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.

Douglas chatting away on the SSB
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.

We techno-wannabees 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 their future.

A study manual for taking the Technician class test
I decided that Ithaka needed a ham on board, and My Personal Commodore showed little motivation in the 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.

In our first years of cruising Bernadette and I relied initially on an Inmarsat C for our e-mail. In that 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.

A study manual for taking the General class test
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.

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, 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.

A study manual for taking the Morse Code test
For those of us who do not have technical backgrounds, rote memorization is the essence of this 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.

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 single-sideband radio is our gateway to long-range voice communications and e-mail
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 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 was scored.

One of our upgrades this winter has been to buy and install a new ICOM 802 SSB.
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.

Jim Coolbaugh on Asylum, techno-weenie extraordinaire, carries the hams uber-license: Extra
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.

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 Ham

To study 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.

Gordon 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. This is an incredibly useful site for all things ham-o-logical. Likewise, www.arrl.org (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, go to www.sailmail.com. 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 might have.

Captain 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 www.idiyachts.com.