(Editor's Note: Gus Hedlund lives with his wife Patti and 3 children - two of whom are in college - in Darien, Connecticut. When not operating his radio equipment, he can often be found skippering his 48-ft Alden sloop on Long Island Sound and more distant offshore waters.)
"Twists and Turns in Life Leading to Ham Radio"
by Gus Hedlund
September 19, 2007
It all started in 1974, when I injured my leg playing basketball in New York City. Since I could no longer play a sport which required a great deal of running, I decided to buy a sailboat, where I could be competitive (racing) without running. As it is with most things, the size of my boats grew larger, until in 2004 I acquired a 48-foot offshore sailboat equipped with sophisticated communications gear, including a transceiver for High Frequency Communication on the Marine and Ham Bands. With the need to communicate when far offshore, where VHF Marine radios cannot function, I decided to study for the Amateur Radio License Exams, which I took in April of 2005. Since I majored in Electrical Engineering at Yale, I did remember (barely) enough that studying for the tests wasn't too difficult.
Gus in his "ham shack".
That's when all the craziness of this new hobby for me started. I began modestly, by buying a simple rig for my house and putting up a small antenna. I was amazed that I could talk to radio operators in Europe and all over the USA using less than 100 watts of power. Things progressed as I bought a top of the line radio, a large amplifier for more power, and started stringing up wires all around the house. An unexpected benefit of the wires is that geese don't land our lawn any more. This somewhat offsets my wife's displeasure about the appearance. The equipment for HF (High Frequency) costs about $1000 for a basic entry level capability, up to $15,000 for a high-end set-up. Like any hobby, you can spend as much as you want or can afford. The equipment seen in the picture cost me about $8,000. While most of the small retail stores are gone, the equipment can be purchased on a number of web sites and at a number of large stores scattered around the country. Another way is to go to radio shows and meet all the manufacturers, dealers and people selling used equipment at flea markets. The biggest show in the country is in Dayton, Ohio, with about 25-30 thousand in attendance from around the world. I usually attend a show in Orlando that draws about 12 thousand.
High Frequency Radio Communication started just before 1900. Gugliemo Marconi was a prime mover in advancing the technology. This breakthrough allowed signals to bounce off a layer 200 miles up called the ionosphere, which facilitated long distance communication over the horizon. The first overseas communication was between Newfoundland and England in 1901. The means of communication was Morse Code, which later progressed to voice. Some ships were being equipped with these radios including the Titanic. It is fairly safe to say that no one on the Titanic would have been saved were it not for the SOS put out by the radio operator. More would have been saved had all the commercial boats been so equipped and the radios manned 100% of the time. After the Titanic, not only were all commercial offshore ships outfitted with radios but a requirement was added that a radio operator had to be on duty 24 hours a day. By around 1920, amateur radio communication started and it grew to be very popular. Although the internet and video have reduced the number of potential operators, in this country there are still around 660,000 licensed operators. It is growing and very popular in Europe, especially Eastern Europe and some Asian countries.
Through ham radio, I've met many interesting people from around the world and learned a lot about the people and geography of the world. It turns out that a number of Japanese try to Americanize themselves by using name like Elvis and Harry (for Hiru). Some commercial airline pilots operate using the plane's equipment while underway (a plane up 40,000 feet makes for a great antenna!). I wish they would pay more attention to flying the plane. I have been able to communicate to Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian ended up after the Mutiny on the Bounty. Several years ago, Tom Christian, a Pitcairn resident and direct descendant, decided to visit the USA with members of his immediate family. They traveled across the country, visiting friends made over the radio, which until recently was their only means of communication. I hosted the Christians at the Stamford Yacht Club where they made a wonderful presentation about Pitcairn Island. Pitcairn was chosen by Fletcher Christian as a sanctuary because he knew it had been mischarted by 100 miles, and the British would have difficulty in finding the mutineers. Tom Christian actually discovered the wreck of the Bounty by himself in mid-1950's while diving with a friend. They have since brought up artifacts and created a small museum on Pitcairn, which to this day remains one of the most isolated places on Earth.
Other people I've met include some guy from San Francisco starting to ask me quite personal questions and inviting me to visit him great! Another time I hosted a radio friend from Thailand, who was traveling this country visiting radio friends. One time I made a general call (called 'CQ') and a lady doctor in Togo came back to me. She was finishing a volunteer stint in Africa. I have talked to scientists manning Antarctic stations and military personnel in places including the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, and Chagos Archipelago in the India Ocean. (By the way, Rob Flint [Yale '62 EE] was a ham radio operator when he was in Antarctica.) I've been invited to visit radio friends all over Europe and Asia. Additionally, I've gotten to know a number of interesting people locally through the radio club in this area (Fairfield County). One time I communicated with an Italian lady who was a professional model. There is a website where you take a call sign and look them up. The pictures were quite something to see (even fully clothed that is), and it still mystifies me why she likes this radio stuff.
I often get asked the question "What do you talk about when you are on the radio?" Well, it varies somewhat but it is usually about equipment, how strong the signals are, the weather, where you live and what is like there, daily life, health, etc. Usually, people stay away from talking about politics but there's one fellow in Chicago, who's also a radio broadcaster, who reports he's from "Crook County, Illinois" and is happy to explain how he feels about most politicians. I share some of his feelings from time to time. One has to remember that when you talk on the radio, it can be heard all over the place (the world), so you have to be a bit careful. There's no such thing as security; encrypting messages is highly illegal for amateur radio operators.
I still find it hard to believe that with a small radio, a little antenna and just a few watts of power, you can talk to people around the world. One day, I reduced power to 3 watts, and talked to a fellow in Italy who said the signal was very strong! I must say that I've found the many facets of this hobby to be very interesting, stimulating and rewarding. Often when I talk to someone in a place I am not familiar with, I ask questions and research it. I've begun doing contests in which you try to very briefly talk to as many stations as possible in certain areas over a fixed period of time. Recently I talked to 1105 stations around the world in about 30 hours. My next projects include mastering Morse code so I can send and receive at high speed, improving my antennas, learning a bit of Spanish and, last but not least, going on a "DXEPEDITION". A "DXEPEDITION" is when a group of people go to some remote island or part of the world, set up all their equipment and communicate with amateurs around the world. Such places include uninhabited South Pacific islands, islands off Antarctica, islands in the Indian Ocean, and parts of the African Continent. These are highly desired if they are designated as valid countries which gives the "contactees" the opportunity to add to their all-time country list. These contacts are confirmed via what is called a "QSL Card." As I write this there is a group of about 20 men (mostly Europeans) operating on St Brandon Island in the Indian Ocean 200 miles north of Mauritius. I did manage to get through to them the other day but there was much competition. The one country that is impossible to contact is North Korea, where Mr Kim Il Soong (it should be Ill) doesn't even like receivers as they might find out how oppressed they are.
Just to demonstrate how far this hobby can take you, there a fellow in Pennsylvania who has spent 15 million dollars on his antenna system, with two full-time employees climbing the towers repairing equipment. He has a special building with 20 complete stations, top of the line, so he can invite operator friends in for multi-operator contesting. I have no plans, desire nor money to do anything like that.
If any of you retired guys (with some spare time, that is) are interested in this subject, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will be happy to help you in any way I can. Recently, the Morse code requirement has been eliminated to pass the FCC tests, and that's begun to increase the number of licensees. I've helped several of my friends get into the hobby. Remember, this is not the internet, it is a totally different medium with broad dimensions for those who like to talk, get know to a diverse group of people, and enjoy experimenting and playing with equipment. You too can make friends from Pitcairn to Siberia!
73 (Means regards and goodbye in Morse code)
Gus's email address is email@example.com.
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