The San Diego DX Club
An ARRL Affiliated Club
Wednesday Evening, August 27, 2014
NO REST FOR WEARY IN A ‘CONTACT SPORT’
By John Wilkens
No sleeping. Not if you want to win. And John Barcroft wants to win.
The San Diego resident is in Boston this week for the World Cup of amateur radio, a quirky round-the-clock contest featuring 59 two-person teams from 38 countries.
At 8 a.m. Saturday, the teams will be huddled in tents pitched here and there across 90 miles of New England countryside, radios tuned, headphones on, antennas up, searching for anybody else who might be on the air.
They’ll have 24 hours to make as many contacts as possible, with more points awarded to connections in faraway places. Most points wins. So no sleeping.
“If you don’t hit the ground running and keep going the whole time, you will lose,” said Barcroft, 68, a retiree who lives in University City.
Amateur radio, more commonly known as ham radio, seems like a quaint hobby, a relic made obsolete by cellphones and text messages and Skype. The only time most people think about ham radio is when it’s needed because some kind of natural disaster or other emergency has knocked modern devices out of service.
But there are still more than 700,000 people in the United States serious enough about it to be licensed by the Federal Communications Commission, serious enough to form their own clubs and make their own T-shirts (“Ham Radio is a Contact Sport”), serious enough to keep life lists, like bird-watchers, of every country they’ve visited via short-wave radio.
“It gets a little nuts,” Barcroft said.
Like many other enthusiasts, he became interested in electronics at a young age and discovered the magic of radio. He even made a career of it, as a broadcast engineer for KGB and other commercial stations. Then he found out about competitions.
The one this week, the World Radiosport Team Championship, happens every four years, like the World Cup or the Olympics, and contestants must win a series of qualifiers to even get there. In 2010, it was held in Moscow. There’s an opening ceremony, with teams from the different countries carrying flags. There are referees, who sit in the tents to make sure nobody cheats. And there are trophies for the victors.
But the real winners, in the long run, are all of us. Radio contests started as a way for operators to go out in the field and practice their emergency skills — skills that can make a life-or-death difference when an earthquake hits or a wildfire roars out of control.
“The reason ham radio exists is to provide a trained and skilled pool of operators and tinkerers who know how to make things work when chaos ensues,” said Glenn Rattmann, a contest referee who lives in Valley Center. “If an emergency happens, the better operators usually come from the competitive ranks.”
Hamming it up
Ask top ham radio operators how many countries they have on their life lists and the answer is usually the same: “All of them.”
That’s why, even though there are 195 or so countries in the world, depending on who’s doing the counting, Barcroft’s life list numbers 340.
Nobody lives there permanently, but that doesn’t mean people can’t pack up their portable radio gear and make their way to the virgin land. Which sometimes happens.
“A bunch of crazy hams will set up on an ice floe or something just to allow the rest of us to say we worked that place,” Barcroft said.
Word of such expeditions is spread by a daily bulletin sent to enthusiasts on the Internet. There’s also a smartphone app that alerts you when someone in a rare location gets on the radio so you can race home, start up your own rig and try to make contact.
No such conveniences will be allowed during the world championship. Teams are even barred from using their own names or call signs over the air (new signs are assigned to them right before the competition starts) to prevent friends from identifying them and perhaps steering others in their direction, boosting their contact totals.
Some manipulations are legal. Say you contact someone in a far-flung place, which is worth more points than contacting someone nearby. It’s permissible to ask that person to switch to another radio band and contact them again. You get to count them twice.
There’s a fair amount of other strategy involved. Figuring out whether to contact people by voice or Morse code. Deciding whether to broadcast your call sign into the ether and wait for responses, or search for other people who are on the air. The better teams will log in the neighborhood of 3,500 contacts during the contest, according to Barcroft, who will be aiming for that mark with teammate David Hodge, a Los Angeles television broadcast engineer.
Referees like Rattmann, 68, a retired Northrop Grumman radar engineer, will watch for any illegal shenanigans. They, too, have to qualify for the event, based on experience and skill. They’ll sit in the tents next to the operators, put headphones on, and listen in.
“There’s not a lot of blatant cheaters at this level,” Rattmann said. “But like any sport, you’ll have people who, if they’re not bending a rule, they’re nuzzling right up against it.”
Since the contestants stay up for 24 hours straight, the referees do, too. “What keeps me awake? Adrenaline and interest level,” Rattmann said.
“Give me a couple of five-hour energy drinks, a couple of Red Bulls, and I’m good to go,” he said.
But there are limits to the sleeplessness. Many of the competitors are already in Boston so they can get acclimated to East Coast time. On game day, the competition begins at 8 a.m., but the crews will be up by 5 to get everything ready — which, if your body is on California time, is 2 a.m.
“Even for hams,” Barcroft said, “that’s just crazy.”
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