Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Crazy things that happen when you are a portable ham

Beware it has become a long post..

When I am out working portable I look for places where I am not in anyone's face. That is easier with a wire up a tree and more challenging when using my portable hexbeam. It usually means I am in a desolate place. Either in a nature reserve (as WWFF activator) or some other park or abandoned space to test antennas or work specific DX.

Being out there as ham radio operator for some ten years now I have had a couple of memorable encounters. I thought it would be nice to share some.

Meeting police

More than once I have met police while being out working portable. Not surprisingly the officers generally want to know what I am doing. Most of the time they are curious but move on when they find out I am rather harmless. Once in a while the officer is old enough to remember the time a lot of people had (CB) radio's so chats a bit longer. Like any other passerby the comments on the hexbeam are usually along the lines of "hanging out the laundry?".

In my village I had a meeting with police one time when I was driving home after a low band activity in the early hours of Sunday morning. The patrol car stopped me as they probably had nothing else to do and I was the only one driving around at the time. The funny thing is that the first officer was somewhat suspicious of the amount of stuff in my car (radio gear, antennas, wires, Spiderbeam poles and my aluminum mast). She kept asking me questions to figure out what she was dealing with. But then her partner came up to the car and said "he is a radio amateur" (that it explains it all, right?).
The crazy thing of course is... how did he know? Clearly one of the earlier encounters had lead to a note in the police database. I am now formally known as the odd ham radio guy.

There was one police officer in PA that was more than annoyed with my activity. It was during an activity close to the coast. She did not understand what I was doing and kept on repeating the she found the whole thing fishy. However she also concluded (implicitly) that there were no grounds to stop me, so in the end she moved on - but visibly reluctantly.

The most depressing encounter was a meeting with the honorary police in GJ. They were ignorant of ham radio but did not let that fact keep them from acting tough. They drove up to our lovely desolate place where we had just set up the hexbeam (see below) and a low band inverted V. Unfamiliar with what we were doing - as foreigners, at dusk - they were determined to put an end to all of it. However, they had no real arguments that we could no counter (like: "you will be influencing the air traffic communications"). It was late Saturday evening and dispatch was not going to give them any guidance. In the end they settled on the need for an air traffic supervisor to give us permission. Of course that person would only be available the next morning. So we lost one park activity that day. (the air traffic supervisor laughed the whole thing off by the way)
Hexbeam ready to push up in GJ - just before the honorary police turned up

Meeting park management

So far my experiences with park management - that you are likely to meet when you are a WWFF activator - are nothing but positive. In fact most of the time they ignore me. Of course I take care not to damage anything or be in anyone's way.
Once a ranger approached me and asked if I was working for the national broadcasting service. That was a first for me. It turned out he was actually having a meeting that day with a reporter on some nature topic. Seeing me with my antennas, he was convinced I was a broadcast guy.

Meeting fellow hams

When fellow hams catch me with my antennas they will come over to identify themselves and exchange experiences. Most are stay-at-home-hams that find it hard to see the fun in going through all the work to play radio for a few hours. 
In PA I have met a dozen amateurs this way. Of course there are also fellow hams I organise to meet /P. Like Jakob OZ7AEI/P and Finn OZ3FI/P (sk) in OZ, Andrew M0YMA/P in PA and Auguste HB9TZA/P in HB0. On expedition in GJ I had the pleasure of meeting Nigel GJ7LJJ as well as Keith G8IXN who just happened to pass by. Incidentally we ran into Keith twice (small island..). Portable in DL one time DL1EBR came by to say hello.
It is always nice to get faces to the voices you have heard (many times) before.

And then there is the ham who works as a police officer, as I found out when a police van pulled over when I was activating a nature reserve in PA. The police officer started to ask some specific questions about what I was doing - which I found rather curious - only to "come out" and explain that he was a local ham radio operator. Not long afterwards I actually met him on the radio.

Sometimes there is only a link to the hobby: once a lady approached me to ask if I was a radio amateur to add that her late husband had been one.. and she really hated it (I did not have a witty return on that one). 

Twice I managed to sneak up to another ham radio operator working portable in my area. Once it was Swa ON5SWA working from PAFF-0019 (and SOTA) and the other was PD0RWL working from PAFF-0085 (and COTA-PA).

Sneaking up to PD0RWL with my loop - receiving an S9++++ report

Meeting other fellow humans

You meet all sorts of people out in the field. You recognise the different types over time. Some are curious but reluctant to approach you and others want to know all about it even when you are in the middle of a pile-up. 
Most are curious about what the fun is and sometimes I am able to transfer a bit of the magic of making radio contacts when I explain it to them enthusiastically (mostly they look wearily though). 

Once in a while you meet people that make a lasting memory. A few of the highlights:

Quite early in my "portable career" I was in a nature park when a group of bird spotters came over. I can't really understand the fun in what they were doing but they were serious about it - their whole outfit including massive binoculars screemed "serious spotter!". I tried to explain what I was doing but saw it did not click with them at all. I tried some other angles and then I mentally zoomed out and saw the absurdity of the setting with two species looking at each other as aliens.
Other alienating meetings are the ones with people that have their own reasons to be at the secluded places I usually end up at. There are the guys looking for guys. Slightly akward. So far I have not been approached (only scanned) so I think the elaborate setup of wires sort of gives away I am there for a different reason.
Another category is the "second love" pair - a man and woman arrive each in their own car. For a while they share one car and then drive off again (to unsuspecting "first loves" I guess).
Sometimes you get the feeling you have ended up in a play or a movie.

It happens that you scare people. Like the one time we were testing a lowband setup with the YNOMY team. We were working with high masts (including my 26m Spiderbeam pole) and lots and lots of wire in a small park when a local turned up in his Range Rover. Quite agitated (as in: nervous not aggressive) he asked us what we were doing. It is only afterwards that we understood that he was afraid something permanent would be installed. We missed the opportunity of pretending to be working for a telephone company installing a new tower (the poor man..).  

Then there is the odd encounter that actually is scary. So far I have had only one: I was in France in a nature park quite far from the civilised world. There was a small road through the park and looking at the map I had seen one tiny track just off that road to an open space next to a river (see photo below). I found the track and parked my car on it to find the open spot that clearly was visited more often judging by rubbish laying around and remnants of an open fire. I thought youths must be using that area. 
Remote place in France for a memorable FFF activity
Just when I had set everything up a car stopped behind mine on that narrow track. Out came a scruffy guy that looked completely bewildered. He asked me how I had found this spot - as if it was some sort of hidden place. It seemed he came there more often and was not particularly amused to find me there. He was uneasy, and when he learned I am from PA he started to refer to drugs - which I am not interested in so that line of conversation was rather short. I tried to ignore him and started playing radio. The notebook I was using for logging had (and still has) a broken screen. Not a problem for me as it is still usable but it attracted his attention. He walked to his car and came back with a notebook asking me if I was interested (so picture this: scruffy guy, hidden place, drugs, spare notebooks to share... not the best pal to share a remote spot with).

The next thing he did was even more cinematic: being slightly bored he started to fiddle with his notebook using his pocket knife. Okay.. so here we have the scruffy guy a few meters away with a large enough knife. Interesting.

This is the only time I was aware of and made sure that my hammer was within short reach.

My new friend did leave in the end but it was the least enjoyable radio-activity I have done so far.


  1. Prachtige verhalen Lars, zo beleef je nog eens wat. Ik heb het met veel interesse gelezen. 73, Bas

    1. Bedankt Bas! Leuk om te horen van mijn meest trouwe lezer.
      73, Lars / PH0NO


  2. Erg leuk ! en ik zou er zo een paar verhaaltjes kunnen aan breien ... lol
    BTW het is ON5SWA (vijf), niet ON4 ....

    73 44 maatje !

  3. Mooi verhaal Lars met intresse gelezen. Gegroet Jan PD3JAG..

  4. It was great to meet you in Jersey, Sorry about your unhappy experience with the Honorary Police, they’re generally fine. Look forward to seeing you in GJ again. Nigel GJ7LJJ

    1. Thanks Nigel. It was a great adventure and good to have you for our sanity check re. the rules in GJ. I am sure our experience was the odd one out and with the clarification you arranged through the RSGB it will remain the exception. 73, Lars

  5. Cool notes, Lars! I'm reading with pleasure.

    73! Vit

  6. Sommige stukken zijn heel herkenbaar. Een boswachter (BOA) hier op de Sallandse heuvelrug was wel eens heel wantrouwend en dat werd een redelijk lang gesprek met overhandiging van mijn machtigingspapieren aan toe.

    Voor de gewone aanloop die geïnteresseerd zijn heb ik altijd een paar dubbelzijdige A5's bij me met daarop een korte uitleg op een humoristische manier (iets voor de vogelspotters)

    Heeft al een paar nieuwe radio zendamateurs opgeleverd.

    73 de Lex PH2LB

    1. Hallo Lex, bedankt voor je reactie. Die handout is een goed idee. Ik zal me ook eens wat beter voorbereiden.
      73, Lars / PH0NO