Saturday, September 22, 2007

It takes patience

By pretty much all accounts, we are either at, or very close to, the bottom of the current solar cycle. For those of us who like to bounce signals off the ether (no, not ethernet), that means that it's generally a lot harder to work distant stations. In fact, it's just about impossible on some bands, because the ionization required to support propagation on those bands is either entirely absent, or is at such a low level, that it's effectively non-existant.

My home station is pretty modest: I have an Icom 756 ProII and use either a Heil Pro-set Plus (generally for contesting), my relatively new Heil GM4, or even my Bencher BY-1 paddles. That feeds into a G5RV antenna in the backyard, which is strung between two trees at a height of between around 30' to maybe 45'. (One end is lower, it was a somewhat smaller tree.)

The G5RV (I'm referring now to the antenna, not to Louis Varney, G5RV who designed it) is a compromise antenna.(See the first G5RV link for lots of details on that aspect.) It's designed to work on all bands between 10m (28mHz) and 80m (3.5mHz), although I've been able to use mine (with less-than-stellar results) on 6m (50mHz) and 160m (1.8mHz) as well. When I first got interested in HF, I wanted to put up an antenna that would work on most of the HF bands, would be relatively inexpensive, and would be easy to install. Although getting the feedline into what is now my permanent shack was quite a challenge (I'll save that story for another post), a bunch of folks from my radio club came over and helped get the G5RV (as well as a Coment GP-15 tri-band vertical for 2m, 70cm, and 6m) up in the air and set up.

When I was trying to figure out what kind of antenna to put up, I pretty quickly came to the conclusion that for HF, I was going to be using some kind of wire antenna, as opposed to a beam of some type. Quite a few people I spoke to told me that a G5RV would work, but not very well, and I probably wouldn't work a lot of DX. Fortunately (for me), at least the latter part of that statement proved to be wrong.

I was fortunate to start working DX towards the end of 2000, at which point Solar Cycle 23 was just at the first of a double-peak (see the earlier link to see what I'm talking about), so it was relatively easy to work all over the world. 20m, the workhorse band, was open until very late at night (more like very early the next morning). I hadn't really gotten the hang of working 40m or 80m, but there was still plenty of DX the higher bands.

When I commented to some of the G5RV nay-sayers that I seemed to be having little trouble working plenty of DX, they attributed that to the fact that it was the peak of the solar cycle, plus the fact that as a relatively new DXer, almost everything was new, so it just seemed like things were working out.

So, fast forward to late summer of 2007. The bands are in terrible shape, there's noise,
propagation in general is just lousy, and some of the key indicators of solar activity, such as solar flux, look like an EKG of a patient who is dead. (At times when the cycle was at it's peak, the base level was higher, and the spikes would go to the M and X levels frequently.) There are plenty of places on the web to get a good explanation of what all this means (and I highly recommend picking up a copy of "The New Shortwave Propagation Handbook" by Jacobs, Cohen, and Rose if you want to really learn something about the subject).

Anyway, despite all the difficulties, I do try to work a little DX as often as I can. It's more exciting when there's a DXpedition going on to an interesting place, but when there isn't, I'll try to find a station in a country that I haven't worked on some new band or new mode (or both), just to keep the cobwebs from forming on my microphone or my key. But as it happens, there is a pretty interesting DXpedition going on at the moment from a place called St. Brandon, an island in the Indian Ocean just north of Maurtius. The callsign for the operation is 3B7C and the group doing this is the 5 Star DXers Association, who got together for to do things like this. St. Brandon is relatively rare as DXCC entities go, although there was a team operating from there as 3B7SP earlier this year (who were originally supposed to operate from another nearby island.)

Although I worked 3B7SP when they were on, I wanted to try to work 3B7C to make some contacts on new bands. Because 3B7 is rare, as expected, the pileups were huge, especially during the first few days. I made a few attempts to contact them during the first few days of their operation on 40m, which should have been (and in fact, was) the best place to try to work them, but I wasn't able to get through. However, as time went on, I kept trying, first in the spots where I figured I'd have the best chance to work them (40m and 80m), and then eventually on 20m and 17m.

The key here for me, and this is where it ties into the post title, is that you have to be patient. On several nights, I sat by the radio, calling over and over again while trying to figure out their split pattern (when it wasn't obvious). Fortunately, my radio has a built-in voice & CW keyer, and the computer has a CW keyer, so it didn't have to do it "manually" for the whole time, but I did have to listen, and listen, and listen. Most importantly, I had to be trying to make a contact, not griping on some email reflector about how poor the conditions are (yes, I complained here, but that was after I'd made the contact). It seems that too many people find excuses ("The bands are just no good", "my antenna isn't good enough", etc.) rather than actually getting in front of the radio and trying to make a contact. I can guarantee you that you will not make a DX contact on the air without using your radio. That's what I do, and to date, it's netted me about 283 different DXCC entities, all of which were worked with my 100 watts into a compromise antenna. I had to be patient, but it's worked well.

On an unrelated note, after Scott, NE1RD, mentioned that he'd been toying with Twitter, I decided to give it a shot as well. You can view my feed on their website, and there are other options to follow it in other ways as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Hey, you never know!

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was surprised to discover that I'd won the SMIRK contest for the 2nd call area. Originally, I hadn't even planned to submit my log, but Larry, N4VA, talked me into it, and I'm glad he did. I also learned a lesson, which is to always submit your log. Not surprisingly, Larry's not the only one who recommends that.

This month, Scot, K9JY, has been running a series of contesting tips in his blog. Some are pretty obvious, some not so, but all are worthwhile reading. Today's posting is about exactly what I discussed in the first paragraph, always submitting your log. I won't rehash what he posted (read the link for the details) but as I've mentioned, my experience is that it's easy to do (since other than about my first 5 or 10 HF contacts, I've always logged electronically) and every now and then, you might find that you actually win something.

Those of you who know me know that I'm far from a serious contester, though I do occasionally get involved enough to want to try to reach some self-set goal. Sometimes that goal is make a certain number of contacts, sometimes to better my score from a previous year (which can be a real challenge as the solar cycle bottoms out, or in a 6m contest when there is good sporadic E-skip one year, and none the next), or sometimes to hit a target set by the contest sponsor at which point you'll automatically receive a participation certificate. I've done that a bunch of times, and have gotten nice certificates from several contests, including the California QSO Party, the Kentucky QSO Party, and even won (again, unexpectedly) for NJ in the Virginia QSO Party.

I agree with Scot: If you go to the trouble of making the contacts, go ahead and submit your log. As the ad for the New York Lottery says "Hey, you never know!".

Monday, September 03, 2007

ZF2DK cards going out

Just a quick note to let folks know that the QSL cards that I talked about previously have been printed up. I've responded to those cards that I've received and they'll be going in the mail this week.

As a side note, I wound up printing the cards on Staples "Gloss White Photo Quality Postcards" (Staples item #490861) and I'm very happy with the results. I'd previously used a non-gloss card when printed my own cards, and they came out OK, but these really do look a lot nicer. The only problem (which I knew about in advance) is that the cards separate into 5 1/2" x 4 1/4" cards, and I need to trim them down to be 5 1/2" x 3 1/2" to be "standard" QSL size. I wouldn't want to do that for hundreds of cards, but for the couple of dozen that I'll wind up sending out, I can deal with it.

I would be curious to know if anyone who prints their own cards on a regular basis has found a card stock that they like better, especially if it doesn't involve having to trim the printed cards.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Tips for operating from the Caymans - A summary

I thought I was done with posts about my Cayman trip, but something came up recently that I thought would be a useful addition to the blog. A friend forwarded a note to me from another ham from a private club mailing list, asking for information about operating from the Cayman Islands. Although most of this information is contained elsewhere here, I wrote the other ham an email with a lot of the relatively important information summarized. I thought it might be useful to post my email as a summary which I could use to refer folks to in the future. Here's the letter, with a few minor edits.

First of all, the key to getting your license is to START EARLY! I started in March and didn't get the license until May. Things down there work on "island time", you need to be prepared to wait a bit. The folks are all very nice, it's just that it might take a couple of weeks for them to get around to answering an email. The Caymanian equivalent of the FCC is the ICTA, which is at Unfortunately, although there's a link for Amateur radio, it's marked "coming soon", and has been since I first looked back in February 2007. Remember, it's island time. One note about the delay in getting a response is that the main person to contact for Amateur licensing, Kevin Washington, apparently has been ill, so he's not always in the office. Kevin's email is I also dealt with Nikki Forbes,, and there's also the address (which I think may go to both of them).

Note that the Cayman license is good for one year from date of issue. Also, note that in order to bring radio gear into the country, you need to get (and pay for; I think it was USD$ 12) an import permit. I traveled pretty light, and if I hadn't said something to the customs folks there, I doubt they would have even noticed that I had any gear with me, but I have heard from others who've been down there that if you don't have an import permit (and they find your gear), you'll be required to post a cash bond equal to the value of the gear. (They don't want you "importing" gear that's going to stay on the island.) The real pain in that case, aside from having to lay out the money, is going through the process to collect it when you're coming back. I figured that the $12 import permit was a good insurance policy. In my case, I gave the customs agent the form, she had to ask a few people to figure out what to do with it, then she handed it back to me, and said "ok, thanks". Of course, if you wind up staying at a place where you don't need to bring gear, it won't be an issue.

Probably the best person to contact regarding all things ham radio down there is Andrew Eden, ZF1EJ. His email is Andrew runs the Cayman club station, ZF1A. I didn't get a chance to operate from there, but from speaking with others I understand that if you bring your own rig, you can operate from there (it's an antennas-only shack, or at least it was from what others have told me), though I'm not sure what kind of arrangements you'd need to make. However, Andrew was very helpful in responding to all of my questions about radio in general, the island, and dealing with the ICTA. He normally will respond pretty quickly to email, so if you don't hear back from him after a few days to a week, drop him a gentle reminder (like everyone, he gets busy) and I'm sure you'll hear back from him.

The one other thing that I can think of off the top of my head is to be sure to let folks know that you're going. I documented the list of folks that I contacted to let them know I was going. There are probably others that I missed, but I have to say that I was pretty amazed at how many places my announcement showed up after sending to this list:

Name of publication/list: Contact
Ohio/Penn DX Bulletin: kb8nw@arrl.net425
DX News: Mauro Pregliasco, I1JQJ (
Daily DX: