Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Loose ends

Once again I've gotten a bit behind in posting, but I do have a few minutes and wanted to mention a few things.

I received three envelopes from the W2 QSL bureau recently. A lot of the cards were for "routine" QSOs, but there were a handful of "goodies", including a bunch of new countries confirmed on 75/80m. That brings my total for 80m to 82 confirmed, and I've got nearly another 40 above that worked, so I'll soon have enough confirmations for the 5-Band DXCC award. I'll actually have enough for 5BDXCC plus a couple of other endorsements for single bands, since I'll then have 100 or more contacts confirmed on all bands from 10m through 80m, except for 30m (and 60m, which I don't use and which doesn't count for DXCC purposes.) In looking up my stats, I realized that I've also got far more than 100 just on CW mode, and I only need 6 more confirmations on RTTY/Digital for single mode there. It's nice to make progress, even with the bands so bad lately, though since I haven't done a a DXCC submission in a while it's probably going to be pretty darn expensive when I finally do.

Along with the bureau cards for my regular K2DBK call, I also got a handful of cards for my ZF2DK operation about 18 months ago. I had to print up some more cards (on postcard stock on my inkjet printer) since I'd only printed a fairly limited number of them originally and had run out. It wasn't too hard to do, but I did wind up trying to remember/figure out how to feed the card stock through the printer so that the picture and the text were printed "rightside-up" relative to each other. Well, I tried to do that, and still managed to print two sheets of cards with the printing on the back "upside down". Oh well, the card will still count just the same. And I got to use my nifty "QSO confirmed by K2DBK" stamp that I picked up from W9XR a while back.

In other news, I've got a couple of possible trips coming up this summer. One will be "hamcation", which is to say that I plan to go and operate a significant amount. I'm working out the details, but one possibility would be to go down to the US Virgin Islands, particularly St. Croix, and operate from there. (Ok, I might take a break to check out the beaches and do a little snorkeling now and then.) I may be able to bring along my son Justin, KC2MCS with me. (He's agreed to upgrade to at least a General class license, and possibly Extra, so that he can join me.)

The other trip is more of a vacation with some ham radio thrown in, similar to my try to Grand Cayman. The current thinking is that we might go to Costa Rica (TI) and I'd operate in my spare time there. More on both of these trips when the plans firm up.

On a final note, related to the two possible upcoming trips, I'd like to remind my readers about my DX Publicity Contacts Page where I've collected various sources that are good to notify if you're going to be operating as DX. Please let me know if you've got any updates or additions to that page.

Monday, December 15, 2008

I stand corrected

Jerry, WA2TTI, read my previous posting and solved the mystery of why I can't find any information about Windwood: It no longer exists.

Jerry wrote:
Windwood is no more, it has been sold and no ham radios. The station I was at was Radio Reef, a better contest station. I was there in April and then again in Dec 3-10. This is a great place as you can see by the pictures. Jerry
Radio Reef looks awesome from what I can see on their web site: http://www.radioreef.com/ Maybe I'll have to take a trip down there myself.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wish I was there

Last week I worked Jerry, WA2TTI while he was on vacation in St. Croix. He was operating from Windwood, the station better known as WP2Z. WP2Z is a very well-known contesting station, but between contests, I believe that it's available for rental. (The link that I had to the information about renting it seems to be broken; anyone have a valid link?) Since he was operating from there, he was entitled to use the KP2 prefix to indicate that he was there. (Since St. Croix is part of the US Virgin Islands, a US callsign is valid there, and you are not required to use the KP2 identifier, but since there are far fewer stations on the air from KP2 than from the regular US "2" area of New York and New Jersey, it's doubtful that anyone operating from there wouldn't use KP2.)

I've worked stations on St. Croix many times (including working WP2Z 52 times so far; I'm sure I'll work them again) on every HF band that I use (including 160 meters, where I only have a total of 32 contacts out of the around 13,500 total that I have logged) on CW and Phone, and even in a few places using RTTY or PSK. I certainly didn't "need" to work Jerry, but after listening to him chat for a bit I figured I'd say hello.

It turns out that Jerry's wife had a small video camera and took some video during the contact, which he's uploaded to his Picasaweb site. In case you're wondering what the heck he starts talking about, he'd mentioned to someone earlier than he'd been given the speed of a car in "furlongs per fortnight", a valid though not particularly useful unit of measurement. My comment to him (just before the video starts) was that I'd used Google to compute what a speed of 60 mph would be in furlongs per fortnight, and the video picks up from there.

By the way, if you've never used Google to do conversions, it's really easy: Just use a search term like "45 hours to days" or "74 usd to gbp" or "60 mph to furlongs per fortnight" and Google does the rest.

Anyway, it was fun getting to hear myself on the "other end" of the conversation, and the other pictures in Jerry's web album are nice to look at as well.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Podcast / audio now available

I'm experimenting with a new service called "Odiogo" which produces an audio feed (a.k.a. Podcast) automatically from each blog entry. You can hear the audio directly at my blog (that's http://k2dbk.blogspot.com) or you can subscribe to it using a variety of RSS readers and even iTunes by clicking on this here. (That link is also available on the blog site.) I'd be curious to hear from any readers (or perhaps they should be called "listeners") who find this useful.

If you're reading this directly on the website or get it emailed to you, you can ignore the following: One other change is that the URL for the RSS feed has changed. It's now http://feedproxy.google.com/K2DBKsHamRadioBlog. This was done as part of integration into Google (who owns Feedburner), but you shouldn't have to change anything as the feed will automatically redirect itself. If you run into any problems, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Courtesy isn't a one-way street

This past weekend was the ARRL SSB Sweepstakes contest. This is another one of the major contests that are part of the fall contest season. There's something that's far more of a constant during the contest season than anything else. More constant than forgetting to configure some piece of your station properly until the last minute, more constant than some emergency cropping up just when the bands are getting hot, and far more constant than propagation: Complaints.

Starting before each contest, with a major peak after each one (though it's worse after the phone contests) the complaint emails will start hitting the reflectors (email lists) about how inconsiderate the contesters are. This usually has to do with a contester jumping on top of an ongoing (non-contest) QSO without even a passing attempt to ensure that the frequency is available. Unfortunately, a large number of these complaints are merited, but there are a number of regular complaints that are not valid. For instance, just because you've met your buddy on the same frequency for the last 42 years at some specific time doesn't mean you "own" the frequency, and someone holding that frequency prior to your arrival has to give it up because you say so. While it may be courteous to do so, in this case, "possession" (use) of the frequency is not 9/10ths of the law.

In fact, the FCC rules governing our hobby in Parts 97.101(b), (c), and (d) specifically say:
(b) Each station licensee and each control operator must cooperate in selecting transmitting channels and in making the most effective use of the amateur service frequencies. No frequency will be assigned for the exclusive use of any station.
(c) At all times and on all frequencies, each control operator must give priority to stations providing emergency communications, except to stations transmitting communications for training drills and tests in RACES.
(d) No amateur operator shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communication or signal.
My interpretation of this is that the only time that someone can "take" a frequency that is in used by someone else is in order to provide emergency communications, and to do otherwise is to violate the rules as specified in subsection (c).

Here's what happened to me, which annoyed me enough to write this. I was busy for much of the day on Saturday, but I had some free time to participate in the previously mentioned SS contest on Sunday. Although I normally "Search & Pounce" (listen for stations calling for other stations, work them, and move on), I decided that it would be fun to try "run" stations, which means that I'd do the calling and let others come to me. This is a lot more fun than having to tune around, can result in a higher rate (the number of stations you work during a given period of time), which in turn generally results in a higher score, though it does mean that you have to be able to find a clear frequency to use. This is particularly difficult for low-power stations like myself, since, due to propagation, often a stronger station will be on the same frequency but in a different part of the country and will eventually overpower me. That's OK when it happens, and I usually just move off the frequency and try elsewhere.

What happened Sunday was that I'd managed to find a clear frequency on 40m to use to "run", specifically 7.244Mhz. I started CQing (calling) at around 20:00Z (see my previous post for more information about why I'm using UTC, not local time!) and had been working stations pretty steadily until around 20:36Z. (I worked 28 stations during that time, which may have been my best rate ever in an HF contest.) Right around then, between CQs, I heard a couple of guys come up on the frequency and start chatting. I said, at least three times between transmissions "gentlemen, this frequency is occupied, please QSY, thanks, K2DBK" (informing them that I was there, and asking them to move), then returned to CQing. They didn't move, and didn't even acknowledge me. I know that sometimes propagation can be stronger in one direction than another, or that they could have been using very high power and couldn't hear me, but I really doubt that was the case. One of the operators was located in North Carolina and I'd been working even QRP (low power) stations there easily.

It's time for some background: The National Traffic System is one of the many public services performed by volunteers all over the country. (Please click on the link for more information, there's far to much to go into here.) I was a very active participant in the NTS until a couple of years ago (I stopped primarily because of conflicts with other responsibilities with work and my family), but I still consider myself a supporter of the NTS system. In order to move traffic (message) around the country, there are regional area nets that meet on the HF frequencies (including 40m) since HF is best for medium and long-distance communications.

At about 20:45Z, one of the stations started calling the 4th Region National Traffic System Net (aka 4RN). (Remember, I'd already asked them, when they were just chatting, to move somewhere else.) Instead of asking me if I'd stand by, or moving up or down a few kilohertz (which is commonly done on HF nets), the net control simply proceeded to call the net, which interfered with my ability to use the frequency.

Although I would have legally been in the right to simply remain on the frequency, I did what I considered to be the right thing to do, which was to move to another available frequency. The net control had done exactly what other non-contesters complain about: They "took" a frequency without asking. While I acknowlege the possibility that neither the net control station nor any other station heard me informing them that the frequency was in use, I remain fairly certain that they did in fact hear me and simply decided to keep operating on "their" frequency. Had the net control station asked that I move because there was a regularly scheduled net there, I almost certainly would have done so. Had he asked that I stand by until the net completed, I would have been even happier to do so. (I would have gotten a short break and would have gotten my frequency back when they were done, probably ten or fifteen minutes later.) Instead, they chose to take the low road and intentionally interferred with my operation.

If I really wanted to, I could have easily recorded everything that happened, and possibly file a complaint with the FCC. (In fact, I may have done so, and honestly haven't checked; my contest logger can be configured to record audio while operating, and while I don't think I left that feature turned on for this contest, I may have. Guess I'll have to check my computer.) But I am not going to do that, since A) There is the chance that this was an honest mistake, B) I would prefer not to have someone performing a valuable service, running an NTS net, get in trouble, and C) I still believe that it's in the best interest of hams to work out these kinds of issues themselves.

So keep in mind that courtesy isn't a one-way street. There will always be situations where one person is using a frequency that for some reason another person wants to use. Don't try to "take" the frequency, at least ask if the person who was there would be willing to move or to stand by if the use is expected to be short. There is enough animosity in the world, let's try to make make our hobby more pleasant than that.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

It's about time

A few weekends ago the ARRL CW Sweepstakes contest was held. It was also the weekend where, in the United States, the time "changes" from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. I won't go into the history of DST, or Summer Time, since the web is full of resources that discuss that ad nauseum. I'm also going to show some restraint and not launch into a full tirade (just a little grumbling) about how pointless it is and how especially stupid it is that the goverment of the United States decided to change the start and stop times last year, costing many millions of dollars to have all kinds of software and other equipment changed, while actually increasing energy use. (A recent article about that is here, one from spring 2007 is here.) No, I'm not going to talk about that.

What I am going to talk about is the surprising level of misunderstanding that some hams seem to have about telling time.

Why is time important for hams? There are lots of reasons but I want to address two in particular. The first one is that when a ham makes a contact on the radio and wants to exchange QSO (contact) information, in the form of a QSL card or electronically, we need to agree on a standard time reference to use. In case the reason for this isn't obvious, because contacts are often made across time zones, if I log the contact time in my local time, it's not the same time (and in some cases, even the same date) at the other end. It can be confusing to try to validate a contact where the time (and date) don't match what you expect. For example, I'm typing this at 6:44PM local time on Sunday, November 9. If I were to make a contact with my friend Bruce, XW1B in Laos, if he were to log that contact in local time, his log would say 6:44AM on Monday, November 10. Instead, we both just log that the contact was made at 23:45 (the same as 11:45PM) UTC or Zulu (which is essentially the same as GMT), on Sunday, November 9, and all's well. (As an interesting aside, there actually is a difference between GMT and UTC, the Wikipedia article is pretty interesting if you're interested in that kind of thing.)

One thing that has happened to me a number of times is when a fellow ham gets the UTC time correct, but gets the date wrong. I've gotten cards that had the correct time (in UTC) but the date was wrong. This typically happens when the UTC time has gone to the next day (such as in my example above). I suspect that some of those are honest mistakes, but I do recall an email exchange with a ham a few years back where he insisted that since the day hadn't changed at his location, the day remained the same. I think that I finally managed to convince him otherwise.

The other reason that I wanted to mention is that for certain special events, and in particular, for contests, hams need to know when the contest starts and when it ends. Unlike the discussion above where it's only a single point in time, a contest involves a period of time. Clearly you should neither operate prior to the start of the contest nor after it ends. Since most contests involve participants, the start and end times are usually specified in UTC. Very simple, right?

Well, I thought so, but apparently not everyone does. A few weeks ago, just before the ARRL CW Sweepstakes contest that I mentioned earlier, someone posted to one of the mailing lists that I receive asking if there would be more hours to operate since the clocks would go back one hour in the middle of the contest. He then went on to ask how to deal with the "fact" that since the time between 1AM and 2AM occurs twice when "falling back" his log entries wouldn't be correct. (In the US, when changing between DST and Standard time, the change is made at 2AM local time. When going to DST, the local clocks jump from 2AM to 3AM. When going the other way, the hour between 1AM and 2AM occurs twice. Remember that this is only the local time.)

My response to him was that since the contest start and stop times are specified in UTC, and UTC, by definition doesn't adjust for DST, that there were still the same number of hours between 2100 UTC on the 1st of November and 0300 UTC on the 3rd of November this year as there are, and have been, every other year. Further, since logs have to be submitted in UTC anyway, why not just log in UTC and not worry about any kind of conversion? Although I did respond directly (not on the mailing list) to the person who asked the question, I never received a response.

Personally, I always log in UTC, even on those rare occasions (like when I was operating from the boat as K2NUD/MM) when I use paper. It's not hard to figure out the local time difference, and once you start, there's nothing to it. My computer logging programs automatically log in UTC, I keep the clock on the display on my Icom 756 Pro II set to UTC, and I have this nifty program called Qlock that allows me to display local times all over the world (that's how I knew what time it was for XW1B but also shows UTC. It's easy. If you don't use a computer for logging or don't have a program like Qlock, you can use a website like timeanddate.com to find out the current time in GMT. If you don't have a computer (hey ... how are you reading this?) you can always tune to WWV on 2.5, 5, 10, 15, or 20Mhz which transmits the time in Coordinated Universal Time (aka UTC). Remember that UTC is the same no matter where you are in the world!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I'm going to go totally off-topic for a quick posting: If you're a registered voter in the United States, please make sure you vote today. Voting is how you participate in democracy, and if you're eligible to vote and you don't, you're saying that you don't care. I'll bet you do care, and even if you aren't thrilled with your choices in the election, it's not only your right, its is your responsibility as a citizen to do so.

Please participate in the democratic process and make your voice heard.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Too much work, not enough radio ... again

It occurred to me that I hadn't posted in almost three weeks. Thinking about why, I realized that I'm in one of those cycles where I'm working more than usual, leaving less time for radio (and other "free time" activities). When I get home from work at 8PM, it's a little hard to find time to fit in radio along with all the usual things that go on around here, and while I have had the radio on, I haven't been making a lot of contacts.

Still, I have been doing a few things, and it's time to "get on the horse again" and post an update.

At the end of my last post, I was talking about the California QSO Party, and how I only had a limited time to work that event. I did work a few more stations, but wound up with only about 20 stations contacted in total. That's by far my lowest total ever, but I did send in my log anyway. Hopefully next year I'll have more time and the conditions will be better.

Last weekend I did spend some time participating in the JARTS RTTY contest. I made 173 contacts spread out over two days, which while not exactly championship level, was fun. I'm really starting to enjoy the RTTY contests more and more, and I think I'll makle an effort to look for more ot them.

Early last week, the kids called me at work during the afternoon with the news that my G5RV had come down, probably due to the high winds we were experiencing. Other than when I dropped it intentionally last year when having some tree work done, it's been up for around 7 years now, which is a fairly long time. I figured that the wires had broken, and I'd need to replace it. I had the kids take a picture of what had happened and send it to me, and it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I thought. All that had happened was that one of the support ropes (which is itself held to the tree with a bungee cord acting as a shock absorber) had somehow gotten disconnected. In fact, probably because that rope has been over a high branch for so long, the antenna itself barely dropped at all. When I got home that night, I found the ropes dangling from a branch, although by the next morning, the pull from the antenna had started to pull the rope up into the tree and was threatening to get out of reach. (There's more than enough rope to be within reach with the antenna on the ground, but it was coiled up and the coil was almost out of reach.) I was able to pull the coil of rope down and I tied the bungee, which was now hanging low enough to reach, to a chair to keep it in place until I had a chance to see what had happened and repair it.

(I just re-read that paragraph and I realized that I should explain that the support rope for the antenna goes up from the ground and over a fairly high branch in the tree. As a result, when the antenna goes down, the rope pulls up).

I'd taken Friday off to use up some of the vacation days that I have left over (my company has a pretty generous vacation policy, but if you don't use up your days, you lose them) so I took the opportunity to fix the support rope. I pulled the ladder out of the garage and climbed up to where the main coil of rope was hanging (in mid-air), and found that the 3 inch long eyebolt had somehow pulled out of the tree. The support rope and bungee were still tied to it, and I honestly can't figure out how it could have pulled out, but that's what happened. The fix, of course, was easy: I drilled a pilot hole in the tree at an appropriate height and simply screwed the eyebolt back into the tree. I tied off the line again, and I was back in business.

As proof that the antenna was still working just fine, I finally made a contact with the VK9DWX team on Willis Island, which I'd been trying to do for the past couple of weeks. Willis is a relatively rare location to work on radio, and I'd been coming downstairs before work to try to make a contact on 40m, which seemed like my best chance. Unfortunately, even though I could hear them fairly well, I just wasn't able to make a contact in the morning. Fortunately, yesterday afternoon I was able to make a single contact with them on 30m CW, so I was able to put Willis Island in my logbook as all-time DXCC entity #287.

The CQ WorldWide DX Contest is taking place this weekend. As I mentioned in my posting about that contest last year, this isn't really my favorite contest, and in fact, as I write this, the contest is probably around halfway over and I haven't made a single contact. I will likely get on the air in a little while, but I don't expect to make a lot of contacts. (Of course, I've said that before then gotten wound up in the contest. We'll see what happens this time.)

Sunday, October 05, 2008

2008/9 Contesting Season Starting

It's that time of the year when contesters are kept busy and the Grumpy Old Men are grumpier: The start of the contest season. I'll get to the Grumpy Old Men part in a bit, but first the part of the contesters.

There are contests every weekend of the year, but the more well-known (or "bigger") contests start taking place around now and continue for the next few months. I imagine this has to do with worldwide propagation or something, but to tell the truth I've never really looked into why the "big contests" alll start right about now.

The good news is that for contesters, there's usually something "big" every weekend. Last weekend I participated (or "played around", as I like to say) in the CQ WorldWide RTTY DX contest. In this contest, any station can work any other station, so even if the band conditions aren't very good (in my opinion, they were awful Saturday, though they improved to merely lousy on Sunday) you can usually find lots of stations to work within your own country. Of course, the way scoring works you get more points for working stations outside of your own country, and even more for working stations outside of your own continent, so that's what you try to do, when you can.

The RTTY (pronounced "Ritty") in the name of the contest means that you can only use Radio TeleTYpe mode to make contacts. Originally, this mean that there was an actually mechanical teletype connected via some specialized equipment to a radio, but now, most RTTY enthusiasts use their computer sound card with a fairly simple connection to their radio, along with an encoding/decoding program on their computer, such as the very popular MMTTY. What's really nice about these digital mode contests is the amount of automation that can be done by your contest logging program. As I've mentioned before, I use N1MM's contest logger, which has some really terrific features for handling digital contests, even for casual contesters like me. For example, as with all contests, the exchange of information between stations is structured, with little or no change between contacts. (For this particular contest, nothing at all changes.) The N1MM program allows you to set up your exchange sequences such that once you've gotten the other stations callsign, the exchange process is almost entirely automated. The operator then needs to hunt for stations, adjust the radio to make sure that there's "clean copy" (meaning that you can read the information being sent), and then just do a few mouse clicks or keyboard presses (all configurable) to complete the contact.

One interesting thing about RTTY mode is that although you can hear the sound that the other station is sending, unlike CW (and certainly unlike any speech modes) it can't be decoded by ear. (Ok, I've heard that some really experienced guys actually can decode RTTY by ear. I sure know that I can't. Here's an audio sample, you can decide for yourself). The software used to help tune in the signal has a tuning aid to help you zero-in the signal, so you can use RTTY completely without any audio coming out of your speakers (or headphones) if you want to.

Anyway, I've played in RTTY contests before, and one big thing for me is that they are often a good place to pick up a new country, or a country that I've contacted before on a new band. My decision to participate in this contest was very last minute: I think I fired up the contesting software about 15 minutes after the start of the contest, spent a while configuring it, and then operated for a while on Friday night. I did some more operating Saturday afternoon, and again Sunday afternoon into early evening. I wound up on the air for around 12 hours or so, and made 257 contacts, with a score of just under 115,000 points. I was quite happy with my effort, which I think was decent for a low power station just "playing around".

One thing that I did was to set some "moving target" goals for myself to help keep going. Initially, I wanted to try to make at least 150 contacts, which seemed reasonable on Saturday afternoon. After I surpassed that, I decided that I wanted to break 100,000 points, and then, at the very end of the contest, I decided that I wanted to make at least 250 contacts. (Although I did succeed in that, I was getting a little frantic as I was about 3 contacts short of my goal with not long to go in the contest, and seemed unable to make any others. Fortunately, I managed to work a bunch of stations during the final minutes.) Setting these kinds of goals for me helps to make things fun. Unlike serious contesters, I "cheat" by setting my goals as I'm operating. I do this because I'm trying to keep things fun for myself. If I'd set out to make 250 contacts before I started Friday night, I probably would have gotten discouraged during the day on Saturday when things were going slowly and given up. So, I "cheat" and create goals that seem reasonable for the conditions and the amount of time I'm likely to have available. I'm not suggesting that this works well for anyone else, but it works for me.

This weekend is the California QSO Party contest, which is one of my favorite state QSO party contests. (As I've mentioned before, the goal of these contests is to make contact with as many stations within a particular state as possible, or for those within that state to make as many contacts in general.) Sharon and I had plans on Saturday (visiting a few wineries in the Hudson Valley in New York), so I only had a few hours to operate in the contest on Sunday. Unfortunately, the bands just weren't cooperating early Sunday afternoon, and after about an hour of operating, I'd only worked eight stations. Listening now (around 4PM EDT), things seemed to have picked up a bit, so maybe I'll try again in a while, but my initial attempts were not fun, so I stopped to work on some other things, including writing this.

So what about the Grumpy Old Men comment? It seems that as the contest season gets underway, the complaints start to flow into the mailing lists complaining about the contesters. Some of the complaints are legitimate, since unfortunately some of my contesting brethren do just plop themselves down on a frequency without ensuring that the frequency is not in use. That is just plain wrong, period. However, some of the complaints are made because "the contester was on the frequency that we use every day, and even though they were there first, they should move". Sorry, but that's not the way things work. We amateurs have a reasonable amount of radio spectrum to use. There's plenty of room for all of us if we cooperate with each other. We are fortunate to have these valuable resource to share. If we can't play nicely with each other, then the FCC might just decide to pick up our collective sandbox and give it to someone else.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

K2NUD/MM Limited Multi-Op - Part IV

This is the last part of a series. Here are the links to Part I, Part II and Part III.

When Matthew and I first starting talking about operating from the boat, we'd discussed the possibility of operating for a fairly large portion of the 36-hour contest. We'd operate through the night, sleep on the boat, and get started again during the morning, eventually heading back to the marina before sundown on the second day. However, we both decided that would have been just a bit too much time out at sea, so we then figured we'd operate until maybe 9 or 10 PM then head back in. However, after Matthew started feeling ill, we figured that we'd be a lot better off heading back a lot earlier than that, and we decided that we'd stop operating in time to take the antennas down before dark. That was probably one of the best decisions what we made during the entire trip.

As difficult as it was getting the antennas installed, taking them down was even harder. Maybe it was because we were tired or maybe it as because we weren't as careful as we should have been, but the elements on the 2m beam got pretty badly damaged on the way down. Matthew tells me that he'll be ordering his third set of replacement elements for that beam.

More importantly, as Captain Karl pointed out, if there had been any significant wind, or if the seas had been more than the foot or two high that they were, it would have been nearly impossible to take down the antennas because of the motion of the boat. Under those conditions, we might not have had to worry about taking them down, they might have come down on their own. As I mentioned, when we initially installed the antennas we set up the bottom five foot mast section first, then attached the 2m antenna to one mast section and the 6m to the remaining section. We inserted the section with the 2m antenna on it into the base section, then inserted the remaining section into that. Bear in mind that this is all taking place on a boat.

To insert the uppermost section, it has to be lifted a few inches above the ten foot height of the combined two lower sections. By using the railings on the upper bridge, it was just possible to raise yourself up enough to do that, but it's not easy; even without any wind, the mast is quite top-heavy because of the antenna attached to it, so it really takes a lot of effort to get it into place. On top of that, you have very limited access to the mast because although you've got the railings on one side, there's nothing but water on the other side.

Remember back in Part III where I talked about how the beams were moving in separate directions and that Captain Karl managed to secure them? Part of that was done with duct tape, but part was done by forcing the middle and upper mast sections together more tightly. It was hard enough doing that, but it was a lot harder to undo it. In fact, it was so hard, we couldn't undo it at all, at least not while the mast was still vertical. What we wound up doing was taking the top two mast sections (that's 10 feet, or about 3m) along with the attached antennas down as a unit. I guess maybe that's why some of the 2m elements got pretty badly bent. Once down on the deck, Matthew removed the antennas and it was a lot easier to separate the two mast sections.

Lessons Learned

In my "day job", I work on a lot of different technology projects. One thing we do at the end of a project is get together and try to figure out what worked well and what could be improved. We call that a "lessons learned" session, and I thought I'd close this series by doing the same here.

What worked well
  • Advance planning reduced the number of forgotten items to ... zero!
  • Publicity (via QST and various reflectors) had folks looking for us
  • The weather was terrific! (Ok, we can't take credit for that, but it sure helped make it fun)
  • The team -- Matthew, Captain Karl and I all had our jobs and we all got together terrifically well
  • Not trying to operate as a Rover -- We considered operating from more than one grid, but with the limited time we had, we decided our time would be better spent operating entirely out of FM39. (Also, trying to operate with the boat at speed would have been impossible).
What didn't work so well
  • Although the 2m antenna did work well, the 6m antenna didn't. We're not sure why, but we should do a short test run to try to figure out what was wrong and fix it
  • The antenna mounting system had some difficulties (as described). We need to figure out a better way to mount the antennas, preferably with a real rotor
  • The propagation didn't cooperate (ok, we can't take the blame for this, but it matches the weather on the other side)
  • Being out in a rare grid at sea means that people with beams have to point in your direction to hear you. (Unless there's a big band opening to Europe or Africa, most folks on the east coast of North America aren't looking west, and without propagation, it doesn't help if folks farther west are aimed that way). Although we did have people looking for us, not enough did, resulting in lower QSO counts than we would have liked. Perhaps even more publicity would have helped here.
As a final note, I want to say that this experience was something that I will remember for the rest of my life. Although the whole experience lasted just over a half a day, the memories of the fun that I had will last much longer. Thanks to Captain Karl for his nautical expertise, his great sense of "how to do stuff", and for his wonderful attitude. Thanks to Art, the boat's owner, for allowing us to borrow the Maryleen. And most of all, thanks to Matthew, K2NUD for keeping after me to do this with him.

Monday, September 22, 2008

K2NUD/MM Limited Multi-Op - Part III

This is part 3 of a series. Here are the links to Part I and Part II.

Now that the antennas were set up (or so we thought), the next task was to connect the radios. I'd be using an Icom 746 Pro outside on the stern of the boat for 6m, while Matthew would be using the Icom 910 for 2m inside the cockpit. (Yes, I did get a little bit of sunburn, but it was the most sun I'd had all summer, so I wasn't complaining.) Now for a bit of explanation (as promised earlier) about what "Limited Multi-Op" means.

For most contests, there are one or more categories used to describe your entry. For instance, you might be a single operator at a station (which is how I do most of my contesting), you might participate with a group of operators; you might run high power with amplifiers, regular power, or low power (called "QRP"); and you might operate just a single band or a single mode. For the VHF contests, there's something called "Limited Multi-Op", which means that you can have more than a single operator, but you are limited to submitting contacts on at most four different bands. This is important in these types of contest in order to allow more stations to be competitive. For VHF contests, there are many more bands available than in HF contests because of the way that the radio spectrum is allocated. (For HF contests, there are five or six bands that can be used; For VHF contests, it can be up to sixteen.) As it turns out, we wound up operating on just two bands (6m and 2m) because it was just too difficult to use additional antennas.

Finally, the antennas were mounted, the radios connected, the generator running (the Maryleen has a built-in generator that starts with a push of a button; it was very convenient), it was already past the start time of the contest ... time to get on the air. We decided that we'd initially just point the antennas due west to work the folks in central New Jersey and Pennsylvania who nearby, then later swing up towards New England and down towards Maryland, Virginia, and farther south. Captain Karl was up on the upper bridge and used the "armstrong" method to turn the antenna to face the south, and Matthew and I started CQing. After a contact or two I looked up to double-check the direction of the antenna and discovered that they were no longer pointing in the same direction. What had happened was that the gentle rocking of the boat was just enough to cause the two mast sections to rotate around each other, resulting in the two antennas no longer pointing in the same direction. The mast sections were just nested into one another, and I'd (wrongly) assumed that the friction caused by the weight of the antenna pressing down would be sufficient to keep it from rotating freely, while still allowing us to turn the antennas as needed when we wanted to. Along with Captain Karl's help, we were able get the two upper mast sections to lock tightly enough so that they acted as a single section, and we were back in business. Of course, turning the mast by hand was now very difficult, so Captain Karl used a gaff to get enough leverage against antenna so that we could turn it.

From that point on, it was smooth sailing (sorry, couldn't resist the pun) at least for me. Although the
actual contacts were coming a bit more slowly than I'd hoped, I was having an awful lot of fun. Probably the best part of all of this was when a station, upon hearing that we were in FM39, would respond with "You're where???". Once confirmed that we were, indeed, in that rare all-water grid, you could hear the smile on folks faces. Aside from being a new grid for most people for the VUCC award, we were reasonably sure that we were the only station operating from FM39, which meant that we counted as a unique multiplier for contest purposes. Although I never was able to generate much of a pileup, giving out a rare grid was just a tremendous amount of fun. (And in case you're wondering: Yes, I know there's a microphone on the headset that's sitting on my head. I was using the hand mic because I hadn't brought my footswitch and it was just plain easier to use the hand mic.)

A bit of explanation is in order for my "at least for me" comment above. Unfortunately, Matthew and relatively small boats don't seem to get along too well. Although Matthew is a big fan of cruise ships (of the several hundred foot long variety), he's very prone to "mal de mer" on smaller boats, even when the seas were quite calm, as they were for us. He was fine on the trip down to FM39, fine while setting up the antennas, but just as we started setting up the radios, he starting feeling a little dizzy, and had to sit down for a bit. Fortunately, the call of the airwaves was good medicine, and Matthew was able to recover to get on the air, though he did have to take a few breaks now and then. As it turns out, because the 2m beam significantly outperformed the 6m beam, Matthew wound up making more contacts on 2m than I did on 6m, despite the breaks. 

To be continued...

Saturday, September 20, 2008

K2NUD/MM Limited Multi-Op - Part II

This is part 2 of this series. In case you missed part 1, it's available here.

After arriving at the marina, the first orders of business were to transfer the equipment from the truck to the boat, then to assemble the 6m and 2m beams. The plan was the assemble the beams on land, secure the first of three five-foot mast mast sections to the upper bridge of the boat, then raise the antennas once we were past the couple of low bridges that we had to pass on the way out to the open sea.This worked out well, and even with relatively calm seas, it was a lot easier to assemble the antennas on land. (Besides, while dropping a nut or a screw onto the gravel on land would be difficult to find, it would be a lot easier than jumping overboard should the same happen while at sea!) We finished assembling the antennas, took them down to the boat, and figured out a way to secure them for the two-hour trip from the marina to the closest part of FM39.

Securing the first five-foot mast section to the upper bridge turned out to be a bit more difficult than we anticipated. The issue was that we needed to have that base section as close to vertical as possible while making sure that it was very secure. We'd tighten it up with some U-bolts to the railings, but that would tilt it in one direction or another. Finally, using a combination of U-bolts, duct tape, and a life preserver (as a spacer), we got the base mast section attached where we wanted it, and we were ready to leave port. Fortunately, Captain Karl, who is a very experienced fisherman, had plenty of time to go to the store for provisions while Matthew and I were assembling things. Going hungry was not going to be an issue on this trip!

Now that the mast was secured and the antennas were stowed, it was time to leave the slip to head out to the ocean. After a stop for fuel, we headed out along Cheesequake Creek past a couple of bridges and were soon in Raritan Bay heading for the open ocean. Karl opened up the twin diesels and we were on our way down to FM39, a trip that would take just about 2 hours running at about 25 knots. By this time, the weather had cleared up completely, the sun was out, and the seas were almost dead calm, with occasional one to two foot gentle swells.

During the trip out, we discussed how we'd operate, with the main concern being keeping the antennas pointed where we wanted them to point. Initially we thought we might set up the antennas and radios, and then move slowly through the water to keep things pointing in a constant direction. However, Karl came up with what turned out to be a better suggestion: We'd anchor and since there wasn't a lot of wind, the prevaling currents would keep us pointed in a constant direction. That's what we wound up doing, and it worked out quite well.

We got on station at about 2PM local time, a bit later than planned, and started working on getting the antennas mounted. We decided to travel into the grid a bit (the closest point would have been FM39ax) because we wanted room to manuever, so you can see from the photo that we were actually in FM39aw. (By the way, no, the bridge of the boat was not at 96 feet; that's my old GPS and while it's dead-on horizontally, it seems to have a few issues with altitude. I know that's not terribly unusual, but figured I'd mention it.)

Matthew and I started attaching the antennas to the mast sections. We put each antenna on one of the two remaining mast sections, with the plan being to mount the 6m three-element beam on top, and the 2m nine-element beam about five feet below it. With the seas being very calm, it was easy to do that part of the work, but getting the mast sections into the base section turned out to be quite a challenge. Although Captain Karl had moved the outriggers out of the way, there were still a lot of things that we had to move the antennas around to get it mounted. Matthew and Captain Karl worked to get the mast sections (with antennas) set up, while I handled the feed line and checked to make sure that the mast remained vertical and that the antennas remained aligned. It was important to make sure they were pointed in the same direction, since we'd have no way to turn them independently. As it turns out, they seemed to have a mind of their own.

To be continued ...

Friday, September 19, 2008

K2NUD/MM Limited Multi-Op - Part I

As I mentioned late last week, I had a opportunity to operate the ARRL September VHF QSO Party with Matthew, K2NUD. I've operated VHF contests with Matthew before, most recently during the June version of the same contest (which I wrote about here, here, and here). There were two significant difference for this contest though: First, we'd be operating using Matthew's callsign as a limited multi-op entry (more about that later) instead of operating with a club callsign, and second, and most important, we'd be operating from aboard a boat.

As I've explained previously, the primary goal in VHF contests is to make contacts with as many other stations as possible, with the "multiplier" being the number of different grid squares that you contact. The reason for using a boat (aside from the fact that it's just plain fun) is that we'd decided to operate from a grid square that is located entirely in the Atlantic Ocean, FM39. As a result, because you do need to have a boat to operate there, this is considered a "rare" grid, meaning that there is rarely a station located there.

The story actually starts a year or two ago, when Matthew and I were kicking around the idea of trying to find someplace interesting, yet relatively local, to operate from during a contest. We'd thought about doing something simple like operating from one of the islands that count for Islands On the Air (which includes Long Island, NY, and a bunch of islands along the New Jersey shore, such as Long Beach Island), but Matthew really enjoys VHF contesting so that meant that we'd want to find an interesting grid square.

Somewhere along the line, Matthew discussed the idea with some non-ham friends of his with the result being that they offered to let him use a boat to get to FM39. After a not-very-successful trial run a month or so earlier (Matthew tried operating from the boat while it was taken up to Martha Vineyard; unfortunately, it was shortly after the remnants of one of the hurricanes passed through the seas were extremely rough), Matthew decided that he had enough of boats for a while (except for the cruise ship variety!), and that the boat trip idea wasn't going to happen.

A few weeks later, Matthew changed his mind, and the trip was back on again ... probably. A week or so before the trip Hurricane Ike was still in the southern Atlantic, and some the tracks showed it starting to head north. We put off making a final decision until the Tuesday prior to the contest, by which point Ike looked like it was going to head for the Gulf of Mexico and the generate weather forecast for the weekend was at least decent. As the weekend approached, the forecast actually got worse, with rain showers predicted in the morning and a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. By that point, we were committed to the trip, and figured we'd make the best of it regardless of the weather.

In order to get on the air at around the start of the contest (2PM local time), we figured that we needed to leave Matthews house at around 9AM or so. When I woke up, it was so foggy at my house that I could only see a few houses down the street. While I knew that the boat had radar, the idea of going out to sea in a pea soup fog didn't seem terribly appealing to me. Fortunately, by the time I'd driven a couple of miles, the fog was gone, and the sun had come out. When I got to Matthews, not only was it sunny, but it had gotten quite warm out. I was glad that I'd tossed a pair of shorts in with the gear that I brought, since it didn't seem like I'd be too comfortable wearing jeans all day in that kind of weather.

Matthew introduced me to his brother-in-law Karl, or rather, Captain Karl, who was going to drive the boat for us. He also drove his truck down so that we could fit the 6m beam in the bed. After about an hour's drive, we arrived at the marina, and I got my first view of the Marylee, the beautiful 32 foot fishing boat that would be our operating platform for the day.

To be continued ...

Mailling list for ham blog authors

Just a quick post to let everyone know that Jeff, KE9V, has retired his "hamblogs" mailing list (aka reflector). Jeff started it a while back as a sort of email watering hole for authors of ham radio related blogs to discuss anything and everything related to blogging and to some extent, to other similar technologies (like twitter, friendfeed, etc.).

With Jeff's blessing, I've started up a new version of the list. To subscribe, send subscribe hamblogs to majordomo [a t]  k2dbk.com. (Humans know how to convert that to a real email address ... hopefully!).

Keep in mind that the target for this list is for authors of ham radio-related blogs, it's not a general ham discussion list.

I hope to see you there.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Operating /MM from FM39 this weekend

Sorry for the short notice, but I'll be operating along with Matthew, K2NUD, as K2NUD/MM this weekend from the all-water grid square of FM39 in the September VHF QSO Party this weekend. Matthew and I have been talking about this for quite some time, but until we were reasonably certain that we wouldn't run into swells from a hurricane, we weren't quite sure if this was going to happen. As it is, although hurricane Hanna has been gone long enough to not affect the waves, and Ike is down in the Gulf of Mexico, the weather forecast for Saturday isn't great, with predictions for rain and possibly a thunderstorm. We'll obviously need to disconnect the antennas if thunderstorms come through, but we do expect to operate if it's just raining.

We'll be fairly close to the upper left-hand corner of the grid, only a few miles from land. Our current plans are to operate from the beginning of the contest (18:00 UTC or 2PM EDT on Saturday) for probably around 6 hours, at which time we'll head back in to shore. We won't be on the air at all from the boat on Sunday. We'll definitely be on 6 meters and 2 meters and possibly 70 cm as well. We're bringing a small beam (which would be our preference) and also a loop for 6m, so we'll use whatever works out best.

All the timing is subject to weather and what the boat's captain decides.

Assuming all goes well, look for another posting in a few days with details.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Writer's block?

I haven't published an update in a few weeks, and I can only plead a mild case of writer's block. There are a few things that I though about, but I couldn't seem to get around to actually writing an entry. I figured that I'd just mention a few things quickly for now.

As a follow-up to my QSL Followup posting, I'm sad to report that my emails had a fairly poor result. I sent out about a dozen emails reminding folks of the cards that I'd sent and asking if they'd received my card. Of the dozen, a little more than half of those "bounced" because of an invalid email address. (For the most part, the addresses I found were from qrz.com, though quite a number of people didn't have any email listed at all.) From the remaining half, I got exactly three replies: I got two from folks in the US, who both pleaded "busy life" (perfectly understandable) and who did indeed have my card (and SASE) and promised to send out a card in reply promptly. I've gotten one back from those two. The other response was from a fairly well-known Italian DXer to whom I'd requested cards from two  DX entities (TY, Benin, and ZP, Paraguy) for new band or mode contacts. He did confirm that he'd received my card and said he would send the requested cards out promptly. I received those two a week or so later, though interestingly they weren't in the Self-Addressed envelope that I'd sent. That's OK, at least he followed though.

I had hoped for a better response, and I must say that I'm pretty disappointed about the lack of response. I don't know if some of the recipients just don't QSL or perhaps have lost interest in the hobby, but I've always felt that even if for whatever reason you don't want to respond with a QSL card, it would be courteous to at least return my card (which won't cost anything; I've already paid the postage) and tell me why.

On another note, I still have not gotten my 6m beam up on the roof yet. I did do a bit more preliminary work, which involved getting some extra feedline up to the attic from my shack on the ground floor of my house, and making sure that I had all the parts and cables that I need. I just sort of never seem to get around to actually getting up on the roof. Hopefully I'll get around to it before it actually starts getting cold.

As for actually using the radio, I haven't made many contacts lately, but despite the just plain awful band conditions, I have managed to pick up some countries on new bands or modes. The most notable is my CW contact with Bruce, XW1B. Bruce and I chat fairly often via an instant messenger on the Internet, and as I mentioned a while back we'd been trying to work on CW for quite some time. Finally, a couple of weeks ago there was some good morning (my time) propagation to that part of the world, and we were able to make a (somewhat shaky, but definitely "good") CW contact. I'll finally get my CW and RTTY confirmation from Laos via Bruce, and I want to say publicly that I really appreciate his patience and help in making those contacts work.

In addition to working Bruce, the only really notable contact was A71A which I worked this afternoon on 20m CW, with CW being a new mode for Qatar for me.

One final note for today: I've had a few folks ask how my son Justin was doing with his recovery from spinal fusion surgery about six weeks ago. I'm happy to say that he's continued to improved, and now no longer needs the cane that he'd been using for almost two years to help him walk. He's got about another six weeks to go until he can stop wearing his back brace, but he's now walking around the neighborhood on a regular basis, which is something that the doctor said was the most important thing he could do for now. Thanks to those of you who've been asking.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

More QSL followup

Last week, I received a really amazing card from VP6DX. As I mentioned in a post last March, the primary way that cards were to be requested was via an online system where the postage was paid for via PayPal. This worked out very well, and one of the nice things was that I got confirmation via Logbook of The World several months ago. But as nice as that was, it paled in comparison to receiving the QSL book from VP6DX. Calling it a card really doesn't make sense. This publication is a total of 36 (thirty-six!) pages (eighteen pages printed on two sides), and in addition to all the pictures, there's a lot of information about the dxpedition itself, about the equipment they used, what life was like on the island, and so on. The contacts with VP6DX were not the only ones I'd had with Ducie Island, and I initialy debated whether to actually sent for the card, since I knew that eventually I'd get confirmation via LoTW, but I'm really glad that I got the actual card for this.

While looking back at the post I mentioned, I saw that I'd given an update on the QSLing that I'd done at the end of December 2007. I thought that it might be a good time to do another update.

Unfortunately, things have changed very little. In March, I reported that I had received 67% of the cards back, which translated to 74 cards. Now, after about 32 weeks, I've received back 72%, or 80 cards. I haven't receive anything from that batch since the beginning of July. I did receive a few cards that had notes apologizing for the delay (one person had moved, one found a batch of cards behind a desk, etc.) and I never expected an instantaneous response.

However, as I mentioned previously, it's really disappointing to not get at least the domestic cards back, since I'd send an SASE with those, and generally the mail in the US is pretty reliable. What I decided to do was to write a note to those folks who I sent cards to but never received anything back, asking if they'd received my card and if so, would they mind taking a minute to just send me a return. I tried to be as nice as possible, mentioning that there are all kinds of good reasons why they might have never received or had a chance to respond to my card. I wasn't able to send emails to everyone, since probably 20% didn't have any email address that I could find, and of the ones that did, I got immediate email bounces from a few, and expect to get a few others back as well. I hope that by this time next week, I will have heard back from at least the majority of those, and I'll provide an update.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

My first beam - Part 3

If you haven't already seen them, you might want to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series first.

Now that I'd gotten the beam, including the puzzling-to-connect-the-right-way mast plate assembled, it was time to take it outside to check the SWR and to make a couple of test contacts. As I mentioned in Part 1, I assembled the antenna indoors because it was extremely hot an humid out. There was plenty of room on the flood of our "great room", and the sliding door that went outside seemed like an idea way to get the beam outside once finished. Unfortunately, I failed to measure the height of the door before making the assumption about using it to take the beam outside. It turns out that the door opening is 6' 7" high (2.01m) while the beam (for those of you who weren't paying attention) is 6' 9" (2.06m) long. Oops. I remember that when the room was being built, with the door in place, they had to remove both sides of the sliding door in order to get the big-screen TV inside. While comtemplating doing that, or thinking about removing the elements temporarily, Sharon suggested that if I twisted the beam through the door that it might fit. Fortunately, she was right, and the screwdrivers and wrenches remained safely in the toolbox.

Now that the beam was outside, I wanted to put it up in the air and check the SWR with my antenna analyzer. I have three five foot (1.54m) sections of TV mast from Radio Shack that I've used over the years, plus a stake that is made to fit into the bottom mast section. The idea is that you pound the stake into the ground, put a plate (that came with the stake) over the stake, then the mast onto the stake, resting on the plate. It's definitely not for permanent use, but for a lightweight antenna for temporary use when there's no wind, it works fine. If I needed to leave it up a little longer, I have a collar that fits onto the mast with holes for ropes to uses as guys, but for what I was going to do, the stake was just fine. Unfortunately, I've now used the stake enough to that the top part (which you hit with a small sledge) has flared out, making it impossible to fit the plate over (which isn't a big deal), but also making it more difficult for the mast to slide on. (By the way, the stake that I got was the last one in a closeout bin at Radio Shack a couple of years ago. If anyone knows of another source for these, please let me know, I'd like to pick up another one or two.)

I did manage to get the stake into the ground and put the bottom section on the mast on it. I then started to attach the beam to the mast, figuring that I'd walk up the mast and lift it on top of the section already in the ground. The beam itself only weighs 6 pounds (2.7kg), and even though the mast sections probably weigh more than that, I figured that I could lift it myself. That wasn't the problem, but what I'd forgotten was that with the mast attached, I still had to attach and temporarily secure the feedline, but could no longer lay the whole combination on the ground. I used a trick I learned at Field Day which is to rest the mast on a ladder, which keeps the antenna off the ground and allows you to work on attaching the feedline. Fortunately, since the beam was small and the mast was short, I was able to use a pretty small stepladder that we had in the garage, attached the feedling to the feedpoint and secured the cable to the boom and mast with a few tie-wraps.

Walking the mast and antenna up to vertical position wasn't difficult to do by myself, though it certainly would have been easier had I had a helper. (I certainly will have help when I get this up onto the roof.) Of course, what I failed to realize was that the 15 foot height put the beam right into some low-hanging branches from a tree, so I took everything down, moved a bit away from the tree, and repeated the exercise. Now the beam was free to rotate and clear of the leaves. Before connecting the radio, I used my antenna analyzer to check the SWR and impedance. While I'd hoped that I got everything put together well, I expected to have to adjust the shorting bars or some other component. I was very pleasantly surprised to discover that the SWR at 50.1Mhz was 1.0:1, and the impedance was 51 ohms. (By way of explanation, "perfect" would be 1.0:1 and 50 ohms; I suspect that the error inherent in the analyzer is more than one ohm, so this was, for all practical purposes a perfect match.)

The next trick was to connect the feedline to my radio which involved putting a couple of sections of coax together and feeding them through the back door and into my shack. This worked just fine, but wasn't exactly ideal considering the outside temperature. Since the 756 Pro II has two different antenna inputs, it enabled me to perform a comparison with the 6m loop on the roof. For reference, that loop is at about 30 or 35 feet (around 10m) so it's at least twice as high as the beam on the ground. Although the 6m contest was still on, there wasn't a lot of activity, but using the loop, I did hear a few stations from New England, so I aimed the beam roughly in that direction. Sure enough, the stations were noticeably stronger as compared to the loop. I also noticed that many of the "birdies" (constant signals in fixed locations) were gone. I later realized that this was because at the time the beam was pointing roughly north-northeast, which was directly away from the house. When I pointed in the other direction, the birdies came back, which means that the cause of the birdies is most likely something inside my house. (On my "one of these days" list is to run the radio from a battery and to start shutting off circuit breakers in the house until the birdies go away, which should help me to figure out the source of the problem.)

Since it was getting late, I'd only made a couple of quick contacts, so I took the beam down and found a place in the garage to place it. I still need to order a rotor, then K2NUD has offered to stop by and help get the beam up on the rooftop mast. For now, I'll normally use the loop, but if I have time, I'll try to set up the beam temporarily.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My first beam - Part 2

In case you missed it, click here to read Part 1.

Now that I had all the parts laid out, I re-re-re-re-read the instructions. First things first: I took out the tools that I needed (listed at the beginning of the instructions) which consisted of a couple of difference sized wrenches, one socket wrench, a screwdriver (oops, grabbed a flat blade instead of the Phillips head; I had a 50-50 chance and guessed wrong), and a tape measure. Amazingly, I actually had the right sized wrenches and socket. (Well, not so amazingly, they were common sizes.)

I wanted to be very careful before tightening any of the locknuts, since I didn't want to have to undo any mistakes, which might have affected the "holding power" of the locknuts. I knew I couldn't mess up the first step, which was connecting the two boom sections together. There really only was one way to do it, since the screw holes on both halves only lined up one way.

The next step was to mount the reflector element on the back of the beam. By way of explanation, the 6m3 antenna is a three element Yagi antenna, a very common type of directional antenna. The link gives a more in-depth explanation, but in a three element yagi there is an element in the middle which is actually connected to the transmitter called a driver, a slightly longer element located electrically "behind" the driver called a reflector, and a slightly smaller element in front called a director. It's important to get these in these set up in the right order or else the antenna just won't work right.

The instructions say "Mount the longest element ... to the hole at the rear end of the boom...". Ok, so, um, which is the "rear" end? The diagram does show spacing between the elements, but I took a quick look at the diagram, figured that the drawing showed the rear of the beam at the bottom of the page "pointing" upward. Of course, had I actually looked a little more carefully I would have noticed that the longest element was at the top of the page, not the bottom. So, I promptly proceeded to put the reflector element on the wrong end of the boom. Fortunately, I intentionally didn't tighten it up all the way, and when I figured out what I'd done wrong, I was able to move it pretty easily. By that point, I'd put on the driver element, which didn't need to be moved, so I only had to move the one element. No harm done.

The rest of the assembly went pretty smoothly. I put on the other components, and attached the balun to the T-match as instructed. In this case, the balun is in the form of a quarter-wavelength of coaxial cable that you're supposed to loop and attach to some connectors then secure it to the boom with the supplied black tie-wraps. (Black tie-wraps are UV-resistant,so they don't break down in sunlight as quickly as regular tie-wraps.) The only problem is that when I did the initial unpacking on the antenna, I must have unpacked the tie-wraps (I'm pretty sure I saw them) and put them down somewhere. Unfortunately, that "somewhere" must be the same place as where missing socks go when put in the laundry; that is, in "never-to-be-seen-again" land. Amazingly enough, I actually had the exactly type of tie-wraps called for in my toolbox, so I used my own. Another bullet dodged. (Ok, another trip to the hardware store avoided.)

Now that I'd gotten all the parts attached and carefully checked the that the shorting bars (used to tune the antenna among other things) were where they are supposed to be, I re-read the instructions to make sure that I hadn't missed anything. The only thing remaining was to attach the boom plate to the boom The boom plate is used to attach the antenna to the mast. There are a couple of U-bolts plus nuts and lockwashers that you first attach to the boom, along with what's basically an adapter to allow you to connect the flat mast plate to the round boom. I will admit that it was a little confusing. There are a lot of holes on the plate, and it's almost like a puzzle: The smaller U-Bolts, used for attaching the plate to the antenna boom, and the larger U-bolts, used for attaching the mast plate to the mast, will fit into the plate in several different ways, but there's only one way that everything will fit in correctly. I have to admit that I probably tried pretty much every possible combination (unsuccessfully, of course) before figuring out the magic combination. One assembled, the solution is obvious, needless to say.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My first beam - Part 1

It finally happened. I finally have an antenna that can be pointed (where pointing actually has an effect on the radiation pattern.)

Until now, all the antennas that I've had have been (more-or-less) omnidirectional, which means that they work equally well (or equally badly, depending on your point of view) in all directions. After several years of begging discussions with Sharon, she's agreed that it'd be OK if I put a small beam up on the roof. I felt that even a relatively small HF beam was a bit bigger than what I wanted to start with, so I figured that I'd go with a small 6 meter beam. I chose the M2 6M3 (a 3 element beam) based on the specifications compared with similar beams and on recommendations from friends. I really would have liked the 6M5X, a 5 element beam which has better gain, but the 18 foot (5.5 meter) boom seemed a bit much for what I wanted to do. (The boom on the 6M3 is 6.75 feet [2.06 meters]).

I did some price shopping, and found that Gigaparts had it listed for about $30 less than I could find it elsewhere, with the caveat that it was out of stock and the discount only applied while it was out of stock. It turns out that the out of stock condition lasted a lot longer than I (or they) expected, so instead of the antenna arriving in June (I ordered it on May 31), it finally showed up on July 11. Sharon and I were out of town taking a mini-vacation then, and with Justin's surgery coming up when I got home I was very busy, both at home and at work, trying to cram a week's worth of things into about three days. As a result, about all I had time to do was to open the box and take a look at the instructions.

The first thing that I noticed in the instructions was that it referred to the "N" connector on the T-Match. (The T-Match is where the antenna connects to the feedline.) "N" connectors are normally used at ultra high frequencies and above (they were originally designed to be used at microwave frequencies) or sometimes at VHF frequencies when it's critical minimize any signal loss. Normally though, antennas of this type use the more common UHF (or SO-239/PL-259) type of connectors. All of my feedline terminates in PL-259 connectors, so I needed to either obtain a male "N" connector and fabricate a cable, or use an adapter. The adapter route seemed easiest, and fortunately, my friend Matthew, K2NUD, had a spare that he was able to lend me until I could purchase my own.

As it turns out, the instructions were wrong; the connector on the T-match was indeed an SO-239. I didn't discover this until after I finally started building the antenna. So, I'll return the adapter to Matthew, and figure out to do with the other four adapters that I got from ebay when they get here. (Fortunately, they were relatively inexpensive.)

As I mentioned, Justin had his surgery this week on Thursday. I worked Monday through Wednesday trying to cram all my regular weekly activities into three days, and that, along with other "family matters" kept me from looking at the antenna again for the remainder of the week. The really good news is that Justin's surgery appears to have been successful. His back and leg pain have been significantly reduced, and while he's got a fair amount of physical therapy ahead of him, all of us are happy with the results so far.

We brough Justin home from the hospital on Saturday afternoon, and got him settled with his laptop (of course) in front of the TV. After spending a while catching up on some of my emails, I decided that I'd take a crack at putting the antenna together and making making a few QSOs. As it happened, this weekend was the CQ WW VHF Contest, but because I knew I'd be tied up with Justin, I figured that I wouldn't really participate at all anyway, so putting the antenna together seemed like a good idea. If it had been a nice comfortable summer day, I would have gone outside and used the backyard table as a workbench. Unfortunately, it wasn't exactly comfortable. It was about 95+ degrees F (about 35 C) and humid outside. It seemed to me that indoor assembly made a whole lot more sense.

The first problem was finding enough space in the house, and making sure that once I got the antenna assembled, that I'd be able to get it out of the house. The assembled antenna is about 6.75 feet (2m) long and over 9.5 feet (almost 3m) wide with the elements attached. Fortunately, a few years ago we put an addition on the house which we call the "great room" that had a good amount of space, and a sliding door directly to the outside. The first order of business was to roll the area rug up since when I handled the aluminum tubing I realized that my hands were covered with what looked like aluminum powder, presumably from the manufacturing process. Getting that on the area rug would have been A Bad Thing.

The smaller parts (the various nuts, bolts, and washers) all come in sealed plastic bags, and I've had enough experience putting things like furniture from Ikea and kids toys together to know that I need a place to keep the parts after I've opened the bag. Without that, there's some law of physics that comes into play that says something like "any unsecured small part will roll to the most unreachable location possible, assuming that it is not possible for the part to be lost entirely". A set of Tupperware bowls served double duty to not only keep the parts handy, but to the antenna off the floor. I got all the parts together, re-read the instructions, and got started.

To be continued ...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

And sometimes you do get lucky

In my last post, I said:
Unfortunately, unless a miracle happens at some point over the next few hours, I won't be able to work CY0X on Sable Island.
Perhaps calling it a miracle is a bit much, but I did get very lucky. Every couple of weeks, I have a conference call that starts at 7AM local time. One of the not-so-fun things about working for a global organization is that sometimes calls need to be at a "compromise" time so that folks from various parts of the world can get on. Sounds kind of like ham radio, doesn't it? Some DX paths are only open very early or very late (depending on where you're located) and sometimes you need to stay up late, and sometimes you need to get up early. As I believe that I've said in the past, I am not a "morning person". I will happily stay up into the early morning hours, but I really don't like getting up early in the morning. 

However, as they say, "ya gotta do what you gotta do", so on the morning of July 9th I dialed into the conference call from a speakerphone in my office at home and put the call on mute, as much of the conversation was between the other participants and didn't involve me. From reading CY0X's website, I found that they'd been forced to extend their stay due to fog that was keeping them from leaving the island. I tuned to 50.108 MHz, which is the frequency where they've been operating on 6 meters, heard nothing, and turned the volume back down. (Remember, I was on a conference call.) I then figured that I'd bring up ON4KST's 6m chat site

I'm going to digress for a second to give a plug for Alain's site: If you're interested in making contacts on 6 meters, you'll want to have this chat running when you're near your radio (and even when you aren't.) A lot of the "big gun" 6m folks hang out there, and just eavesdropping on their conversations can be extremely educational. Not only that, but, being hams, they tend to be fairly friendly and love to share their expertise. (Of course, as with many topics, if you ask a question you may well get back 10 or 20 different answers, but you will get an answer.) I can't say that I know many of the regulars there well at all, but I've had a few conversations and they've been really helpful. In addition to the chat room, there are windows for 6m packet spots, a dynamically updating customizable map that shows the paths between the spots, and other information about propagation. All the windows are customizable; you can see an example of what can be done at this link (opens in a new window). By the way, for those of you in North America (more specifically IARU Region II) or those of you interested in making contacts in that radio (if you're from outside Region II) make sure that you select "Enter into the 50 MHz IARU Region 2 chat here". Alain has done a terrific job, I can't recommend this site highly enough.

Back to the topic at hand. As I was listening to my conference call, I was reading the chatter in the chat room, and it seemed that there was a very good 6m opening to a large part of the US. In particular, the chat room folks were talking about the fact that CY0X was coming in all along the east coast very well, not only amongst themselves, but also with the crew at CY0X, who apparently have pretty good Internet connectivity out there on Sable Island. Right about then, my friend Larry, N4VA, sent me an instant message telling me that he was hearing CY0X with a very strong signal and that should try to listen for them. With the speakerphone still on mute, I turned up the volume on the radio, and sure enough, there was CY0X, CQing on CW and "lonely". (Which is, I suppose, a euphemism for "they are calling buy nobody is answering them.) I fired back my call a couple of times in answer to their CQ, and initially they I just heard them kept CQing, then I thought I heard a partial reply to someone (couldn't tell if they were responding to me), and then nothing at all. That's the nature of 6 meters, the "magic band". I figured that I'd blown my one and only chance to work CY0X, since I figured that the one brief opening was going to be it. Fortunately, I was wrong. 

Don't forget, I was still on the conference call, and in fact, right about then, I had to provide some information to the group myself. (As an aside, it's too bad there's not an aware for "telephone DX", as today we had folks from the US, the UK, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Mexico, Spain, and I think two or three others that I can't remember now.) As I was talking I glanced at the 6m chat page and saw that one of the CY0X operators, Dick, K5AND, was chatting with some of the folks in the room. I finished my bit on the call and sent a note to Dick saying that I could hear them OK but apparently they weren't hearing me. As a reminder, I'm running 100w into a loop, and while in theory things should be somewhat reciprocal, I wasn't sure if they were running a lot of power, etc. Dick answered back that in fact he'd heard me and given me a single report, but since I never heard that I didn't consider it a valid QSO.

The conference call continued and after a while, topics that didn't require my full attention came up, so I glanced over at the bandscope on the radio ... and sure enough, there was a strong signal again right on 50.108MHz, the CY0X frequency. I turned up the volume (good thing I remember to put the conference call back on mute!) and sure enough, there was CY0X again, stronger than the last time. Again, I sent my call, and this time, they came right back to me, clear as a bell, and we completed the QSO. Within about 30 seconds of the contact, I once again had to return my full attention to the conference call, but CY0X continue to remain strong to my location for quite some time. 

One of the really interesting things is that the guys in the chat room were talking about the particular mode of propagation that enabled the contacts all up and down the east coast of the US to take place. From what I understand about "magic band" propagation, most long distance (around 1000km or more ) contacts are made using a form of propagation known as "Sporadic E", or Es. However, the discussion taking place suggested that a more unusual form of propagation known as "tropospheric ducting" (or "tropo ducting") was responsible for the unusual characteristics of the opening. 

Tropo ducting can produce some pretty interesting contacts. Several years ago I was running a 2m net on a local repeater when a station checked in from Virginia Beach, Virginia. That was well beyond the normal range for the repeater (by several hundred miles) yet he had a very clear signal into the repeater and told us he could hear the repeater quite well. I believe that a number of us made direct QSOs with the station (not through the repeater), and a number of folks that I spoke with after that said that because of the conditions at the time and the locations of both stations, it was very likely that tropo ducting was responsible. 

Unfortunately, there's no way to predict tropo ducting or even the more common Es with any kind of precision. Yes, certain times of the year (such as July) are known to have a greatly enhanced probability of Es showing up, but figuring out when there's good Es or trop ducting still means that you not only have to listen to your radio, but also have to occasionally call CQ. As has been said before, if you have 500 people all listening and nobody transmitting, how can you know if the band is open?