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] (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.