International Lighthouse Weekend

Visit any lighthouse on the third weekend of August, and you will see a group of men and women under tents, talking a strange language to people all over the world on radios. They are ham radio operators, and you will be there on International Lighthouse Weekend (Aug. 20 and 21 this year) when hams around the world celebrate their local lighthouses. They do this by calling attention in a very public way for the need to preserve and protect these spaces. Sometimes hams use satellites, or bounce signals off the moon. Most of the time they use the edge of space as a mirror to send their signals to fellow hams near and far. It is part art, part science, all fun. They will invite you to join their world while you are there. You can listen to their conversations, perhaps even speak with someone over the air. It is a magical treat sure to inspire the mind.

Raising antennas on the Lighthouse deck.

At the Fire Island Lighthouse, a group of hams from the Great South Bay Amateur Radio Club will set up in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday morning, stringing antennas from the top of the flagpole, with its commanding position overlooking the bay. These are ideal conditions for the hams, who then set up tents and equipment along the deck of the keeper’s building. Each ham has a special interest. Several use Morse code, a language that has been used since the 1840s. A CW operator can send and receive as quickly as you are reading this. Other hams use digital communications, computer generated codes that sound musical and are state-of-the-art efficient. Most hams just use a microphone. They speak with other hams, each licensed by the government, over frequencies dedicated to ham radio. Each ham has his own distinct call sign but the club call sign is used at the Lighthouse, W2GSB. In contact with another ham, they share stories about their location and equipment, and the uniqueness of their public space.

Ham radio is amateur radio, a public service and backup to the communications used by emergency services. Hams practice their skills often during the year, testing their readiness. This club helps out at the Cross Bay Swim each year, providing much needed communications separate from the marine channels used by the Coast Guard. Twice a year they go into the field with generators and tents to simulate a true emergency. During natural disasters such as the hurricane that swept through Puerto Rico in 2017, hams provided the main source of communications for months. Hams flew in at their own expense to go where the need was greatest. Others sent supplies to friends they met on the air, helping with whatever they had available. When the power was restored, they returned home satisfied by the great adventure of public service.

When they are at home, they talk with other hams casually, gabbing over a virtual kitchen table like old friends. The hams on the other end of these conversations may be in distant countries and speak other languages. The cultural richness of these gabfests is something to behold. Ask an Irish ham to describe life at the local pub and you will have a long and very interesting answer. Want to learn French, Chinese, Swahili? Mention that to a foreign ham and you have a friend for life. Sometimes hams chat with a farmer plowing fields, or a private sailboat captain cruising the seas, or a doctor in a rural community. Kings, senators and movie stars are hams. So are plumbers, truck drivers and moms. On the air, everyone goes by their first name. No one knows what they do for a living. The richness of these relationships is astounding, the shared sense of community Utopian. Listening to them is cheap, license-free and fun. You only need a shortwave radio.

Long Island is a fabulous place to play radio. The earliest transatlantic telegraph stations were positioned nearby. The U.S. Coast Guard had a massive navigation antenna just east of the Lighthouse. The tall tower at the present Coast Guard station is topped with a single communications antenna that can listen far out into the ocean. Press Wireless and Telefunken ran international traffic from Hauppauge and Sayville. One of the largest ship-to-shore stations in the world was located in Amagansett. Nicola Tesla tested his theories of worldwide power transmission from Rocky Point. They shared the power of location, location, location. A modest ham radio transmitter is able to speak easily with the seven continents from Fire Island using low power and a small antenna thanks to the effect of saltwater all around us.

Check out this slice of technology on the weekend of Aug. 20 and 21 during daylight hours at the Fire Island Lighthouse. Be sure to say hi to one of the hams.