By Sarah Wakefield Rosser
ORANGE PARK – Joe Bassett wedged small ear buds into his ears and hunched over his computer, searching for voices over the airwaves. After a slight shift of the antenna, a male with a heavy Midwestern voice cut through the static and Bassett grabbed the radio walkie-talkie to send his response.
Bassett and 82 members of an amateur radio club met at Orange Park High June 22 and 23 to participate in a worldwide competition. Commonly known as “hams,” the Orange Park Amateur Radio Club earned points by connecting with other hams in the country, on remote islands, in the Southern Hemisphere and on other continents. Competitors sent and received messages and earned points by making as many contacts as possible within 24 hours.
“It’s easy to reach Europe because the radio waves cross over water,” Bassett said, a teacher at Pinewood Christian Academy. “To reach Japan, it’s easiest to send the signal over the North Pole.”
There are more than 700,000 licensed hams in the U.S. and more than 2.5 million worldwide. For the “Field Day” event celebrating the end of Amateur Radio Week, 35,000 American operators set up antennas, radios, and computers at parks, malls, and schools at the highest elevation in the local area. The Orange Park Amateur Radio Club, or OPARC, operated multiple member-owned radios, Morse code technology and four antennas. The radio signal was controlled by slight changes in the direction of the antenna.
Bassett inherited his radio equipment from his father’s best friend Bob Leitzel who used it to set up radio stations for missionaries. The day seven-year-old Somer Thompson was abducted in Orange Park while walking home from school, Bassett helped other volunteers search for her body.
“Volunteering without communication was extremely frustrating,” Bassett said. “If we found something, how would we get the word out?”
The frustration led him to join OPARC and he’s been involved ever since. The club stations line the routes of marathon races or cycling competitions. Ham operators can send for help in case of an emergency or injury. Many licensed hams report weather conditions to national weather services, but are rarely credited. t “We’re not in it for the credit,” Roberts said. “We’re in it for the fellowship and fun.”
When cell phone calls clogged the phone towers during the Boston marathon tragedy, ham radio operators were easily able to communicate with others.
“Everything we do is for community contact,” Bassett said.
Many have the option to run their equipment on solar power or from generators, making communication possible even during power outages. Although the field day provided a day of fellowship, it tested equipment and skills of hams far and wide.
“If we get hit by a hurricane and all forms of communication fail, we will still be operating,” said Public Information Officer Scott Roberts, who is also an avid member. “Yes, we’re big nerds, but we will be able to pass along messages about traffic and information about available shelters, as well as speak with other parts of the country. I have so many antennas in my truck, my wife won’t ride with me anymore.”
For the competition, Roberts brought his portable radio kit instead of operating from his vehicle. To earn one point during the competition, the radio operators would connect and share OPARC’s call sign, K4BT. Often, operators referred to each other as
“old man,” a term of endearment in the culture.
After a brief session of “rag chew,” or friendly banter, the operators would wish each other luck, sign out, and drop off the signal. A list of the call signs were compiled and validated by a third party.
OPARC member Clarence Kerous got his amateur license at 16. During his lifetime, he has connected to hams in every country on earth, “including North Korea,” the most difficult because of political leadership and strict censorship.
Setting his sights even higher, Kerous talked to crews at the International Space Station. He is fluent in Morse code, the original form of radio communication and also represented in the field day.
“You can’t talk politics, sing or play music on the radio,” Kerous said, whose call sign is W9AEZ. “Some people raise rabbits or collect stamps. I prefer radio.”
Although the points are still being tallied, OPARC reached 49 U.S. states and hundreds of countries around the world. OPARC contacted a ham in Oman, located approximately 8,000 miles from Florida.
Luke Claveau, left, and Joe Bassett make a connection with a ham radio operator. Claveau, 11, heard about amateur radio during a speaker’s presentation at a recent Boy Scouts meeting.
STAFF PHOTO BY SARAH WAKEFIELD ROSSER