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In a world of Facebook, Facetime and Instagram, a 117-year-old technology still has ardent fans

by Deborah Carr

“CQ-CQ-CQ. Victor-Echo-Niner-November-Lima-Hotel, Lighthouse...”

George Dewar adjusts a dial on his radio. The retired Transport Canada pilot leans over his computer screen and presses one slippered foot on the makeshift sewing machine pedal that opens the frequency. “CQ-CQ-CQ. Victor-Echo-Niner-November-Lima-Hotel, Lighthouse...”

Across the conference room table laden with radio equipment, computers and tangles of wiring, his friend, Bernie Cormier, taps carefully on a laptop. In the strange lingo known only to radio operators, they discuss switching antennas to another frequency.

Again, George presses the pedal and repeats the general pay attention call (CQ or ‘seek you’) and phonetical call-sign (VE9NLH) of the Cape Enrage lighthouse. Then he waits.

Suddenly, a voice crackles a response. George has been “spotted” by another operator.

It’s a typical Saturday at the Cape Enrage lighthouse not far from Alma, NB—a tourism destination known for its spectacular view, zip-line adventures, gift shop and restaurant with inspired cuisine. Well, typical except for the two antenna towers anchored outside, the conference table piled with electronics equipment and the two seniors trying to make contact with strangers half a planet away.

George and Bernie are licensed ham radio enthusiasts with a particular fancy for lighthouses. There are more than 68,000 licensed radio operators across Canada, 3,500 in the Atlantic region alone. The term “ham” is commonly used in referring to amateur radio operators. Its origin varies, depending on who you ask.

“The one I like,” says George, “is [during] WWI, the amateurs had better radio systems than the military and didn’t mind saying so. The military started referring to the amateurs as HAMs, as in a ham actor, which is a derogatory term.”

“Many ham operators are into lighthouses,” he continues. “Some people collect stamps; others, lighthouses. The thrill comes from contacting an obscure one.”

These lighthouse-lovin’ hams have an international society (the Amateur Radio Lighthouse Society) and a local Facebook group (Maritime Lighthouse Amateur Radio Group). During the annual International Lighthouse and Lightship Weekend, hams all over the world operate out of lighthouses for 48 hours straight, in an effort to talk to others and stress the need to preserve and restore these important structures.

“Lighthouses are evolving from their main role as aids to marine navigation to integral parts of the communities where they’re located,” explains George. “Hams have a unique opportunity to engage those interested in the historical significance of lighthouses while enhancing the profile of amateur radio. This year, Bernie and I set up in Point Prim, the oldest lighthouse on PEI, and one of only a few made of brick.”

They normally spend all weekend at the site, and in some cases, sleep in the lighthouse itself. Other times, such as here at Cape Enrage, they use a lightkeeper’s home or another building nearby.

Annick Robichaud Butland, managing director at Cape Enrage lighthouse is delighted to have them on site. “This is a good fit for Cape Enrage,” she says. “We’re really happy to work with ham radio operators. It’s such a unique opportunity to connect past and present.”

From a tourism perspective, Bernie and George’s worldwide connections could inspire a visit from someone across the globe. And this weekend, tourists interested in learning how ham radios work have a chance to visit with the guys.

“It’s really cool equipment and nice to see them set up the antennas and hear them talk, but there’s a strong connection to all lighthouses as they were early monitoring stations.”

Annick notes that from an historical perspective, the dangerous reefs and currents that gave Cape Enrage its name have claimed a number of ships during the past 150 years. “Now, I wonder if having radio communication like this could have perhaps changed the outcome for those early ships.”

The lighthouse location has a practical appeal as well as an aesthetic one. “You can’t get any better than a vertical antenna by salt water,” says George.

Why salt water? 

“Salt is conductive, like a sheet of metal,” explains Bernie. “And our antennas transmit signals like a flat rock skipping across the surface of the water.”

George and Bernie working the radios at Point Prim last summer.

Photo Credit: Bernard Cormier

While amateurs need only a radio and antenna, it takes these two enthusiasts about five hours to set up their 180 kg of equipment, including three tall antennas: two for low frequency, one for high. Bernie designed them using computer modeling and constructed them using repurposed sturdy tent poles, speaker wire and CB antennas.

“No scientific breakthrough,” he says wryly. “But they’re well thought-out and designed for the job they need to do.”

The low frequency signal might be sent up to 650 kilometres into the ionosphere (a layer of the Earth’s atmosphere ionized by solar and cosmic radiation), before it reflects back down, sometimes bouncing like a rubber ball. Each time they transmit, they hope their efforts will make contact with someone—somewhere.

“It’s like bowling with a broken arm and one eye,” says Bernie, laughing. “Every once in a while, you get a strike. But if it was too easy, it’d be boring. That’s my philosophy.”

These airwaves ambassadors have transmitted from a dozen Atlantic lighthouses and talked to people from as far away as Antarctica, sharing information about the lighthouse they’re transmitting from, and our region. The conversations help them envision real people in the places they’ve only heard about on the news.

“It’s fascinating talking to people from Australia, China, Europe and even South Korea,” says Bernie. “They’ve a hard time imagining how we can communicate so far away with such little power. We only use the same amount as a 60-watt light bulb.”

Bernie, a retired electronic technologist, got the bug 22 years ago when his dad gave him an old CB radio. Soon after, he took the necessary exam and got his ham radio licence. Both men joined a local radio club but were disappointed it didn’t host more field days. They decided to organize their own at Fundy National Park. “Our mission was to put up an antenna and make one contact,” says Bernie. “Sounds simple, but it wasn’t.”  Finally, they managed to wrangle a nine-metre antenna into the air and make a single contact.

Although only one other person joined them that day, they were undaunted. “That’s when we got the fever,” says Bernie. “It became apparent that we’d just accomplished in principle the same thing as Marconi did. We’ve done many contacts around the world since, but to do this with only a wire antenna from our cars in the field was magical.”

Guglielmo Marconi was the Nobel prize-winning inventor and engineer who pioneered wireless radio technology. On December 12, 1901, at Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, using a 150-metre kite-supported antenna for reception, Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless communication: three clicks of a Morse code “S” from a transmitter in England 3,400 kilometres away. Although the veracity of what he actually heard has been debated since, it was nonetheless a monumental moment.

Next, Marconi set up a transmission station and towers at Table Head, Cape Breton island, and on December 15, 1902, transmitted the first complete Morse code message wirelessly from North America across the ocean. His work revolutionized global communications.

In later years, Marconi built several high-powered stations on both sides of the Atlantic to communicate with ships at sea. He established a service to transmit nightly news summaries so ships could provide on-board newspapers for their passengers—the first newsfeed.

Last April, as a north wind buffeted snow against the windows, George and Bernie hunkered down in the Marconi Station Museum, next to the Cape Bear lighthouse, as part of a 24-hour worldwide event to celebrate the inventor’s birthday. This station received one of the first distress signals from the Titanic as she was sinking off the coast of Newfoundland on April 14, 1912, and helped direct rescue efforts that saved many lives.

Throughout the weekend, the pair talked with other amateur radio enthusiasts from around the globe. While George went to his warm PEI home to sleep, Bernie spent the night alone. “She was some cold,” he says. “No heat in the building. But I had a heavy sleeping bag and didn’t mind. It’s like you’re quietly laying in this space, where people have been talking back and forth for over 100 years. It’s as if the echoes of their conversations surround you: like time travel.”

Although everyone seems to enjoy making contact with people from other places, ham radio etiquette demands that conversations remain brief. “The term we use for longwinded people who hog the frequency is rag-chewing,” says George.

And then there are the contesters: hams that compete within specified time periods to see who can make the most contacts. It all rather reminds me of Facebook: collect friends and keep your posts short.

“Our goal is not making as many contacts as possible but to enjoy the location, staff, tourist and historical aspect of the lighthouse,” says Bernie. “It brings out the little boys in us to explore and have adventure. It’s a man thing, I guess.”

“People thought when the Internet came along, it would be the end of ham radio, but the national organizations in both Canada and the US report an increase in the numbers of licensed amateurs,” says George. “If anything, it’s enhanced the enjoyment. I’m interested in geography and how people live. Before, when you made a contact, all you knew was the country where they lived. Now you can look up their profile, so you can learn about these obscure places.”

An online database contains the profiles of more than a million radio operators, so as they make contact, George and Bernie call up the profile. Some have websites, or provide additional information on their interests or where they live.

Hams also provide valuable services during emergencies when modern cell towers and landline communications are compromised or overwhelmed with calls. With their simple, reliable technology, they share information, direct volunteer efforts, and pass messages to local emergency personnel. This weekend, Hurricane Florence was battering the Carolinas, and the two had hoped to monitor the situation, but conditions were not optimal for picking up signals.

My phone dings and I glance down at a text from a friend. Suddenly, a drawn-out howl—Wha-Hoooo!—diverts my attention to the open window. A young man whizzes past affixed to a zip line. Below him, sunlight glitters on the Bay of Fundy. Downstairs in the restaurant, tourists dip their spoons into seafood chowder and tuck into platters of shrimp or lobster.

Meanwhile, George and Bernie, with the aid of skinny antennas made from tent poles, CB antennas and speaker wire, a couple of radios and a sewing machine pedal, are connecting directly in real time with like-minded folks from as far away as Indonesia, Venezuela and Bulgaria. 

Intro image credit: Deborah Carr

Header image credit: Bigstock/ benkrut

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