Youth@HamRadio.Fun: What Is Radiosport and Why Do We Do It?


By Sterling Coffey
ARRL Youth Editor

Humans are wired to compete. We have created countless games and sports that test our skill and keep us in shape. In the ages before humans came to rule the world, life was a competition -- a competition against Mother Nature to survive. In the present tense, we do not have to worry too much about sabertooth cats and following herds of bison, so to keep ourselves active and entertained, we play. We play football, soccer, golf and Ping-Pong. We race cars, planes, boats and even space elevators, and bring down foes in video games. We even compete against ourselves at work, at the gym, at school and anywhere else where the human mind and body is the only obstacle to success.

On-The-Air Contesting

Knowing that we humans love competition makes it easy to understand why we compete on the air. Commonly referred to as Radiosport, on-the-air contesting, radio direction finding and High Speed Telegraphy let us have fun, while at the same time honing our skills as communicators. In contesting, up to several thousand hams get on the air to make as many contacts as possible within a given time, following certain rules that define how stations make points. Contacts are very short, only a few seconds long, just enough to exchange call signs and a signal report, and sometimes another exchange like location or station designation (class), that shows whether the station is a club with several radios or an individual running a low power mobile unit, among many other possibilities.

Usually, one contact scores a point or more, depending on where the other station is located in the world; however, things called “multipliers” allow the contester to score extra points. Multipliers include contacting different states or countries, or working (contacting) certain stations. Like any sport or game, winning has its rewards. Along with bragging rights, contesters who score the most points get awards like certificates, plaques and trophies; in the Washington State Salmon Run contest, the winner gets a smoked salmon. Contacts made in contests also apply for credit to awards like Worked All States (WAS) and DX Century Club (DXCC), which are prestigious certificates that can take a long time to achieve.

During the year, more than 200 contests take place around the world, hosting a wide variety of classes, modes and durations and other rules so that we can all have fun on the air at any time of the year. Usually each weekend, a few contests take place simultaneously. For example, earlier this month, eight well-publicized contests took place, from the large 24-hour CQ Worldwide VHF contest to the smaller two hour “Run for the Bacon” low power sprint (called a sprint for its short duration). Each contest is entirely different in its rules giving them each entirely different characteristics. The CQ Worldwide VHF contest is VHF only -- 50 MHz and up -- so that makes it extra difficult to try and make more points by gaining more multipliers, in this case, grid square locators, which are 4 to 6 digit codes that make it easier to understand a general location, rather than using coordinates. All modes are fair game, from Morse code to voice, or even digital computer-based modes. In the QRP sprint hosted by the Flying Pigs QRP Club, contesters must make contacts with as many members of the club to gain the greatest points in only two hours. States, provinces, and countries count as multipliers, as well as working 50 members of the club. Non-members can participate as well, but for fewer points. All contest-allowed HF bands are allowed (bands of 12, 17, 30 and 60 meters are not contest-allowed), but the only mode allowed is Morse code

Many hundreds of styles of contests remain. Some are like every man for himself; others are very refined and routine. Yet the commonality remains that, like sports, they are there to hone our skills and let us have a lot of fun!

ARRL Field Day

Like said above, there are an outstanding variety of contests from 30 minute sprints to two day worldwide DX contests. But it may surprise you that one of the biggest on-the-air events is not really a contest. Every year, June ends with a bang with the annual ARRL Field Day, a 24 hour Amateur Radio on-the-air event that takes place on the third full (or sometimes referred to as “rainy”) weekend in June. This year’s Field Day was a fantastic success that involved several thousand hams and hundreds of clubs getting out their signals on the air, as well as getting the word of Amateur Radio out to the public eye. The objective of the event is two-fold: To practice communications in an emergency-like less-than-optimal conditions and to bring Amateur Radio to the rest of the world by going public through the media, government officials, youth by literally operating in the public.

Many younger hams that I know have come into Amateur Radio through their local Field Day station. One aspect of Field Day that earns you bonus points is media attention. Local news outlets feature Field Day Amateur Radio stations like hereand here, and that sometimes catches the eye of youth, as it did for me in 2007. In addition, several Field Day stations have Get-On-The-Air, or GOTA stations, which allow unlicensed hams to experience the fun of ham radio before they get a license.

In 2007 -- just a few months after passing my Technician exam -- the WA0FYA Zerobeaters invited me to join the fun at their Field Day station. I drove down to Union, Missouri, where at an old one room school house, 20 or so hams were setting up radios, antennas, barbecuing, mowing, putting up tents, building a campfire or just standing around and talking. I meandered around from point to point, said hello and tried to get a grasp on everything that was happening, and helped wherever I could. The Field Day site also featured two towers, one with a huge HF beam, and another serving as a VHF repeater. I mentioned at least a few times that I wanted to climb them, but I was too young at the time to do that sort of thing on my own. Still, the site got set up in its entirety at about noon.

The event began on the air at 1 PM. At our “2A class” club station, we had two radios in operation at the same time a CW/digital radio, and an SSB or voice radio. I ping-ponged between the two, in awe at the speed of the CW operator and learned the contesting techniques behind voice contesting. My friend Nicole Devos, KD0BCX, also did this sort of thing and was similarly astounded at the speed and grace of the operators.

I suppose the apparent curiosity between the two of us sparked the voice operator to let us take over. I jumped at the opportunity, but upon putting on headset, I was a bit overwhelmed, and experienced what some newer hams call “mic fright.” Soon, however I started to make a few contacts while Nicole searched and pounced on keyboard keys, logging the QSOs on a computer. I soon picked up momentum like a train. I began to make contacts almost as fast as the seasoned HF operator did and even he was surprised. Even more overwhelmed was Nicole, frantically typing the call signs, states and classes of the contacts. We took a break to enjoy a barbecued dinner and came back to the operating, having switched positions. Nicole enjoyed tuning around and made quite a few contacts.

By the time midnight rolled around, I was back at the radio and Nicole was getting drowsy. She went to sleep in her family’s tent, while I continued through the night making contacts. I about crashed at 2 AM, and finally went to sleep in my truck, not having brought a tent since I didn’t know I would be there all night long.

By now, I realized the bug had bitten, and upon leaving the Field Day site the next day, I wanted to go home and start it up again. But it wasn’t until November that I participated in the next big contest of the year -- the ARRL November Sweepstakes. The objective in this contest, like Field Day, is to make as many contacts as possible within North America, but without the added bonus of emergency power, even though some contests feature QRP and emergency power classes. Over a total of 14 hours, I made 249 contacts and scored almost 35,000 points, taking the 130th place in the Single Operator Low Power category out of almost 900.

Using only modest equipment, one can have a lot of fun on the bands, especially during contest times. It is a great way to sharpen your skills as a communicator, and burn time during those boring weekends!

Keep an eye out for the upcoming ARRL Rookie Roundup. These six hour contests are great ways to get involved in contesting. The next Rookie Roundup is August 21 and is RTTY only.

Thanks for reading and 73!
Sterling Coffey, N0SSC

Sterling Coffey, N0SSC, is a freshman majoring in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. Interested in wireless communications from a young age, he welcomes e-mail from readers.