Monday, July 31, 2006

Log now on RSGB logs received page with picture

The Radio Society of Great Britain Contest Committee web site has a page for the log submissions from this weekend's IOTA contest. You can find my entry in the N's as NE1RD/1. Next to it is a little icon indicating I've also uploaded a picture with my log. If you hover your cursor over that little picture icon you'll see a pop-up window with a thumbnail of the picture and the caption. (Of course I've got a typo in the caption. I should know better than to do this stuff late on a Sunday night.)
A direct link to the page with the photo is here. This is the photo I used for the front of the QSL card being prepared by the QSL works, too.
So far, at least, I'm the only one in the IOTA DXpedition single-operator unassisted SSB 12H QRP category. I guess if it stays that way, I win that category [grin].
P.S. This is the 50th post to my blog. I hope everybody reading it is having as much fun as I am writing it. Thank for stopping by!
-- Scott (NE1RD)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

QSL card design complete

I just finished the design of the QSL card for the NA-148 operations. I'm using QSLworks again. The other three cards I have in my stash (home call, KP2/, and K1P special event) were all printed by these folks and they look fantastic. I'm sure they'll do a nice job with these, too.
There were a couple of contacts this weekend that made it a point to tell me they'd been looking for Georges Island for a while and would be QSLing. Well, that's part of the point! According to the RSGB only 23.3% of members have NA-148 in their log. I expect (and look forward to) filling out a bunch of QSL cards. I think that QSLing is half the fun!
I'll drop a posting of the final design when it is ready.

Quick contest primer

I just finished updating Cab-converter to support the RSGB contest. My claimed score was 6942 (which, in a sense, represents the highest score I could have as "not in log" or "exchange wrong" errors can only reduce it). Still, not a bad score for QRP!
For those of you who might be new to radio contesting, here's a snapshot of how it works: a contest sponsor, perhaps a magazine or radio club, announces a contest to the ham community along with the rules for that particular contest. All contests are roughly the same, get on the air and work as many people as you can within the rules, but the specifics for each particular contest are important.
For this contest, the RSGB IOTA contest, anybody can talk to anybody for points, but talking to an island gets you more points (15 versus 3 for a non-island station). Further, and this is key to most contests, there is a concept of multipliers. At the end of the contest, your score obtained by the QSOs you have made multiplied by another number based on your multipliers. In some contests, the multiplier number might be related to the number of states you've talked to, while other contests use the number of countries, or DXCC entities, or even the number of different callsign prefixes you worked.
The RSGB IOTA contest bases its multipliers on the number of IOTA-numbered islands you've talked to during the contest. So, talking to somebody on an island not only gets you more points for that QSO, but also increases your effort's multiplier number. My score this year was a result of 102 QSOs and 13 different islands. I talked to some islands more than once but you only get to count an island as a multiplier once per band/mode. As you can see, operating from an island makes you very popular in this contest!
The Radio Society of Great Britain has a wonderful web-based interface to confirm your contest log submission. The process goes something like this:
  1. Create a "Cabrillo" file to submit to the RSGB. I could talk for an hour about this "standard" but suffice it to say that the easiest way to create one of these specially formatted files is to take your computer logging program and any other appropriate tools and have it make this file for you. I use a Macintosh as my shack's computer and use MacLoggerDX as my logging software. I created Cab-converter to do the final conversion to Cabrillo so I can submit my logs to the contest sponsor's "robots".

  2. Submit your log to the contest sponsor. This usually means mailing it to a special email address set up to automatically read and process your log. The thing that does this magic is often called the "contest robot". The robot should tell you immediately via a return message if your entry was accepted or rejected. If rejected, it should tell you why.

  3. In the case of the RSGB, there is a further step which I find absolutely wonderful: the contest robot sends you an email message with a URL. When you click on that URL, it brings you to a page with all the details of your submission and asks you to confirm they are correct. Did you have 102 QSOs? Is this the mode and category in which you competed? Please verify all the details are correct. I found this very, very comforting. Instead of blindly dropping my log to an entity that gives me no feedback other than an email with the equivalent of ACK, I get a chance to see that the robot really did consume the entry correctly and no data was lost. I love it.

  4. You wait. Sometimes you wait a year (or more) to see how you did in the contest. I hate to wait.

We'll see how I did compared to others when the results are published. Of course I'll drop a note here when that happens.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

RSGB IOTA contest effort on NA-148

Here are the results from the Georges Island trip. According to my logging program I worked:

  • 10 DXCC entities

  • 23 states

  • 13 IOTA islands

  • 102 QSOs

I made my goals! I use a program I've written called Cab-converter to take log files and prepare a Cabrillo file suitable for consumption by the contest sponsor's robot. If I'm ambitious, I'll write the code to do the "claimed score" to see how I really did.
Today was a beautiful (and hot) day in Boston. I rose early this morning and checked out the propagation numbers on the NW7US web site. Yesterday's conditions were a bit unsettled and I was worried, but things looked like they were going to be much better. After a quick breakfast I hit the road, drove down to the New England Aquarium and parked the car. I had plenty of time to catch the first ferry to Georges Island.
The ferry left promptly at 9 AM and the trip was great. I never get tired of looking at the Boston skyline from the water! Once we landed on Georges Island I hauled my gear to the first picnic table by the sea wall I saw. I set up the big Buddipole system in an L configuration. I used my two 5-segment shock-cord whips for the vertical radiator and horizontal radial. I then had an idea: I used my 7-segment shock-cord whip as a counter-balance on the other side of the VersaTee. That made a big difference! WIth the other whip in place, the system was nicely balanced.
I was on the air not long after 10 AM and ran until after 4 PM. I was mostly "heads down" either calling CQ or doing search-and-pounce the entire time--except for the time I spent talking to visitors. My first visitor was a ranger on an ATV wondering what in the world is all this? I took the time to explain this was amateur radio and I was talking to people all over the world using only 5 watts--less power than you might use in a night-light!
Two other rangers stopped by later followed by a couple from Ireland visiting Boston, a man with his young son, and finally three women who had been seated under the shade of a tree near my operating position and had finally worked up the courage to ask me what I was doing. Sure, I wanted to make lots of QSOs but the other thing that a 100 Pound DXpedition can do is bring ham radio to the public. We are ambassadors for the hobby. Take advantage of any opportunity to show someone who is curious exactly how fun, and still very relevant, our hobby still is.
Recapping: a successful trip. I achieved my goals, left the Georges Island staff with a good impression, and perhaps earned a reasonable score in the RSGB IOTA contest. That's a pretty good start to my weekend!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Packing for IOTA contest on NA-148

I'm packing up the stuff for the Georges Island trip and laying it out on the floor so I can see it all in one place. At this point I'm planning on bringing both Buddipoles and all the stuff I mentioned yesterday. The only thing left to stick in the backpack is the water and my lunch. I plan on getting out of here early in the morning so I can make the first ferry to the island.
This will be a QRP trip since I never heard any follow-up from the rangers on the island. That's OK. This will be fun!
I believe every DXpedition should have a set of goals. Here are mine for this trip:

  1. Work the IOTA contest for at least 6 hours -- it would be nice to be able to work a full 12 hours (since the categories are 12 or 24 hours of operation) but I've no alternative currently but to use the ferry service. The first ferry leaves for the island at 9 AM and the last ferry returns to the mainland at 6 PM.

  2. Make 100 QSOs -- Actually, I hope to make more but even 100 would be a good showing, I think. Space weather conditions (check this out) were spotty today with a coronal hole raising the speed of the solar winds. Hopefully, things wil calm down by morning.

  3. Work 10 DXCC entities -- Again, I hope to work more than that, but it will depend on conditions.

I've charged up the battery in the lid of the K2 and topped off the 7Ah battery in the Weza. My power strategy goes something like this:

  • Run off the K2 battery and solar panel until it starts looking tired.

  • Switch to the Weza and let the sun recharge the K2 battery until it is full again.

  • Switch back to the K2 battery and charge the Weza with the foot peddle.

  • Repeat

Depending on how quickly the K2 recovers, perhaps I'll not have to charge the Weza much on this trip. But, if I do need to put power back into the system myself, at least I'll have the option. (You do get a healthy respect for how much energy is in one of these batteries when you have to charge it yourself!)
Those are my goals. That's my plan. I'll report back tomorrow as to how it went!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Gear plan for Saturday

No word back from the Georges Island people on possible use of their power so I'm going to proceed with the QRP plans, at least for now. Even though the QRP stuff is smaller than the 100 watt outfit, there will still be a significant amount of stuff I'll need to wrestle on to the island. Here's a rundown as I'm considering it now:

  1. Shelter -- This is a pop-up screened in area that will keep the sun off of me during my stay. Just as I did in June, I'll pop this thing over a picnic table and make that my operating position. The shelter weighs about 10 pounds and collapses into a roughly three foot diameter flat bundle that hangs nicely in a nylon mesh carrying sack.

  2. Rig -- I'll bring the Pelican 1510 case outfitted with the Elecraft K2. This weighs in under 25 pounds, I think.

  3. Big Buddipole -- The Big Buddipole system discussed earlier weighs in at 12 pounds and can be slung over my shoulder. It has the tripod, 16 foot mast, and now has the triple ratio balun tucked into it so it won't be left behind like last time.

  4. Backpack -- This will hold my solar panel, charge controller, coax, enough water to last the day, a clipboard and paper for logging, compass, GPS, sunglasses, reading glasses, and any other personal comfort items I think I might need for that day in the sun. (I should think about packing a lunch, too.) Total weight here is probably about 10 pounds, counting the water.

  5. Freeplay Freecharge Weza -- This is the portable power device I mentioned a few days ago.

This puts my weight about (10 + 25 + 12 + 10 + 20 =) 77 pounds for the trip, well within my goal of 100 pounds or less. I might bring the second Buddipole and set it up for a second band (like 15m) which would add just under 10 more pounds with coax. The problem on this trip won't be weight; it will be managing the bulk and clutter! Luckily, I just need to get it to the boat, on the boat, and then off the boat again on the other end. There is pavement for me to drag the wheeled Pelican case for nearly all of the trip.
This is a pretty reasonable selection of gear for a day trip of this type. The Buddipole gives me a way of erecting an antenna in an area with no trees or buildings. The battery in the K2 and the Weza gives me enough juice to operate for the day. And, I've not forgotten the safety stuff like plenty of water, sunscreen, and shade to stave off heat and sun stroke. If I can wrangle everything there, it should be a good time!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Georges Island IOTA contest QTH

I just got a call from a ranger associated with Georges Island asking me about my request to operate from the island and use a little power off their generator. (I discussed some of this in a previous blog entry). No promises were made but he seemed interested in helping.
One of the questions he had for me was, "did I belong to a club?" I replied, "Yes, I belong to the Yankee Clipper Contest Club, along with several other organizations including the service club in Westford called PART."
The other question he had regarded my antenna. My intention is to use my Buddipole systems on the island. (No word yet on the Force-12 Sigma-5.) When I described the system you could sense the relief in his voice. The Buddipole is compact, reasonably small, and easy to describe: there is a tripod, a 16-foot mast, and the antenna fits on top of the mast either horizontal or, perhaps, vertical, depending on how I set it up.
I made it clear I was coming this weekend no matter what and that I'd operated from there before with battery power. I also dropped a few details that the RSGB has on their IOTA pages and the fact that fewer than 25% of the members have Georges Island in their logs. I'd be sought after (I hope).
I don't know what will happen. Perhaps the answer will come back as "sorry". No matter what happens, I'm very pleased that somebody followed up on my request and took the time to talk with me. Cross your fingers!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Business cards and more

I solved the business card / eyeball-QSL problem. Sunday afternoon I took a few minutes and created a nice business card in Photoshop using my logo. I dropped off the artwork to a printer Monday morning and picked up the results this afternoon. The low resolution version below doesn't do it justice.
Business card
I'll have them in my pocket at Boxboro so if you want one, ask.
In other news I got a really great note from Dave (KB1LKE, a fellow who started following the blog after it was featured on the ARRL Surfin' page. Dave pitched in with lots of observations and links that were very helpful! In case my mission here gets lost, let me repeat it: I believe anybody who is interested in traveling with the radio should try it. If you find information here that helps your first adventure be successful, I'd be very pleased indeed. I'll share my experiences, good and bad, and my victories and goof-ups. Feel free to share your insights, too. Hopefully, anyone reading this will benefit from all of it. Thanks again, Dave!

Monday, July 24, 2006

A boat!

I had left my business cards with a couple of folks on Saturday while in Miami in hopes that somebody would help me locate a boat that would be willing to take me and a few other brave souls to Cay Sal Bank. When I arrived a work today (Monday) I had a voice mail from Lindsay Davis at the Florida Yacht Charters & Sales office saying she had something for me. That sounded tantalizing!
I just got a chance to call her back about 5PM and she said that she had located a boat with somebody willing to take a group to Cay Sal. The boat is an 85-foot Hatteras that had just gone through a $700K refit. A boat that might be similar appears below (or not similar, I know nothing about boats):
Random boat image of a Hatteras
The boat would be $3000 per day. Plus, I'm sure, some gratuity for the captain of about 15% more. So, figure 8 days and the budget will need about $28K for the boat. Wow. That's a lot. For a six person crew that would be $5K a head. For a four person crew (my original idea) that would be $7K a head!
The last group had a 55 foot troller and (though I can't find it in my notes) put up about $12K for the trip. That was when diesel was about half the cost it is now, of course. That has to be factored in, but doesn't explain the differential.
I am thinking as I type and I have a couple of observations. The first one is I don't need a boat that makes me feel like Onassis when I'm getting to this island. Linsay was talking about plasma TVs, state rooms, circular couches that seat 20, etc. That's not what we're looking for here. The second one is even more simple: this boat is almost twice the size of the one the other fellows chartered so I'm almost certainly looking at too much boat!
All that said, I'm extremely encouraged that in only a half day's worth of digging I was able to find somebody interested in making the trip. Also, the good folks at Florida Yacht have done a very good thing by treating me politely during my visit then quickly locating what I asked for. I didn't set a price range as part of my criteria so they contacted me with the first thing that fit the facts as they had them.
I should now think though how much I think is reasonable to spend on this part of the exercise and follow up with Florida Yacht. I might make another call to Joe (W8GEX) first, though.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Miami trip wrap-up

Yesterday's hunt for a boat went a little better than I had expected. I checked out of the hotel and drove to the Miami Marina about 11 AM. From there I just started looking for anybody who charters. The first place I saw was Reward Party & Fishing.
Behind the window was Captain Wayne Conn. I explained I was looking for a charter to Cay Sal Bank and did he know of anybody who might be able to help me? He nodded and said of course he knew where that was and that he has known of people taking fishing expeditions down there. But, his firm didn't have anything appropriate for such a trip. I gave him my business card and wrote "crazy ham radio operator" on the back. He gave me his card and said he'd check around. I'll follow up with him in a week or so.
It occurred to me that I should probably have business cards made up with the "100 pound DXpedition" logo, my home address, email, phone, call sign, etc. on it. I'll likely make one up later today.
I walked a few paces and found Florida Yacht Charters & Sales and the General manager Bob Everhard. Bob said that he remembered another group a few years ago making the same kind of inquiries about Cay Sal Bank. He seemed pretty positive about being able to find somebody to help but thought it might be more of a 10 day to 2-week trip, not the 7 days I had mentioned. (I reflected on this after the meeting and I believe he has a point.) Again, we exchange cards and I write "crazy ham radio operator" on the back of mine.
After the second successful meeting (IMHO) I took a walk around the marina and looked at all the boats. There were certainly some beauties there! Which of them might be appropriate for this trip, I wondered? On the end of the public pier I see the price of diesel fuel advertised on the pump. Of course it has gone up considerably since the last group made its run at Cay Sal. How much will this increase the cost of the trip?
At this point I'm getting a little warm so I go look for some air conditioning. I find Hopkins & Carter Marine. As I step inside the store I see a display case full of marine radios. I've been wondering how to do the island-to-boat communication and this probably makes the most sense. I should learn more about this when I return to Boston (yet another to do item).
Once I'd cooled off a bit and found a cool bottle of water to down, I began walking towards the ocean. This morning's conversations gave me a great deal to think about. Should I try something more modest in that area before making the Cay Sal Bank trip? Perhaps I should try a place like Dry Tortugas 70 miles west of Key West. Would I do this run with the same team going to Cay Sal? Should these trips be in two separate years?
The quick walk to the water was refreshing but the sun was beating down hard. I had a few hours before I had to make my flight--time enough to walk along the surf but no time for swimming. After walking along the water's edge and taking some pictures I noticed a storm front on the horizon moving towards me. Time to go!
I hustled back to the marina and reached it just as the sky opened up. Good time for lunch, I thought, and settled into a seat at Monty's Raw Bar for some fish & chips. (MMM good!)
When I was finished with lunch I headed off for the airport for that 2 1/2 hour flight back to Boston. We'll see what becomes of my inquiries.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Doing my search the "old fashioned way"

Well, I came up empty again. In last night's post I'd indicated that I'd waited until the last minute to "do my homework" and locate potential candidate boat chartering companies. In actual fact, I had spent many hours over the last few weeks googling around looking for matches for things like "florida boat charter" and "hollywood florida yacht charter" and every other combination you might think would work. All I would come up with is one day fishing adventures, cocktails and shrimp cruises for my business clients, and small-boat scuba diving tours.
I am such a hopeless nerd and I am so used to finding anything and everything on the web that it didn't occur to me that I might have to get out there and beat the pavement to find what I'm looking for, but it appears that will be the case. So, I'm going to finish packing, check out, stalk the wild breakfast, and then head to the docks and just start asking around.
Of course, something else just occurred to me just now: I wonder how long it will take the DEA to hear about my inquiries and make the (obviously false) assumption that I'm trying to get this boat for some nefarious reason. [sigh] I guess I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Doing my homework the night before

As the meeting here in Florida was winding up the group began the usual chatter of "when does your flight leave?" and, if leaving tomorrow, "what's on tap for tonight?" I tried to recruit folks to join me tonight at the Florida Marlins game but could get no takers. Tonight's game was excellent.
I also chatted to the stragglers left in the meeting (those that were not sprinting out the door for the airport) about tomorrow's task of learning about the boat charter situation for my Cay Sal Bank adventure. There were no other hams in the group (the only lapsed ham was one of those doing the airport sprint) so I got a lot of blank stares and "you must be nuts" looks. I probably am. [grin]
I'm up late on Friday night surfing for candidates for tomorrow's trip up the coast. I've not really done enough research and I'll be scrambling tonight and early tomorrow morning to find possible charter companies to talk to -- but I have no regrets going to the ball games. I'll post the list that I come up with.

Glimpse at Cay Sal Bank weather tonight

Just to give you a little picture to go with the Cay Sal Bank weather concerns, check this out (just snagged it off the NOAA site).
NOAA weather sat view

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Leaving that familiar item at home

I spent a long day in a meeting but the group was lively and it seemed like we covered a lot of ground. All-in-all, I'm glad I made the trip. After today's session concluded, I got directions to Pro Player stadium from the concierge and zoomed up to catch a Marlin game. I arrived just in time to see the first pitch.
I don't know what it is about this area but I seem to be turned-around every time I try to drive some place. I should have brought my Garmin StreetPilot GPS but I stupidly left it at home to save weight in my bag. Dumb. Very dumb. Maybe that's a lesson for packing for one of these lightweight DXpeditions, too: if you've come to rely on a piece of equipment (particular radio, antenna analyzer, etc.), take it. Work the other stuff around the weight and bulk of the thing that helps keep you centered. At some point, when you are far away from home, a little comfort from a familiar object might be just what you need. (Don't go nuts, obviously. If you've got a favorite brick, leave it at home [grin]).
The other thing I noticed here is how quickly the weather can change. Storms seem to pop up out of nowhere, then disappear, then reappear. Very fluid, very spontaneous weather down here. My fantasy of working the world from Cay Sal Bank or Double Headed Shot Cay always has me hanging out, wearing the cool sun glasses, and soaking up rays while I work DX. In reality, I've got to plan for foul weather, too. And it can get pretty ferocious down here. That's one more thing for the planning document.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Off to Florida

I'm heading off to Florida this afternoon for a conference. I've not had much time to research possible boat charters for the Cay Sal Bank trip. My goal still to spend some time along the coast, from Miami to Hollywood, to see if I can find some people to talk to about this idea.
I've stuffed DXpeditioning Basics by Wayne Mills (N7NG) and DXpeditioning: Behind the Scenes - A Manual for DXPeditioners and DXers by Neville Cheadle G3NUG and Steve Telenius-Lowe G4JVG in my bag. I've mentioned these works before. Perhaps this trip I'll actually get a chance to go through them again! What I'm trying to get out of these works is the start of my own DXpedition manual that covers all the things we should have worried about and handled on our trip. These things could range from "model release forms" for the videos and still photographs that might be taken, to releases of liabilities wavers, to how we will handle QSLing. All these things need to be worked out. I'm pretty sure much of this would also be reusable on several trips--once I develop it in the first place!
Blogging will be light during my trip. I'll be back very late Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Weza first impressions

My Freeplay FreeCharge Weza just arrived from Sundance Solar. This will just be a couple of notes on first impressions. Here's the first note:
This thing is built like a tank. It appears to be very well constructed and rugged. It is also packaged very nicely with a rubber-bottom canvas bag that holds the Weza unit and all its accessories. The bag has a set of carrying handle straps and a shoulder strap with pad. Inside the bag are a number of pockets that hold the AC charger, the jumper cables, and a bunch of other connectors for running small radios or other electronics.
Freeplay Weza
The unit was plopped on my floor here in the office, I extended the rear stabilizer bar, and stepped on the charging lever. It made a very satisfying zoop! The LEDs arrayed near the top of the interface lit up indicating how well my charging effort was doing. That wimpy stomp I just gave it wasn't nearly what it could take. In fact, you could step on this thing vigorously about once a second to really put the alternator at top performance. The unit feels so solid I don't have any fears about an "overly athletic charging session" breaking the thing. After all, it isn't just a charging source, it is a workout program!
In short, this is a very nicely thought-out and packaged device. This will definitely be making the trip with me to Georges Island for the IOTA contest.
Finally (and this post I'll only have one "finally" instead of the two "finallys" I had the other day [grin]) a quick word about Sundance Solar. As per my earlier posts, I ordered this thing online off their web site on Saturday evening. Early Monday I received an email message from them telling me they had recomputed the shipping and thought I could still get it very quickly with the cheaper UPS ground method. They wanted to save me some money on shipping costs. If that was a problem, I could write them back. Obviously, they shipped it yesterday and I received it today. The paperwork for the sale is in the box with the unit and it is even signed by the Sundance Solar person that filled the order with a little smiley face. Quick service, responsive, and the product I ordered arrived quickly and safely. Now, for the words that make Sandy really nervous: "Good folks! I wonder what else they sell?"

Monday, July 17, 2006

VooDudes and Kure presentations

I was thinking about my trip to Dayton today. It was my first time at the Hamvention and, to be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed. I began the trip with a short drive down to Newington to attend a talk given by Roger Western G3SXW, author of Up Two Adventures of a DXpeditioner and Contesting in Africa Multi-Multi on the Equator (which is really by the VooDoo contest group). I own and had read both books. Mr. Western was kind enough to both sign my copy of Contesting in Africa and indulge me with a photograph with the two of us together.
Roger Western and Scott Andersen
The venue for the presentation was the first floor conference room at ARRL headquarters and the talk lasted about two hours including the Q&A session. Certainly there was lots of discussions about equipment, storage, border crossing adventures, and negotiations with, well, practically every bureaucrat and business man within arms reach, but there was also a great deal in the presentation about the local people, customs, music, and how they live.
It is difficult to imagine people more dedicated, hardworking, and competitive than the VooDudes (as they like to be called), yet they took the time to "stop and smell the roses". I have to remind myself to do that occasionally, too.
The other thing that triggered these thoughts about DXpedition presentations was a newspaper article Sandy had given me today on the new Hawaiian wildlife refuge. On the map showing the area now protected is Kure atoll, home of the recent K7C DXpedition, way off to the west. I had seen Ann Santos WA1S speak this spring and part of her presentation was a short video of that trip. She'll be speaking again at Boxboro at the DX dinner. If you can, come and see the show. She's an excellent speaker and, if you're like me at all, her tale will fill you with the sense of adventure that will make you want to go out and try this stuff yourself--even if your plan is a bit more modest!
These very experienced DXpeditioners do come out and speak now and then. I urge you to make that club meeting or convention to see them, talk to them, and learn from them. Stop and smell the roses. You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Verizon letdown + Power to the People

I never made it to Wachusett yesterday. Verizon repair never appeared, the static on the line is worse than ever, and I wasted a day sitting at home instead of working the contest. But I'm not bitter. [grin]
I did try to make the best use of my time (other than the nap I took, of course) including assembling the MFJ 6m yagi just to be sure all the parts were there and everything fit. It was a good thing I did this! The holes drilled into the boom for the U-bolt weren't quite right so I had to re-drill one of them. That would have been problematic on top of Mount Wachusett! Again, always familiarize yourself with your equipment (radios, antennas, power supplies, tuners, etc.) long before you need it for something important. I was going to try the new MFJ beam but I had a backup plan in case something wasn't right. If you take some new piece of equipment on a 100 pound DXpedition and it isn't right, you'll be hosed!
As I said earlier this week, we're in crunch mode at work. I'm here now, in fact, jotting down a few notes for today's blog and then at it full-tilt. I'm slated to travel Wednesday to Florida to The Open Group meeting. We'll see if that's still on after a status meeting we'll no doubt have early this week. While I'm down there I'm going to try to talk to people about boat charters to Cay Sal Bank. We'll see if I can find anybody interested in helping.
Finally, I received two magazines in the mail yesterday: QST and World Radio. QST had an article about a foot-powered charging system that captured my attention. Given that I've not heard back from the Rangers, I'm not counting on being able to tap into their power for the IOTA contest held at the end of this month. Therefore, I still have the problem of powering my rig all day. The solar panel helps, but it can't keep up with the drain. The Freeplay FreeCharge Weza look like it solves this problem nicely. The unit contains a 7 Amp-hour seal lead acid (SLA) battery and a foot-activated generator. Power to the people, baby! Here is a picture:
Freeplay FreeCharge Weza
I should be able to run all day with the combination of solar power and this gizmo. I can't wait to try! I ordered it last night (kind of big for an impulse buy, but what the heck). I'll let everybody know how it works out.
Finally, I just noticed my to do list on my desk. I've fallen behind on lots of things. I've signed up to do some stuff for the New England QRP club and I have to put an update out for Cab-converter to support the recently held ARRL VHF contest. I should try to do those things before leaving for Florida. My how time flies!

Saturday, July 15, 2006


It is a beautiful day here in Acton. I'm hanging around the condo waiting for the Verizon repair person to fix the phone. The thunderstorms that went through earlier this week did something horrible to our line and now all I hear when I pick up the receiver is screeching static. Of course, the window for when they might do this repair is something like 8 AM to 4 PM. Ugh.
Today is the CQ WW VHF contest (you can find the rules here). I did pretty well in last year's contest and had a great time. The follow-up article even quoted me

Meanwhile, NE1RD extolled the virtues of the QRP Hilltopper category, “working from atop Mt. Wachusett in FN42 with a cool breeze, cool drinks, and a great view.”

Up on Mount Wachusett the view really is great but the flat parking lot at the top doesn't provide too many ways to pop up antennas. Last year I used a painter's pole to hold up my Arrow 2m antenna. There wasn't a good way to guy it so I used bungie cords to lash it to the back of my ugly Honda Element. This really wasn't a good arrangement.
On 6m I used my Buddipole which had its own tripod and 16-foot mast. Instead of guying the thing, I hung a heavy weight from the bottom of the tripod with a bungie and it was pretty solid.
This year I purchased an MFJ 6m beam that I had hoped to take up there. Of course, figuring out a way to hold it up on that concrete and gravel parking lot will be a challenge. In many ways, operating from the top of Wachusett is like operating in a typical island DX location: I've got a great view of the horizon in all directions, and I am the tallest thing I can see for miles!
So, with no tall trees or other structures from which to hang wires, we're stuck with bringing our own mast material and hoisting up radiators from there. With VHF-sized antennas, this isn't too much of a problem. Even the 6m beam is pretty small compared to any HF antenna. Bringing enough mast material that is strong enough to hold up a big HF yagi would be much harder. We did just that up in Maine for the K1P special event station. For that we used the Vertical Antenna Kit from The Mast Company. Five sections of the aluminum mast were put into the base bringing the Force-12 Tribander up to about 20 feet.
Sounds good, right? Check the weight, though: each mast section is 4-feet long and weights 2.2 pounds. Five sections weighed about 11 pounds. Now add the base (another couple of pounds) and some other stuff and you're nearly up to 15 pounds just for the mast. If you're going to bring one antenna, this mast, and "make do" with everything else, perhaps you can still hit your 100 pound weight budget--but it would be difficult (not impossible, just difficult).
These are great exercises to learn about your equipment, think through alternatives, and see what works (and doesn't work). I know I've mentioned this before, but it really is true: operating away from home, packing stuff and taking the radio on the road, is a great way of facing all these kinds of challenges and allows you to work out solutions and viable alternatives while you are close to home. It can help make your next DXpedition to some far away place more likely to succeed.
I don't know if I'll get to go to Wachusett today. At this point it depends on when Verizon shows up [sigh]. But, I've done lots of prep that I know will help me later.
Hope to see you on the air. I'll be FN42 if I can get on. 73!

Friday, July 14, 2006

A little at a time

It is crunch time at work as we've got a pretty serious deadline coming up. There are two good things to report about this, though: first, this is actually a rare event at the firm where I work. In fact, overall I've worked more "normal" hours at this job than in most of the gigs I've had. Secondly, management offered a very generous "comp-time" program so extra hours I might work now can be put towards time off later (say, DXpedition time!).
Because I'm putting in extra hours in the office, I'm not spending too much time thinking about radio stuff right now. That said, this is an excellent time to work on some of those long lead-time items. I've already ordered (and received) my new Pelican case, ordered that Force-12 antenna, and have started doing some work on yet another trip (which I've not disclosed here) that won't take place until some time next year.
Though I'm not spending too much time each day on these planning activities, I am spending some time every day on this effort. I've also begun carrying a little notebook with me to jot down ideas as they come to me. Oddly enough, I've had some worthwhile ideas sort of hit me out-of-the-blue and the notebook has helped me keep track of these little gems. I know I've probably beat this topic to death but a successful DXpedition depends on good planning. The best planning, in my opinion, is done a little at a time, over a long period of time. So, even though I'm really busy at work, I believe I'm still making good progress on some of these trip plans in those few minutes I spend on them each day.
I may try to take some time on Saturday to trundle off to Mount Wachusett for the CQ VHF contest. It doesn't really do anything to help me prepare for a DXpedition--it is just a fun contest! And, I'm sure by then I'll need a little break from work.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

QSL cards

I just received an envelope from the QSL buro and within it were a few surprises. I received a card from Cyprus (IOTA AS-004) which was both a new DXCC entity and new IOTA island for me. Double bonus! I also had received a card from Japan confirming a QSO from my Hawaii trip taken in February of 2005. Finally, near the bottom of the pile, was a card from W1ZS in Vermont. How did this card end up in a buro drop? Upon a closer look at the card, it was to KP2/NE1RD from my St. John trip last Winter. I didn't know you could do that (basically send a card from a US station to a US station) with the buro. Live and learn.
QSLing is fun for me. I understand many have probably developed a been there, done that attitude towards filling out all those little cards, but not me. I feel like I get to re-experience the QSO, contest, or trip when I'm doing the QSL paperwork. I also hope that I'm able to give a small thrill to somebody when they receive my card like the thrill I just had holding that new Cyprus card. To that end, I try to design a nice card that conveys the polish and dedication I have both preparing for the trip and operating on the air.
St. John QSL card image
There are lots of places you can get cards printed but I've found some people that have been fun to work with and have helped me create some pretty fantastic looking cards. They are The QSLworks in South Dakota. So far I've had them help me with three different cards: my home call card for Acton, Massachusetts, my card for KP2/, and the special event K1P card from the Deer Isle, Maine trip celebrating Patriots Day. The key points are (a) the good folks at the QSLworks take my mock-ups and work with me to give me a card I can call "my design", and (b) they take that design and apply the kind of polish that professional designers and printers know how to do so the final result looks great.
If you go someplace interesting you'll likely be getting requests for QSL cards. Spend some time planning your card's design (I had the KP2/ design sketched out long before the trip was made, for example) and make sure you get some nice digital photography done while on-site for that card. Then, pick somebody who will help you get a first-class card printed when you're done. You'll probably make somebody's day when you send them out later.
If you are one of the people who hate the QSLing process, find a QSL manager before your trip. Maybe some high school aged ham wants the job or your local club has somebody who really likes handling cards. There are lots of alternatives here but it is best to plan ahead.
Paper QSL cards either direct or through the buro are still the standard way to confirm a QSO. I'll try to discuss electronic QSLing in upcoming blog entries.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pelican cases

Carrying around fragile equipment is tricky business. It doesn't do you any good to pack up 100 pounds of gear only to have it all arrive broken. I've decided that a good, solid, waterproof case for the transceiver and related parts is a key ingredient for a successful trip. Although there are lots of solutions for this problem, I've mostly settled into one solution: a Pelican case.
These cases come in a variety of sizes and are all very strong and tough. I have four cases: a Pelican 1200 (for my Elecraft KX1), Pelican 1610 (for my FT-897D kit), and two Pelican 1510's (one for my Elecraft K2, and the other for my next project). The 1200 is small and would be suitable for a camera or very small radio like the KX1. The 1510 is the largest Pelican case you can use as a carry-on bag according to airline rules. The 1610 is the largest case you can use as a checked bag.
Though these cases are sold many place, I've found one dealer that I've been very pleased with so I stick with them. DXer case has a good variety of the Pelican cases and their prices and shipping rates are reasonable. The Pelican 1510 that just arrived the other day, for example, was $115.00 plus about $16 to get it across country from California to Massachusetts.
Pelican guarantees their cases for life as unbreakable, watertight, and dust tight. They are tough! But, that toughness comes at a cost: weight. The 1510 weighs between 12 and 14 pounds empty (or with the foam packing included) and the 1610 weighs about 22-23 pounds. Given a checked bag can only be 50 pounds total weight, the 1610 empty is almost half of the allowance! Still, I know that the stuff inside will arrive safely, dry, and ready for use. Again, saving weight on the case does you no good if the contents don't survive the trip.
There are some nifty add-ons to these cases that I'd also like to recommend. There is an order form inside the case that allows you to order a customized name tag that slips nicely into a recessed area in the case. I've ordered tags for all my cases. You can also get a drying agent enclosed in a little metal canister that can be kept in the case to help keep things dry. Given the case has an O-ring seal, it could easily trap moisture inside as well as it keeps moisture out! I ordered one of these in January and have been using it in the 1610. I like it. When it has absorbed all the moisture it can, the little beads inside turn a different color. To dry the pack out again you just throw it in the oven at 300 degrees for 3 hours and it is ready for use again. I just ordered two more of these gizmos for the two 1510 cases.
If you don't already have a good way of transporting your equipment, consider these Pelican cases. Yes, they are a bit heavy--but the peace of mind you'll have knowing your stuff will arrive safely can't be beat. After all, it would be better to bring less stuff and have it all work than bring more stuff and have it be broken!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Boxboro announcement

My young visitors have been safely returned to Illinois and my life should again return to something approaching normal now. After a Spring here in New England brought record rainfall and flooding, they were fortunate enough to see a solid week of beautiful sunshine and warm breezes. Now, as I sit typing this, thunder echoes through the condo and hail bangs off the roof and sidewalk. Perhaps I should bring my lucky charms back!
I'm going through the mail that collected during their visit and found an announcement for Boxboro, the ARRL New England Division Convention. I'll be speaking there on the "100 Pound DXpedition". The current schedule has me in the noon time slot on Saturday. If you live in the New England area, I hope you'll come and see the show.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The DX Magazine

This is the last full days for touring the Boston area with my nieces. We're off to Salem, Massachusetts to the House of Seven Gables and other cool stuff. (Have you noticed how everybody seems to have a web site now-a-days? Wow.)
Other than picking up the mail and shuffling around stuff for the next adventure, we've not spent too much time around the house. Still, I did manage to get a few moments to sit and page through the latest issue of The DX Magazine that arrived on Saturday. Many of you probably get QST and CQ and these are both fun, general interest magazines. The DX Magazine, on the other hand, is dedicated to doing DX and DXpeditions. This is the third issue I've received and, so far at least, it is a winner! A subscription is $22 for a year (6 issues) and is certainly worth a try. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Georges Island and RSGB IOTA contest

Big day yesterday for our little tour group. My nieces, Sandy, and I took the harbor islands boat to Georges Island in Boston Harbor. This is only my second trip there and the first for Sarah and Katie. The boat ride out provided us with some fantastic views of the Boston skyline, a lighthouse, and every kind of sail boat and recreational boat you can imagine.
While on Georges Island we toured Fort Warren inside, outside, and on top. That is a big place! The view from the top also allowed us to see several other nearby islands that would be great fun to visit.
On the way out, I talked with one of the rangers about possibly connecting to the island's generator to operate in the upcoming RSGB Islands on the Air contest at the end of July. Georges Island is part of the Massachusetts State North Group. The ranger took my business card, name, telephone number, and email address after a nice conversation. She also mentioned her brother is a ham (that might help!).
Even if you don't think you are a contester you might want to give this one a try. You don't have to be a member of the Radio Society of Great Britain to join in the fun. Just go to an island and get on the air! If you are lucky enough to live close to the ocean and one of these islands identified by the RSGB's IOTA program you've got a perfect place to start building up experience for your own 100 Pound DXpeditions.
I hope to hear back from the ranger in the next week-or-so. It is probably a long-shot as the island has limited power in only a few rooms of the ranger station and one room in the fort. Still, you have to try, right?
With the big day we had yesterday I didn't have time to start my big blog entries on using fishing poles for all this. Perhaps after I put my young visitors back on the airplane (and after I've had a really good night's sleep!) I'll be able to tackle that subject.
In the mean time, get out there and activate an island, do a little picnic table portable, or even drive your car out to the end of a long country road and try operating. See you on the air!

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mount Washington Portable

I have visitors in from out-of-town this week and it gives me a great excuse to be a tourist in my own area. Boston and the surrounding region is rich with history and wonderful sites to see. Unfortunately, I rarely take the opportunity to soak up all this culture and history unless prompted by visitors. When they come, though, I make the most of it!
My two nieces, now young women, have come to visit their old Uncle Scott and we've been going everywhere and seeing everything we can in the short week they're here. Yesterday we went to the top of Mount Washington, the centerpiece of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. You can get to the top of this 6288 foot wonder one of two ways: drive up the mountain's access road, or take the Mount Washington Cog Railway, a steam powered locomotive that pushes you up a sinuous line of wood and steel with inclines sometimes greater than 30 degrees. What a ride!
Mount Washington has some of the worst weather in the world as you can see from the Mount Washington Observatory web site. It is cold, windy, sometimes snowy and foggy, and that's on a nice spring day. [grin]
We packed the car early for the roughly 3 hour drive and in my gear (besides warm clothing) was my Elecraft K2 and Buddistick. I was bound and determined to make at least one QSO from the top of the mountain!
The trip up was wonderful and after a quick romp up to the peak for a photograph, I headed off to the observation deck with its long metal rail and flat ground. You can see me huddled and attempting to shelter myself from the wind here:
NE1RD/P on Mount Washington
The Buddistick went together quickly and it only took a few moments with a small antenna analyzer to find a reasonable tap for 20m. I tapped the coil and then allowed the autotuner in the K2 to give me the rest of the match I needed.
The wind was fierce and it was blowing some kind of dust. I found I was closing one eye then the other unconsciously to protect them from the assault. Once I was done setting up everything I sat on the ground hoping for some relief from the wind and called CQ. Nothing. I called again. Still nothing. I'm only running 8-12 watts here so you have to be patient.
I tuned around and found a couple of gentlemen finishing a conversation. When they were done, I squeezed the PTT and called out, "This is November Echo One Radio Delta portable on top of Mount Washington. Can you copy me?" One of those gentlemen came right back. Yes! N4EUQ Dan from Virginia gave me a 55 and then, after a quick QSO, encouraged me to look for others on the frequency.
WB9PMF Tim from Wisconsin worked me next. Again, a 55 signal report--but that's just fine given I've got a small vertical and 8-12 watts out!
The wind had picked up and the Buddistick blew down for about the 10th time. I need to pack a small guying kit for the Buddistick in its bag! It doesn't need to be much. Just a few short lengths of dacron rope would do. Well, I learn something on every trip; this was the lesson for this round.
Tim encouraged me to call out CQ one more time but there were no takers. So, I told Tim I had to pack up and get out of the wind. He wished me 73 and I started packing stuff back into their bags.
I had just two contacts in 20 minutes, but I'm sure had I been able to survive the elements I would have been able to work people all afternoon. It only takes one packet spot for people all over to know you are there.
Again, I always learn something on one of these deployments. That's why I believe they are so crucial for a run-up to a larger far away personal DXpedition. (Oh, and they are tons of fun, too!)
Perhaps I'll talk about fishing poles tomorrow. In the mean time, get out there and do a little portable operation. See what you learn from the experience!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Antennas for travel: Force-12 Sigma-5

Today I'd like to just mention a few things about the Force-12 Sigma-5 antenna. I ordered this antenna about a week ago and am now awaiting its arrival. Of course I'll revisit the discussion after I've used the antenna in the field!
I thought some of you might be interested in my motivation for ordering the antenna in the first place. After all, I've just finished several lengthy posts describing the MP-1, Buddipole, and Buddistick antennas. Exactly how does this new antenna fit into the mix? So, before I tell you why I ordered it, let me tell you a little about the antenna.
The Sigma-5 antenna is a 5 band vertical antenna covering 10, 12, 15, 17, and 20m. It is rated at 1200 watts SSB (700w CW) and its makers claim it is greater than 90% efficient. That's nice, but how about size and weight (two things we care about deeply)? The antenna breaks down into 2 foot sections and weighs only 7 pounds. At this point they had my attention!
The antenna is basically a vertical dipole with capacitance hats. These capacity hats reduce the height of the unit while keeping efficiency high. The trick that the antenna uses so it can operate on multiple bands is found in the center housing where a set of relays can be energized from the wired remote switch to select between the various bands. If no relays are energized, the antenna is left in its default state as a 20m antenna.
At this point we can begin making some comparisons between the Sigma-5 and some of the other antennas I've already discussed. Here are some things the antenna has going for it:

  • Weight and size -- My Big Buddipole system is 12 pounds; my Small Buddipole system is 8 pounds. The Sigma-5 comes in a pound lighter than even the smaller Buddipole. That's nice.

  • Remote band switching -- This is an important advantage. If you are working on 20m and want to just sneak up to 17m or 15m meters to see if there is an opening, the other single-band antenna solutions would require that you reconfigure the antenna for the new band, a very time consuming process. The Sigma-5 can change bands instantly with the twist of the band select switch run from the antenna to your operating position by its 50 foot cable (which you can extend if you like).

  • Higher power handling -- I don't own an amplifier (yet) and, in fact, do much of my work QRP. But, that said, I could see a day where I'll be on an island (maybe on Cay Sal Bank) with a small 500w solid state linear for, say, 20m just to ensure we get heard on at least one band. This antenna could handle that power. The other antennas have a 150 watt or so power limit.

  • Quick assembly time -- As good as I am with the Buddipole I believe the no tools, no tuning, 5 minute assembly time for the Force-12 will beat even my best time for the Buddipole or any of those other antennas mentioned. When you are operating far from home you want to reduce any complication you can. The quick assembly time promised here is a serious advantage.

  • Built to be a vertical dipole -- I like to operate my Buddipole as a vertical dipole when near the salt water but I'm always concerned about the interaction with the aluminum mast. The Sigma-5 has no such complication since the entire thing is the radiator. That is an interesting point, in fact: about half the weight of the Buddipole package is dead weight in the form of tripod and mast. A seven pounds (less control cable and switch) of the Sigma-5 is radiator. I like that idea.

With all these kudos, you might think I'm ready to abandon the other antennas. Not so. Here is the other set of arguments against the Sigma-5:

  • Only covers 10-20m -- As we approach the bottom of the solar cycle, 10m and 12m are only a memory. Even 15m (which I worked a bunch on Field Day) is spotty at best. That means this antenna only covers two bands when the Sun is sleepy. My Buddipole, Buddistick, and MP-1 all cover down to 40m and perhaps lower with some clever hacking. We can argue efficiency all day but if an antenna can't be used on a band, it is zero percent efficient and any antenna that radiates beats it.

  • The antenna draws current -- As I said, I operate QRP in the field much of the time. I'm proud to say the radios I've built from Elecraft draw very little on receive, usually on the order of 20-40ma. The review of the antenna claims it draws only 95ma! Goodness! That's three or four times the current draw of my radio! (I plan on doing some measurements of this when I get my unit. I can't help but think latching relays would have been a better option here...)

  • Price -- At something approaching $400 delivered (I'll know when they ship it), this is no cheap antenna. I can't help but wonder if I should have gone with a small handful of monoband vertical dipoles. I'm not sure I could have made the 7 pound weight limit, but I'm sure I could have beat the price! [grin]

I could go on but you get the idea. It may not be an obvious that blowing a wad of cash on this is a good idea. I don't know myself. Still, while sitting on the water's edge while operating from Georges Island in Boston Harbor, I couldn't help but think, "this is a perfect place for a vertical like the Sigma-5." I'll let you know.
In the mean time, you can see the review from the ARRL's October 2002 QST here. The glowing review was part of the impetus to try this antenna. See if it doesn't sell you on it, too.
Tomorrow I'll discuss why a man that never fishes needs so many fishing poles.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Buddipole wrap-up

In yesterday's post I talked about the Buddipole. Today, I'll just fill in a last few facts and thoughts about this system and its cousin the Buddistick. Both of these systems use a tapped coil system to give you the correct electrical length for the selected band. Below is a picture of one of these coil taps just to take the mystery out of them.

You can see the little bend in the end of the metal. That is the "finger" that grips the winding. The whole plastic top screws down drawing that finger up to hold the winding tight. Just make them snug, please! You don't want to start pulling the winding off the coil form. Both the Buddipole and Buddistick use these coil taps.
The instructions that came with my Buddipole gave suggestions for where to tap the coils and how far to extend the whips to achieve resonance on each band. My system came with three taps, one for the "shield" side (called black) and two for the inner conductor (hot) side (called red). The center "tee" has that color coding as well so everything is easy to match up. With just those three taps, and judicial setting of whip lengths, you can easily and quickly set the antenna up for all ham bands 40-10m using the standard whips.
Now the instructions talk about four taps. Check out the antenna setup card in the Buddipole Yahoo! group's file section. This diagram and chart illustrates nicely how easy it is to change bands.
This four tap strategy is different from the one that came with my antenna. As more and more refinements are made to the antenna and as more and more users play with it, better ideas emerge. I can't wait to try these new settings!
Which brings me to one of my last points: I rarely use the antenna with the settings on these cards. I'm continually trying new things. For example, I bought the longer and sturdier shock cord whips. I have two of the 5-section whips and one of the 7-section whips. The seven section whip is 148 inches long. That makes a great vertical radiator! But it also means I'm a bit off the beaten path in that there are no "standard" settings for all the crazy combinations of things I have. As I said yesterday, this is the erector set for ham radio. And, just as I never built the stuff in the erector set instructions (I was always building something more elaborate and fun), I'm rarely building the Buddipole up the way those instructions read, either. Instead, I have my own settings guide I've made for the new whips and I've got lots of weird, but promising, configurations still to be documented. The goal is always the same, though: to get the best antenna I can made with the limited weight and bulk I'm willing to carry on one of my trips.
Tomorrow I'll talk about the Force-12 Sigma-5 antenna and why I thought it was worth a try.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Antennas for travel: Buddipole

This is a long post. Sorry. But, this post talks about the one antenna system I rely on most for my trips. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the simplest and most effective lightweight antennas is the trusty dipole antenna. When we say "dipole" we're really talking about a whole family of antennas with various shapes and sizes but they all have the same constituent parts: two arms, a feed point, and possibly a matching network or transformer to present a convenient impedance to the transceiver. Dipoles have a major advantage over a quarter wave vertical antenna: there is no need for an elaborate radial system to make it work efficiently. The two arms do the trick nicely.
A typical half-wave dipole is fed in the middle with arms of equal lengths on either side but there is nothing magic about the middle of the dipole. It is just as valid to feed the thing off center (making an off center fed dipole). As you move off center, the impedance of the antenna goes up compared to the center fed cousin but a matching network can take care of that. We can even use the fact that moving off center raises the impedance to our advantage as we'll see later.
Some of these specific designs have become popular enough to have been named such as the Carolina Windom and G5RV. These are wire antennas that weigh only a couple of pounds and operate well on many bands. For example, the G5RV covers 80-10m, every HF contesting band except 160m! So, if these antennas are super lightweight, cover multiple bands, and are well-proven by years of use, why don't we just carry one of these on our DXpeditions and declare victory?
The answer is simple: these antennas work well when hung high in the air and many places we might visit on a DXpedition will not have any trees, or indeed any structures, that are tall enough to hang the antenna high enough to make them effective. Further, if you want to have a wire antenna in a flat top configuration you'll need to hold it up in three places: the middle and the two ends. If you live in an area like New England with its nice tall pine and oak trees then getting a dipole pulled up high is pretty easy. If you are looking for a tall tree on a tropical island where hurricanes periodically flatten everything, the task is a lot harder.
The Buddipole provides nice solutions to many of these problems. In its simplest form, the Buddipole is a dipole antenna made from stiff aluminum parts and whips. To add electrical length without adding too much physical length, two coils (one for each arm) are supplied. The coils may be tapped anywhere along their lengths as needed to give you a good match. An antenna for the VHF bands (2 and 6m) can be made with just whips and arms alone. HF antennas require the arms, whips, and coils.
Like the Buddistick and Super Antennas MP-1, the Buddipole is made using parts with 3/8-inch x 24 threads. The standard configuration is center "tee", then on each side one 22-inch aluminum arm, a coil (usually tapped except on the bottom band 40m), followed by a whip.
You can see how well the Buddipole performed in the HFpack Horizontal Antenna Shootout. Budd Drummond tested three configurations: the standard configuration described above, a configuration with an extra "aluminum arm" on each side (adding 22-inches of arm), and finally a configuration with two extra arms (for a total of 3 arms). When compared to a reference antenna (a 20m wire dipole) the short version was just one dB lower in power than the reference antenna, the two-armed version was neck-and-neck with the wire antenna, and the 3 armed version outperformed the reference dipole by a hair. Clearly, this is a no compromise antenna for 20m and up!

The shootout compared the performance of the Buddipole to a standard 20m dipole with each hung horizontally. The Buddipole need not be a horizontal antenna, however. A "rotating arm kit" allows you to adjust the position of each side of the Buddipole. You can make a vertical dipole by rotating the arms so the "hot" side is up and the "shield" side is down. You can also make an "L" shaped antenna with the "hot" side up like a vertical and the "shield" side like a single raised radial. I've talked to Europe from a park near my home with just 8 watts SSB with the Buddipole in this "L" configuration.
The ability to add, subtract, or substitute parts in this antenna system is something that drew me to it. I believe the Buddipole is the Erector Set of ham radio. You are limited only by your imagination! I have found this system to be so versatile that I have purchased two whole systems:

  • Big Buddipole system -- This system consists of the Buddipole antenna, matching tripod, 16-foot mast, guying kit, two extra aluminum arms (four total), 5-section shock-cord whips (longer and stronger than the stock whips), the rotating arm kit, and a Triple Ratio Switch Balun (TRSB) which gives me 1:1, 2:1, or 4:1 matching with a quick turn of the switch. It all fits into a nice bag (and weighs 12 pounds). You can see pictures of this from my St. John trip here.

  • Little Buddipole system -- This was the original system I bought which consists of the Buddipole antenna, matching tripod, 8-foot mast, the rotating arm kit, and the TSRB. At 8 pounds, this is the one I grab when I want to do some quick picnic table portable some place. (Remember, even this configuration was nearly as good as a full-sized dipole on 20m!)

This antenna system covers many contingencies that would be difficult to cover otherwise. It gets your antenna off the ground. It provides a great antenna for 20-2m and a pretty good radiator for its size for 30 and 40m. You can even leave the tripod and mast at home and attach the antenna to a painter's pole. If you knew you could obtain such a pole locally once you arrived at your destination, this would be a great alternative to carrying the tripod and mast. This isn't cheating! Using local materials, especially if they are heavy, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do--if you know you can do it.
There is a Yahoo! group that supports the Buddipole and its companion Buddistick. You can find that group here. The product is well supported by Budd and his son Chris. The nice thing about the Yahoo! group is you can join before you purchase the antenna and any question you pose will be seen by the thousands (!) of users within the group. It is unlikely any question would go unanswered for long.
I try to bring one or both (Big and Little) Buddipole systems on each big trip because I know I can make it work, even if nothing else will. That's a nice feeling to have far away from home.
Tomorrow I'll either talk more about the Buddipole or, perhaps, I'll move on and tell you why I ordered the Force-12 Sigma-5 antenna. Until then, 73!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Quick wrap-up on small verticals

My last two entries on the MP-1 and Buddistick gave a good overview of two different antenna systems that could serve you well in a couple of particular situations. After rereading my posts I thought it would be good to clarify a couple of things and provide a little more rationale (and a little less product review).
Here's some situations where you might find these small vertical antenna designs helpful:

  • Balcony portable -- in this case you have no good or permanent access to a roof or even an area of ground you can deploy an antenna. Perhaps you are in a hotel room in a multi-floor hotel or your ground floor room is adjacent to a heavily traveled foot path and it would be awkward, or even dangerous, to deploy something more permanent outside. In this case, you can use the railing of the deck or balcony as your antenna support and deploy the small vertical from the railing. The radial wires would be spread as far as your limited space allows. I used this strategy in Hawaii and it worked very well. You can see pictures of that effort here.

  • Picnic table portable -- In this situation you've brought a radio (probably a pretty small one like an Elecraft KX1 or an FT-817) and a small battery and solar panel to keep the battery charged. You're just looking for a small antenna, lightweight and unobtrusive, to make a few casual QSOs.

  • High-band rooftop mono band antenna -- I had access to the roof of the building I was using for my shack while on St. John and found the small vertical antenna solution to be an excellent way to deploy a high band (15-6m) full-sized vertical. There were rafters above the roof line that made it easy to attach the Buddistick mount overhead. My site survey prior to the trip alerted me to this possibility.

There are likely other situations that would make one of these antennas the most logical choice, but you should get the idea. The last one listed, the "high-band rooftop mono band antenna" is especially interesting. Most of the antennas I'm going to discuss are single-band antennas. Since full sized verticals for 15m-6m are small (less than 12 foot in height), it is pretty easy to make full sized vertical antennas from these simple parts.
On St. John I deployed four single band antennas on the roof of the guest house. You can see those antennas here. They were (a) a 15m full sized vertical from a Buddistick kit, (b) a 20m dipole from a Buddipole, (c) a 40m vertical from a fishing pole, and (d) an 80m vertical from another fishing pole.
The point, as I do a little review of these two antennas, is not to bring "this or that" antenna, but to bring "this and that" antenna. If you want to operate on multiple bands, the easiest thing to do is to deploy antennas for each band you want to use (weight and size permitting) and then switch between them. (Instead of reconfiguring and retuning a single antenna.)
I hope this quick summary clarified my thinking. Tomorrow I'll discuss an antenna that is a little heavier but much more versatile: the Buddipole.

Antennas for travel: Buddistick

The Buddistick is a creation from the makers of the Buddipole and is, in essence, half of a Buddipole. (I'll talk about the Buddipole tomorrow.) Like the MP-1 discussed yesterday, the Buddistick is a shortened vertical antenna with a loading coil and mount. It breaks down into small pieces for easy travel and the nice zippered bag stuffed with antenna parts, radials, mount, and a 25-foot run of coax weighs in at only 4 pounds.
Because it is a vertical antenna (shortened quarter wave vertical) it needs a radial system or other mechanism to give it a low resistance return path. The Buddipole comes with a nice radial wire wound around a kite string handle for this purpose, but I've created a small collection of very lightweight radials from some very small and tough wire sold by The Wire Man. Having a set of radials (maybe 5 or 10) is a big improvement over just a single radial.
The Buddistick has the following construction: there is a coil with 3/8-inch x 24 threaded rod on one side and a place where such a rod could screw in on the other side, it comes with two 11-inch rods that are to go between the mount and the coil, and a whip antenna that extends to about 6 feet. The whole system comes in a nice zippered bag that organizes everything and keeps it safe for travel.
Assembly of the antenna is easy as everything has standard 3/8-inch x 24 threading. Screw the two rods together giving you 22 inches of base, screw the rods into the mount on one end, screw the coil on to the rods, screw the whip into the coil, and it is assembled! Easy. It takes about a minute once you know what you are doing.
The coil is larger in diameter than the MP-1. You tap the coil by inserting a small device into the winding at a particular place and then tightening it. A wander lead with a small banana plug then plugs into this little gizmo to accomplish the tapping. It isn't as convenient as the MP-1 with its sliding sleeve, but it works fine.
The thing that makes tuning this antenna easier (and this goes for the MP-1 and Buddipole, too) is an antenna analyzer like the MFJ-259B. I find all I need to do is hook up the antenna to the analyzer and then slide the wander lead up and down the coil until the match looks good. Then, stick the little gizmo in the place you spotted and tighten it down. With practice, this can be done very quickly.
Since the antenna uses standard 3/8-inch x 24 threading you can substitute parts if you like to improve the performance. I've purchased a couple of MFJ 12-foot telescoping whips that I've used with both the Buddistick and the MP-1. More whip means less coil and more efficiency. The MFJ whip is not nearly as sturdy and robust as the stock one that comes with the Buddistick, but if you are careful it should hold up OK. Also note that a full-sized 15m antenna can be made from just the 12 foot whip, mount, and radials!
The carrying bag has enough room in it for a couple of extra things: I have a spare whip, some extra coil clips, radials, four plastic stakes (to hold down the radials), and a 25-foot piece of RG-8X coax. This is the antenna system I bring with me when I'm doing short trips by car. I toss this little bag along with the Pelican case with my Elecraft K2 stuff in the back of my Element and hope the hotel has windows that will open. (GRIN)
At $139 it is a little more money than the MP-1 ($99) but it is also a little more rugged and comes with the carrying bag. You'll also want to get the table top mounting clamp for another $25 unless you've already got one that you use with your camera or camcorder.
I'm very pleased with my Buddistick. It performs very well compared to other antennas (like the MP-1) and is very rugged. And, like I say, it is easy to assemble, easy to disassemble (these things aren't always symetric) and travels well--which is the point here in case you forgot!
One last note, you won't find this in the HFpack Vertical Antenna Shootout because the antenna was introduced after this event. For this time, at least, you'll have to take my word for it: it performs at least as well as the MP-1 (LONG) as it has the extra "base rod" as compared to the original MP-1 design and a longer whip.
Tomorrow I'll discuss the Buddistick's big brother, the Buddipole.
(Updated this post in the afternoon to correct the lengths of the rods. There are two 11-inch rods, not two 22-inch rods.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Antennas for travel: MP-1

For the next couple of days I'd like to talk about some of the antenna options you have when traveling with your radio. Before I begin, though, I should make a couple of points: first, I don't have any financial relationship with any of the manufacturers that I might mention. I'm not trying to make any money from this; I'm just trying to have fun and share that fun! Secondly, there are plenty of things that I've tried and like, and a couple of things that I've tried and didn't like. Just because something worked for me (or didn't work for me) doesn't mean you'll have the same results. All of this is my opinion and, as my boyhood friend has been fond of telling me for the last 35 years, I'm often "full of beans." (GRIN)
The four antennas I'll be discussing in these next few days are:

We'll start with the MP-1. This was one of the first small antennas I bought and I picked it up on a lark from Ham Radio Outlet in New Hampshire while browsing around (which is probably why Sandy gets nervous when I start browsing at HRO!). The antenna is pretty simple: it consists of a mount, a small rod, a clever coil assembly, and a collapsible whip. The coil consists of two parts: one with the wire coil and a second sleeve that slips up and down on the coil to change the tap. Tuning the antenna means sliding the sleeve until you get a good match.
The antenna is a shorted vertical so it does need a set of radials. I've added some nice lengths of wires with quick-connect connectors on them for this purpose. The whole kit weighs very little and the longest piece is about a foot long. This makes it easy to pack and carry.
How does it perform? Rather than give my testimony or do a lot of mathematics here talking about efficiency and dBs, I'm going to point to a web site that provides a great set of comparisons for a whole slew of antennas. The HFpack web site has a couple of Shootout reports that directly compare the performance of various antennas using a "reference" antenna such as a 1/4 wave vertical or a full-size dipole. The Vertical Antenna Shootout Results show the standard MP-1 antenna to be about 2 dB down from the reference antenna. That's pretty good given that we've drastically shrunk the size and weight of it!
The MP-1 is an excellent antenna for operating off of a hotel balcony. As I said, it is small, light, and easy to assemble and tune. The other reason why I like this antenna is that it uses standard 3/8-inch by 24 threads for its pieces so you can mix-and-match other antenna parts to further improve the antenna's performance. Adding a longer whip, for example, would help. So would substituting a longer rod between the coil and mount. I made both substitutions on my Hawaii trip and the antenna performed very well. Because of the successes I've had with this antenna, it is now packed with my big (50 pound) Pelican trunk and always travels with that rig.
Your first DXpedition need not be elaborate. You might consider just bringing a small HF radio and one of these antennas on your next business trip. If you can get to the hotel balcony, you can use an antenna like this one to make HF contacts. That sure beats HBO!
Tomorrow I'll talk about another shortened vertical: the Buddistick. Until then, 73!

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Researching an Island

One of the things I'd like to stress in all these posts is that you'll have more fun if you plan well. Planning requires thinking, sure, but also a bit of research. With Google Earth and the other view from above technologies around, you've got excellent opportunities to do site surveys that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Still, one of the best ways of doing research is talking to people who have been there. I've tried to do that in all the places I've visited. Finding people who have been to some place as isolated as Cay Sal Bank is a little tougher than most research you might do. But, it can be instructive to see how I tracked down a resource for even this:
I started by typing
na-219 dxpedition "Cay Sal Bank"

into the Google search string listed four results including this one that mentioned
NA-219/Pr W5BOS/C6A    Dog Rocks, Cay Sal Bank Cays (October 2000)

I can now see somebody has tried to get there! I went to to see if W5BOS had anything on his page about this. No luck. OK, so I Google
w5bos na-219

and come up with over 100 hits, many of which sound promising. Eventually, through some more careful Googling, I end up with

BAHAMAS, C6, NA-219 Joe, W8GEX, Wayne, K8LEE, Mike, K9AJ,
and Phil, W9IXX, are going to the Double Headed Shot Cay in the
Cay Sal Bank Cays (NA-219) signing C6DX from Mar 25-29, 2004.
QSL via K9AJ.

So, I send a little note on June 7th, 2006 to that group that reads like this:


I am interested in doing a DXpedition to NA-219 and
would love to hear about your trip taken in March of 2004.
Any information you could provide on getting there
(I'm assuming a chartered boat), permissions you obtained
and from whom to land there and stay there, and any
problems you had, anticipated or otherwise, that I should
factor into my planning.

I am in the very, very early stages of planning this.
The current thinking is for a team of four or five to make
the landing and stay for 3 or (at most) 4 days on the island.
We'd operate 100 watts (or 50) with small generators
and verticals or lightweight dipoles such as Buddipoles.
Of course all this is sketchy at best.

Again, any information or direction you could
provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.


-- Scott (NE1RD)

Almost immediately Joe  (W8GEX) sends me mail and we connect on the telephone for about an hour. Joe first tells me about his aborted attempt to get to the area. Rough seas and possibly weather made traveling to the island impossible. Their crew had made it to Bimini but the traversal across the Gulf Stream had so battered crew and boat that the captain was reluctant to proceed further. So, their group checked in with the Bahamian authorities and then waited for a break in the sea and sky which never came. They never made it to the Cay.
I was saddened by this for several reasons: first, they had spent a lot of money to get that far only to fall short, and secondly they had brought an absolutely first class operating crew which would have done very well had they made it. Joe was gracious and generous with his time, telling me about their plans, decisions, insights, and mistakes. The hour I spent with him on the phone was absolutely invaluable!
If you can find somebody who has been on the ground at your desired destination, take the time to interview them. Your planning will be greatly enhanced by the effort.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Nifty Manuals

A couple of days ago I ordered the Nifty! Quick Reference Guide Mini-Manual for the new Icom IC-7000. Just a quick point: I don't even own this radio yet! So, officially, this is the first accessory I will have bought for it when I do, and justly so.
I read the manuals that come with my radios. I pretty familiar with the equipment before I pack up and go, but in the field you'll sometimes have a question that a quick glance at a manual would answer immediately. That's where these Mini-Manuals shine. Each Mini-Manual is light, waterproof, with an easy to read print that is color-coded in such a way as to bring your eyes quickly to the relevant piece of information you're looking for (or, at least that's how it works for me). The plastic lamination ensures it will survive all but the harshest treatment.
I have one of these manuals for nearly all my radios: IC-706IImg (in the car), FT-897D, Elecraft K2, and quick reference cards for the Yaesu VX-5R, Kenwood TH-D7A(G), and Elecraft KX1. I also own their "field reference" manual (two, actually), and a couple of other of their offerings I've not mentioned. At this point, these little waterproof wonders are a standard part of any kit that travels as they weigh nearly nothing, have all the information I need that any manual would likely contain, and it means I can leave the original manual at home where it can be safe and dry. Sure, they cost a couple of bucks, but it makes no sense to me to spend lots of time, money, and effort to get to some far away place only to be stymied by a forgotten setting or quirk in the radio. These manuals help ensure that mishap doesn't happen.
As I said, at this point, I order the manual even before I order the radio. Highly recommended.