Veronica Langteigen and Tom Ramberg during the contest recently. FOTO: Eirik Palm
Blues guitarists are immersed in furious solos, the audience is stomping to the beat and pints are being downed in crowded venues. It's blues weekend and Longyearbyen is in festival mode.
A familiar reunion
Away from the din, down at a boathouse by the beach, a door opens. Out comes a small group. They're talking animatedly as they go out onto a plain, open a container, and remove tubes and wires that connect to a large antenna. This is their second day of installation work and in a few hours is the contest. Amateur radio operators from around the world go on air to get in touch with each other and collect points. The contest is annual and lasts a full weekend in October. In Norway, it begins shortly after midnight Friday.
Before it gets dark, all the antennas will be set up. From the left is Terje Finsveen, Thor-Ove Amundsen, Peter G. Lund, Tom Ramberg and Erlend Jensen-Sandvold. FOTO: Eirik Palm
"We go in shifts. Now I'm going to damn well make this a priority," Tom Ramberg, a passionate amateur radio operator who now lives in Helsinki
Long ago he was among those who formed the Svalbard Amatørradioklubb (SARK) and, with the exception of a night visit to the Longyearbyen Bluesklubb on Friday, he made the trip up from the Finnish capital to participate in the contest, a kind of world championship for amateurs.
It started in a small and shabby barracks. Then it moved to a cabin down below the waste facility, where today it is used by both local members and amateur radio operators from Norway and abroad.
Tom Ramberg, Peter G. Lund and Thor-Ove Amundsen sets up one of the antennas outside the cabin. FOTO: Eirik Palm
The shifts are up to two hours long, until they get tired of the noise and the voices in the headset. A total of eight are involved in this year's competition: Tom, Thor-Ove Amundsen, Terje Finsveen, Erlend Jensen-Sandvold and Peter G. Lund are making preparations. In addition, Veronica Langteigen, Jan Olav Sæter and Terje Weiseth Andersen are participating.
The participants stretch out wires in the cold, take bearings so the antenna follows the direction of the compass and anchor the tethers with a sledgehammer.
At 2 a.m. Saturday they go on the air and the small room innermost in the cabin is filled with sound.
"Then we'll hopefully have a cannon opening, someone will call for us and then everything will be going. Three or four connections per minute at the fastest," says Peter, who by all accounts is a good "Elmer."
Elmer is the term referring to old amateur radio operators with experience. A person who can inquire. And Peter also has answers.
And not just on radio. According to Peter, radio operators are well above average in their interest in geography. As soon as someone says Micronesia, he thinks Victor Golf.
"In the old days it was like a fishing trip: throw out the line and hope for nibble," he says.
Now everything is digitized and mobile phones are full of apps that cover about everything from radio activity to transmission conditions.
Keeping their word
"Radio amateurs in Svalbard have gathered together" was the headline in Svalbardposten on Nov. 11, 1983. At that time there were 11 amateurs with new radio licenses who had just formed the Svalbard group of the Norwegian Radio Relay League, the 73rd group in the country.
Among those sitting on the couch then was Tom, excited and 32 years younger. He had just been elected as the group's leader and was talking about plans for the future. At the top of the wish list was a clubhouse in Sjøområdet. In addition, the club needed more equipment, which they intended to buy by hosting dance parties to raise funds, according to the newspaper article.
"We also want to make this a socially beneficial effort," he said. "We will provide the governor and emergency response team our services. Furthermore, we want a partnership with the Red Cross and Svalbard Turn."
No doubt what goes on inside the Mathiasbu. FOTO: Eirik Palm
Promises were kept and Svalbard Turn benefitted from the radio services during events such as the Svalbard Skimaraton. This earned the team praise from the FIS International Ski Federation.
Now the five radio operators are sitting and talking excitedly about what to expect. When the clock reaches the right rime, they break radio silence and the world is called up:
“CQ. Contest. Juliet, Whisky, five, Echo.”
JW is the prefix that refers to Svalbard.
About 300 "countries" – including Svalbard, which is separate from mainland Norway – are included in contest. The Svalbard team says the sun determines their prospects.
"An outburst from the sun is expected on Sunday, which could result in our getting bad conditions here," Tom says.
The sun emits charged particles, and these affect the atmosphere and can disrupt radio signals.
Saturday morning. It's buzzing inside the transmission room. Both radios are operating, and in the living room Tom is sitting and resting. His eyes are considerably narrower than the day before, but the smile and enthusiasm remain.
"It started slow, but Saturday morning it began to pick up and Svalbard had a pileup," he says.
Inside the radio room, Peter's voice gets higher and higher, and his rate of speech increases. He's now on a roll and the points add up.
"Tact and tone are important," he says. "One rule is you generally ask whether a channel is free before you take it. That does not apply when there is a contest and there is just one request. If there's no answer, the channel is taken over immediately."
"But it is a very polite sport."
"Yes, I would call it that. If chess can be called sport, this is also a sport," says Veronica, one of the newcomers to the team.
"It was my husband who held courses for radio amateurs, so I probably had no choice," she says with a laugh.
To emphasize the sporting dimension, she explains the "Summits on the Air," where amateur radio operators take equipment on their backs and go up onto mountain peaks and passes. There is a lot of training involved.
In the living room, the talk is about equipment, experience and old age. Handheld devices, repeat stations and magnetic antennas on cars.
"I've had VHF in my car since 1975 and still use it," said Thor-Ove, who came northward to take part.
'Is that you, Tom?'
The next day their eyes are even narrower. After 36 hours they have surpassed one million points and gotten four to five hours of sleep.
"This morning we had an hour with 188 contacts," Peter says. "You don't have much time for coffee breaks then."
"When people start calling you, it is important to just go full throttle. There is a bit of a kick," Tom says.
"I called out and suddenly heard 'Is that you, Tom'' 'Yes,' I replied,' he adds, laughing at the night's happenings.
"We had a treat recently: South Cook Island," Peter says.
"And from Kuwait."
"And during last night I called on America and got Columbia, Galapagos and Brazil," Tom interjects.
"And today we have actually had real food. Tom has served eggs and bacon," Peter says with a laugh.
Jan Olav Sæter sets the frequency. FOTO: Eirik Palm
It's is Veronica's time to reach out again. At the other radio is Jan. So far the amateur radio group has been in contact with operators in 185 different countries in 85 different zones.
Veronica has been transmitting for a a total of five hours so far on this Sunday and has no plans to give up yet.
"At the beginning you're a little shy, but then you begin to toughen up" she says as she sends another call-out:
"CQ contest, JW5E. Contest."
And gets responses.
"You are 5940. Thank you," she says to the person at the other end before observing "Now I've got a multiplier, which gives us points on both country and zone!"
Shortly after midnight on Monday the transmissions cease and this year's contest is over.
"The best thing about this year's contest is that we have time to talk with them," Tom says. "Now we have three who can keep it going. Seeing this community environment grow, that's the most fun."
Translated by Mark Sabbatini