Thursday, September 28, 2006

A respite

We're packing up for the weekend trip to Pittsburgh. Sandy and I love baseball (it isn't all ham radio around here) and we always try to get at least one new Major League baseball park in our score books each year. This year will be the Pirates and PNC Park.
We're driving the 10 hours to Pittsburgh from Acton, Massachusettts and will be on HF for at least some of that time. I'll also bring an iPod full of 99 Hobbies podcasts that I know Sandy has not heard yet. If you've not given these a listen, do so!
There will be games on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Friday night is open, though, so I'll be doing some hotel balcony portable from the road. I just need to decide which kit to bring!
I'm leaving the computer at home. So, no blog for the next couple of days. But, when I return I'll be talking about the DXpedition manual, following up on the Montserrat licensing and MARS membership, and getting ready for contesting season.
Finally, I'd like to thank everybody for reading along with me on all this. Also, thank you to all who have written to me. I appreciate the feedback and interest expressed. See you Monday!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


I gave my presentation The 100 Pound DXpedition to the Colonial Wireless Association club in Concord this evening. What a great group! Many thanks to Steve Telsey (N1BDA) for inviting me.
The presentation, and just the chance to show off my toys and talk to interesting people, was a nice break from work. We've had a really big push which is now coming to a successful completion. It has left me pretty tired at the end of the day and eaten more weekend days than I'd like to admit. Still, I'm reminded of the Old Man's Amateur Radio Code and particularly point five:
[5] The amateur is balanced.... radio is his hobby. He never allows it to interfere with any of the duties he owes to his home, his job, his school, or his community.
I've not been making the progress I'd like in my planning for the Montserrat trip, but I've tried to stay true to the spirit of the code and keeping my priorities in order. That said, now that the project is coming to a close, I should have more of a normal life to move things forward.
Speaking of normal, Sandy and I will be taking a couple of days for a trip to see some baseball this weekend. I may leave the computer at home and skip blogging. We're taking a 10 hour drive to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates in their last home games. So, the plan is to finish this project, have a little family fun time, then buckle down and help get this Montsrrat trip planned. The fellas have been pretty patient, but now it is time to pull my weight!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Presentation tomorrow

Just a quick entry tonight as I just walked in the door from a local club meeting. I received a DVD on Montserrat in the mail today. I'll post a review once I view it.
I'll be giving my presentation The 100 Pound DXpedition at the Colonial Wireless Association club in Concord tomorrow. If you are in the area, please stop by and see the show. Mention my blog and win a free handshake and big smile from the author! {grin}
I'm planning on bringing lots of equipment for show and tell with me including
  • FT-897D system in a Pelican case (50 pounds)
  • K2 system in carryon sized Pelican case
  • Icom 7000 system in carryon sized Pelican case
  • My Big Buddipole system
  • My Little Buddipole system
  • Force-12 Sigma-5
  • and solar power and battery systems used on Georges Island and other places

I also need to remember to bring a pile of QSL cards and business cards. Oh, yeah, and I have a couple of prizes to give out, too. It should be fun.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Laptop robustness

One of the issues with traveling light the way I do means that there are not many backups for equipment in case of failure. I have mentioned that bringing only one radio tempts fate. Even a small QRP rig like the FT-817 is a better alternative than no working rig at all. (Actually, I'm kind of a QRP nut so running flea power doesn't seem like much of a handicap to me, but I understand that attitude isn't the norm.)
With just one hundred pounds, you can't bring two of everything. There are some things, even key things, that you'll just bring one of, and hope it doesn't break. An example of this is your logging computer. Sure, big DXpeditions will bring spare computers just in case a hard drive crashes or a power spike eats one, but with the kinds of weight limits contemplated here, spare laptops are likely not part of the plan. Yet, computers are probably one of the most fragile items you would take!
I've know this, of course, but the point was driven home for me tonight when I received a call from my niece. Katie, now a senior in high school, had been lent an iBook I had bought for Sandy. This particular model was ordered the very day it was announced (May 1, 2001) and had given six plus years of faithful service until tonight, when the backlight failed. The machine boots and works properly; the display simply remains dark. To think that I'd considered bringing that computer with me to Montserrat!
So, tonight we bought Katie a new computer, one promised to her for college, just a little early. If she has as much good luck with this new one as we did with that old iBook, she'll do very well indeed.
I guess I knew this, but I needed a poke from reality to finally clear my head on the matter: if you are already skimping on weight, you can't skimp on the quality of the things you're bringing, too. I've been careful to pick out the most robust radio equipment, antenna systems, and other pieces, bringing an old laptop would be no savings if it failed on the trip. So, no hamfest-specials and no ancient and semiretired boxes on their last legs. I don't want to be someplace special, exciting, and faraway trying to log with a pencil and paper because my computer died.
I've said that these trips aren't about the equipment, and I still mean that. You don't need to run out and buy all new stuff to do this. But, the things you bring should be solid and reliable, right down to the computer.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Pretty as a picture

I've always appreciated a good diagram. A picture that conveys information quickly and cleanly is, in my view, beautiful. It therefore follows that I'm a fan of Edward R. Tufte and have ordered his new book Beautiful Evidence. Even with this deadline pressure at work, I have been able put my imprint in the book (a nice embossing stamp Sandy gave me years ago) and page through it for a few minutes. Nobody talks about information display like Tufte. I wonder if we hams couldn't use more help in this area.
Icom America has a nice Band chart as a PDF file you can download from their site. While this is a beautiful chart, it doesn't have all the information that you might need if you're talking to distant land, or even more interestingly talking from a distant land. For that, you need to know what the band plans are in, say, Japan or Australia.
To help with this, the EI8IC web site has lots of resources including 5 Contest Bandplans 98Kb, a collection of 5 GIF files that have a nice layout of the band apportionment for VK, JA, UK, and W call areas. Looking at the 80/75m diagram, for example, lets you see quickly the SSB overlap between JA and W is 3750 to 3754.
I plan on including information like this in the DXpedition manual. If you want to call CQ and try to work JA stations, you better be in a part of the band where they operate! Having information like this all in one place can be a boon when operating from a place far away. Not having it, and not knowing the band plan for your area, can be embarrassing.
Just to emphasize that last point, I'll tell a little story at my own expense. When I went to Hawaii I was greeted on the local repeaters by the area hams who invited me to join their afternoon net on 40m phone. They told me their afternoon net met on "088". At first, I was confused (because the SSB part of the band starts at 150, right? Of course, I'm in a different ITU region and SSB is actually OK on 7.088 in Hawaii. Because I had forgotten that (it was on the test, right?) and had not reviewed the band plans prior to my trip, I almost missed out on something really fun. Luckily, I had brought with the an ARRL operator's guide booklet and corrected my misconception. Lesson learned!
So, important safety tip: know the band plan for the area you are visiting and the areas you believe you'll be contacting. It can make the difference between an opportunity ceased and one lost.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I'm in the mist of a last push on my project at work so there's not been too much time for ham radio lately. Still, sometimes things find you. I got a call from my buddy Dave this afternoon and he asked, "Do you have Iceland in the log?" I did, but not on 20m.
So, I walked out of the office, down to the car, and called TF3ZA and worked him. The cool thing was Dave recorded it!
The 99 Hobbies site's Weekend goofing off entry has the recording. That's the second time in a month Dave's managed to capture one of my QSO's audio.
Dave emailed me and added, "Maybe a DXpedition for us at some point? I've always wanted to go to Iceland." Me too! What an interesting idea!

Friday, September 22, 2006

Contesting from your 100 pound DXpedition

Contesting season is right around the corner and one Friday night not long from now I'll be participating in one of these events that combines ham radio, computers, and a touch of insanity. I know lots of people are not contesters. Don't worry. I'm not here to convert you. What I would like to do, though, is remind you that the level of activity on the bands during a contest is quite intense. If you simply wanted to put a lot of QSOs in the log from your 100 pound DXpedition, then contest weekends are good weekends to operate.
I've packed up and operated in two contests this year, both of which have been described in this blog to some extent. The first was for the ARRL International DX Contest. I flew to St. John in the US Virgin Islands and operated as KP2/NE1RD. That's a big contest and I certainly didn't expect to win it (or come close!) but I did have some personal goals such as successfully deploying antennas for 80-10m and making 500 QSOs during the trip.
More recently I went to Georges Island in Boston Harbor for the 2006 IOTA Contest sponsored by the Radio Society of Great Britain. This contest had a 12 hour QRP SSB category and I thought, just maybe, I might win this. I had two significant handicaps, however: [1] I was not in Europe and European stations clearly do better in this contest, and [2] I could only operate about 6 of the 12 hours since that's all the ferry schedule allowed. Still, I had delusions of possibly winning this category.
Since then, logs have been slowly posted to the contest logs submission area and I see that I probably have some stiff competition from Petar Milicic (9A6A). Peter is President of the Croatian Radio Amateur Association and I suspect he is an excellent operator.
Contesters (and I claim to be one) hate to wait for official results and have devised their own area to compare notes (and claimed scores). The web site has an email reflector called the 3830 list. This nothing more than an email reflector that allows people to post their claimed scores immediately after the contest. There is nothing official about this; this is just a way for contesters to compare notes. You can see NE1RD/1's IOTA contest claimed score entry within the 3830 reflector's archive to get an idea of the kind of thing that gets posted.
I enjoy the excitement of having the bands light up during a contest. I know this isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it is fun for me. I think one of the extra benefits operating in a contest might afford a lightweight DXpeditioner is the contest gives you an excuse to reflect upon your trip. It is exciting to turn in your score, see other people turn in their score, compare notes, and even talk about where you were and what you did for the contest. Going to an island, the top of a mountain, or a cabin in the wilderness for a contest can be a lot of fun. And, I guarantee you will not be lonely on the bands during one of those big contest weekends!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Montserrat trip planning update

Here is an update on the planning for the Montserrat trip. First, I must say, we've got a good group. I had picked up some slack when everybody else got busy and that was good. Then, I got busy with commitments at work (and other places) and the rest of the team picked up my slack. I believe that bodes well all around!
I have packaged up all the materials for our licenses and have mailed them to the Monsterrat licensing authority. We've not received a response yet, but I included everything we need (including enough money) to ensure that we should have a license for at least next year and perhaps the year after as well. This really is the most exciting aspect of it all. When I receive my first foreign call sign, I think I'll smile from ear-to-ear.
I also mailed off a nice letter to the Montserrat Amateur Radio Society (MARS) along with a financial contribution to the club. The club offers "Overseas Membership" and, with luck, we will all become members of this organization. I also hope they will join us for a meal (and a cool, refreshing drink!) while we are there. I enclosed a fair amount of money with the letter. I know how expensive it is here in the states to keep a repeater running, I can't imagine how costly it is there! In fact, as I reflect upon this, I suspect we'll leave them with either some money or equipment when we leave the island. These folks are in a place where emergency communication is absolutely critical considering there is an active volcano right in their back yards! They are brave folks. We should give them all the support we can!
After I got this done, I got busy and started falling behind. Other group members, though, picked right up where I stopped. Chris started researching the extra baggage problem, for example. As I may have mentioned, most airlines allow up to 100 pounds of luggage here in the states. The little airline that runs between Antigua and Montserrat, though, limits you to 20 Kilograms (44 pounds)! That is too tight a restriction for us to accomplish our goals. Chris is looking into how easily we can bring extra baggage above that (ridiculous) limit.
One of the other discussions is centered around logging. We know we need to do computer logging there, but how? Should everybody bring a computer? What will we do when we are portable (and we expect lots of portable operation)? We're now vigorously working that issue on our internal email reflector.
Finally, I posted my Model Release Form for inspection. This is one of the two legal documents I thought we should have signed among us. I used to do some photography so I knew about these things. If you want to learn more about them, check out this page. I used a variant of the form they had for my document. The idea is really simple: everybody is going to want to take pictures, videos, and audio recordings and use them in presentations, product brochures (in the case of the Buddipole guys, who are a sponsor for this trip), magazine articles, web pages, and every other place you can imagine. We should all happily release our fellow DXpeditioners to use our images, voices, and likeness for these purposes. This form formally agrees to that very reasonable thing.
I also published my first status report to the group in nearly a month. I'm not proud of that. Hopefully, I'll be able to devote the time this deserves now that things have mostly returned to normal here in the NE1RD household.
There is still lots more to do. I've picked up my DXpedition manual again and started editing it. It is mostly outline at this point but it should have lots of good stuff in it that will be handy to have on the island. That's the plan, anyway. Plus, as Chris pointed out a few days ago, much of what we're building here is experience and materials that could be reused later. I sure hope so!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Living within a weight limit, in my case that limit is 100 pounds, means making choices in equipment taken on a trip, but it hardly puts a limit on the range of activities you do. For example, digital modes require only a transceiver, computer, and antenna. In many ways, digital modes such as PSK31 are much more forgiving of a compromised setup than, say, SSB. I'll talk more about digital modes in a future post.
Satellite work can be done with very little equipment and almost no weight. In fact, if you bring an HT with you a simple, very lightweight antenna is all you need to successfully work many of the low Earth orbiting (LEO) satellites now available. During Field Day at our local club my friend (and Elmer) Dave slipped outside for a few minutes while everybody else was chatting and worked a QSO or two on the satellites for score. All he used was an HT and a hand-held antenna.
A great place to get started with this is the AMSAT (Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation) web site. There you can learn about the various satellites now in orbit and available along with some tips about how to use them. I don't know which radio or antenna he used for this, but I own the Arrow II Satellite antenna with the split boom and duplexer. This antenna breaks down to a very small collection of parts that slip nicely into a custom bag. The total weight is under 2 pounds.
You will need to know when the interesting satellites pass over you in order to work them. You have plenty of options for this but allow me to give a plug for a product that I use called MacDoppler. (Note that AMSAT members can register this software at a discount.) Just to give you a taste, check out this screen shot from the Dog Park Software web site:

The point of this is simple: traveling light doesn't mean doing only limited activities. In fact, this might be a great time to try something new and different that you wouldn't be tempted to do at home. Also consider the point that even well-traveled places not sought after on HF might be very much in vogue as a satellite QSO. You could hand out a new one on a new band/mode with just a couple of pounds of equipment and a little enthusiasm. Who knows? You might have some fun, too! So, there's something to think about when you're selecting that magic 100 pounds worth of gizmos.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Club Show-and-Tell

I had a long day at work followed by a really fun night at the local radio club. Tonight was Show-and-Tell night where many brought things that might be of interest. I used the opportunity to show the equipment I had used on Georges Island recently including the Icom 7000, the Force-12 Sigma-5, solar panel, charge controller, etc. Many of the items passed around are things you can't see locally (even at HRO, our local dealer) and most had either never seen them, or had only seen them in magazines.
After I was done, there were several other really interesting pieces shown by club members. Two young men finishing their senior year in high school, Bryce and Brent showed an old Heathkit linear amplifier in the process of being rebuilt. The unit has an interesting history as it was once used at ARRL headquarters for transmitting the code practice sets. They've got the original manual and have been quite methodical about its restoration. First, they disassembled it working through the manual backwards. Then they carefully cleaned all the metal pieces removing all the rust, corrosion, and mildew. Now they are reassembling it, replacing parts as needed. This amplifier is a beast. I bet it blows my 100 pound budget by itself! Finally, the twins (did I mention they are twins?) said they really enjoy working QRP. That statement, made standing next to the colossus, nearly brought the house down.
I'm not sure if I'll ever make amplifiers part of an expedition. If I did, it would need to be lighter than your average amplifier and probably transistorized (not tubes) like the SGC-500 SmartPowerCube. Even with something like this, you still need to feed it 40 amps average for SSB and nearly 90 amps for CW. The power supply would probably kill my weight limit, even if the amplifier didn't!
I'll continue on with my 100 pounds and 100 watts until something better comes along. I've had plenty of good luck and lots of fun with this combination so far. Still, I wouldn't mind playing with that rebuilt Heathkit when those guys have finished with it!

Monday, September 18, 2006


I've got a bad habit that I picked up as a kid and have never quite outgrown. (Truth be told, I've got many bad habits that fit that description, but I'm thinking specifically of one such behavior.) I will take an object meant for one purpose and use it, often inappropriately, for a completely unrelated purpose. Sometimes the results are remarkable; other times the results are downright embarrassing. My defense for those times things do not turn out well is the experience of thinking things through and trying this crazy combination allowed me to learn something new.
The other thing this penchant has brought me is an alertness to possibilities. For example, I have grown accustom to using a foot pedal to trigger the PPT, allowing me to keep my hands free for logging (usually on the computer). In fact, for contesting, this arrangement is almost mandatory. I find VOX to tricky, and taking my hands off the keyboard makes logging too error-prone. What is needed is a very light, inexpensive, and reasonably small foot pedal that I can make part of a 100 Pound DXpedition kit.
Sure, you can buy foot pedals sold specifically for ham use, but what is the fun in that? Figuring the use of a foot pedal must be handy for more than just hams and contesters, I did a little poking around to see if I could find something even remotely appropriate to the task. I did. Consider the foot switch I just picked up on eBay for use with my Heil Traveler Dual headset (also pictured).
foot switchHeil Traveler Dual headset
This little foot switch was advertised as an accessory for a TATTOO MACHINE. Well, that's about as far away from ham radio as you are likely to get! You can find the item here: Foot switch for a tattoo machine. I placed the order and within a few days it appeared in my mail box from Jolly Ole England. It weighs just a few ounces and even has the right connector already attached (a 1/4 inch mono plug). It is so nice, I confess I just popped an order for two more!
The last piece of the puzzle is a small deficiency in the Heil Traveler Dual Headset system: there is no standard fixture sold by Heil to accommodate a foot switch. No matter. I'll make an adapter cable to allow for this. Of course this foot pedal will work with my Heil Pro-Set Plus headset, too.
Keeping the total weight of your traveling station within 100 pounds (or whatever goal you have set) will always be a challenge. My advice is keep looking for that feather-weight part that makes things work, no matter where you find it, and no matter what it was originally designed to do!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Feather-weight power supply

My fellow Montserrat DXpeditioners (the BUMS — Buddipole Users on Montserrat) have been taking the whole 100 pound thing quite seriously. One of the pieces of equipment that has become symbolic of this is the Gamma Research HPS-1a power supply. What's the big attraction? It weighs 1.25 pounds!
Gamma power supply
I don't own this (yet) but most of the other guys in the group either have it or are seriously considering getting it. I'm still on the fence as my Alinco DM-330MV is nearly brand new and has treated me well. Then again, the difference is about 3 pounds (1.25 pounds for the Gamma versus roughly 4.4 pounds for the Alinco). I'm still thinking about it, I guess.
I've had far too many distractions lately including the new car (I finished installing the Icom IC-706mkIIg yesterday so I've got HF back in the car), doing some artwork design for a local club, and, of course, work. My goal this week is to start ditching some of these distractions (though not the job, I still need that) and begin concentrating in earnest on the trip. We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Century mark

Tonight's post marks the 100th entry to this blog. I hope you have found at least a few good ideas here in these last few months. I've enjoyed writing these entries and it has been useful for me, too, thinking things through as I commit them to paper (or bits, I guess). The next 100 entries will bring us right up to the end of the major planning for the Montserrat trip. I hope you'll stick with me through that -- and if you find this blog useful or enjoyable (hopefully both!) please tell your friends about it. Thanks.

I'll be giving my presentation The 100 Pound DXpedition at the Colonial Wireless Association club in Concord on September 27th, 2006. The schedule has this at the Concord Carlisle High School (500 Walden Street) from 7:30 - 10 PM, but let me assure you I'll not be speaking that whole time! {grin} What will likely happen is I'll speak for a while and then it will be show and tell time with all equipment I'm planning on bringing including my new IC-7000 setup, Buddipole and Buddistick systems, solar stuff, and lots of other fun gizmos.
I've always found it helpful to see interesting devices firsthand, holding them, assessing the quality of their construction, and getting a feel for their weight and size directly. Sure, you can look at web pages and catalog pages, scan brochures, and read magazine reviews, but there is no substitute for the knowledge you gain by direct physical inspection. I'll bring lots of my goodies so attendees can do just that.
If you would like to access this blog via the feed capability, try this: feed:// in your favorite browser. Some find this way of accessing things more convenient than the regular web page.
Again, I would like to thank all of you who have been reading, and especially thank those who have written to me over these last 100 days. I enjoy the correspondences and am especially thankful for the suggestions and ideas contributed. 73 DE NE1RD!

Friday, September 15, 2006

Antennas for travel: fishing poles

In a previous post I said that I would try to explain why a man that doesn't fish needs so many fishing poles. This was part of a series of posts that I had made called Antennas for Travel that I ran in July. I did not expect so much time to have passed between elements of this thread. Sorry!
Lightweight vertical antennas are an excellent alternative to bringing yagis and dipoles on your trip. You can certainly make vertical antennas out of aluminum pipe, and many are made that way, but the other way to create a light duty vertical is to use a fishing pole or other mast to hold up a wire. The Black Widow fishing pole shown below is an excellent backbone for such an antenna. It weighs next to nothing and easily holds up a radiator long enough to cover 20m without loading, and down to 40m with a little bit of coil.

While on my recent trip to St. John I used one of these beauties to hold up my 40/15m radiator, a 33 foot wire suspended from the top of the pole (which was affixed to a corner of the roof) leading down to the ground where it was attached to the feed line. I made many of my contacts during the ARRL DX contest this March with this very simple, and very lightweight antenna.
At Atlanticon, the New Jersey QRP Club's yearly conference, I ran into Ed Breneiser (WA3WSJ) who has an interesting add-on for these poles including a loading coil that you can see here. While I don't own his coil, it is an interesting idea and there are plenty of folks in the QRP community who use it successfully.
Ed and Ron Polityka (WB3AAL) are involved in a group called the Polar Bears who carry lightweight QRP transceivers and very lightweight antennas such as these Black Widow specials when they camp on the Appalachian Trail. These guys have been very successful operating from Pulpit Rock near Hamburg, Pennsylvania with little more than fishing poles, wires, and QRP.
If you wish to get something a little longer, try the DK9SQ 33-foot collapsible mast available from Kanga and other places. I use this mast on St. John as well and found it very strong. Like the 20 foot black widow, I mounted this on the roof of the guest cottage and hung my 66 foot wire for 80m from the top, sloping down to the ground. Both this 33 foot mast and the 20 foot Black Widow collapse to under 48 inches so they both fit into a hard-sided golf bag for easy travel.
You might also wish to procure some very lightweight and strong wire to go with these poles. I can highly recommend the number 534 wire from The Wire Man. It has the following description:
'Invisible' Toughcoat 'Silky' 26 AWG, 19 strand 40% copper-clad steel (OD 0.020") with the same jacket as 531 (Nominal OD, 0.050" including 0.015" jacket, but super small for that 'low profile' antenna or pocket 'weekender' long wire. Weighs less than one pound per 1000 feet! Not recommended for 160 meters.

This stuff really is tough, very strong, and it weighs next to nothing. I've used it for the radiators and radials on St. John and have cut a set of radials for my Buddistick that are now packed into the bag with the antenna. I've attached spade terminals (Gardner Bender Model 10-143M) to the ends of these radials and have a mating female bundle to accept them at the feed point of the antenna for quick deployment.
Verticals, especially using this fishing pole or fiberglass mast approach, are a very effective way to get a whole lot of antenna for very little money and very little weight. I've had good luck with this approach, even when I've been lazy about putting out radials. Down on St. John, both verticals (the 33 foot wire and the 66 foot wire) had one radial. I could have done more, but I wanted to see what the minimal setup would get me. I was pleasantly surprised.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Group think on logging

Traffic on the private Montserrat email reflector our VP2M has picked up. As Chris pointed out,
It seems to me that much of what we're doing here in preparation is helping to create a template for future "100 pound dxpeditions."

Absolutely! This planning and learning we are doing for this trip should translate to other trips. So, though it may seem occasionally (even to me) that we're being deliberate and obsessive, it is all worthwhile.
Today's exchanges were mostly around our plans for computer logging. Who is bringing a computer? How will we get Logbook of the World (LoTW) and eQSL updated? For example, LoTW requires that you have private keys to sign your log files before submission. I've suggested that everybody put these credentials on thumb drives and practice using these credentials on a separate computer.
Also, I asked the group to ensure that they all have LoTW and eQSL accounts. It is reasonably easy to add a new call sign to an existing account with these services; getting an account started is a bit more difficult, especially with LoTW which requires a whole step with a postcard.
I'm sticking with my plan to write a little software that will process all these logs and update the web site each day. Oh, one more thing to double-check: we believe the villas have internet access, but Chris is going to follow up to make sure.
This kind of planning, how we will be accomplishing logging, is precisely the kind of thing you want to get settled early in your planning. I'm pretty sure our group will have this one in the bag within the next week or so.
The group is starting to get very excited about the trip. I believe the mailing of the licensing materials has made it more real for me. Perhaps others had the same emotion run over them when they heard that one very formal part of the preparation had happened. This is going to be great!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


One of the things we are planning for the Montserrat trip is portable operation. Wandering around the lush green hills or heading up to the volcano observatory sounds like great fun. But, taking batteries to the island would blow our weight budget, so we plan on buying batteries once on the island. Car batteries or marine batteries should be available. Just a small reminder: it isn't cheating to use local materials to make your 100 pound DXpedition work!
The portable work I've been doing on Georges Island has been great practice for this kind of operation. This last weekend Sandy and I went out there with just small (17Ah) batteries and a solar panel, a very similar setup to what I hope to use on Montserrat.
One of the questions I had out there was "how much battery have I eaten so far?" I was periodically checking the battery voltage with the small voltmeter I had brought with me (it now lives with the Icom 7000 stuff permanently) but what I really wanted to know was the number of amp-hours I had sucked out of the battery and how much of the battery might be left. Also, you can damage batteries if you run them down too far, so I would like to know when I might be approaching that point. I need data!
Luckily, there is a gizmo that gives me exactly what I need. It is distributed by West Mountain Radio and it is called the Super Whatt Meter. The unit comes with PowerPoles so it goes easily with all the other power connections I have. The unit draws only a few milliamps to power its little processor and run the display. It computes all sorts of stuff but the big things I was looking for are voltage, amps, and the total number of amp-hours drawn thus far. This is exactly the information I need to assess the health, efficacy, and projected life span of my battery during a portable operation. I've got a picture of tonight's test setup (sorry, it is a little dark).

The display shows the 7000 drawing 1.32 amps, 16 watts, with the battery voltage at 12.62 volts, and 0.780 amp hours have been drawn from the battery. Pretty nice! The display alternates between amp hours and watt hours, too. Putting things in perspective, my "15 watt" solar panel (which probably puts out about 10 watts when not in the optimum conditions the specifications call for) supplies insufficient power to run the radio on receive. Compare the 7000 to the Elecraft K2 that draws about 35 mA on receive!
The Super Whatt Meter retails for $69.95. If you want to put your own PowerPoles on it you can buy the Astro Flight unit for somewhat less. (Just Googling around I found one online here). If you plan to do any portable operation with batteries, this can be a great source of data. It seems like a nicely thought out device. I've just made mine a permanent part of the 7000 kit.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

License materials mailed

I packaged up and mailed the licensing materials to the authorities on Monsterrat today. Hooray! It was a bit later than I would have liked, but at least it is on its way. Whew!
The licenses on Montserrat last for a calendar year. Since we are going to be there in January, I was worried that they would give us a license for 2006, then have it expire just weeks before our actual arrival. So, I included the renewal fee in with the request. We should either have licenses for 2007/8 or 2006/7. Either way, we should be good to go. I asked for VP2MRD, thinking the Radio Delta thing should roll off my tongue after a while.
I still plan on having our group join the Montserrat Amateur Radio Society (MARS). I'll try to take care of that in the next few days.
I'll post here when we get our credentials back from the island.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five years after

Today's entry is not about ham radio or DXpeditioning. Skip it if you like.

Today is September 11th and all of us remember what happened 5 years ago today. I was lucky. I didn't lose a child or spouse, parent or sibling, or even best friend. For those of you who did, I am deeply sorry and you have my best wishes.
There were two lost that day from my home town of Acton. I knew them both, not well, but I knew them. Amy Sweeney was my neighbor. We were both busy with our own lives and I only spoke with her a couple of times. Because we were neighbors, I thought there would always be more time to get to know each other.
Phil Rosenzweig worked in my building and on my floor at Sun Microsystems. Again, I did not know him well, but I did know him. With his office just a few hallways from mine, we probably brushed shoulders dozens or hundreds of times, smiling, saying "hello", and going on our way.
There were others lost that day that I knew. A young woman from a software quality interest group and a young man I tried to recruit to work for me are among them. I thought, perhaps, the wife of a good friend who worked at ground zero might be lost, but an all clear message from my friend, her husband, came a day or so later. She had been one of the thousands that had walked out of the city.
Sandy and I attended a small ceremony in Acton's center this morning. It was brief and solemn, with ringing of the bell from the nearby fire station for the "last alarm" for the brave firefighters and first responders lost, the playing of taps, and the lowering of flags. It felt right to be there, necessary to be there, though I cannot tell you why that is so.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Two small features are big

I'm still thinking about yesterday's trip to Georges Island. Sandy mentioned to me this morning that I didn't sound hoarse after yesterday's operation and reminded me that the last couple of times I went to the island my voice was shot from calling CQ. What was different this time was the voice keyer built into the 7000 got a workout, saving my voice.
I lusted after the 7000 because of the IF DSP capabilities (which I sorely missed while on St. John) and the form factor (small!). But, the radio has many very nice features that are particularly useful for lightweight and portable operations that you could easily miss in the data sheet's fine print. I'll mention two here: the voice keyer and the clock.
The voice keyer provides you with up to four different recordings for a total of 120 seconds. Once everything was assembled yesterday I thought it would be a good idea to record my outgoing CQ message. Of course, with everything going on, I'd not had a chance to read the manual yet. Luckily, the Nifty Manual I had packed with the radio gave me clear directions for recording and playing back the messages.
Dave (KZ1O) found me on the air yesterday and captured a 30 second audio clip of my operation. You can listen to it here. The first few seconds are from the voice recorder; the remainder is me live in a QSO. I can't tell the difference between the recording and my live voice in the QSO. (Many thanks to my friend and Elmer Dave for the recording.)
The other feature that you might miss was the real-time clock in the display. Since I was not using computer logging, I needed a way to capture the time of the QSOs in my paper log. I have the MFJ Dual LCD clock that I'd bought a couple of years ago, but this feature in the radio means I don't even need to bring that. Again, it is a minor feature you'd likely not notice in the long list in the brochure, but in a portable operation, it is very handy.

Car update: Sandy's idea to try a speaker mount for the head of the dual-band radio was a great one. We pulled an Omnimount AB2 mounting kit off the wall in Radio Shack yesterday and I installed it today. It looks great! So, one of the two radios is now back up-and-running. One down, one to go. It feels good to be back on the air in the car!

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Importance of computer logging

Sandy and I made the trip out to Georges Island this morning with the setup described in yesterday's post. Assembly of the Sigma-5 went quickly and smoothly. I brought 3 stakes with me and guyed the antenna with some lightweight Dacron rope. The whole process was finished in about 15 minutes, including the time spent running the controller cable and coax feed line to the picnic table.
The two sealed GSM batteries (model ES17-12) from eBatteriesToGo performed very well. I operated 25 watts output from the first battery for the first couple of hours, then switched batteries and cranked it up to the full 100 watts for the last 45 minutes. As you might expect, the jump from 5 watts QRP with the K2 to 25 watts using the IC-7000 gave me that extra S-unit of power and people did have an easier time hearing me. Going the rest of the way, to 100 watts, made it even easier to make contacts. It would be wonderful to have access to the power from the island's generator even for a day and have that full 100 watts from morning until evening!
My first QSO was at 14:23 and my last logged entry was at 17:50. In there was a little lunch and a chat with Sandy so I worked the bands about 3 hours before we packed everything back up and headed for the docks. In that time I worked 50 stations (my goal for today). Here are the prefixes worked:
EA3 EA5 F5 HB9 I5
IW1 IZ8 K3 K5 K8
VE4 W4 W5 W6 W7
W7O W8 WU0

Even with only 50 entries to transcribe between my pencil markings in my mini-log to my computer log, it was a tedious process. Sandy assisted me when I moved the 100+ contacts made during the IOTA contest and that was a big help. I must confess that I am completely spoiled by the ease (and accuracy) of computer-based logging. If you only make a handful of contacts per day, perhaps the tedium is manageable, but not if you plan on making dozens or hundreds of contacts per day. (Thousands of contacts couldn't be managed with paper and transcribing later, could it? No. it can't work!)
I've got to have the discussion soon with the Montserrat group about this very issue. I had planned on handling the transcriptions from their paper logs to my computer logging program while on the island, but I now see how naive that plan was. If these guys are going to make lots of contacts, they better figure out how to capture them with a computer. I can collate results, produce summary and detail pages for the web site, and even organize the QSLing, but only if the logs are in electronic form already. It is certainly my hope to have enough activity while on Montserrat to have this be a big problem! {grin}
The upshot is: This paper logging approach isn't viable for a medium to large size DXpedition. This might sound obvious, but I'm not sure how many members are planning on bringing their computers. Remember the weight restrictions we are working within! This is definitely something to think about.

Car update: I finished the direct connections to the battery tonight so power is now live to the RIGrunner on the floor just behind the two front seats. As long as we're redoing everything, Sandy suggested I put the head for the dual-bander higher than I had it in the original Element. So, we made a trip to HRO in New Hampshire looking for RAM mounts. Their selection was uncharacteristically poor and we didn't find a suitable one there. Later, while perusing Radio Shack for something else, Sandy had a great idea: why not use a speaker wall mount to hold up the head. We're going to try it. I'll pop up a picture here when it is in.

Friday, September 08, 2006

NA-148 Georges Island Again

I wanted to make at least one more trip out to the Boston Harbor Islands before it got too cold. Unfortunately, I had lost a month from all the distractions with the car accident and now the season is quickly coming to a close. My plan is to get out there Saturday (September 9) and be on the air from 1400 to 1700 GMT.
My plan is to to take the following equipment:
  • ICOM 7000 setup - I've got a Pelican 1510 case filled with the "right stuff". This will be the first real workout for the new radio.
  • Force-12 Sigma-5 - Thus far I've only used my Buddipole on the island so this will be a change. Then again, one of the reasons for buying this antenna was to see how it would perform in situations precisely like this.
  • New 17Ah batteries - I had purchased two sealed GSM batteries (model ES17-12) from eBatteriesToGo and have had them on the smart charger topping them off. I hope to get a full four or five hours of operating time using one or two of these batteries.
  • shelter, lunch, water - Sandy will be joining me on the trip so wrangling all this stuff should be a little easier than when I tried to do it by myself.

The upshot of this is: I will be QRO compared to previous trips with 50 watts instead of 5 output. I have not yet received word from the Boston Harbor Islands National Park, Department of Conservation and Recreation on my request to tap into their power generator so I could run the full 100 watts and run the computer. Alex Hall, the gentleman I talked to about this possibility, indicated it would be better if I tried doing this late in the season when traffic on the island was smaller. If Alex comes through, I'll do at least one more trip.
I hope to work you all from NA-148 tomorrow!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Time flies

The Montserrat trip is slated for the end of January 2007. That might seem like a long time from now but in reality it is right around the corner. Consider the fact that most people are pretty tied up at the end of the year from early November through the end of December. There's that mad rush at work prior to Thanksgiving. Then we have that long (tedious?) Thanksgiving holiday with travel, family, and end-to-end college football games. After that we're into December with a couple more holidays, more travel, more family, and more distractions. Before you realize it, January will be upon us and it will nearly time to go!
Knowing all this, I had made the suggestion that we finish as much as we could by the end of October. That, too, sounded like a long way away when I first spoke of it in June. Now, that proposed deadline is only about 6 weeks off! Time flies! My advice is still start early and stay focused.
We had a small misfortune just in the licensing exercise. We're going to send in all the applications in one bundle. Unfortunately, one team member's envelope sent to me (I'm coordinating this) was somehow lost in the mail. OK, it is really frustrating and inconvenient, but had this happened at the last minute in December or January of 2007, it could have be disastrous. Because we've been trying to be proactive and finish up all these details early, such a setback is only an annoyance.
I've taken the role of "group nag", sending reminders (friendly, to be sure, but persistent), trying to ensure that things get done. Unless your DXpedition group consists of retired millionaires with nearly infinite amounts of personal time and nothing better to think about than the trip's todo list, somebody will need to take this role. Family commitments, work commitments, and even commitments to other things in their personal life, will always be present. Things get done because (at least) one person remains focused.
So, each group should have a lead, even if it is, like me, the lead "nag" to keep prompting thing to move along, move along. Again, treat this like a project you might have at work, keep on top of the details, and keep things moving.
Car update: The new car drives beautifully, but it is sorrowfully short on radios! I managed to get the power wires pulled through the firewall tonight and will build out the battery harness (fused on both leads) tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

That great QSL card design

I've got some great looking QSL cards in my very modest collection, a couple from famous DXpeditions like 3B9C, and many more from DXpeditions made by people like you and me. All these cards, the ones from the big DXpeditions and the ones made by we mere mortals, have one thing in common: they weren't created by luck or accident; they were well planned and executed.
One of the classic shots on a DXpedition is the team huddled in front of a flag or set of flags and banners. For the Montserrat DXpedition I have just received one of the props we will use for our group pictures. I ordered a 2x3 foot Montserrat National Flag and it locating it couldn't have been easier. I just went to Amazon and entered "Montserrat flag" in the search bar, picked the size I wanted from the list, and pressed "Add to cart". Simple! The order was actually fulfilled by Design A Product LLC in Tampa, Florida and it arrived without incident. The flag itself is nylon, feather light, and the colors are quite vibrant. It should make for a nice feature in our group photo.
In addition to the flag, I've printed a large roll-up (vinyl) banner of my 100 Pound DXpedition logo, and plan to print the BUMS logo as well. I expect the banners to hang in the operating areas at the villas and the flag to be used mostly for the group shot. It would be especially nice if the Montserrat Amateur Radio Society members would join us in that group shot!
The other common thread in these great QSL pictures is the classic DXpedition T-shirt. I've already sent out 100 Pound DXpedition T-shirts to the team members and plan on getting T-shirts made using the new Montserrat DXpedition logo I created. When I hit the big time, perhaps I'll have a first class graphics designer like Randy Juhl make us one as cool as the penguin they used for the Peter I trip. Until then, we'll have to make do with the matching T-shirts using my logo for the group shot.
The point of all this is plan ahead. Bring along props like banners or flags that will help you create that distinctive, gorgeous, and impressive QSL card. Just a little extra effort upfront will make your card, and your group, look like a class act. That great QSL card design begins with great pictures, including great group pictures. Props you bring from home for this purpose can really help.
Finally, I've got a couple of random thoughts. It is a little dangerous for me to write these blog entries and search for cool links. I just visited the Peter I web site and noticed they now have a DXpedition DVD available. So, I took a moment and ordered that {grin}.
And, I picked up my new car tonight. It is a new Honda Element (just the newer version of the one that was hit) and it is lovely. Now, of course, I have to get it back on the air!
New car

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Publishing online logs

One of the things that I would like to do while on Montserrat is to provide a daily upload of our logs in a form that would make it easy for people to see that they are, indeed, in the log. I had posted some notes about this idea in our private collaboration area and not long after that the ARRL announced changes they were making to the DXCC Accreditation Criteria outlining many of the very same issues we had discussed privately. Principally, the concern was online or other publications of a log providing complete data about a QSO would invite the unscrupulous to claim they had made the contact instead of the genuine station. From the ARRL article:
"Although this information is generally limited to call sign, band and mode, it has been useful in reducing the number of duplicate contacts in the DXpedition log," Mills points out. "Publishing complete QSO information or information from which full QSO information can be derived, on the other hand, threatens the integrity of the QSLing process, and is unacceptable."

Consider a contact you make with KZ1O. If you put that log entry up in its entirety with time, date, frequency, mode, and call sign, another station, say KZ9O claims you made a mistake logging the contact and it was they, not KZ1O that should be credited. (I used these two calls for my example. I have no reason to believe that KZ9O, the Midwest WWYC club, would ever do anything unsavory. In fact, they have an extremely cool QSL card and seem like a really fun group.)
If, however, you publish only the band and day, such a false claim can be resolved quickly by the simple question, "when do you believe you made this call?" If they can't give you the QSO time, they're sunk. I believe that addresses the ARRL's concern but I'll be giving it some more thought over the next few months.
One of the tasks I've given myself in the ever-lengthening to do list is to write some software that will read my log (as an exported ADIF file and create a series of web pages that could be posted to our Monserrat DXpedition web site. We should have internet access at the villa on the island but in case that does not work well, we have recruited a pilot that will be Stateside to help us with all our off-island tasks including updating the web site. Once this software is written and tested on this trip, I'll likely put it someplace so everybody can have it.
Today's puzzler: "What does a typical software development project and my new car have in common?" Answer: "Both miss their promised delivery date." I'm now assured it will be ready for pickup tomorrow.

Monday, September 04, 2006

New Element

As reported nearly a month ago, we had a little accident and got a bit banged up when my Honda Element was struck from behind. It was finally out of the body shop last week but it didn't feel right. We decided today it was time to swap it for a new one. So, I'll pick up my new Honda Element tomorrow.
I removed the last of the radio stuff this evening and will start working on getting my two radios installed in the new vehicle immediately. I'm going to try to get the service department to run my power cable through the fire wall and to the battery. I can do the rest. The two radios are the IC-706 IImg and the IC-2800.

Needless to say, with all this going on I didn't get a chance to do much on the DXpedition stuff today. But, other people are thinking about DX! I noticed another bump in the web site traffic statistics today at least partially attributed to a mention of our trip in the Ohio/Penn DX Bulletin.
I would really like to put more content up on our Montserrat web site so everybody will become as jazzed about this trip as I am. Perhaps after I get past some of these really hot issues I can spend some time on that.

Sunday, September 03, 2006


Today's lesson is Read The Friendly Manual. After I made my first QSO with the IC-7000 last night I found a safe place in a Pelican 1510 case for the radio and all its accessories. So far, I have the radio, power supply, auto-tuner, PowerPole distribution box (RIGrunner 4005), CT-17 with DB reducer, 12 volt harness for the power supply, power harness for the radio, and a plastic box filled with little cables that make everything connect to everything else. All this with the case now weighs 27 pounds. Not a bad start.
While I was putting the power supply in the case I noticed the markings on the outside mentioned only 120v/60Hz. Panic ensued. I thought for sure I had been careful selecting this power supply, ensuring it worked with both 120 and 230 volt mains. Was I wrong?!
So, at 11:30 PM last night I'm rifling through my stack of radio papers for the Alinco manual. I look through it and find no mention of switching between 120 and 230v. Nothing. I got my screwdriver and carefully opened up the power supply to look inside, ignoring the Do Not Disassemble - No User Serviceable Parts Inside warning. (It funny how hams never heed that advice anyway.) Sure enough, there was a big rocker switch on the bottom of the circuit board for this function. Additionally, there is a hole in the bottom of the case allowing access to this switch. It was there, just not in the user manual.
It was mentioned in the Alinco DM-330 Service Manual that I downloaded just now, however. (I should have looked for this document before reaching for the screwdriver. Old habits die hard.) Sure enough, the dual voltage feature is highlighted clearly enough in the service manual (though the reason why it wouldn't be included in the user manual that came with the device escapes me).
I came away with several lessons and ideas from this experience:
  1. Don't try to start solving a problem at midnight.
  2. The tool to use first is your head, not the screwdriver {grin}.
  3. Collect all the manuals for an important device when you get the device. That way, when you've got a question later, you'll have the document you need.
  4. Put all the documents for your equipment on a CD or thumb drive so you can reference them when you travel. You might not have internet access from your place in paradise and even if you do, why spend valuable vacation time doing a panicked web search on stuff you should already have?

I'm going to start that electronic document collection this month. If you find my argument compelling, I suggest you do the same.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

IC-7000 first impressions

When a telescope is first used it is said to have first light. I don't know what the equivalent for a radio should be, but I happened tonight for the new IC-7000 I picked up at Boxboro. I must say, it is a surprisingly nice radio!

The first QSO was with XE1NVA in Mexico City and he gave me a 59. He was S9+10 or S9+20 here so I believe his report. The contact was just under 2000 miles according to my logging program's calculations. Not bad for the first one!
I had spent some of today obtaining and preparing cables for this setup. I like to have each radio have its own Pelican case and pack within the outfit everything needed to make that radio effective including the tuner, patch cables, power supply (if it will fit in the case), computer connection gizmos, and headphone/audio adapters.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make, in my opinion, is to continuously cannibalize one setup to make another one work. That is almost certainly a recipe for disaster as leaving behind that crucial component becomes not just possible but likely the longer you take that approach. Following my own advice, today I purchased another Keyspan USB Serial adapter (USA HS-19HS) and the mating DB-25 to DB-9 reducer so the 7000 now has its own computer interfacing hardware. Again, keep it all together or you'll be having a scavenger hunt before every trip and likely leave something behind.
I'm using my ICOM CT-17 level converter for now but I've purchased a West Mountain Radio RIGtalk that I hope to use instead of the heavy CT-17 once I get the driver working on my Macintosh. (I've not spent any time on this problem. I'm sure it is just a matter of tracking down the driver and installing it.) The RIGtalk will eliminate the Keyspan adapter, CT-17, the DB-25 to DB-9 reducer, and the USB cable, replacing it with something that resembles a stick of gum that plugs directly into the USB port on the computer. That's a savings!
Finally, you'll notice in the picture I have a larger display sitting on top of the loop antenna controller box. This is a portable DVD player with the video in connected to the radio's video out via a simple 1/8th-inch mono jack patch cable. It gets a little squiggly when I transmit, but looks great the rest of the time. That larger display is very easy on my old eyes. I can tell that this little DVD player will be a common option in my discretionary equipment!

Friday, September 01, 2006

Summer reading: Common Mode Chokes

Now that it is September 1st and the return to school is right around the corner for many, it is time to start thinking about all that summer reading you've been putting off. Chuck Counselman (W1HIS) has a piece that you should add to your summer reading. The title of the work is Common Mode Chokes and you can find it here on the Yankee Clipper Contest Club web site.
If you have ever had RF in the shack, have higher than you'd like noise levels (especially on the lower bands), or any of a myriad of problems associated with common mode current running someplace it shouldn't, this is for you. In fact, even if you've never had these problems yet, trust me: you will. Read it now!
I've already had some problems along this area in my trips. For example, while in St. John for the ARRL DX contest I had a simple but very irritating problem: whenever I would transmit on a particular band my computer laptop's charger would stop charging the battery. I suspect is was something simple like the charger seeing a current on the wires leading to the power plug on the laptop and interpreting that as the battery is pushing back--it must be full. It is a stupid problem to have during a contest but I had it!
The reason I had a problem like that directly relates to the 100 Pound Dxpedition charter: do more with less and accept some compromises and tradeoffs. Everything on these trips is a compromise: I bring less equipment, run fewer radials, take smaller and more lightweight coax, and my installations are all extemporaneous and temporary. This kind of brazen tempting of fate is bound to generate some problems, including RF current running where you don't want it. This white paper discusses problems like this and does so very well.
I talked with Chuck for about an hour at Boxboro and while he calls this 42 page work an article I believe it more closely resembles the draft of a small book. In fact, I'm going to write Chuck today and make that very recommendation: don't cut it up to fit into QST; expand it, tighten it up, and make into a book!
This is an important work and has already been described by many as the seminal writing and thinking on this particular problem. Highly recommended.