So, why did I keep it secret? Well, it’s pretty simple – fear of failure. You see, they just don’t hand names as glamorous as KG7YKC out like candy on Halloween. No, you have to take a test. In my case, not just one test, but two tests, all in the name of becoming a Ham Radio Operator. Yep, you heard me right - I’ve become a Ham. There’s something I never thought I would say in a million years.
Hams are folks who use amateur radio to talk to other folks down the street, across the country and even around the world. They know all sorts of things about antennas, coaxial cables, transceivers, radio waves, oscillators and other highly technical stuff. It’s a popular hobby on land and it can also come in handy out on the sea. Hams are also those guys and gals that save the day when it comes to communications during natural disasters and emergencies.
Lately, I’ve been stretching myself way outside of my comfort zone (you might remember that I recently got promoted to Chief Sanitation Engineer), so I thought to myself, why not take the Ham test. That will certainly surprise the folks back home.
It’s been years since I’ve been in school and had to take a test. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to pass. And, it would have been so embarrassing to tell all of you about it, only to have to report back that I failed. It’s kind of like report card day in school. You’d go home, knowing that there was an envelope in the mail for your parents to open and you were just praying that it was good news. In my case, when it came to math and science, it usually wasn’t the best of news.
Unfortunately, the tests I had to take had a lot of math and science in them. Questions like these:
1 - What is the output PEP from a transmitter if an oscilloscope measures 500 volts peak-to-peak across a 50 ohm resistive load connected to the transmitter output?
A - 8.75 watts
B - 625 watts
C - 2500 watts
D - 5000 watts
2 - What is the approximate SWR value above which the protection circuits in most solid-state transmitters begin to reduce transmitter power?
A - 2 to 1
B - 1 to 2
C - 6 to 1
D - 10 to 1
Fortunately, interspersed with all of this math and science nonsense, there were questions about secret government plans to counteract the threat of alien invasion. Don’t believe me? Why else would they have a question like this:
3 - When is an amateur station permitted to transmit secret codes?
A - During a declared communications emergency
B - To control a space craft
C - Only when the information is of a routine, personal nature
D - Only with special temporary authorization from the FCC
The correct answer is B – to control a space craft. Talk of secret codes and space crafts, it can only mean one thing. Fox Mulder was right – there is a massive conspiracy to cover up the existence of aliens! The truth is out there. Turns out these Ham Radio Operators are the people that we may owe our lives to one day. They’re the ones that are going to transmit the secret codes to the secret space crafts (which the government has been building somewhere in the desert) and end up saving the day by blasting those aliens out of the sky.
SERIOUSLY, WHY IN THE WORLD WOULD YOU BECOME A HAM?
That’s a great question. Why in the world would I torture myself with studying over 800 questions, lots of them involving math and science? Only one reason I can think of – to save money. We’re looking to get an SSB transceiver for our boat, which will enable us to hear weather reports and talk to people when we’re out of VHF range. When we were in the the Bahamas earlier this year, we discovered that it was really hard to pick up weather reports in certain spots. For those of you who have a boat, you’ll probably agree how critical it is to know what weather may be coming your way.
When I first started reading up on SSB operation, I saw something that led me to believe that, as an American flagged boat, if we got a Ham Radio License, we wouldn’t have to get a Ship Station License ($65 application fee plus $150 regulatory fee, good for ten years) and a Restricted Radio Operator License ($65 application fee, good for your lifetime) from the FCC. I got all excited thinking I was going to save tons of money and I started studying for my Ham test. Partway through, I reread the article and realize I got it all wrong. By this point, I had already spent hours learning about Mr Ohm and his Law (he’s like the Sheriff of the mathematical world and if you resist arrest, you’ll get the high voltage electric chair*) and had already memorized a whole bunch of things, like the fact that the unit of measurement for capacitance is a farad.
I fell into a deep despair and almost tore up all my flashcards. All those hours wasted! Then I remembered that my blogging buddy Deborah (from Wright Away Sails Away) had taken her Ham test and I wondered why. Why in the world would she have gone to all that trouble? After chatting with her it turns out you can still save money if you have a Ham license! Hope was restored.
It all comes down to email. If you have an SSB and want to send email there are two ways to go about it – SailMail and Winlink. SailMail is a non-profit association of boat owners that operates and maintains a communications network for its members. I hear good things about it, but the catch is that it costs $250 a year to join the association and be able to use the network. Winlink, on the other hand, is free. It’s an all volunteer project of the Amateur Radio Safety Foundation. However, to utilize Winlink you need a Ham license to operate on the frequencies they use. I don’t know about you, but I’ll take free over a $250 annual fee any day of the week.
Thanks to Deborah, the Ham test was back on!
Just in case Winlink isn’t of interest to you, there’s also another good reason to become a Ham – you can contact the International Space Station! How cool is that! Of course, I didn’t actually learn anything about operating a Ham radio, so I don't know how to contact the International Space Station, but it’s fun to know that the FCC has given me the authority to do so.
WHAT’S INVOLVED IN BECOMING A HAM?
In order to be an amateur radio operator in the States, you need a license from the FCC. Licenses are good for ten years before you have to renew them. Anyone, regardless of nationality, can hold a license, unless you’re a representative of a foreign country. The best part of getting an FCC Ham license is that it’s free. Yes, free! You can even get a vanity call sign, if you want, for free!
There are three classes of licenses – Technician, General and Amateur Extra.
The Technician license is the entry-level license for new Ham radio operators. In order to obtain the license, you first have to pass a multiple choice 35 question test on basic regulations, operating practice and electronics theory, with a focus on UHF and VHF operations.
When I first read about the license testing, I thought to myself that it would be easy – all I had to do was memorize the answers to 35 questions. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The 35 questions on the test are drawn from a larger pool of 426 questions. There’s a big difference between memorizing 35 questions vs. 426. My brain just hurts remembering studying for the test. It’s like an ice cream brain freeze, but without the reward of a creamy, delicious hot fudge sundae.
Once you pass the Technician test, you have Ham radio privileges above 30 MHz. If you had asked me before the test what was so special about the bands above 30 MHz, I might have been able to tell you. However, since my interest in getting a Ham license is more around free email, I have now removed this information from my brain in order to make room for more useful stuff, like the secret to baking the perfect chocolate chip cookies. The secret, by the way, is to get my sister to bake them for you. Guaranteed deliciousness.
Once you pass the Technician test, you can upgrade to a General license by taking another 35 question test, which, of course means memorizing another 426 question pool. Fortunately, some of the material is a repeat from the Technician question pool. Not much, but some. Every little bit helps. The reward of passing the General test is being able use the entire range of operating modes and being able to operate on most of the spectrum below 30 MHz. The greater reward is being able to use Winlink.
Amateur Extra License
If you want to go one step extra, once you pass your Technician test, you can upgrade to the Amateur Extra level. This is serious stuff. A 50 question test based on a 702 question pool. If you pass this bad boy, you can operate on all the amateur frequencies that you want. Passing this exam isn’t necessary to use Winlink, so I didn’t even think about studying for it.
SO, WHAT’S THE TEST REALLY LIKE?
Various amateur radio clubs offer testing all over the country. You can find them listed on the National Association for Amateur Radio site, where you can also find copies of the question pools and do online practice exams. I went to a session run by the Palms West Amateur Radio Club in West Palm Beach, Florida. There were six examiners and four of us poor souls wanting to be tested (all blokes except me).
After I filled out a form with my details, they gave me a copy of the 35 question Technician test. There are different versions of the test and I lucked out with the version I got as I knew most of the questions and was only slightly unsure about two of them. Once you fill out your answer sheet, you take it up to the chief examiner (it feels a bit like being in school) and three separate examiners mark your test. I glanced up and saw them all smiling at me and giving me a thumbs up. Turns out I aced it – a 100% score! (You have to get 74% in order to pass.)
Then, they gave me a copy of the General test. This one was quite a bit trickier and there were a number of questions I wasn’t sure about. It was nerve-wracking watching the three guys mark my test, but fortunately I passed that one too! To be honest, they were a bit shocked that I passed that one. From what I gather, most people don’t come to an exam session trying to pass more than one exam. Then they all goaded me into trying the Amateur Extra exam, which I hadn’t studied for at all. I didn’t have a clue about any of the questions and just made a pleasing pattern on the answer sheet coloring in the various circles with my number 2 pencil. No surprise that I didn’t pass. But they gave me a round of applause for trying. Such sweeties.
Once you pass, they give you a certificate and send the details to the FCC. A few days later, your name and call sign shows up in the FCC database and then you can use Winlink, call someone in Germany or even the International Space Station.
Most of the testing sessions cost $15, which seems entirely reasonable to me as the examiners are volunteering their time and they have to print out the test materials. I imagine the fees go towards their club activities and equipment. I had my $15 ready, but to my surprise, the Palms West Amateur Radio Club doesn’t charge any money to take the exam. Sweet as!
NOW, HERE’S THE IRONY OF IT ALL
We’ve decided to hold off on purchasing an SSB transceiver this season. They’re pretty pricey (well over $2k for the unit and antenna) and, as you’ve probably figured out already, we don’t like to spend money when we don’t have to. Instead, we’re going to buy an SSB receiver this year (probably less than $200). It will enable us to hear weather reports, but we won’t be able to talk to anyone or send emails. We'll most likely will end up getting the full kit and kaboodle next year, so putting my Ham license to work is on the cards at some point in the future.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
- Check out this Cruising World article on the process of getting a ham radio license vs. a ship station license and restricted radiotelephone license.
- Latitude 38 had an interesting Idiot’s Guide to Marine SSB
- Deborah from Wright Away, Sails Away describes the process of passing her ham radio license exams.
*Note: Sheriff Ohm is my little inside joke for those of you science geeks out there.
Are any of you Hams? If so, what's your call sign?
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