April 15, 2004 Newport, Rhode Island
41° 29.325 North
071° 19.319 West
Slouching Toward Hamsterdom
By KB1KQF, the hamster formerly known as Douglas Bernon
During the early
1960s, when I was in eighth grade, I noticed that guys with belt-hung slide
rules and breast-pocket pen protectors — the tech-head versions of
the clunky, silver-plated ID bracelets that my equally un-cool friends and
I were wearing — were often getting sprung from dull classes. Any period
of the school day you could spot them hurtling down the corridors pushing
film projectors on metal carts, delivering to the faculty a respite from
standing before ill-behaved mobs of hormone-fueled adolescents. I too wanted
a way to get out of classes, and envied these guys the mechanical skills
that won their freedom. Sure, I knew that on the junior-high-school food
chain, they were as unlikely as I was to get lucky with one of those terminally
perky cheerleaders about whom I imagined any number of never-to-be-realized
notions. But still, these guys had something that I wanted: They were the
dudes with the goods who got the Get-Out-Of-Class-Free card.
It’s a similar story for cruising and on-board email. Some of those
techno-weenies from high school now have grown up and gone cruising, and they
have Ham licenses (an adult version of the junior-high-school audio-visual
club), and exclusive and free access to their own world-wide, private e-mail
system called Winlink (www.winlink.org), which is the cat’s meow of onboard
e-mail. Identical in style to Sailmail, which is available for $250 a year
to any dufuss who can write a check -- Sailmail and Winlink software were written
by the same men -- but Winlink has the cache. Plus, it offers far more bells
and whistles, but it’s guarded behind a locked door, opened only when
you pass the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) amateur radio “Technician” test,
the amateur radio “General” test, and the Morse Code test. Only
then do they consider you geek-worthy and bestow upon you the key. It is to
this pinnacle that I am climbing.
Douglas chatting away on the SSB
can, now in our 50s instead of our teens, do more than merely aspire to hamsterdom.
The FCC, which has jurisdiction over the granting
of all American amateur radio licenses, has (reluctantly) watered down the
tests in an effort to recruit hamsters and keep the amateur radio world thriving.
The National Association of Amateur Radio, voice of amateur radio in America
(www.arrl.com) currently is lobbying the FCC to drop the Morse Code altogether
for the “General” license, a decision some other countries have
recently made. This would open the doors wider still, and also eliminate one
nasty, inconvenient bit of I-had-to-do-it-so-you-have-to-do-it-too hoop-jumping,
which scares lots of folks away. If the FCC fails to change this requirement,
it will be a little like the leaders of the nineteenth-century Shaker communities,
who ruled abstention from sex, a policy which pretty much sealed the fate on
I decided that
Ithaka needed a ham on board, and My Personal Commodore showed little motivation
area, mumbling something that sounded a lot like “boy’s
job.” Several ham-readers of this log have written and encouraged me
to carry on toward my goal, especially Fred C. and Joe L. and John F. -- many
thanks, guys! My friend Frank, on Simba, who’s extraordinarily technically
proficient, anchored for 10 days in the Rio Chagres river of Panama last year
to bone up for the tests. While his wife Lynda caught up on her reading, he
knuckled down everyday, and then the smarty-pants took all three tests the
same morning, one after another -- and aced them! I’m not as bright as
he is, so I’m just chipping away one exam at a time. Frank tried to encourage
me by saying, “hams pick up babes more easily,” but I’ve
got a hunch this is nothing more than wishful-thinking on his part — and
not empirically based. Even if you cancel out that motive, there’s still
good reasons to go for the license. First, there’s e-mail on Winlink.
Second, there’s some weird, guy competitive thing about the size of our
antennas, how far out there you can reach in space, and who’s got the
coolest toys. Plus, there are some ham cruising nets that are closed to those
without a “General.” Finally, there’s something cool about
joining any community that traces its roots to Guglielmo Marconi, who flashed
the first wireless message across the English channel in 1899.
A study manual for taking the Technician class test
In our first years
of cruising Bernadette and I relied initially on an Inmarsat C for our e-mail.
system the computer is cabled to a black box, which
is cabled to an external antenna that sends and receives messages via a satellite
relay. This is an incredibly robust system that’s a fortune to operate
because you pay by the character, both for what you send and receive. Our e-mailed
sentences became increasingly shorter and were essentially de-voweled, looking
like this: Hw RU? There wasn’t much fun in that. In terms of e-mail,
for cruising boats, the Inmarsat C has become a high-priced dinosaur.
More than a year
ago we switched to Sailmail (www.sailmail.com). It’s
a relatively simple system; you connect an eight-pin cable from your single-sideband,
high-frequency radio to a specialized Pactor high-frequency modem (from Special
Communications Systems www.scs-ptc.com). You cable the modem to the computer’s
serial port. Using Sailmail’s software you tune your radio to one of
their worldwide network of private stations to send and receive.
A study manual for taking the General class test
It’s a good system, but there are limits to the number of minutes you
can be logged on each day (except in emergencies), a limit on the length of
documents you can send and receive, a prohibition against attachments, and
because there are a limited number of stations, if propagation is lousy that
day, there’s not much you can do about it. With Winlink, (www.winlink.org)
which is run by and for the Hams, there are zillions more stations to connect
with, almost unlimited log time, essentially no limit on message length, freedom
to make attachments, plus a host of weather and news options, which are not
part of Sailmail. That’s where I want to be, in the ham’s e-mail
Valhalla — Winlink. The door’s now definitely ajar. I’ve
got two tests down — passed both the “Technician” and “General” multiple-choice
tests, but I still have to memorize my Morse Code.
For those of us
who do not have technical backgrounds, rote memorization is the essence of
exercise, best accomplished with a mantra of I-don’t-want-to-but-I-have-to,
so I’ll just get it done. For me that’s meant concentrated periods
of ignore-the-world so I can cram data I’d forget hours after regurgitating
it. I’ve had to keep reminding myself that whatever hassle this may be,
I’d best pay good enough attention so I don’t have to do it twice.
A study manual for taking the Morse Code test
The “Technician” class is an entry level license, the lowest level
of hamsterdom. Pass this test and you get a ticket for transmission privileges
on all amateur frequencies above 50 MHz, but it doesn’t grant you either
a secret handshake or a decoder ring. The test is administered by senior hams
called volunteer examiners, who report the results back to the FCC. The test
is multiple choice, has 35 questions drawn verbatim from a pool of 509 questions.
You need to get 26 of them right (74%) to pass. The FCC has published all the
questions in advance, broken them into specific categories, and indicated how
many questions on the test will be drawn from each category.
The section on
safety procedures is the longest and makes sense. After all, you’re monkeying around with stuff that uses electricity in large quantities,
so its best to know what wires not to grab and when. The test questions also
reflect an understanding that some hams have irked their neighbors by zapping
Fido with radio waves and by erecting antenna towers that block other people’s
cherished views. These, the test suggests, are bad things. This section also
includes questions that emphasize the importance of wearing a hardhat when
a man with heavy tools is climbing an antenna tower above you. Some stuff you
don’t have to memorize.
The single-sideband radio is our gateway to long-range voice communications and e-mail
The other categories
on the “Technician” test include elementary
operating procedures, radio regulation and a bit of beginning electronics.
The emphasis is on VHF and UHF operating procedures. It took me daily bouts
of memorization and practice with 3-by-5 cards, hours of sitting with my book
of questions, and taking practice tests (For good study resources, check the
sidebar after the article.) I did learn some useful stuff, but the vast majority
of technical trivia drained out of my short-term memory minutes after the test
The “General” class license gets you almost unlimited sky-wave privileges
on most amateur frequencies below 50 MHz and includes global HF (shortwave) communications.
(Before I started studying I didn’t know what a MHz — megahertz — was
or a picofarad either.) The “General” test is identical in format
and methodology, but the material emphasized is high-frequency operating privileges
and procedures, amateur practices, radio regulations and much more on electronics.
Again, I learned things that are useful — even necessary — in being
a responsible, effective radio operator, but short-term memory is aptly named.
There is yet another license called “Extra” class — the highest
level license -- and it grants privileges on all amateur frequencies. My friend
Jim on Asylum, who holds an “Extra” license told me “its for
super weenies.” The test is similar in format and methodology, but has
50 questions and is a bunch harder because it covers more complicated information.
Thank God you don’t need it for Winlink.
One of our upgrades this winter has been to buy and install a new ICOM 802 SSB.
What made my passing
these tests possible — in addition to keeping a
dictionary next to me while reading the question book — was that I selected
categories to completely ignore. There are 10 categories, and you know, for
instance, that there are 11 possible questions on circuit components from which
the test will include only one. So you might choose to bag altogether memorizing
that category, which you can see at a glance contains a lot of pictures and
words you’ve never seen before. Assuming you’re not driven to perfection
and require a perfect paper — this is not high school! — you can
apportion your attention category by category and take a load off. I studied
that way for both tests, knowingly sacrificing points in advance, and limiting
how much I’d have to memorize. My system worked. When I took my “General” test,
I finished only a few minutes after the 11-year-old sitting next to me, and
got just as many right as he did.
Jim Coolbaugh on Asylum, techno-weenie extraordinaire, carries the hams uber-license: Extra
For the past couple
weeks I’ve been putting on my headphones and learning
the Morse Code. Again the FCC has made this easier. Not so many years ago,
you had to be able to handle 20 words of Morse a minute. The requirement was
lowered to 13, and now to 5. I’m aiming for the test in early June. I’ll
let you know how it goes.
More Info On How To Become A
Morse Code, I’ve been using “Code Quick,” a
wonderfully quirky and even sometimes funny program that can
be found at www.cq2k.com or 760-773-9426. Dr. Gerald Wheeler
(W6TJP), who’s the brains behind this teaching method,
has come up with a practical and fun way to learn. I had dreaded
this part of studying, but it’s turned out to be more
fun than I feared.
West has produced fine educational materials for years, and
he proudly claims on his study books that he has “has
trained eight out of ten newly-licensed hams with his classes,
books and audiotapes over the past 35 years.” West (
WB6NOA) can be reached through his website at www.gordonwestradioschool.com.
I used his books for the multiple choice tests and found them
helpful. His aim is to make the mission as painless as possible
for non-techies, and he succeeds.
For each level of license you can find lots of practice tests
on line at www.qrz.com. This is an incredibly useful site for
all things ham-o-logical. Likewise, www.arrl.com (the site
for the National Association of Amateur Radio) can take you
anywhere you need to go and has a searchable index to help
you locate upcoming test sessions near where you live.
For information on Sailmail and Winlink, go to www.sailmail.com and www.winlink.org. For those who want more information about
Pactor modems and setting up HF radio e-mail systems on board,
take a look at www.docksideradio.com. This a great site for
information about shortwave radio, cruising nets, HF radio
e-mail, Pactor modems and just about any other question you
Marti Brown has written a helpful book called “HF
Radio for Idi-Yachts, a Guide for Setting Up and Using Wireless
E-Mail Through Ham/Marine SSB Radio.” Its available through