayed at his key while his ship broke up in heavy seas; his transmitter emitted a scream at the moment the ocean flooded his radio room shorting the batteries and radios.
Why 600 Meters?
I have researched the literature in order to find an answer to this question, but have found nothing. I tend to think that this particular wavelength, 600 meters, became the standard by accident rather than some body of policy-makers deciding that it was to become the worldwide calling and distress frequency.
Maybe the nature of early equipment might be the reason this wavelength became the standard; the length of the antenna on some early transmitters dictated the center frequency of their very broadband signal – given that the antenna would run the length of the ship might have a bearing on 600 meters became the international CW wavelength.
Excellent Nighttime Propagation
Regardless of whether it was by accident or choice, what was handed down to us was a wavelength with excellent evening propagation. Starting at about 2100 local time, 500 kc would come alive. Any ship or shore station within 3000 to 4000 mile range could be heard by an excellent combination of ground wave and sky wave – nothing was missed within this radius!
Shore stations of more than 5000 miles were easily copied. Australia and New Zealand boomed in nightly. Daytime propagation consisted of only ground wave so 300 to 500 miles was the maximum range possible. Most daytime traffic was passed on the HF channels.
The idea of combining a distress frequency and a calling frequency was an excellent one. It insured no distress calls would be missed, and at the same time everyone knew where everyone else was at. No need to search various frequencies looking for a particular ship or shore based station. The result was a worldwide party line. If you sent so much as a single dit everyone would hear it.
Single Dit Stifiles Sleep
Ships operated on either a one-op or two-op schedule so our broadcasts coincided with these schedules. Shore stations had to remain on the air 24 hours a day. Late nights could become a bit of a bore for some shore ops – heavy eyelids and such. So out of boredom, or maybe by accident, a single dit would ring across the Pacific only to be answered by another dit possibly several thousands of miles away. Then all hell would break loose. Every shore station and any ships with an on-duty op would be sending dits. For several seconds, 500 kc sounded as if one hundred or more carriers were ‘ditting’ away! As quickly as it started, it would fade away.
All At Once
A variation of this was someone sending a single GE (good evening). It would of course, be impolite not to respond in kind, so someone else would answer with GE. Within a half second at least one hundred GE’s would flood the frequency! My log entry would look like this:
GE / GE / GE / GE / GE / (OPNOTE: AT LEAST 100 GE’S SENT)……500 ………1123Z
Some ‘Coasties’ were unhappy with their duty assignment locations. Examples of these were Alaska, or some LORAN station in the middle of the Pacific, or on board a patrol ship. They made their sentiments known to the world. One op would send an F, a second disgruntled Coast Guardsman would follow with a T, only to be followed by by a third CG op sending G – three Coasties seperated by hundreds of thousands of miles of water expressing their thoughts as one. The acronym FTG stood for a very common expression in the Guard: F___ The Guard. In the log it was recorded as:
Needless to say, the Commanding officer (‘The Old Man’) of NMO, upon reviewing the log the following day, would attach a nasty note expressing his displeasure at seeing such entry in an Official U.S. Government Legal Document. The Chiefs on the other hand, would give out a hardy laugh and express their delight that this acronym was still travelling the airwaves.
Steady CW Stream
After 2100 local time, there would be a steady stream of CW on 500 kc. Ships calling shore stations or other ships:
KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK (making a pest of himself)
DE (in other words: ‘who the heck is calling me?’)
DE KNLS TR K
KNLS DE KOK R UP 485 K
OK 485/480 UP
Translation: The ship KNLS, ignoring the usual 3X3 callsign format, was going to endlessly call the shore station KOK until he got some attention. KOK interrupted him with a simple DE after which KNLS told him he had a travel report (TR). KOK’s answer was ‘Roger’. I’ll transmit on 485 kc to which the ship answered: ‘Okay, you transmit on 485 and I’ll transmit on 480 – let’s go up. (up in wavelength that is, not in frequency). Traditions are hard to break. By the way, KOK was a shore station located on a beach on Oahu.
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE ZLD ZLD CYCLONE WARNING NR 15 QSW 428 AR(These types of broadcasts, prefaced with TTT or XXX, will be discussed in Part 4.)
Yet another example:
CQ CQ CQ DE WNOP WNOP ANY ONE HV 2100Z SOUTH PACIFIC WX? K
WNOP DE XSU GE WILL GIVE 2100 WX ON OUR 2200 BCST K
OK TKS OM SU
This went on and on throughout the night, but it was very orderly. One can see that each series of transmissions ended with a ‘dit dit’. This is recorded as EE. Some amateur radio operators thought they actually invented this ‘prosign’.
4A – PROCEDURES
The first duty of an operator coming on watch is to check his clock against WWV per ITU regulations. Certain operations on 500 kc have to be timed down to the second. In the log it was recorded as:
OBTAINED WWVH TIME TICK – CLOCK CORRECT…2500KC….0900Z
Because of the steady stream of signals on 500 kc, a weak station sending a distress message might not be heard. At one time, calls AND traffic were passed on 500 kc. There was no shifting to working frequencies to pass messages. Thus, silent periods (SP) were created.
These consisted of two three-minute intervals in which no one transmits worldwide. Volume controls are turned up; ears are pressed to the speaker grill; one’s breath is held, from minute :15 to minute :18 and again from minute :45 to minute :48. Even if traffic is being passed on working frequencies, it too, would stop. For example, if I were sending the weather report on 440 kc:
…HIGH PRESSURE 1028MB 35.8N 132.3W BT CQ CQ CQ DE NMO AS SP SP AR
at which point myself and my listening audience would shift back up to 500 for that particular 3 minute interval.
Lids And SP
Pity the station whose clock is off or who forgets the SP, for a half dozen stations might jump on him:
VLA VLA VLA DE 3FWR 3FWR K
QRT SP SP
Meaning: The ship 3FWR calls the shore station VLA – someone breaks in to tell him to stop transmitting. He responds with ‘sorry’ and is still scolded. Says he’s sorry a second time and is scolded again. Someone, somewhere in the Pacific was more direct and to the point:
JNKB JNKB DE FHWN FHWN
SHUT UP SP (sent at 30 wpm)
The last 15 seconds of a SP was set aside for safety and urgent preliminary transmissions.
4B – BROADCASTS
From the lowest to the highest priority, the following types of broadcasts existed:
CQ – meaning ‘Hello All Ships and Stations’ sent in a 3X3 format :
CQ CQ CQ DE FUM FUM FUM WX AND TFC LIST QSW 430 AR
Here, the shore station FUM, French Navy Tahiti, makes an announcement that he’ll be sending the weather and his traffic list on 430 kc. The CQ is the most common broadcast announcement. One CQ will go out every few minutes.
TTT – This is the prosign for a safety broadcast: storm warnings, navigation hazards, or anything involving the safety of shipping:
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE ZLW ZLW ZLW CYCLONE WARNING NR 38 QSW 475 UP
Each T is sent longer than usual in order to provide a very distinctive sound. During the last 15 seconds of a silent period, a half dozen TTT’s would be going out. In particular, the shore stations running around the perimeter of Australia would sent the same TTT, one station following the previous station. Everyone in the Pacific wanted to be the first one out with their TTT announcement instead of waiting for a station 1000 miles away to finish, so many time they’d all go out at once. What a mess!
XXX – This prosign is indicative of an urgent broadcast where shipping and lives might be in danger (the CO might order the auto alarm sent prior to the preliminary announcement on 500 kc):
XXX XXX XXX CQ DE NMO NMO NMO HURRICANE WARNING QSW 440 AR
Again, each X is drawn out so as to provide a very distinctive sound. This, as with the TTT announcements, went out during the last 15 seconds of a silent period. Those sending a TTT were supposed to give way to an XXX . Remember, everyone is working duplex or full QSK – you MUST be able to hear anyone sending under you.
SOS – The darkest hour of an ops career is when the Captain of the ship enters the radio shack, hands the op a piece of paper, and says ‘Send the SOS – here’s our position’. International procedures dictate *every* step that the operator will then take.
4C – DISTRESS PROCEDURES
Auto Alarm (AA): Twelve 4-second dashes, each dash followed by a one-second pause, sent in A2 (modulated CW). ITU regulations demand that every ship carry an AA decoding receiver. This decoder will only respond to AA’s sent in A2 mode.
In A2 mode, the transmitter is modulated by a tone (two meter ham repeaters ID in this manner). What you would hear on your receiver, with your BFO on, would be several tones, or harmonics – very musical and an attention getter; a station sending CW in A2 sounds like someone sending code on a piano keyboard by pressing a half dozen keys at once!
One very old book in my collection describes an easy, but archaic method of modulating a CW transmitter. A toothed wheel is rotated at several hundred RPM with a wiper, connected to the keying circuit of the transmitter, rubbing over the teeth of the wheel. Crude but effective.
The AA will activate the decoder aboard every ship within receiving distance after four correctly sent dashes are received. The decoders are designed to be a bit forgiving concerning the timing of the AA dash. They will accept, as a valid dash, a dash of between 3.5 seconds and 6 seconds in length – just in case the sending op is nervous.
As mentioned, only four correct dashes are needed, but just to be sure, ITU demands that twelve be sent. Once the AA decoder receives four dashes, its latching relay closes activating lights and bells in the radio room, the radio officer’s stateroom, and up on the bridge.
The Two-Minute Wait
The op in distress now must wait two minutes if possible. If his feet are getting wet, then he skips this step. Off duty operators aboard other ships that have received the AA, must proceed to their radio rooms. 500 kc is now in a continuous silent period until the controlling station sends:
CQ CQ CQ DE (cs of controlling station) QUM 500 KC VA
Note that QUM means that distress traffic has ended – resume normal traffic. The controlling station is the distressed vessel. He can and does give control to the first responding shore station. If I was the first shore station to respond, then NMO would be the controlling station.
Pity ANY ship or shore station who transmits normal traffic during a distress:
9JBV 9JBV DE HCKO HCKO HW OM K
QRT QRT QRT SOS 500 (sent by dozens of stations)
All traffic pertaining to the distress will be sent on 500 kc. Those not in a position to assist will move to 512 kc – 512 is the alternate calling freq when 500 is in distress use. Here is a typical distress broadcast sent at no more than 16 wpm (ITU regs):
SOS SOS SOS CQ DE 5TER 5TER 5TER BT SOS 281751Z MV PANAMA TRADER TAKING ON WATER ENGINE ROOM FLOODED POSN 13.73N 152.55W 13.73N 152.55W NEED IMMEDIATE ASSISTANCE AR MASTER SOS
This broadcast would be followed by a 10 second long dash to aid receiving stations in getting a bearing to 5TER’s position.
Then would come the acknowledgements:
SOS 5TER 5TER DE NMO NMO NMO R R R SOS
SOS 5TER DE KFS KFS KFS R R R SOS
SOS 5TER 5TER 5TER DE JNA JNA JNA R R R SOS
SOS 5TER 5TER 5TER DE WNPH WNPH WNPH R R R SOS WE ARE IN POSN 11.81N 151.32W
CHANGING CSE TO UR POSN WILL GET ETA K
SOS WNPH DE 5TER R TU HERE IS MORE INFO ….. Start With SOS
The first thing you’ll notice is that all transmissions must start with SOS (ITU regulations). What happened here is that three shore stations acknowledged the distress broadcast. ITU regs state that you must send R R R SOS.
A nearby ship also acknowledged and is proceeding to 5TER’s position. The 500 op at NMO (me!) would be on the phone to the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC) passing all information. RCC would launch aircraft and also key up the AMVER computer to check for nearby vessels. Suppose the AMVER computer shows that KPLH is steaming nearby:
SOS KPLH KPLH KPLH DE NMO NMO NMO
Would be sent every 5 mintes both on 500 kc and on all the HF frequencies.
In case no ship responded to 5TER’s distress call, 5TER might give control to NMO. We would then periodically send:
DDD SOS SOS SOS DDD CQ DE NMO NMO NMO BT
where the DDD indicates that NMO is relaying a distress.
4D. OTHER BROADCASTS
I had mentioned that the last 15 seconds of the silent period were reserved for safety (TTT) and urgent (XXX) preliminary broadcasts. The problem was that 10 or 20 shore stations might have such a broadcast to put out and none of them knew who else would be a sending one. The result was sometimes a mess. To hear a dozen shore stations trying to send all at once:
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE ………was extremely funny!
Some would start a bit earlier than H:17:45 or H:47:45. I would start hearing TTT TTT TTT CQ DE … sometimes as early as the last 30 seconds of an SP. Now, EVERY shore station worked duplex and everyone wanted to be the first to get their broadcast out.
The Japanese stations were always the most polite. I’d hear a New Zealand TTT and an Australian TTT and a Japanese TTT. The Japanese station would always stop his broadcast to yield to the others. Once the frequency was quiet, then the Japanese station would start his TTT ‘prelim’ again. A preliminary (prelim) broadcast is the short announcement on 500 kc telling everyone to shift to one’s working frequency for the full broadcast text:
XXX XXX XXX CQ DE VLA VLA VLA URGENT MARINE BCST MAN OVERBOARD QSW 472 UP
is a preliminary broadcast.
The Australian shore stations were a well behaved unit even though they might crush other countries trying to send prelims. The following Aussie stations would take turns sending their prelims – as soon as one finished, the next would start:
VII, VIA, VIR, VID, VIS, VIT, VIM, VIB.
The only New Zealand shore station I used to hear was ZLZ. Other South Pacific shore stations I heard nightly were:
FJP – New Caledonia
3DP – Fiji Islands
P2M – Papua, New Guinea
DUQ – Samoa
8BB – Indonesia
VJZ – New Britain
FUM – Tahiti (French Navy)
XSU – can’t remember – used to hear a lot of X__ shore stations,
and ones from Korea, Philippines, China, Central and South America…
North Pacific West Coast shore stations that would boom in nightly included:
NMQ – USCG Radio Long Beach, CA
NMC – USCG Radio San Francisco CA
NOJ – USCG Radio Alaska
KFS – San Francisco commercial station
KPH – another San Francisco commercial station
KHK – Honolulu commercial station
KOK – Southern California commercial station
To hams, 500 kc would have been a DX’ers dream, but we took the excellent conditions for granted. Keep in mind that NMO had a very long receiving antenna – a long wire over one mile in length.
Not only would there be pileups at the end of a silent period, but also at the top of each hour. That’s when the low priority “CQ CQ CQ DE … WX AND TFC LIST QSW … AR” type of prelims would go out.
So, not wanting to take a number and wait for others, prior to sending a prelim broadcast, I would always send the Morse letter I or E as a way of saying “Hey – don’t anyone else send anything because I’m running ten thousand watts in A2 mode and I’ll crush you…” or something like that.
Seriously, if I had a safety or urgent message to send at the end of a silent period, as I was sending my TTT or XXX, I’d hear other countries under me as they started their prelim and they would suddenly stop when they heard us. NMO must have put out a commanding signal to the entire Pacific for everyone to yield to us. Generally, 500 kc was very orderly and everyone was a gentleman.
4E – FREQUENCY SCHEME
Ships had a choice of using any of the following working frequencies: 425, 454, 468, 480, and 512 kc. Shore stations only had one fixed working frequency, so during an initial call on 500 kc, a shore station would give his working frequency and the ship would choose one of the above to get as close as possible (so as to work duplex):
3LF 3LF 3LF DE CKHB CKHB TR K
CKHB DE 3LF GE QSW 471 K
DE CKHB R 471/480 UP
Here, the ship CKHB called the shore station 3LF wanting to pass a travel report (TR). 3LF has a fixed working frequency of 471 kc so the ship chose to use 480 kc. 471/480 means: “you use 471 and I’ll use 480”.
Why these particular choice of frequencies? Note that 454 kc was the old 660 meter wavelength, 480 kc = 625 meters, and of course, our star frequency 500 kc = 600 meters. If you haven’t guessed, shore stations have 3 character callsigns, and ships have 4 character calls.
Just Below Broadcast
Many folks have shown their surprise that this kind of activity was occurring, on a worldwide scale and it was just below the broadcast band. As a young pup, I knew something was lurking just below the rock and roll band. Living near NMQ (USCG Radio Long Beach, CA), I would occassionally hear an unusual on-and-off hissing sound which would get stronger the lower I tuned:
This was NMQ sending their CQ. My AM table top tube radio didn’t have a BFO. That prompted me to both study the code and take the cover off my AM radio to move to down to the source of this noise. Boy, did I ever ruin that radio. Thank goodness my parents bought me a Heathkit shortwave receiver – with a BFO no less!
A Minor Diplomatic Incident
One evening, while sitting the 500 kc watch and daydreaming of those lucky ops onboard their ships scattered about the Pacific, my pleasant thoughts were shattered by a broadcast from a Soviet ship:
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE UBEX UBEX UBEX BT 170930Z ALL SHIPPING WITHIN 200 KM RADIUS 030-060 DEG FROM 37.42N 174.11E USE CAUTION DUE TO MISSILE TESTING DURING THE HOURS OF …
Oh gad, he was going to send the entire text on 500 kc – that’s a no-no for just a safety broadcast. Okay, time to earn my pay as the Central Pacific 500 kc policeman – I’ll just break in by sending a couple:
He kept right on going. Okay; I’ll hold my key down for a few seconds but not too long because long dashes will activate auto alarms aboard ships.
Ah, silence at last. It will be nice:
UBEX DE NMO NMO GE OM PSE QRT ON 500 PSE QSY 512 OK IMI K
After a few seconds of silence he proceeded to send:
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE UBEX UBEX UBEX BT 170930Z ALL SHIPPING …
Oh geez, this guy gets the ‘Lid-Of-The-Night’ award. Now I’m not happy. The Cold War comes to 500 kc. I send another:
Silence results. Let’s try it again:
UBEX DE NMO QRT ON 500 QSY 512 K only to be followed by:
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE UBEX UBEX UBEX BT 170930Z ALL SHIPPING …
Now, with only 30 seconds until the silent period ends, my concern for his unlawful broadcast is quickly growing. 15 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds; my log:
BEGIN SILENT PERIOD…………….500……..0945Z
OPNOTE: UBEX CONTINUING TO SEND SAFETY BCST DURING SP. SPVR NTFD. 0945Z
Having told my supervisor, I proceeded to send:
QRT QR SP SP
The ‘lid’ kept right on sending! Now my mates on the West Coast were losing their patience too – first up is NMC (San Francisco Coast Guard):
UBEX DE NMC QRT SP SP
He stops! A few seconds later (still during the silent period):
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE UBEX ….
Oh man, this nut’s got seaweed instead of brains. In jumps NMQ (Long Beach CG):
DE NMQ QRT SP SP
Even NOJ up in Alaska jumps in the brawl:
DE NOJ QRT SP……………followed by a powerful:
DE KPH QRT SP SP
The kook kept right on sending his broadcast. Finally, at minute :47, and still within the silent period, he finished. I, of course, logged everything. One thing I didn’t log was my ‘QSL’ to him after the silent period:
UBEX UR A LID
Without my callsign, and in A1 mode (I always kept our 500 kc transmitter in A1), no one would know it was me. So much for diplomacy with the Soviets.
For the most part every, ship and shore station worldwide followed the international procedures. The discipline on 500 kc around the world was amazing.
During Coast Guard Radioman school we were reminded that what was being taught to us were not Coast Guard or U.S. Government policies, but rather international rules set forth by the United Nations, and the International Telecommunications Union.
Every shipboard operator, spanning many decades, had been taught the exact procedures being presented to us. This instilled in us, an unbroken chain of tradition with those ship’s radio operators right from the start. All of us felt a deep respect toward 500 kc. There was a sense of mystery felt towards this frequency – very difficult to put into words.
My First SOS
As mentioned in an earlier part, I always sat the 12 hour, 500 kc night watch on my duty nights. I loved listening to the steady flow of calls from ships in far off waters. Even though we sat in the Central Pacific, I would sometimes even copy a fluttery East Coast U.S. shore station.
Throughout the night I would hear ghostly signals, just above the noise level, that would fade in and out from who knows where. We used a Beverage-type, long wire that stretched over one mile in length, and NMO sat in a very electrically quiet region. We were able to copy any ship or shore station anywhere in the Pacific.
The Long Dashes
One evening, feeling a bit drowsy (0200 local), I thought I was dreaming when I heard a long dash, a pause, another long dash, a pause, another long dash, a pause…..like an electric shock, adrenalin flooded through me at the speed of light – OH MY GOD – SOMEONE IS SENDING AN AUTO ALARM!
My eyes shot to the clock to time the dashes; 4 seconds on, 1 second off, 4 seconds on, 1 second off. Those 12 long dashes almost froze me. I yelled into the intercom to the chief “Auto Alarm on 500” knowing at the same time alarm bells were ringing on board every ship scattered around the Pacific within radio range of the distressed ship.
Recall that when a shipboard operator goes off watch, ITU rules dictate he leaves a receiver tuned to 500 kc with a decoder attached. If that decoder hears at least four 4-second dashes each with 1-second separation, relays in the decoder will clamp shut triggering alarm bells in the radio room, in the radio officer’s sleeping quarters, and the bridge. It warned of a distress message about to be sent on 500 kc.
Now, the two-tone AA (Auto Alarm) used on the voice SSB MF distress/calling freq of 2182 kc was common. Mexican fishing crews used them when they were drunk. But AA’s on 500 kc are never sent except when a ship is in distress.
This was the first one I’d heard since my radioman school days. I can’t put into words the terror I felt while sitting out the ITU required, 2 minute wait. Recall, that the ITU dictates every step the distressed vessel’s radio officer takes; Auto Alarm, then the 2-minute wait (if possible) for off- duty ops on other ships, woken by their Auto Alarm receivers, to race to their radio shacks to copy the distress.
Extended Silent Period
500 kc was now in an extended silent period. Someone started tuning up and was immediately pounced on by myself. ‘QRT SOS’ was all I needed to send – dead silence. One of the Australian shore stations was sending a CQ at the same time the AA went out – he must have heard the AA through his CQ for he stopped in mid broadcast. Nothing but an occasional static crash – dead silence. Throughout my brief 500 kc career, there had never been a silence like this I thought. Then it came:
SOS SOS SOS CQ DE DJNK DJNK DJNK SOS BT MV PANAMA TRADER HULL CRACKED IN HEAVY SEAS MAJOR FLOODING 42-27N 42-27N 178-51W 178-51W NOW ABANDONING SHIP SOS BT MASTER AR K
Then came the 10 second long dash (ITU: for direction finding).
I was first – in A2 mode, I sent:
SOS DJNK DJND DJNK DE NMO NMO NMO RRR SOS
After me, 500 kc was flooded with ships and shore stations sending sending the ITU response:
RRR SOS SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NMC NMC NMC RRR SOS
SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NOJ NOJ NOJ RRR SOS
SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE NMQ NMQ NMQ RRR SOS
(Long Beach, CA)
SOS DJNK DJNK DJNK DE KPH KPH KPH RRR SOS
The International Telecommunications Union dictates a strict format to follow in times of distress – from now on, every transmission must be proceeded with the SOS prosign. Along with KFS in California, NRV in Guam, a couple Japan shore stations, the radio operator aboard DJNK must have breathed a sigh of relief and taken some comfort knowing his message was heard by so many.
Once the RRR SOS replies ceased, NMO took control. I asked the standard questions for situations such as this:
SOS DJNK DE NMO BT NEED FOLLOWING INFO
NR OF POB (number of persons on board)
HULL ES SS COLOR (hull and superstructure colors)
NR OF BOATS (number of lifeboats)
BOAT RADIO FREQS, EPIRB WX, WIND SPD ES DIR, SWELL HT ES DIRECTION, CURRENT (weather and sea data) BT SOS K
Patiently, DJNK answered each.
After getting these important answers, I had the uncomfortable task of asking:
SOS DJNK DE NMO BT OM PSE CL KEY BEFORE U LV OK? K
SOS NMO DE DJNK WILL DO OM Closing The Key
Every shipboard telegraph key has a switch, which when closed, will cause the ship’s radio to transmit continuously. This enables rescue aircraft to home in on the distressed vessel using their direction finding equipment. I had asked the op to close his key switch before he leaves the ship.
At the same time, our AMVER computer was generating a printout of the locations of ships transiting the North Pacific. No ships were in DJNK’s area. At least no AMVER reporting ships.
It’s possible there was a ship close to DJNK that wasn’t sending us his AMVER position reports. A very slim possibility but a chance we couldn’t ignore. I was ordered by our Rescue Center to send the DDD SOS, (i.e. to relay DJNK’s distress message from our 10 kW transmitter). In A2, I sent:
AUTO ALARM (12 four second dashes with a one second pauses) then with my hand shaking, clenching the key:
DDD SOS SOS SOS DDD CQ DE NMO NMO NMO SOS BT BT (DJNK’s message) ANY SHIPS IN AREA DIVERT AND ASSIST SIGNED US COAST GUARD AR DDD SOS K
Dead silence reigned for minutes that seemed like hours. An awful, awful feeling of helplessness overcame me as I sat in that chair with the entire NMO crew standing in silence – all of us knowing at that very moment men were perishing in an icy ocean.
Already we had aircraft in the air heading to DJNK’s position, so I notified him:
SOS DJNK DJNK DE NMO NMO BT USCG AIRCRAFT LAUNCHED TO UR POSN ETA 3 HRS BT HOWS UR COND? K
SOS NMO DE DJNK HV TO LEAVE SHIP NOW TU OM FER The Scream
His transmitter had emitted a scream – yes, it actually screamed! I turned to the Chief asking “Is that…?”
“Yes, the ocean water just flooded his radio room shorting out his transmitter and batteries.”
I couldn’t accept this – the man at that key couldn’t have just perished! I sent:
SOS DJNK DE NMO
SOS DJNK DJNK DE NMO
At this point, the Chief put his hand on my shoulder and only said “He can’t answer you – he’s gone.”
Throughout the night, at 15 minute intervals, I continued to send the Auto Alarm and the DDD SOS to no avail. At daybreak, our aircraft reported seeing only debris; bales of hay, which was the cargo of DJNK; no lifeboats, no bodies, only debris.
Even to this day I sometimes hear, in my sleep, the scream DJNK’s transmitter emitted that terrifying and horrible night. I pray the crew of that ship rest in peace.
Copy of a Coast Guard CW Log
This part will differ from the rest as what follows will be an actual log of signals copied during a typical one hour period. During our training at Coast Guard Radioman School (Petaluma, CA) we were advised to attempt to log everything we heard.
Well, that was an impossible task due to the volume of calls which was passed nightly. Keep in mind that only short calls were permitted on 500 kc. As soon as contact was made, one was to quickly move to a working frequency. What you’ll see in the following log sample consists of only about 10 to 25 percent of the recorded signals.
The log consisted of three columns:
actual signals copied
A slash / was used to indicate a break between two transmissions except when it was actually sent over the air to indicate two frequencies – you’ll see ‘454/440’ meaning ‘you send on 454 kc and I’ll send on 440 kc’ (the Morse character _.._. is actually sent).
Ships had a choice of using 425, 454, 468, or 480 kc as their working frequencies, while shore stations were only assigned one working frequency, usually near one of the above. This was done in order to be able to work in duplex with one of the above frequencies.
Everything shown will be actual transmissions except:
When preceeded by OPNOTE (operator’s note).
The BEGIN or END SILENT PERIOD entry.
The NO SIGS entry (meaning no signals heard in last 5 minutes.)
Notice the generous use of ‘dit dit’. In the log it’s indicated by ‘EE’.
U.S. COAST GUARD COMMSTA HONOLULU: NMO
RADIO DAY: 17 JULY 1979 POSITION: MF CW (500KC / 600M)
OPNOTE: RM3 J.D. HERMAN ON WATCH, OPS NML……………0800Z
OPNOTE: OBTAINED WWVH TIME TICK – CLOCK CORRECT………0801Z
VVV VVV TEST TEST DE NMO GE / GE / GE ………….500..0802Z
3WLM 3WLM 3WLM DE ZLW ZLW HW? / ZLW DE 3WLM QRU? /
R 480/488 / OK UP / UP / EE / EE 500 0803Z
CQ CQ CQ DE VIA VIA VIA FOR TFC LIST QSW 446 AR 500 0804Z
KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK KOK / DE / KOK KOK KOK
KOK KOK / LID / KOK KOK KOK / DE / KOK DE FJNB
FJNB DE KOK GE UP / R UP / EE / EE 500 0806Z
JKPN JKPN DE JLRT JLRT / JLRT DE JKPN QTH? / NW AM
1500 KM SAILING 153 DEG OUT OF TOKYO / JLRT DE
NMO PSE QSY / SRI NMO / JKPN DE JLRT UP 512 / UP 500 0807Z
OPNOTE: STATIC CRASHES ARE EAR-SPLITTING TONIGHT 0810Z
CLA CLA CLA DE 7XMC 7XMC K / 7XMC DE CLA GE / GE
OM DO U HV SOUTH PACIFIC WX BETWEEN 20 ES 30 S
W OF 180? / NOT YET - WILL HV IN 30 MIN - LSN FER
OUR CQ / OK TKS / SEEU / SU 500 0814Z
BEGIN SILENT PERIOD 500 0815Z
VVV / SP / SRI 500 0816Z
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE VIM VIM VIM CYCLONE WRNG NR 17
QSW 428 UP / TTT TTT TTT CQ DE VIS VIS VIS CYCLONE
WRNG NR 17 QSW 460 AR 500 0817-18Z
END SILENT PERIOD 500 0818Z
FUM FUM FUM DE KNLW KNLW OBS K / KNLW DE XSU FUM
QRT TIL 0900 K / R HV OBS K / OK UP 480/488 K /
R UP / EE / EE 500 0820Z
CQ CQ CQ DE ZDLK ZDLK BT ANI ONE HV 0700 HYDROPAC
BCST? / ZDLK DE DJKV R UP 480 HW? / OK / EE / EE 500 0824Z
NMC NMC DE WRTY WRTY / WRTY DE NMC GE / GE I NEED
NTM NR 12-384 K / R UP 425/428 K / R UP / EE / EE 500 0827Z
TTT TTT TTT DE KNLH KNLH KNLH BT HAZARD TO SHIPPING
LOST CONTAINER OVERBOARD QSS 425 UP 500 0830Z
OPNOTE: SHIFTED TO 425 KC TO COPY KNLH'S MSG 0830Z
OPNOTE: KNLH LOST CONTAINER IN POSN 43.48N 135.81W - INFO
PASSED TO RCC FOR DISTRICT 12 NTM 0831-33Z
KNLH DE NMO QSL WILL PASS UR MSG TO SAN FRAN K / NMO
DE KNLH R TU OM NIL VA / DE NMO SU VA / EE / EE 500 0834Z
CQ CQ CQ DE CLA CLA CLA FOR SOUTH PAC WX ES NAV
WRNGS QSW 470 AR 500 0835Z
JNA JNA JNA DE JNTS JNTS NW ARR TOYKO K / JNTS DE
JNA QSL QRU K / QRU VA / EE / EE 500 0837Z
CQ CQ CQ DE KPH KPH KPH TFC LIST ES WX 512 AR 500 0840Z
BEGIN SILENT PERIOD 500 0845Z
XXX XXX XXX DE 9FJT 9FJT 9FJT BT ENGINE ROOM FIRE
NOW EXTINGUISHED NO POWER DIW NEED ASSISTANCE 28.38S
28.38S 165.55W 165.55W / 9FJT 9FJT DE VIB VIB QSL
UP 425/430 K / VIB DE 9FJT R UP / EE / EE 500 0847-49Z
OPNOTE: SPVR NOTIFIED OF 9FJT'S XXX 0849Z
SILENT PERIOD ENDED AT 0848Z 0850Z
CQ CQ CQ DE NRV NRV NRV WX AND CG MARINE INFO BCST
QSW 435 KC AR 500 0850Z
NMO NMO DE KPDR OBS K / KPDR DE NMO UP 454/440 K / R
UP / EE / EE 500 0854Z
KPDR DE NMO GE K / NMO DE KPDR GE OBS QRV? / R
AA 99 440/454 0855Z
OPNOTE: RCVD OBS FROM KPDR 454 0856Z
KPDR DE NMO QSL QRU? K / NIL TU OM SU VA / SEEU VA /
EE / EE 440/454 0856Z
CQ CQ CQ DE XJA XJA XJA FOR WESTERN PACIFIC WX QS / CQ CQ
CQ DE 5JA 5JA 5JA TFC LIST AND WX QSW 4 / CQ CQ
CQ DE KFS KFS KFS TFC LIST Q / CQ CQ CQ DE / 500 0900Z
/ LID / UR A LID / AM NOT / ARE TOO 500 0902Z
XXX XXX XXX CQ DE 7JN 7JN 7JN OVER DUE FISHING VSL
QSW 441 AR 500 0905Z
5LVW 5LVW DE / ? / 5LVW DE / ? DE 5LVW
SRI OM NO COPY / UP 8361 KHZ / R UP / EE / EE 500 0909Z
NPQM NPQM DE NOJ NOJ / NOJ DE NPQM 12 MHZ IS WASTED
QSY 8 MHZ RTTY / NPQM DE NOJ OK / EE / EE 500 0912Z
BEGIN SILENT PERIOD 500 0915Z
TTT TTT TTT CQ DE XSA XSA XSA UNMARKED SHOAL REPORTED
QSW 448 KHZ AR 500 0917Z
XXX XXX XXX DE ONJK ONJK ONJK DH MEDICO CREWMAN WITH
APPENDICITIS K / ONJK DE VIB UP 454/441 K / VIB
DE ONJK R TKS UP / EE / EE 500 0917-18Z
END SILENT PERIOD 500 0918Z
You may have noticed that the exchanges were short with operators quickly moving off 500 kc to a working frequency. There is some informal procedure with generous use of pleasantries such as TU (thank you), TKS (thanks), SU or SEEU (see you), OM (old man), GE (good evening) and of course the ever present ‘dit dit’. Note that the prosign VA is the like the ham’s SK. The 0900 hours entry was typical for the top of the hour – a dozen CQ’s being sent at once!
The idea of 500 kHz being an international calling and distress frequency was finalized at the 1932 Madrid Radio Conference (see Schroeder 1964). I find it a shame that amateurs never implemented the idea of a calling frequency on each band which everyone would monitor, in which short station-to-station calls and CQs could be made, with parties moving to another frequency for the QSO.
Two-meter amateur repeaters come close to this idea but operators failed to QSY off the repeater to try to work simplex. Oh well – something about Old Dogs…New Tricks.
I hoped that you enjoyed this brief glimpse into a communications era which will never again be equalled. Jeff Herman – KH6O
Here’s the world-class driver David Higgins. You get to walk right up and shake his hand at the New England Forest Rally. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
New England Forest Rally – Emergency Training Ground
Imagine you’re called upon to use your radio skills to help your community in an emergency. Here’s the scenario you’re faced with:
You and four other radio operators are deployed to an area with no cell phone coverage and no services. A town has been cut off from civilization by some natural disaster and you need to collect and transmit valuable data. You’re tasked with taking everything you need to communicate for hours on end in any weather.
Your most important job is to record data on a minute-by-minute basis that could save someone’s life. You need to be able to hear your team members and they need to hear from you. Your group may be spread out in an area as large as twenty square miles. Your notes must be perfect. Rain, heat, dust, and darkness can’t hinder you.
It gets more complex. You need to transit miles across bumpy dirt roads to this location, set up your equipment in the open with no shelter, work for a few hours and then quickly break down because now the local authorities decide your skills are needed at another emergency site.
You and your team are expected to pack up all your gear and travel to the second, and possibly a third, location and be set up at a specified time. You can’t be late. People’s lives are at stake. You must be able to communicate at these unknown locations no matter the weather or any other conditions. You might do this for twelve or more hours for two or more days.
How would you hone your outdoor radio skills to be able to do all of the above? I do it every summer at theNew England Forest Rally (NEFR).
What is the New England Forest Rally?
The NEFR is a two-day automotive rally that unfolds on both asphalt and dirt logging roads of Western Maine and Northern New Hampshire. It’s sanctioned by the American Rally Association and happens in July of every year. Professional drivers from across the world come to race with local people like you that want to drive fast.
A high-performance race car spits gravel and sand leaving the start line. Ryan Freise, KB1VLC, releases the cars paying attention to a special hand-held race timer. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Do They Race in the Rain?
Whatever weather Mother Nature serves up is what everyone deals with. It can be rainy and cool or blistering hot and humid. Bugs of all types are always present and plentiful. Dust is a given – lots and lots of dust.
What Kind of Cars Are in the Race?
This two-day event features high-performance race cars that might zoom down narrow roads at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Cars drifting around corners, going airborne over jumps and creating giant clouds of dust are commonplace. It’s action-packed and you’re guaranteed to come away from the NEFR, or a similar rally, with a sense of enormous accomplishment.
Who are the Race Drivers?
The NEFR has an eclectic mix of world-class drivers like Travis Pastrana, David Higgins, and Ken Block. You can even race in the event yourself if you can produce a car that contains all the safety equipment and you pay the entrance fee. You don’t have to have a huge sponsor like Subaru, Ford, or Maxxis behind you.
Here’s Travis Pastrana greeting fans in the parc expose’ before the drivers leave to race for the day. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Here’s a video I shot in 2017 of the winner of the event, Travis Pastrana. Listen to his engine RPMs spike at 0:17!
How Many Races Happen in Two Days?
Over the two days, there are no less than 13 individual races. Rally organizers call them stages. The stages may range in length from 4 to 16 miles long.
Are the Rally Cars Special?
The rally cars are special. But it gets more complex. The race cars must be street legal and they have to transit across public roads at legal speed limits in a tight time window from one stage to the next. Failure to make it to the next stage on time causes a driver or team to lose points.
Here’s some of the gorgeous scenery you’ll pass as you transit between stages as you get ready for your next assignment. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
What Do Radio Operators Do?
As an amateur radio operator, your job is to create and maintain a vital safety communications net over each stage. The drivers, teams, race organizers and spectators need your skills so they can get help in the event of a crash or breakdown.
All radio operators and many other volunteers must attend a mandatory meeting on the first morning. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Where are Radio Operators Positioned?
Radio operators are placed at the start and finish lines and at other strategic locations along each stage. Each operator must be able to hear the start-line operator and log accurately the sequence of the car numbers as each car zooms away from the starting line.
As each car passes an operator, she/he needs to log the car sequence number, the number of the car printed on the doors, and the time it passes. I’m sure you can see the importance of this in case cars begin to pass a location out of sequence. An out-of-sequence car could mean the missing car has crashed and been swallowed up by the deep forest.
The accurate logs allow the race officials to determine where the missing competitor might be in the case other drivers have not reported a car in trouble.
What Equipment Does a Radio Operator Need?
I’ve worked the NEFR for no less than five years. It’s one of my favorite public service events because of the high-octane thrills and the challenges.
I feel there’s a good, better and best way to equip yourself should you want to come join the fun.
It’s possible to be an effective operator using just a regular handheld radio. You’ll need every bit of your five watts and a quarter-wave 2M antenna would be ideal. This past year I worked with an operator from Massachusetts that had a Chinese HT and a 6-inch-long rubber antenna. Surprisingly he was able to do very well with that setup.
David Higgins, a world-class driver from the UK, is checking his tire pressure before he starts a race. This is a 600+ horsepower car. He and all other drivers and co-drivers are counting on you to save them if something goes horribly wrong. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
In just about every location you’re at on a stage at the NEFR, you’ll probably have access to a nearby tall tree. I feel it’s better to connect your HT to a roll-up j-pole antenna made from common 300-ohm feed line. If you can make one from 450-ohm ladder line, it will probably perform a little better.
You can use a simple water bottle to get a thin string up into a tree branch. Use this string halyard to quickly pull up your j-pole. This antenna up 25 or 30 feet in the air will give you an enormous advantage.
The best setup, in my opinion, is to have a mobile radio in your car or truck that’s got 50 or more watts of power. It’s vital this radio has cross-band repeater functionality. Often you need to be standing away from your parked car or truck to be in a safe position and have great visibility of the race course.
My Yaseu FT-8900 has this simple magical cross-band repeat feature that allows me to use very low power on my HT set at a 70-centimeter frequency going into the 8900, but the mobile radio blasts out my signal on the 2M stage frequency so all can hear. With my HT set on low power, it sips juice from its battery so I know I’ll have power all day long.
If you pair this higher-powered mobile radio with a tall antenna in a tree or mast support near the truck, you’ll be heard and will hear everything.
Do Radio Operators Have to Set Up and Takedown?
The second day of the NEFR is always a test. There are at least three radio teams and the team you’re assigned to may have to work three different stages on the same day.
You might meet at 6:30 am and begin to drive 50 miles to get to where you need to set up. After that stage is complete, you’ve got to hurry and break down all your equipment, load up and move to relocate to the next stage. I’ve worked thirteen hours straight on certain days. It’s fun but exhausting.
Crashes are a normal event during a rally. You need to be in a safe location out of harm’s way. The driver of this car escaped with bumps and bruises. His co-driver fractured her pelvis. Your skills on the radio can help these people. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
Operators and other stage workers caravan together as they move to the next stage and it’s quite exciting.
Do Accidents Happen at the NEFR?
Yes, accidents happen and some can be serious. Ken Block’s car caught on fire and was completely destroyed in the 2018 NEFR.
Some are so serious that they make national news. You could have been the radio operator who called in the Ken Block car fire that happened at the NEFR in 2018. This incident made the national news.
The Ken Block crash made national news. Imagine you being the operator just 100 feet away that called in the emergency! Copyright 2018 Fox News, Inc.
Local towns provide ambulance services in case a crash goes wrong.
Here’s an ambulance parked at the end of Stage 13, North Road, in case it’s needed. In 2017, a co-driver fractured her pelvis in a crash, so highly trained EMS people are needed. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
What’s In It For You
If I’ve not already answered that subliminal question roiling around in your head, “What’s in this for me Tim? Why should I go out and battle the dust and bugs?”, then I’ll finish with this.
Not only do you get a swell event t-shirt that commemorates your service and sacrifice, but you also get to meet some very interesting fellow radio operators from around the region. You can walk up and converse with world-class rally drivers that travel from around the world to race on these epic gravel roads.
But wait, there’s more! If you’re lucky enough to get assigned to the epic Aziscohos stage like I was, bring your bathing suit! Just 1.3 miles from the start line is a hidden jewel of a stream with three or four personal swimming holes about the size of a hot tub.
Tim Carter, W3ATB, completing an HF QSO from the center of the magical stream on the Aziscohos stage of the NEFR. Just upstream are three delightful swimming holes! Copyright 2017 Gary Thomas
This stage is normally run twice with a three-hour break between the two races. That’s plenty of time to get in a great relaxing swim or break out your outdoor HF radio and make a few quick QSOs like I did.
If you need further encouragement to come join the fun, feel free to reach out to me. If you live somewhere other than the Northeast USA, believe me there are rally races like the NEFR very close to where you are. Just go online and look for them. I guarantee you they need your skills and you’ll not regret going.
This is the tall falls created by continental glacial meltwater at Grafton Notch State Park. It’s one of the scenic places you can visit between races. Copyright 2018 Tim Carter
Yesterday I volunteered to be a member of the emergency communications team for the 2017 Mt. Washington Bicycle Hill Climb. It’s an annual event done in conjunction with the private Mt. Washington Auto Road and theTin Mountain Conservation Center. Cycle professionals and enthusiasts do whatever is necessary to gain 4,875 feet in elevation in as little time as possible.
This is an odd selfie shot. My head is tilted down giving me a horrible triple chin because I wanted you to see the words on my hat. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
This year’s winning time was an astonishing 51 minutes and 13 seconds by Phil Gaimon. The winning woman rider was Aimee Vasse with a time of 1:05:34.
I’ve worked many times on the Rock Pile as it’s called by all the locals. Many don’t realize the history behind the name because they don’t pay close attention as they ascend the mountain.
As you claw your way up the serpentine 7.2 mile road with no guardrails you see nothing but raw bedrock for miles and miles. But as you get up to the strange flat eight-acre cow pasture at the 5,700-foot elevation you start to notice that the mountain is comprised of jumbled rocks and no solid bedrock is exposed.
This photo is looking due southwest at a mound of jumbled rocks some as large as cars. Underneath it at some depth is bedrock. I was standing in the cow pasture that’s about 5,700 feet in elevation. It’s a lower quality photo using the digital zoom feature of my cellphone. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The massive gigantic continental glaciers that covered all of New England just 15,000 years ago weren’t thick enough to scour the rocks off the tip of Mt. Washington. Normal weathering over hundreds of thousands of years has created a collection of rocks that are slowly being broken down and carried to the oceans.
Mother Nature will expose the bedrock under the rocks, but she’s taking her time doing it.
The day before the event we received three inches of rain at my house which is about 60 miles south of Mt. Washington. As I left my house at 5:20 am, it was still dark but you could feel the atmosphere was choked with moisture.
This is what I drove through for much of the 1-hour 45-minute drive from my home. This photo was taken on State Route 16 just below Pinkham Notch as the road runs next to the base of Mt. Washington. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
As dawn broke, I drove through fog and leaden skies. No doubt it was going to be a changing weather day up on the mountain. I just hoped for moderate wind.
After the top three male and female riders passed me, my work was done for the day. The only other thing I’d have to do is call in for emergency medical help for a rider near my position.
I decided to pass the time using my elevation to my advantage. I set one side of my Yaseu mobile radio in my truck to the national calling frequency of 146.52 MHz. I was booming out at 50 watts and had line of vision sight to the north of over 200 miles.
It didn’t take long to have at least four or five operators come back to me who were up in Maine. At one point I called, “CQ CQ this is W3ATB atop Mt. Washington.”
A second later I heard, “W1PID”.
What? No way! That’s my very close friend Jim Cluett. It turns out he was driving down in Laconia, NH on his way to help our friend Dick Christopher, N1LT with his sailboat. The tip of my truck antenna was higher than the ground to the south of where I was parked and I was able to talk with anyone in that direction.
After talking with Jim, I then logged two contacts with operators at light houses along the coast. It turns out it was the International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend and lighthouses all over the world had radio operators in or next to them trying to make contact. Here’s my log for those two contacts:
K1N was operating at the Newburyport, MA harbor light on Plum Island. How exciting! It was a fun day of radio for me to say the very least.
I vote we let photos tell the rest of the story. They do so much better if you ask me.
This is one of the selfish reasons why I volunteer for these events. I get to drive up the mountain early and get set up. It’s just me and the mountain. It can be very spiritual as you feel quite alone. That is NOT the summit of Mt. Washington. If you were to hike to the top of that false summit, you’d clearly see the summit building just 500 yards away. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter.
You’re up so high that clouds slither over you. It’s surreal when it happens. Within seconds of snapping this photo, I was surrounded by the soft cloud. Minutes later it had moved to the north and it was clear once more. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
I’m aimed due north in this photo looking across the cow pasture directly at the distinguished Presidential Range of the White Mountains. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
The clouds buffeted the mountain throughout the race. Most of the time it was so sunny and clear the sky was so blue it hurt your eyes to look at it. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
This rider is focused on the road. I found many looked down and my guess is they didn’t want to get distracted by how much higher they had to climb. This photo is taken looking northeast across the cow pasture. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
I did pay attention in my high school and college physics classes. I know that friction is the last thing you want when trying to carry yourself and the weight of a bicycle up over 4,875 in elevation! These fat tires would not have been my choice. He was the only one with this configuration. All the elite riders had tires thinner than someone who’s been in a life raft at sea for a month with no food. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter
You may be surprised to see a unicyclist competing in this race. I’ve seen several over the years. But you should be in awe because it requires far more energy to be expended. It’s harder to balance yourself and note there’s NO GEARING to help with the task of going up hill for miles and miles. Copyright 2017 Tim Carter