Find something that a person enjoys and they can turn it into a sport. These days we even consider card games as a sport, one that others can watch on TV even.. There are niche sports for just about everything. One of my coworkers here is in to locksport (competitions involving lockpicking). Who would have thought?
The sport that I am into is one that few have heard of… radiosport. It is an amateur radio activity whose base concept is pretty simple: make as many contacts as you can on a set of frequencies within a given set of time. Give it a scoring structure and compete. Within the amateur radio community it is commonly known as “contesting”.
There are many different contests with different rules in play and usually you can find some kind of contest every weekend of the year. However, there are about half a dozen through the year that are active enough where I'd want to take time away from the family and participate.
To give an example, a contest may run for a set period of 12 hours, where everyone starts and stops at the same time. Any contacts made outside of this set time do not count for points. Each contact is a point on your score, and each new geographical area (state, country) is a multiplier to your score. Some contests are geared towards working domestic states and provinces, while some contests are dedicated to only working countries outside of the US and Canada. Let's say in a domestic contest I make 100 contacts in 35 different states. My total score would be 3500. Since contacts benefit points for both ends of the exchange, it is in everyone's best interest to make them, so they are quick, brief, and made to count. When you hear someone on the air from a state that you haven't contacted yet it becomes urgent to contact that station so you get an extra multiplier. You get the hint.
Contesters compete against other contesters, against friends, as well as against themselves (beating previous year scores). In larger contests, you can work in a team where multiple people work on different frequencies at the same time, making different contacts simultaneously. Software is written that works across a network of logging computers to keep track of your logs together, prevent duplicate contacts, and give you a running tally of your score and any “unique” areas that may help your multiplier score. Some would say that “its kind of a big deal”.
The contests can be dedicated to certain frequencies and vary across the whole spectrum of radio capabilities, but for most contests they operate on HF (High Frequency) radio signals. HF signals propagate in the atmosphere and through the ground, allowing them to travel short distances or around the world. But there is a catch: propagation is a very dynamic beast. Some frequencies work well in the day time when the atmosphere is ionized by the sun's rays, while some frequencies work better at night when that ionization is absent. Sun spots and flares can change the game drastically, for better or for worse. We haven't seen much of that this past year in the solar minimum we are in but hopefully that will change in the coming year and the Sun will become a bit more active. There is a bit of skill involved in getting radio waves to and from a given point. In the last contest I worked (an international contest), we capitalized on the change from day to night to send our signals along the “grayline”. The grayline is that line between night and day, and can sometimes carry radio signals along with it from point A to B better than aiming a straight line from those 2 points. In this instance, we used the grayline to pick up a whole handful of contacts from Japan while the sun was just rising for them. Below is what this line looks like on a map.
You have varying station capabilities as well. Radios can run at different power, you can add signal amplification, and different types of antennas will propagate in different ways. No 2 stations that contact each other are going to have the exact same setup. Some antennas are omnidirectional while some can be aimed in a direction (see the image above of the antenna we have at the Indiana University club). My home antennas are made from some wire I picked up at Lowes, while other stations spend hundreds on an antenna. These all play a part in your capabilities, and give you something to improve on over time. Think of it as an athlete building on his game through practice.
I hope I've given you an idea that there is a bit of skill and experience involved in such a “sport”. It is not just picking up a radio and talking. If you want a high score you have to know your stuff and build a well operating radio station. Some people build entire antenna farms devoted to operating in these contests, spending tens of thousands and pulling in a dozen team members to run a contest. Personally, I like to operate contests at home to see how well I've made my antennas, and I like to operate contests from the IU club (K9IU) for the strong capabilities of that station and the teamwork involved. There is always the thrill of the hunt when a contest comes around. How active will the airwaves be? Will the sun help us out or hinder us? It is a lot like sport fishing, and everyone is out there fishing for each other.
Interested? Find an amateur radio club near you via this link, or drop me a line. One of the most popular contest-like activities is Field Day, where contacts are made from temporary stations built outdoors all across the country (see pic above, one of the many stations we had set up in Karst Farm Park here in Bloomington). This happens the fourth full weekend in July, and most clubs welcome visitors to this event to see how things run. Visit this link for more info on Field Day, or check out the photo gallery from our participation in field day last year. I'll post some more links below.
(and no.. morse code is NOT required)
http://www.radio-sport.net/ ham radio contest news
http://www.indiana.edu/~k9iu/?q=node/10 K9IU – Indiana University amateur radio club contest scores
http://www.hornucopia.com/contestcal/ Upcoming contest calendar
http://www.chrisellerphotography.com/ Chris Eller took the first picture in this post of the K9IU HF and 2m antennas.