Hamming it up

A pathologist, an aircraft technician, a doctor, a farmer, a minister of religion and a plumber are among the people who belong to the Marlborough Amateur Radio Club.

Talk to any of them on the other end of a radio signal, though, and they are just another voice.

"On radio, everyone is exactly the same," says committee member Grant Simpson. "You could even be talking to royalty."

Royal radio operators may not share their identity signals with commoners, but anyone can respond to a voice "calling CQ" (meaning "calling all long-distance radios") on an open air frequency.

Helen Harris is another Marlborough club member who, with husband Ron, was drawn to amateur radio to make life easier on their Mount Adde farm in lower Awatere.

It takes four hours to herd sheep from one end of the farm to the other, she says.

"So if [men] call at a named gateway I can go round by road and pick the dogs up so they don't have to run all the way home."

When work is done, the couple put their radio to other uses.

"The [radio] repeater goes on in our house 24-7."

Fellow radio club members may be travelling in the area and making requests for weather reports, directions to somewhere they want to visit, or maybe just to swap a memorable story.

Chat is silenced, however, if there is an emergency.

"[Then] we can go on to our repeater and request people don't use it so we can handle an emergency.

"I really enjoy emergency [communications]. I do search and rescue, civil defence and fires."

Rural Fire use amateur radio operators who can provide a frequency base for police, helicopter and fire teams to use.

"We co-ordinate it all, log all the calls," Helen says.

Accepting such responsibilities comes with getting a radio licence.

Grant says amateur or "ham radio" is the only hobby governed by international regulations requiring participants to pass an examination answering technical questions about how it works and how it can be used.

Grant got his licence in 1965 as a 14-year-old schoolboy. At the time, that was the youngest legible age but since 1988 anyone able to pass their exam has been able to get a licence. In 1997, an 8-year-old became the youngest-ever amateur radio operator.

But technological advances are eroding interest in amateur radio, Grant says.

"Everyone's into computers these days and because they have cell phones . . . they can't see the relevance of ham radios."

But ham radio still offers important contact links in areas outside cell phones, Skype or even satellite radio coverage.

In Marlborough, amateur radio operators volunteer at events like the GrapeRide and this weekend's Queen Charlotte Challenge, where contestants move through areas out of cellphone range.

This evening, Marlborough Amateur Radio Club members mark 80 years on the air with an anniversary dinner in Blenheim.

For information about the Marlborough Amateur Radio Club, phone Helen Harris on 575 7181 or Ken Hynds on 579 2297.

The Marlborough Express