An Intro to Ham Radio Nets and Volunteering at Head of the Charles

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Head of the Charles Regatta as a ham radio operator on a safety launch. If you’re curious about what volunteering as a ham is like or the basics of participating in ham radio net then read on!

Launching at the MIT boathouse the morning of the regatta

The main reason Head of the Charles (HOCR) needs hams is to facilitate communications among its hundreds of volunteers. Texting and calling works great for small groups but it doesn’t scale to the size that HOCR needs. Almost more important is the function of ham in the event of a catastrophe. If thousands of spectators are trying to use cell towers at once they go down and amateur radio will be the only thing left standing. This happened during the tragic 117th Boston Marathon where hams played a crucial role in coordinating rescue efforts.

HOCR stationed hams all over the river. I was assigned to a safety launch docked near Harvard’s Weld boathouse. There were 13 safety launches patrolling the river; each was responsible for dealing with capsized boats on a particular stretch of the course. Launches had a radio operator (me), a lifeguard, and a launch pilot.

My station at Weld Boathouse

All communications were handled through something called a “radio net” which is basically just a network of radios coordinated by a station called net control. All communications must be routed through net control otherwise the net would descend into chaos with many people trying to talk all at once. Nets such as this one often use repeaters which allow the relatively weak signals from handheld radios to be heard across a much wider distance.

One of the core rules of radio nets is to always address net control before speaking. For example, if I wanted to call in a capsized shell, the following dialogue would be typical:

Let’s break this down. I first had to address net control in order to get permission to talk. After they acknowledged me, I provided a short statement about the capsized shell and its location.

Throughout this exchange we utilized our tactical callsigns. A tactical callsign is temporary and used to more easily identify various people on the radio for specific events. This is different than the FCC-issued callsigns provided upon completion of the amateur radio test. It’s much easier to discern the function of safety launch 8 than it is KD2OHC.

At the end of each exchange, however, law mandates that we identify ourselves with our actual callsigns. In the case of net control this is W1R and in my case this is KD2OHC.

It’s also necessary to actively be listening to your radio in case net control hails you. An exchange such as the following would be typical:

Radio nets such as this one are the go-to for all major events that need hams. Follow this protocol and you should be all set!

Now I’ll actually talk about my experiences at “the world’s largest regatta” and what volunteering is like.

We received our assignments about two days prior to the start of the event. HOCR needed volunteers on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Licensed hams are in pretty high demand, so chances are if you apply you’ll get a slot.

Along with position assignments we were also given the frequency assignments for the weekend. HOCR uses four channels; A and B are the primary channels that each use the same frequency just with differnet repeaters in Boston and Cambridge. B tended to work best for the downstream stretch of the event whereas A worked best for the upstream portion.

Everyone can hear message on both A and B as they are the same broadcast frequency. C and D are only used in the event that the primary repeaters go down or are unreachable. I programmed everything into my radio well in advance to make sure I didn’t have to scramble the morning of the competition.

All crews on the safety launches had to report to the MIT boathouse at 6am for a 7am departure. I’m currently a student at Harvard, so getting to MIT isn’t much of a hassle. I woke up at 5am to grab the 5:20 shuttle to MIT. Upon arriving everyone was busy getting ready for the day ahead.

Crews assembling gear and loading boats

It was also a beautiful morning, and we got to watch the sunrise over the Charles against the backdrop of downtown Boston.

My crew and I grabbed our free Brooks Brothers vests and hats (some of the main reasons people sign up to volunteer), our bagged lunches, and set out towards Harvard’s boathouse. Along the way net control checked in with each boat to make sure they were heading in the correct direction.

I packed a lot of food and warm clothing in my bag — I ended up eating the food, but luckily by mid-morning the temperature rose to a comfortable 75°F so only a t-shirt and shorts were needed. Boredom wasn’t really an issue; my crew was great and we were able to pass the time talking about various things. In addition, one of the most famous races in the world was happening right in front of our eyes.

Our station at Weld boathouse was in my opinion one of the best you can get. We had bathrooms available to use whenever we needed. There was also a reception for Harvard’s crew team being put on upstairs so we were able to grab some of their fancy food throughout the day.

The morning was mostly uneventful — there was minimal chatter over the radio and only one or two shells capsized (neither of them close to our launch). The main problems we had were people either impacting the bridge directly or getting forced into the side of the bridge by other shells. By lunch we had to only respond to one shell capsizing on the other side of the bridge; the rower was able to get back in their shell and resume the race.

The afternoon was more stressful merely because more things could have gone wrong. The afternoon races were mostly 8-person shells; if one of those went over we would have had a real problem. Luckily none of them did. Near the end of the day we had to respond to four more calls in succession. Our lifeguard never had to get in the water for any of them. My main function was providing information to net control about each incident so they could log it.

Drones were also prohibited at the event — each time we saw one I had to call it in to UCC, or the Unified Command Center. This was basically how we relayed messages to Cambridge PD. The drone operators must have been listening to our frequencies because each time we called one in the drone disappeared.

As the sun began to set we finally got to leave our station and head in. My crew left me at the Weld boathouse so I could just walk back up to Harvard. All in all, it was an amazing day that’ll leave a lasting impression. And I have a free Brooks Brothers hat and vest as a result :)

I'm a Harvard student, maker, and radio enthusiast. Check out my book on radio communications at amzn.to/341cywA and my website at www.AlexWulff.com