Thursday, January 08, 2004

al.com: News 

On the right frequency


Staff Reporter

Ham radios can save lives.

Clyde McAfee said he was reminded of that last week when he received a Christmas card from Eric Lind of North Carolina. Scribbled almost the length of the card was a personal note that gave quick details about the morning of April 21, 2001.

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"Clyde, you don't actually know me, but I'm the skipper of the Lansa, a Bristol 29.9-foot sailboat," Lind's note began. "On 01 you heard my transmissions on the marine SSB and notified the Coast Guard."

At the time, McAfee was sitting at his ham radio on U.S. 45 in Eight Mile near the northern end of the Prichard city limits and heard the distress call of a sailboat captain the U.S. Coast Guard said was 75 nautical miles northwest of Cuba.

Lind said he had lost McAfee's contact information but recently found it "reorganizing some files."

"I wanted to thank you for your concern," Lind wrote. "I always wondered how the Coast Guard became aware. At the time I didn't consider it an emergency, however, the water at one point had gotten to my knees below in the salon. Looking back on it you were right to notify them."

To the untrained eye, the building behind McAfee's house looks like many hobby shops. Even the nearby 100-foot antenna may not spark curiosity.

But step inside and you soon discover that the high frequency radio along with a Morse code transmitter and a citizen's band radio transform the little shack in Eight Mile into a conduit to the world. McAfee, 61, has the call letters KG4BVR. The Federal Communications Commission issues the call letters to each amateur radio operator.

Coast Guard Petty officer Jonathan McCool, a public affairs officer for the Coast Guard in New Orleans, confirmed that on April 21, 2001, at 8:37 a.m. EST, a call went to Coast Guard officials in Miami, who received a relayed message from McAfee saying that Lind was taking on water after losing a seal. McAfee also told Coast Guard officials that Lind said he had a pump and a raft.

The Coast Guard dispatched a C-130 cargo airplane to find the Lansa. Eventually, a commercial vessel offered to assist and intercepted the Lansa, McCool said.

McAfee remained in contact with Lind and communicated with the Coast Guard six times. Lind was eventually able to replace the anchor locking plug that had become dislodged and continue his voyage, McCool said.

"It looks like a happy ending," McCool said.

The incident still gives McAfee a thrill.

"The main thing we do is help people in distress," he said. "That's what we're here for, to serve them."

In a world of cellular telephones and the Internet, ham radio operators may appear to some like technological dinosaurs stuck in time. But even during and following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, ham radio operators monitored the various frequencies listening for unusual traffic and relaying messages, McAfee said.

And the retiree from the Elf Atochem -- now called Atofina -- plant in Axis showed that he is never alone. He sat in front of his radio, pushed the lever on his microphone and told his fellow listeners that he was performing a demonstration and asked for anyone to call back.

Dave from Oklahoma, who began his hobby in the 1960s, spoke up. As did Bill from North Carolina. There was another Dave from Austin, Texas, and Al from Crossville, Tenn., and Phil from Las Vegas, jokingly referred to as Lost Wages.

To even get on the air, they all had to pass a test administered by the Federal Communications Commission. They then receive a "call" that's a combination of numbers and letters. Everyone has to learn "standard phonetics," the language of amateur radio, and Morse code, an international code that is a series of dots and dashes used for transmitting messages.

McAfee mostly monitors the Maritime Mobile Service Network and the Intercontinental Amateur Traffic Net, which are on separate frequencies. And covering nearly every inch of one wall are various cards representing different stations from around the world with whom McAfee has communicated: Belgium, Great Britain, Slovakia, Germany, as well as cards from all over the United States.

Outside, a 100-foot antenna and an aluminum ladder that serves as a backup antenna help bring the outside world to one corner of Eight Mile.

"You meet the most interesting people," said McAfee. "You never know who's an amateur operator."

al.com: News


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