The Bainbridge Island Amateur Radio Club (BARC) has been on our radar for some time, we’ve come across their contributions to the island community on many occasions, such as their work with Bainbridge Prepares, and providing radio communication for the Rotary Auction and Chilly Hilly.
What exactly is “amateur radio”, also known as “ham radio”? According to the American Radio Relay League (aka the National Association for Amateur Radio) (ARRL), amateur radio “is a popular hobby and service that brings people, electronics and communication together. People use ham radio to talk across town, around the world, or even into space, all without the Internet or cell phones. It’s fun, social, educational, and can be a lifeline during times of need.” Ham radio stations can be set up just about anywhere and antenna can be erected.
The reasons for becoming an amateur radio operator varies, however they all have common basic knowledge of radio technology and operating principals. Amateur radio operators must complete coursework in order to receive their FCC license to operate on radio frequencies, which are limited to a small set of frequency bands and are regulated on a local, national and international level. Operators come from every walk of life and demographic around the world and they’re made up of men, women, kids and teens from all income levels and nationalities.
Dan Gregson, Secretary of BARC, shared the history of the club with me; it got its start on March 22, 1950, when islander Bill Stewart held a meeting to “determine the feasibility and interest in establishing an amateur radio organization on Bainbridge Island. Bill was the temporary chair, while Jim Campbell was the temporary Secretary-Treasurer.” The meeting was attended by Bill and Jim, as well as Helen Morrison, Si Morrison, Frank L. Gagne, Louis S. Scofield, George Yenne, Earl Finch, Comdr. L.I. Nadeau, Doc Nadeau, Richard E. Thomas, and Jesse W. Finch.
“They started by discussing the constitution and by-laws from the Amateur Radio Association of Bremerton, made some changes, and reviewed the new documents as their own in a future meeting. They chose the name Bainbridge Island Amateur Radio Club,” Dan continued, “Since that time, the club has been around in one form or another. There were some lean years when the club didn’t meet at all. For the most part, BARC has been an active organization to ‘promote radio communications and advance the general interest of Amateur Radio in the community.’”
As Dan told me, club activities aren’t limited to public service events where they provide radio communication. “We also do nets. Nets are a network of people connected via radio. Our Tuesday night net, named ‘The Amateur Hour Net’, is intended to be a fun activity that gets people talking on their radio. We’ll typically ask a question of the night, such as ‘what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?’ Then each person that joins the net gets a chance to answer. On Thursday nights, we’ve been doing a simplex net where we contact each other directly without a repeater.”
They also teach classes on building equipment, such as antennas, battery boxes, and other projects, and hold meetings with “show-and-tell” sessions where members bring in the equipment they’ve built or purchased.
BARC has a station at the Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park courtesy of the Battle Point Astronomical Association (BPAA). The club helped fund the station and set it up, and many club members are also BPAA members.
The observatory building is an abandoned World War II Navy radio-transmitter building known as Helix House, which originally housed a helical coil that generated long carrier waves to the Pacific Fleet. The Navy radio station had the call sign NPC (North Pacific Command). In tribute, BARC’s call sign is W7NPC to honor that legacy.
In our 2022 article* on the observatory, BPAA President, Frank Petrie, who is also a member of BARC, explained that having the station there is a wonderful addition to the observatory for two reasons, “it provides an opportunity for island ham operators who live in apartments or condos with restrictions on large antennas to practice on-air and enjoy making contacts around the world, and it provides long distance communication capability for the emergency HUB established in Battle Point Park by Bainbridge Prepares.” Frank is also hopeful that hams with an interest in astronomy will experiment with “radio astronomy” utilizing homebuilt receivers tuned to specific radio frequencies emanating from celestial sources.
Other stations have existed over the years on the island, such as the club shack in the 1950s (which is long gone), and the club has set up stations at City Hall and at BIFD fire stations 21, 22 (now removed), and 23, however those are now managed by BEARS (more on that later) since their main purpose is emergency communications.
“For the most part, we all build stations at home,” Dan explained. “In building these stations, we can communicate from our houses whenever we like, both to each other or to stations around the world.” An added benefit to building a station at home, Dan noted, is that you know how to rebuild if a weather event, such as heavy snow, wind or even a downed tree brings your antenna down or snaps your wire. The club often lends a hand to members who want to erect their own antenna or need help repairing a damaged one.
The club also maintains radio repeaters, which is helpful because a repeater typically has a better antenna and stronger output signal and are located at higher elevations like a hilltop, mountain site, or on top of a tower. This allows hand-held radios to reach the repeater and be heard by stations that are too far away or blocked by hills, buildings, etc. “For example, I have a small radio that transmits from my house in the middle of the island to the club’s repeater,” Dan said. “Even though my radio can’t be heard in Silverdale, people in Silverdale can hear me on the repeater. I can’t hear their radios, but I can hear them, because they can reach the repeater. The reason that we build things like this, is so that we can cover more of the Island.”
Most years, BARC competes in Field Day and Winter Field Day exercises. Many of their members are ARRL members and participants in these events. I was invited to sit on the Winter Field Day on January 28th, which was held at the Ritchie Observatory in Battle Point Park. The purpose of the exercise is to set up a temporary station, using an alternate source of energy such as a solar charger or battery to run the radio, BARC member, Riyadth Al-Kazily told me. Once they have the radio connected to the power source, they run a coaxial cable to the roof of the observatory and connect to the portable antenna they’ve set up, and “ping” other stations as far away as possible. During these exercises, they typically make contact with other ham operators in Alaska, Hawaii, and throughout the Continental U.S.—as an observer this year, I was allowed (under the supervision of the licensed operators in attendance) to make contact and received a “ping back” from Hawaii!
BARC works closely with Bainbridge Island Emergency Auxiliary Radio Service (BEARS) (the communication arm of Bainbridge Prepares), and their leadership team is made up from BARC members, who are also members of Bainbridge Prepares.
“While BARC has a 70+ year history, BEARS and Bainbridge Prepares are much newer organizations. We’ve been trying to better delineate the two organizations, but there will always be overlap due to the nature of Amateur Radio,” Dan pointed out. “The federal government originally created amateur radio with the intent that it would be used for emergency communications in the event of a large-scale disaster such as earthquakes, tornados, or hurricanes. Later this included nuclear war, and wide-spread power outages (like the western states outage),” he continued. “What makes amateur radio unique from police, fire, and other municipal communication is that we’re prepared to quickly create a radio station after the disaster, even if our towers are knocked down and our antennas are destroyed.” However, many BARC members view amateur radio and emergency communication as inseparable, and most of them have what they call “go-boxes” or “crash-kits,” which has everything they need to set up a station in the event of an emergency.
BARC wants amateur radio to be fun though, as Dan noted, “The more fun the hobby is, the more likely you are to practice it.” And of course, the more fun and rewarding the hobby, the more you’ll want to share it with others. “Depending on how far you advance into amateur radio, you can learn to build just about everything from power supplies to transmitters and receivers.”
Becoming an amateur radio operator isn’t that costly or difficult. Obtaining a license is relatively inexpensive and the testing fee is $15. BARC offers twice-a-year free classes, which includes the test at the end of the instruction period.
Equipment cost varies, “If you want to talk to people on the repeater, you can get a cheap radio on Amazon for $20,” Dan pointed out. “There are better radios out there that cost more, like the one we recommend on the website, the Yaesu FT-60R, which is $179.” However, if you want to communicate around the globe, you need a more sophisticated radio that can reach high-frequency (or HF) bands, if purchased new, they can run anywhere from $600 to $10,000 (Dan recommends checking out eBay, as you can often find them for less). If you’re interested in becoming a ham operator, check their link: BARC getting started page.
Dan also encourages anyone interested in ham radio to attend their monthly meetings, which are held on the first Saturday of each month at 9am, via Zoom. You don’t need to be a member to attend a meeting. The schedule and the Zoom link are on the BARC website calendar page.
Have a question between meetings? Reach out to them via their contact page.
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