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Sailing Vessel with Ham Radio History Marks 100 Years

08/19/2021

The schooner Bowdoin is a century old this year. Now owned by the Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) as a training vessel, the ham radio history of the 88-foot (LOA) Bowdoin is often neglected. Constructed in Maine specifically for Arctic exploration, the vessel relied on amateur radio for communication during explorer Donald B. MacMillan’s Arctic Expedition of 1923 and on the MacMillan-McDonald-Byrd Expedition of 1925 — thanks in part to ARRL co-founder Hiram Percy Maxim, W1AW. The venerable vessel, the official vessel of the State of Maine and the flagship of Maine Maritime Academy’s Vessel Operations and Technology Program, recently underwent a complete hull restoration and refitting and has done a little touring to mark its centenary. Its home port is Castine, Maine.

The longwave transmitters MacMillan used on his earlier missions had proved “unable to penetrate the screen of the aurora borealis,” then-ARRL historian Michael Marinaro, WN1M (SK), explained in his article, “Polar Exploration,” from the June 2014 issue of QST. In 1923, MacMillan turned to ARRL for help in outfitting his next expedition with better wireless gear. Marinaro recounted, “It was enthusiastically provided.” Maxim and the ARRL Board recruited Donald H. Mix, 1TS, of Bristol, Connecticut, to accompany the crew as its radio operator.

M.B. West, an ARRL Board member, designed the gear, which was then built by amateurs at his firm, Zenith Electronics. The transmitter operated on the medium-wave bands of 185, 220, and 300 meters, running 100 W to a pair of Western Electric “G” tubes. Earlier exploratory missions had used gear that operated on longwave frequencies. The shipboard station on board the Bowdoin was given the call sign WNP — Wireless North Pole.

“WNP transmitted weekly 500-word press releases and listings of stations worked and heard,” Marinaro said. “Once received by amateur stations, these reports were delivered to local affiliated newspapers of the North American Newspaper Alliance; from there, they were distributed syndicate-wide by telegraph.”

MacMillan’s subsequent attempt at the North Pole centered around wireless. The objectives supported by the Navy and the National Geographic Society were to determine the full capabilities of radio north of the auroral belt and to explore the northern reaches by air. The outstanding accomplishment of the 1925 expedition was in the sphere of radio. Utilizing shortwaves, the expedition was in consistent contact with the outside world throughout the journey, to the delight of the amateurs who were able to work them. The phenomenal success proved to the Navy that shortwaves were definitely superior to the longwaves and ultra longwaves that fleets had been using.

 



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