Another World Championship Medal for ARDF Team USA
Ten years ago, only a few hams in North America knew that on-foot hidden transmitter hunting is an international sport with many names such as foxtailing, foxhunting, radio-orienteering and Amateur Radio Direction Finding (ARDF). Few were aware that Eastern European countries had begun playing with ARDF decades ago; the first World Championships were in 1980. In 1988, stateside ARDF activity hams in Portland, Oregon and Southern California were learning the ARDF ropes by holding on-foot foxhunting events using international rules.
What a change those 10 years have brought! More hams in more places are discovering that this form of radiosport is great exercise for the body and the brain. Our "big guns" of direction finding contesting continue to improve as USA catches up with the rest of the world.
The Korean Amateur Radio League hosted the ARDF World Championships earlier this month, and for the sixth time, Team USA made the trip. Members of the American team ranged in age from 23 to 66, representing seven states. Team members earned their positions at the 2007 USA Championships near South Lake Tahoe, California as well as the 2008 USA Championships near Bastrop, Texas.
Overall, this was Team USA's best performance ever. We had four Top 10 finishes in the two days of fox-finding competition, first with 2 meter AM signals, and then with 80 meter CW signals. ARRL's team faced more than 300 of the planet's best foxtailers that represented 24 other national Amateur Radio societies.
George Neal, KF6YKN, of Maspeth, New York, led our team by capturing a bronze medal in the category for men between ages 50 and 59 in the 2 meter foxhunt. He found all four required transmitters and got to the finish line in 1:23:42, less than six minutes behind gold medalist Igor Kekin of Russia. The other Top 10 finishers -- all in the 80-meter event -- were Vadim Afonkin of Boston, who was 5th in M40 category; Bob Cooley KF6VSE, of Pleasanton, California, who was 7th in M60, and Nadia Scharlau of Cary, North Carolina, who was 9th in W35.
Fields and Forests
"This was an excellent World Championships," Neal said. "The courses were very hard, almost brutal!" Radio-orienteers are used to running among trees in forested land, using an orienteering map as a guide, but this year's 2 meter event on September 4 was quite different. According to Jay Hennigan, WB6RDV, of Goleta, California, the terrain of the 2400 acre site was unlike any he had ever experienced.
"The course was long and narrow, about three times as long as it was wide," Hennigan explained. "The start was in the north and the finish was in the south. On the map, it was about three-fifths woods, but that was all marked dark green, which meant you couldn't get through it unless you could find a pathway. Fortunately, there were a few trails in there to make it doable. The rest was marked yellow, which turned out to be cultivated fields and drained rice paddies. There were roads on either side, so it became a matter of running down the road until you thought you were perpendicular to a transmitter, slogging to it through the mud, punching in and then running to one of the side roads, depending on where the next fox appeared to be. It wasn't just rice, there were other crops including some kind of cabbage. We couldn't avoid trampling the plants, but the farmers weren't yelling or coming after us."
The 80 meter event on September 6 was mostly in more familiar forested terrain. It was a bigger site and a 10 percent longer course. Competitors said that they felt like mountain goats because it seemed as if each fox was on top of a different hill.
Excellent radio-orienteers abound in Europe and Asia. Fourteen of the 25 nations at this year's World Championships took home one or more medals, but only five countries brought home gold. Three of them -- Russia, Ukraine and the Czech Republic -- dominated the medal count, capturing 71 percent of all medals and 92 percent of the golds. In these countries, ARDF is an important Amateur Radio activity in nearly every city and town. With so many hams doing radio-orienteering, these countries can fill complete team rosters with the maximum allowable three persons in each age category for males and females.
Having a large team does not provide a cooperative advantage. Each competitor must work independently on championship courses. Any collusion or collaboration among team members is strictly forbidden; team scores are based only on the sum of individual performances.
Help from Hungary
Neal has played an important part in the growth of ARDF in the USA. When I first met him in 1998, he was Gyuri Nagy, HA3PA, and worked for an international engineering company. His frequent work in the USA had earned him "green card" status. Competing for his native Hungary, he had already earned five individual and team medals at World ARDF Championships, including one gold.
In that year, five people planned to travel from the states to the World Championships in Hungary. Nagy wanted to know if his resident alien status qualified him to compete for USA. In return for a team position, he offered to provide training to the three Americans who would be trying out the courses. IARU officials agreed that Nagy could indeed compete for USA and he made good on his offer, meeting the team members in Budapest. Marvin Johnston, KE6HTS, said, "I pestered him for four hours on the trip from Budapest to the Championships headquarters in Nyiregyhaza. I had question after question, so we had a good time."
As ARDF developed in North America, Nagy continued to teach and take part. He got his FCC ticket in 1999 just prior to attending the First IARU Region 2 ARDF Championships in Portland, Oregon. In 2006, he changed his name to George Neal as he achieved US citizenship. He has attended and won medals -- mostly golds -- at all but one of our national ARDF championships and has qualified to be on Team USA for every World Championships since 1998.
Neal organized an ARDF training camp near his Hungarian hometown of Pecs for Team USA and Team Australia members before the 2002 World Championships in Slovakia and the 2004 World Championships in the Czech Republic. Each time, he arranged for a rental house where participating team members stayed as he put them through their paces. Then he got a van to take them all to the championships site.
Dick Arnett, WB4SUV, of Erlanger, Kentucky, concurred: "I think that I did much better as a result of the training camps. It wasn't just from hunting lots of transmitters. He also would sit down with us and explain the types of courses, such as classic, non-classic and so forth. As soon as he looks at a competition map, he can tell approximately where the transmitters will be, and even which numbers will be where, because of the distances that must be traveled by the various category competitors. We benefited greatly from his years of experience."
Long-time map-and-compass orienteer Bob Cooley, KF6VSE, of Pleasanton, California, explained, that "It is important to make a lot of mistakes while practicing and to learn from them so that you don't make them in the future. I got the opportunity to get fooled in a variety of ways."
Since the World Championships were not in Eastern Europe this year, there was no opportunity for a training camp in Hungary. So Marvin Johnston, KE6HTS, of Santa Barbara, California, stepped in and put on two weekend-long sessions for team members living on the West Coast. They took place in the forests near Mt Pinos, with a starting point elevation of 8425 feet. This Southern California site was used for the 2004 USA ARDF Championships.
Get Fit with Foxhunting
ARDF can benefit your health and fitness. Many radio-orienteers take on a personal training program to improve their general conditioning. Over the last 10 years, some Team USA members have included the sport in their recovery programs after heart bypass and kidney transplant surgeries. One shed 40 pounds, aided by his regular ARDF activities.
If you aren't at your peak level of physical performance right now, it's okay. You don't have to be a marathoner or world-class sprinter to enjoy foxhunting on foot. There are hidden transmitters for both beginners and experts at our monthly local sessions in Southern California; individuals and families learn to find radio foxes at their own pace, just for fun.
Putting on introductory radio-orienteering events isn't difficult. It's more fun when you have help, but one person can do it. Try it and you might discover a future champion in your home town. Your club might even decide to bid for the 2009 USA ARDF Championships that will help determine who will represent our country at the 2010 World Championships in Croatia.
For more information on ARDF, including international rules, suggestions for equipment and ideas for local events, go to my Web site, Homing In. I welcome your local event stories and photos for future ARDF Updates.
See you in the woods!
Joe Moell, K0OV
ARRL Amateur Radio Direction Finding Coordinator