The destination was a shoreline bluff on the Maliko Bay side of Hookipa. There was no question about the location. There was a question about access.
Sitting out in a pasture, the hollow-tile blockhouse was easier to spot than usual. Where cows normally roamed and graffiti artists practiced their craft, there was a scatter of cars under an array of spindly radio antennae. The guys in the Maui Amateur Radio Club hadn't wasted any time installing the equipment needed for the American Radio Relay League's annual Field Day.
"We wanted to get the antennae up before the wind started blowing," said Tom Worthington, president of the club, one of Maui's oldest citizen-based organizations. The club was established in 1936 and had been using the site since the 1950s.
That was after negotiating a way into the World War II radio station site. Slow down while trying not to tie up traffic. Search for a gate. On the other side of a spot surfers call Turtle Bay, there's a narrow gate. It's open. Go through the gate carefully. There's a deep trench between here and there. Closer inspection shows the trench is a remnant of the old, old Hana Highway. There's a kind of two-track trail paralleling the trench.
Soon enough the flattened pasture grass shows the way around the trench and over to the Field Day site. Worthington is searching through a pile of equipment in the back of his truck. Friday was setup day for an exercise designed to prepare for some future event no one wanted to see.
Bright orange extension cords snake out from a trailer-mounted generator. Small, auxiliary generators sit around the blockhouse. Black lines run from the blockhouse and a borrowed MEO van to the towering antennae, each dedicated to a particular band of radio frequencies.
Inside the blockhouse there are two radio stations, transceivers that could be run off a car battery are hooked to high-power amplifiers. There are computers used to log contacts. One guy is working the 20-meter band just for practice and does a little of what hams call rag chewing - informal chatting, mostly about the equipment being used. He's an old-timer and uses a yellow legal pad to note the stations he is talking to. At each contact, he gives the club's station call letters, KH6RS, by saying kilowatt, hotel, six, romeo, sierra. He adds "on Maui."
It's a seductive addition. "Everyone wants to talk to Hawaii," one of the hams said when Matt Thayer showed up to take pictures for The Maui News.
Worthington, who has a state-of-the-art station at his home in Kula, seems to be the chief tech. He's needed over in the MEO van where another station has been installed. Something is wrong with the hookup between the transceiver and the amplifier.
Worthington is familiar with the equipment. He checks cable connections and begins twisting dials. The problem is quickly diagnosed and corrected. Worthington turns his attention to an external speaker aimed at what appears to be a rest and relaxation area under an adjacent tent. He wants to change the location of the speaker "to eliminate feedback." The cord is too short and he scurries off to find an extension.
Multiple antennae are needed to cover different frequencies. Bouncing shortwave signals off the ionosphere depends on the sun and other factors. One thing ham operators soon learn is which band will work at which time of day.
The object of the Field Day is to prepare for a time when all normal methods of communication fail. The Amateur Relay League, formed exactly 100 years ago, organizes the event. That happened on Kauai after Hurricane Iniki wiped out the island's infrastructure, including cellphones and the Internet. Hams provided the necessary communication link with the other islands. Jammed cellphone circuits also proved inadequate during the more recent tsunami scare on Maui. Many ham operators have backup generators or can operate out of their cars.
During Field Day, operators across the Mainland contact each other from temporary, possibly emergency locations. It turns into a kind of contest involving the number of contacts. The Maui Amateur Radio Club excels in these contests, often racking up 1,000 contacts an hour.
It's all about preparing for disasters, even the likes of the typhoon in the Philippines. The national Amateur Radio Relay League has a saying, "When all else fails." Maui's hams don't want to see anything like a disaster, but if one comes, they are prepared.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.