October 2009: Signals of interest

October 2009: Signals of interest

The Albemarle home of Rob Capon looks perfectly ordinary—until you notice the 30-foot radio antenna in the backyard. Together with the small astronomical observatory on the other side of the house, the antenna is a clear sign that someone of a technical bent lives here. And inside the house is another giveaway: an entire room devoted to Capon’s love for ham radio.


Packed with gear—a transceiver, amplifier, computer, microphone and Morse code key—the room is a catalogue of dials and knobs. On the wall is a world map with white pins stuck into every country and territory recognized by the American Radio Relay League—338 in all. The pins mark the success of Capon’s quest, just completed in August, to make contact with every one of these entities.

“It took 36 years and four months,” Capon says, who broadcasts under callsign W3DX. “It’s very technically hard and it takes a real sustained activity. You have to be tenacious about this goal for decades.” Only 1,400 people worldwide have done it, in fact.

One reason it’s tough: Some entities are uninhabited, reachable only when ham radio operators undertake an expedition to temporarily broadcast from their shores. This can cause a “pile-up”—a traffic jam on the airwaves as operators all over the world try to make contact.

Yemen was Capon’s last confirmed country. Though his quest is complete, his enthusiasm for the hobby is undiminished, as is evident when he shows a visitor his 10-element beam antenna in the yard. “This is just a beast,” he says. “If I didn’t have a beam I would have missed a few countries. An antenna that pretty you just want to salute.”—Erika Howsare

“When I was 11, I injured my leg and I was on crutches for six weeks. My parents gave me an AM/FM radio, and I listened to stations all over the Eastern U.S. I would send them a signal report and they would send me confirmation cards. Then I saved up with my paper route and got a short-wave radio….When I was 14, I passed my ham radio exam.

“I’ve always had a radio room, for at least 25 years. This is my transceiver. This is a 1,000-watt amplifier—what I call lighting the afterburners. This little baby here rotates my antenna. Here’s my Morse code key.

“It would have been difficult to do this in less than 20 years [because some entities broadcast so infrequently]. When I worked Andaman and Nicobar Islands, that was the first time someone went there [to broadcast] in 17 years. It’s at the entrance of Bengal Bay in India. As fate would have it, the Indian government finally gave permission for someone to go there and then the [2004] tsunami hit. Ham radio was the only communication. They set up a station in the governor’s office.

“I worked them two days before the tsunami. It took about 10 hours to break through and make contact. Asia’s very difficult because the signal has to go over the North Pole, and you’re behind the Japanese stations which are very competitive in Asia. The Caribbean is the flip side. For me, firing a signal to the Caribbean would be like firing a bazooka through that window [whereas it would be difficult for operators in Asia]. Every operator has areas that are tough to contact.

“I’ve had really pleasurable long contacts. A long chat with K C Four Triple A—that’s the South Pole station. They talked about how cold it was, their weather balloons, their scientific experiments. And with people in the Balkans during the war, talking in a very heartfelt way.

“But when a rare station goes on the air there’s no time for that. They would say, ‘W3DX, 599.’ I would say ‘TU [thank you], 599.’ Also ‘73’ which means ‘Best wishes’ in ham radio. Bang. You’re doing 40 words a minute [in Morse code] at that point.

“Now that I’ve worked all the countries, I’d like to go on expeditions. And I have to stay on my toes because there will be new countries. The Netherland Antilles is going to be broken into four entities. Kosovo will become an entity.

“It’s like fishing—you have to know where the fish are.”