Hamming it up

In the era of the Internet and easy
international voice communications, operating an amateur radio setup would seem
like a thing of the past. But that’s not the case.

Ham radio, as it is most often
called, is alive and well in the Cayman Islands, and it serves not only as a
passionate hobby for a couple of dozen residents, but also provides an
important communications link in times of emergency.

Although the word ‘ham’ for amateur
radio operators was a slur when it was first coined in the early part of the
20th century – along the lines of a ‘ham’ or bad actor – the term is now widely
used without any negative connotations.

Back in the mid-1970s, Dr. Joe
Jackman was a ham radio operator here in the Cayman Islands. He said he and
Frank Scotland were the main two people operating amateur radios at the
time.  Jackson, who is originally from
Montserrat, said he became involved in ham radio through the Boy Scouts back
home. When he moved to Cayman in 1974 he brought his hobby with him, partially
as a pastime.

“There was nothing to do in those
days. There were no TV or radio stations, so I spent my time on ham radio,” he
said. “It kept me out of trouble, too.”

Ham radio allowed Jackman to stay
in touch with friends from the Eastern Caribbean and to make new friends all
over the world.  He said there was one
man from Tennessee he would talk to almost every night, sometimes for hours.

Since
ham radios can transmit and receive all over the world, Jackman said he would
sometimes get up in the middle of the night so he could talk to people in
places in the Pacific Ocean like Japan and Australia.

“There was one man from Australia
with whom I became quite friendly,” he said. “When I stopped [transmitting] for
a while, he actually called on the telephone to check if something was wrong
with me.” 

Many people he talked to didn’t
know where the Cayman Islands were. At least once he made contact with someone
from islands he had never heard of.

“The
man said he was from the Chagos Islands. I had to look on a map to find the
Chagos Islands were in the Indian Ocean.”

The farthest contact he ever made
with the ham radio wasn’t even on earth.

“I spoke to the guys on the way to
the moon,” he said, speaking about the Apollo 11 mission back in 1969. Jackman
said that it had been announced that the astronauts would be trying to reach
ham operators on earth on their way to the moon.

“A lot of people were trying to
reach them,” he said. “I was sent a certificate [documenting the contact].”

The hobby grows

As
the years passed, more people got involved in ham radio operation in the Cayman
Islands. Some of the other early ham radio operators in Cayman were Gurney
Panton, Ron Sefton, Roger Corbin, Les Anstead, Alan Kimble, Bill Banks, Gordon
Jacobus, Mike Trickett and Jack Hollingworth. 
In 1979, eight resident hams got together to form the Cayman Amateur
Radio Society. The number of members has grown to more than 20, according to
current Society President John Darby.

Darby,
who’s been a ham operator for more than 30 years here in the Cayman Islands,
says he still gets on the radio every day, usually in late afternoon or early
evening.

Besides
the social aspects of the hobby, there can also be a competitive side. Contesting,
sometimes known as radiosport, is a competitive activity conducted by ham
operators.  Darby said the contests
usually run from 7pm on a Friday until 7pm on a Sunday and that the object is
to try and make contacts with as many other amateur radio operators as possible.

“It’s
not uncommon for operators to make between 3,000 and 5,000 contacts over the
weekend,” Darby said.

Jackman
said that some of the early contesting helped “put Cayman on the map” as people
made contact with operators here.

All
ham operators have to get a licence in order to broadcast. The licences only
cost CI$20, but Darby said it’s not just a matter of paying the fee.

“You
have to sit a test, and it’s not an easy test you can breeze through,” he said.
“It takes about six weeks of study for most people. If you’re Einstein, you
might be able to do it in two weeks, but it could take others three months.”

Those
that are successful at the test get a licence with a prefix that depends on
where their station address will be. ZF1 is for Grand Cayman, ZF8 is for Little
Cayman and ZF9 is for Cayman Brac.

The
main rules for ham licences are that they cannot use the radio for commercial
purposes or for the benefit of any social, political or religious
organisation.  Hams can only speak or
otherwise send messages to other hams.

Local
ham radio operators aren’t the only ones who obtain licences here in the Cayman
Islands.  Darby said licensed ham radio operators
from other countries can get a reciprocal licence here simply by paying the
annual fee. These reciprocal licences allow visiting hams to operate from
Cayman while they are visiting the island, using the prefix ZF2.  Many of these reciprocal licensees come to
Cayman specifically to operate during a contest, usually using the Cayman Amateur
Radio Society building as their operating station.

Ham headquarters

The
Cayman Amateur Radio Society got a permanent club shack in 1990 on Andrew
Eden’s property in Savannah on the road to Pedro/St. James. Eden, who has been
an active ham radio operator for more than 30 years, is on the radio regularly,
talking to people from all over the world. 
Like most hams, Eden keeps a log of all the contacts he makes.

When
hams visit from overseas, which is fairly regularly, Eden usually meets them.

“It
is one of the tourism factors you don’t hear about,” he said.

Eden
also travels to ham radio conferences, including one in Ohio called the Dayton
Hamvention that draws more than 2,000 amateur radio operators.

Like
most Caymanian men of his generation, Eden spent time at sea and he took his
ham radio equipment with him aboard the ships on which he served. Eden said he
talked on the ham radio from the ship every day, often to people back here in
Cayman, to help pass the time and to alleviate the loneliness of life at
sea.  When Category 5 Hurricane Allen
passed close to the Cayman Islands in 1980, Eden was on a ship off the coast of
Africa.  He was eventually able to reach
Jackman to find out everything was fine back home.

Over
the years, Eden has put a lot of money into his ham radio hobby.

“It
doesn’t have to be expensive, but the longer you’re in it, the more you tend to
spend – just like other hobbies,” he said.

Hams in hurricanes

Without a doubt, one of the most
highly attended rap sessions at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando in
March was one that dealt with amateur radio operations. Hams came from miles
around to attend the half-day session, which provided them a chance to hear
about the importance of their hobby during hurricanes.

Julio Ripoll, the assistant
director of the amateur radio station WX4NNHC located in the National Hurricane
Center in Miami, explained the role of ham operators.

“We fill the gap between technology
and old-fashioned communications,” he said, adding that ultimately, one of the
goals of the station during a hurricane situation is to help save lives.  During hurricanes, ham operators at WX4NNHC
scan the ham radio frequencies for other ham contacts at sea or in various US
and Caribbean locations for updates on weather conditions and impacts.

Although the Cayman Islands does
not have anything similar to WX4NNHC, the local ham operators always play an
important information role during hurricanes, often reporting data directly to
the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The reports from hams often make their
way into the advisories issued by the Hurricane Center, as they did during
Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

“Reports from ham radio operators
and the Cayman Meteorological Service indicate that power is out throughout the
island,” said the National Hurricane Center back then.

“Numerous buildings have lost their
roofs. Water up to two feet deep covers the airport runway, and water as high
as five feet is flowing through many homes.”

Besides becoming a valuable news
source, the ham operators also enable communications to worried friends and
relatives. Jackman said that during Hurricane Allen, Grand Cayman was unable to
communicate with Cayman Brac, even by ham radio.  However, he was able to make contact with a
woman in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who was then able to make contact with someone
in Cayman Brac, who relayed the message that Cayman Brac had not fared badly
during the storm.

For his efforts during Hurricane
Allen, Jackman received special recognition from then-governor Thomas Russell.

Ham operators can also serve as valuable
relay stations for disasters in other countries.  After the strong earthquake in Guatemala in
1976, Jackman relayed information he was able to receive from the Central
American country on to other countries that couldn’t make contact directly.

Eden has actively transmitted
during several hurricanes, including Hurricane Ivan, during which he
transmitted for all about a couple of hours.

“All my antennas came down,” he
said.  “But as soon as the worst of it
passed, I was out of my house putting up temporary antennas.”

Eden’s bunker-like station in his
home has a concrete roof and battery power, allowing him to communicate when
electricity fails.

Local ham Kern Owens was able to
transmit throughout Hurricane Ivan and afterwards, giving important weather updates,
refuting reports of fatalities and providing the outside world with information
on what was happening in Cayman.

With much of Cayman’s
telecommunications capacity severely reduced or out completely, it was
old-fashioned ham that saved the day.

“When everything else fails, ham
radio is still operating,” Eden said. 

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