Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Sorting things out

Band conditions improved today and we were able to put some QSOs in the log at a more reasonable pace. The problems we have now are largely self-inflicted. We had not made a comprehensive antenna plan before we came. I've mentioned this before in this blog and knew it was a mistake not to work out more details before we left. There just wasn't time. Unfortunately, if you don't do it at home, you end up doing it while on the island. Island time is limited and precious.
We've got an array of interesting antennas up and working. The problem isn't the antennas; the problem is the spacing. We have a couple of excellent antennas up that are in each other's near field. Some were spaced only a few feet apart (obviously a mistake) making it impossible to use them simultaneously. Paul's Buddipole on the top deck could be used for 20 or 40m (depending on the taps selected); Budd's monstrous 17m Buddipole delta loop is on the patio below Paul's antenna. Both antennas perform beautifully but cannot be used at the same time.
We had used all but 50 feet of the roughly 350 feet of coax I had brought for the trip. Luckily, another ham that had been here earlier this year left some coax behind on his last trip. Our hosts dug out that storage trunk today and we found another few hundred feet of coax inside. We'll use this to get some distance between these antennas. This will make it easier to keep several stations on the air here at the villa.
Budd spent some time out on his bicycle today making contacts. The contraption is quite a sight: FT-857 with tuner on the back. A head separation kit put the radio's display on the handlebars. A Buddistick was connected with a fantastic clamp to the other side of the handlebars to complete the setup. I've got video. Amazing!
My goals for this trip were to make 1000 QSOs while here on the island. I'm far short of that pace right now. Some of this was conditions being a little noisy. Some of this was because of the antenna separation problems discussed above. When I did get a run going, it was fantastic. I hope to be on 17m tomorrow with Paul on 20m RTTY. That's the plan right now.
The list of things that has gone right on this DXpedition is long. The list of things that went wrong is short, but I'm keeping track of them. We've had one antenna take a tumble off a roof, for example. The Caribbean winds are amazingly strong and even a set-up that would easily survive back home gets tussled about here on the islands. The result of that fall was a broken coil. Luckily, Budd and Chris brought extras. At this point, dacron rope guys and stabilizes everything. Even my Buddipole, set up in the front of the house (and well away from all the others, thank you) was seen earlier today spinning like a propeller. That's not something you see every day! I now have rope tied to the arms and guyed to a couple of fence posts to keep it from spinning.
There are many more observations I could make, both positive and negative, about how well our planning (or, occasionally, lack of planning) has turned out. In the end, we'll put lots of QSOs in the log, have fun, and learn many, many things for the next DXpedition. Perhaps our experiences here, and this blog describing them, will help others have a successful DXpedition experience, too.
Paul and I are searching for our alarm clocks. We're hoping to get up early to work Europeans in the morning. 73 from Montserrat!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

News from VP2M

We are on the air with two or three stations. Much of the work we planned on doing on the island was portable work from beaches, hilltops, the volcano observatory, and other interesting places. The equipment we brought for that duty is excellent. Unfortunately, when we set that up at the villa, there isn't a lot of spacing between antennas, causing us to some inter-station interference. Given all these antennas are in each other's near-field, this isn't surprising. The problem solves itself once Chris, Budd, and a couple of other guys take off to do portable operations, leaving only a couple of operators here at the villa.
I'm calling CQ on 80m SSB as I type this. Conditions are not the best, but there have been some nice QSOs with Europe and the East Coast of the US. I came down here so Paul can be on 40m PSK-31, and Budd and Chris can work on 20m and 30m.
The band-pass filters are working very well. I've loaned my 17m and 30m filters to Budd so he can crank out CW contacts. Once he takes off for one of his bicycle mobile excursions I'll grab that filter and work on 17m phone.
The internet connection here at the villa is pretty good. There are occasional service interruptions (the packets stop flowing for no apparent reason), but all-in-all we're very pleased. In fact, the accommodations here at Gingerbread Hill are excellent. David, the owner of the property, spent the day with us showing every corner of this very interesting place. To say this is a ham friendly place would be a serious understatement. David and company have provided us with every courtesy and support you could think of to help us get going. This is a great place to do ham radio.
I took a number of pictures today (as did other team members) along with about an hour of video. When I close down this station tonight Ill update the DXpedition web site with some pictures of today's adventure. Breaking News: Online logs have been updated!
Here is a description of the operating conditions here.
  • Two "permanent" stations - Paul and I have twin stations with Icom 7000 transceivers, LDG tuners, ICE band-pass filters, and computerized logging. Paul is 100% digital modes. I am 100% SSB.
  • Two Yaesu FT-857 stations - Budd and Chris brought matching FT-897 transceivers. Budd is mostly CW (I think I heard him on phone for a short while). Chris will likely be on phone as well. Both stations have been operated as "portable" stations, even while here at the villa. Many of the QSOs generated from the really interesting places will be done by Budd and Chris.
  • QRP stations - Bob brought an Icom 703. I brought an Elecraft KX1 system. Budd used the Icom last night for a time and even 10 watts output produced prodigious pileups.
  • Backpack radio - A Vertex 1210 is tucked neatly into a backpack. Mike hopes to do some portable operations with that radio in the next few days.

  • Buddipoles - Of course... Paul has been on 20m and 40m on one Buddipole. Budd has been using his Buddipole on 40-15m. I now have a Buddipole set up well away from everybody else (fighting that too-many-antennas-in-a-small-space problem) on 20m. Chris was using that antenna this evening.
  • Wire verticals - I made two wire verticals hung with masts. One is an 80m vertical with the top suspended by a 33-foot mast. The second is a 40/15m antenna with the top suspended by a 20-foot fishing pole.

The team is still pretty tired from the long series of flights yesterday and from the long tour today. We expect to hit our stride tomorrow. Operations last night and this evening were just the warm up.
Thanks to all who have sent word directly (or indirectly) to the team. We're listening. See you on the bands.

Setting up

This is our official Day 1 of the DXpedition. We arrived just in time to view a magnificent sunset here from the villa. Those of you who have spent any time in the Caribbean know that it becomes dark very quickly here on the islands. So, what little antenna work that could be done last night was by flashlight and feel.
Budd erected a 40m vertical with the large coil on the top floor. He ran his FT-857 until the first set of batteries were exhausted. Changed battery packs, and did it again. He's paper logging so it will take a little effort to get those into the computer. We'll try to get all logs up on the web site this evening.
There has been a flurry of activity this morning. An incorrectly polarized set of PowerPole connectors nearly destroyed a radio (Icom 703) last night. A cautionary note should go here: some early PowerPole adopters had selected a configuration backwards from the ARES (and now defacto) standard. It only takes one such mismatched connector to cause a mishap. Luckily, we had brought enough tools, and Bob was clever enough, to find the dead diode in the unit that had shorted. Once the diode was removed, the unit came back to life.
While lots of guys are using Buddipoles (and I brought one, too), I'm also going to use some other antennas. I completed construction of an 80m vertical and 40/15m vertical this morning. They are wire verticals hung by a 33 foot mast and 20 foot fishing pole respectively.
This is only the morning of the first day, so I hope you'll be patient with us. It will take a bit more work to get all stations on the air. In the mean time, Budd continues to crank out CW contacts (on 17m right now) and Paul is handing out PSK-31 contacts on 20m. Snag those guys (and modes) now while the rest of the equipment is set up.
We're going to take a break from all this work in a few minutes. We have a couple of group activities including an island tour and tour of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. It doesn't put QSOs in the log, but it does help make good DXpedition video footage.
I'll try to get some pictures on up the web site this afternoon or evening.

Monday, January 29, 2007

We have arrived

Just a very quick note tonight. We have arrived! We pulled in just as the Sun was going down so we're only partially up-and-running. Budd is up top with a vertical running CW. Paul is running PSK (or setting it up, I guess). It is too dark to set up much more.
Tomorrow we will tour the volcano observatory and some other spots on the island. We'll also snag some food for the next week. Then, it will be time to put some QSOs in the log.
So ends day one.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


I am now sitting in the waiting area of Manchester (NH) airport. A free wireless internet access service is available in the airport, something I wish more airports would adopt. It sure makes waiting more fun and productive!
The final tally on the bags (as measured by the Southwest ticket counter) was 68 pounds for the Pelican case, 48 pounds for the REI bag, and 67 pounds for the golf bag. They charged me $25 for the overweight Pelican case (which I expected). They also charged me $25 for the overweight golf bag. I just reviewed the Southwest baggage policies and, while they allow you three checked bags (instead of the traditional 2), they do demand that they all be under 50 pounds to avoid this surcharge. American Airlines policies allow 2 checked bags, but a golf bag can be up to 70 pounds without the surcharge. Always check with the airlines for the specifics before you pack. I didn't follow that advice this time, but as it turns out, I'm not sure knowing the rules ahead of time would have helped me make better packing decisions.
In retrospect, leaving the FT-817 kit behind seems like an obvious choice now that I've seen the final weight tallies. I didn't have an extra 8 pounds of weight budget to spend it, even spread across 3 bags!
From this point on, I start getting lighter. My carry-on bag has paperwork for all seven operators. I will shed all but one of those packets tonight at dinner. Looking ahead, I'll divide up some of the weight among other operators in Orlando going down, and leave some significant amount behind before my return. My goal is to be overweight only on the Pelican case when I come back.
I mentioned to friends these last few days that this trip has snuck up on me. They laughed out loud at this. I've spent most of the last 6 months preparing for this day by creating the web site, log processing tools, doing PR, organizing equipment, and planning logistics. It seemed to them absurd for me to claim "I didn't see this day coming." Well, as absurd as it sounds, I am a bit surprised, and not quite mentally prepared, to be sitting here waiting for that first flight. Perhaps it will register once I'm actually in the seat.
My colleagues have posted some things within our private email list about their desire to get my station on-the-air first, perhaps even within the first hour of our arrival at Gingerbread Hill. I don't know if that is a practical goal, but I sure appreciate the gesture. They are a good bunch of guys.
I meet Bob, my roommate for the night, in Orlando at 4:30. (I just dug out that mail message so I could find his flight number.) It will be the first time that I will have seen Bob face-to-face. In fact, except for Chris and Budd Drummond, I've not met any of these guys in person!
Just a few hours until Orlando and by this time tomorrow I'll be on my way to Montserrat!

Saturday, January 27, 2007


I am packed. Dave now has the computer that would be used for log processing should my internet connection on the island be insufficient to the task. Everything has been weighed, reweighed, inventoried, and tucked into their respective bags. I am ready.
In the end, the FT-817 was left out of the mix. The radio, LDG tuner, and accessories bag weighed upwards of 8-10 pounds. If I was going alone, I would figure out a way to take this backup radio (or some backup radio). But, I'm going with 6 other hams, with about 4 or 5 other radios, and there is a radio sitting at Gingerbread Hill left by a previous ham so this need isn't so pressing this time. Of course, the very fact that I'm going with other hams (and we'll have simultaneous operations) means I needed to bring about 8 pounds of band pass filters plus extra coax. So, I guess it all evens out in the end.
Here is what the final tally was for the bags:
  • Pelican 1610 - 68 pounds.
  • REI red duffle - 48 pounds
  • Vault golf bag - 63 pounds (to be split up, 13 pounds going to one op, another op to take the bag of coax, another op to check the golf bag as part of his allocation)
  • Carry on bag - with clothes
  • Backpack - with lots of gizmos

I am going to leave coax, fishing poles, that spool of wire, dacron rope, the Bencher paddles, and a number of other items behind when I return. If I can get this stuff to the island, I'll have no problem with weight limits on the way back.
My next post should be from the Orlando staging area. Just a few hours to go...

A Loss

I spent some time late last night catching up on some reading and news. While going through Jeff's Long Delayed Echoes notes I read something quite sad. Mike Caughran, KL7R, has died while on vacation with his family in Hawaii. Mike, along with Bill Meara (M0HBR), created a series of podcasts called SolderSmoke that were a favorite among QRPers and experimenters alike. I am still in shock as I write this.
The General Agreement signed by all team members states, "I agree that travel, especially international travel, has inherent risks to my person and my belongings." I wrote those words some months ago with some abstract notion that they were true. Any doubts of that were erased when I learned of Mike's passing.
The Internet, with the various forms of collaboration it supports: email, http and the web, ftp, streaming media, and anything else that can fit into a cascade of packets, seems to many like a cold and distant way to communicate, devoid of the human touch and interaction. I'm convinced by this tragic event that this is not the case. Mike did not know me, but I very much feel like I knew Mike. I knew him through his many hours of conversations with Bill Meara where he spoke of the projects he was doing, problems he was solving, and little tidbits about his family and home in Alaska. Mike had friends, and fans, in places he'd never dreamed. I know because I was one. My thoughts must now be with those he left behind, his family, his friends, and all of us who admired him and the good works he did.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Last minute checklists

It is Friday night. I leave Sunday morning. The math says I have just under two days to go.
I confess that this week was something of a disappointment for me. I had hoped to get a great deal more done than I did. Rather than dwell on what didn't get done, let me outline what did get done.
  • I sent a note to the Daily DX with a reminder of our trip details. It was published in the the newsletter the next day.
  • I created a new page called Team Update for the web site with the latest details of the trip and put a large red NEW! next to it. You can see that page here. It provided a nice couple of paragraphs that could be snagged by anybody who wanted to help get the word out. If you want people to help you: make it easy for them!
  • I also sent a note to the ARRL for inclusion in their DX News email that comes out each Friday. A version of the notice appeared in today's email.
  • I completed a version of the log processing software that can take log files from each of the operators and create HTML pages for our DXpedition web site. I had hoped to do a great deal more (and will) but this is all I could get done for this DXpedition. I hope to do a great deal more before the next trip!
  • The log processing software has been loaded on to both my hammac and another computer that I will loan to Dave Bushong for the duration of the trip. Running the system is easy: drop the log files from the operators in the proper places and type a single command at a prompt. The software creates the HTML files and uploads them to the DXpedition web site automatically. Easy as pie. I finished this automation today.
  • I completed a nearly final inventory spreadsheet that identifies all the pieces I'm bringing on the trip. This should have been done sooner (I've had drafts out since mid-December) but wasn't. In fact, this is one of the things I would hope to do much better on future trips. I'm sure we will not have brought all that we could have used, and will inadvertently bring things we won't need. This will be a topic that I think about, and write about, a great deal while on the trip. If I had to identify one area of improvement I would focus on for my next effort, it would be this one.
  • I checked the volcano status (looks quiet), the local weather (should be warmer by Sunday for the drive to the airport), the weather in Orlando (Cold?!), the weather in Montserrat (ahhhh), and the space weather (interesting things brewing).

Of course, once on the island I may have 17 other things going wrong which would trump any concerns that I've expressed here. Recognizing this reminds me that there are two excellent reasons for me to be putting effort into writing this blog: I want to remember what I was thinking at this point in the planning process, and so you, the reader, won't have to make all the mistakes I've made. You can make altogether more interesting ones!
Tomorrow there are just two things to do: get that computer to Dave and help him set it up, and get packed. Just 48 hours from now I'll be hanging with the boys at the staging area in Orlando!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Back on the mend, time running short

This is the second day with my bout of back pain. I don't know what I did yesterday, turned wrong, bent funny, or twisted just so, but it was like a hammer fall in the small of my back. I've had this before, of course, but it usually resulted from me doing something quite stupid like forgetting my age and lifting or carrying something more appropriately sized for two men. Not so this time. It came out of the blue and for no reason I can identify.
I don't want this to sound like 75m SSB. I share this bit of discomfort partially to make a point. With just a few days to go, I am nearly finished with all I needed to complete. If I had waited until the last minute to pack, I would be in deep trouble indeed! Even now, I owe the group my final checklist of equipment and it isn't clear if I can complete that today or tomorrow. Perhaps, despite my best efforts, it will be done at the last minute after all.
Dave Bushong (KZ1O) looked over the audio I had posted the other day. When I say looked over I mean he put some of it through a spectrum analyzer assessing its quality. He suspected that something was overdriven during recording. He was right. I had the gain turned up a bit high going to the recording gizmo attached to the iPod. I'll need to watch that little "clipping" light on the unit when I do my next recordings (on Montserrat!). Here are a couple of pictures from Saturday's experiment.

I'll try to get this set up on Monday night after our arrival and hang at least the G5RV so I can be on the air immediately. The other antenna I'd like to get deployed immediately is a 6m antenna so I can get on the magic band. The DXers and contesters have probably given out all of the QSOs and QSL cards you could imagine on the contest bands, but I wonder how many have 6m from this island in their log? Paul will be making a similar effort, working the data modes until his fingers are sore, in hopes of handing out a new one for those who don't have VP2M with PSK31 or RTTY.
Our motto is "Not rare, but well done!" We know Montserrat leads no most wanted lists. This isn't Aves Island or Peter I. I plan on having fun, of course, but also plan to use this trip, and the experiences I'll gain, to help prepare me for one of those rare ones.
Back to the heating pad. Just 5 days to go...

Monday, January 22, 2007


Aleve. I don't know what I did to my back, but it wasn't good. No packing today. No planning today. Just Aleve. Hopefully I'll wake refreshed tomorrow. There is still a lot to do...
Just 6 days to go...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Audio and some visuals

I set up a station for the North American QSO Party using only the equipment in the cases today. Because I am so short on time, I only spent about two hours on the air, but it was a useful exercise. I recorded the audio from the this exercise.
Listen to the K5TR QSO
Listen to the K0RH QSO
Listen to the N3BB QSO
That's the point of the iPod and the record everything strategy. You can't predict when somebody really interesting will call, or when someone will make a really interesting comment. Record it all, sort it out later. I'm hoping that at least some of this audio will help make my DVD and future presentations more interesting.
Of course, as soon as I declared victory on the packing exercise, I discovered a couple of piles of stuff that had been set aside. Oops. Well, as I have said, the packing exercise is an iterative process. It has always been my plan to be all packed a week before departure. Why so early? Well, imagine what would happen if I were suddenly sent out of town on a business trip. Or, if there was a crunch project that required lots of overtime. In the software business, it isn't unusual to have a whole week (or month) of your life disappear in the wink of an eye because of crunch project. I didn't want to be scrambling the day before departure wondering what would go and what would stay!
I have removed a large number of small things. Weighing that pile showed me how even little things add up quickly. I've also had to make some tough decisions. I had planned on bringing a Cobra UltraLite Senior antenna to ensure I had something that would cover 160m. But, the antenna in its bag with 4:1 balun was about 6 pounds. I just swapped it for a shortened G5RV from RadioWavz. This antenna is only 67 feet long and weighs about 2 pounds.
We did not create a comprehensive antenna plan prior to the trip. I should have pushed for that. The more I think about it, this should have been done back in July. More fodder for my post-mortem, I guess. In the mean time, here's a notion I've been playing with.

I needed to come up with something like this so I would have some idea of how much coax to bring. Here is a sketch of the villa (aerial view) showing feed line lengths for the G5RV, 80m vertical, and 40m vertical. Paul, who will be doing lots of digital modes, will populate and wire the other posts... maybe. This is just one idea.

This will all be discussed in tonight's conference call.
One week from tonight I'll be in Orlando meeting with the team. I'm really getting excited now!
Just 7 days to go...

Friday, January 19, 2007

Small update

Just a quick note tonight. I have weighed and packed the filters, rearranged some of the smaller stuff, and have closed up both the big Pelican case and the REI bag. The Pelican case is now 70 pounds, the REI bag tips the scales at exactly 50 pounds. So, my 100 Pound DXpedition is now stretched a bit. I have 100 pounds of equipment (if you don't count the weight of the cases).
The other reason why I'm a bit over the 100 pound gross weight limit is that the equipment will be shared among several operators. There are a couple of guys bringing no radios at all! So, if we average the weight across all members, I'm within our 100 pounds per person goal again.
The third case is the big golf bag. Though I am hauling it to Florida, another team member will actually be claiming it as their own from Orlando to Montserrat. This is the bag that holds lots of long pieces such as masts and fishing poles. Right now, it also stuffed with a small bag filled with tools that Budd will transfer to his mostly empty suitcase (if necessary).
One of the things I'm wondering is how much will I be bringing back? Certainly, the wire that gets turned into radials, verticals, dipoles, etc., will not be repacked. That is only a few ounces, though. The Dacron rope used will likely not be repacked, either. Though I'm not likely to pick up too many souvenirs, it would be nice to have a little more breathing room on the return trip weight-and-space-wise.
I must have passed some milestone tonight if I'm now worried about the return trip! {grin}
Just 9 days to go...

Morse Runner and those little things

I gave the good folks at Industrial Communication Engineers, Ltd. a call this morning. I had done some (very) preliminary testing on the filters I'd just received and thought that the 17m and 12m filters were not up to snuff. Well, they are. They are performing as advertised. The bands 17m and 15m are pretty close together. As the fellow from ICE said, "If we made them any tighter, people wouldn't like them." So, I'm packing them and they are going to Montserrat. I might bring that little Elecraft wide-band noise generator with me to show the other team members what I had done. I thought it was interesting. Maybe they will, too.
There was another burst of activity on the list regarding the possibility of obtaining licenses from Antigua for operation on Redonda Island. It would require somebody making a day trip to Antigua (from Montserrat) to process the paperwork. I'm not interested. After looking over my personal schedule, I believe that time would be better spent hiking over the island and taking video for the DXpedition DVD I hope to make. I had considered taking a helicopter ride to get aerial shots of the island and volcano (which would have probably required a trip to Antigua), but, in the end, I've decided that would be too much to do with too little time to do it. Better to do those things I've already planned well.
Speaking of hiking around the island, Sandy got me an iPod Shuffle tonight (there was an Apple store near where we ate dinner). I'll fill that thing up and listen to it while I traverse the beautiful countryside. These little things are amazing. If you've not ever purchased an Apple product, or if you are in the market for a new (and nearly disposable) MP3 player, give this thing a look. As cool as the commercials for it are, they don't do it justice. (I blame my friend Mark Fancher for making me lust over getting one of these, by the way. Hi, Mark!)
One of the 15 or so reasons why I'm currently over my weight budget is because I'm bringing a nice set of paddles for CW work on the island. I was licensed in 2002 and, to be frank, my CW skills are not anywhere close to where I where I would like them to be. Recalling the old joke, "Q: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? A: Practice, practice, practice!" Well, hams might ask, "Q: How do you get to Honor Roll on CW? A: Practice, practice, practice!" There is a fantastic program to help you practice called Morse Runner. This thing emulates on-air conditions so well it is downright scary. Perhaps a better description is diabolical! A message was circulated around the Yankee Clipper Contest Club today alerting members (again) to this program. It has a competition mode where you run in a simulated WPX contest for an hour and it computes your score. You may then submit that score to the Morse Runner web site and see how you match up with others. You can see that scoreboard here. I was able to muster 74 QSOs in my best hour. That puts me near the bottom of the list. I don't like that! Well, looks like I need more practice! If you've got an hour, try this. Post your score. Let me know how you did.
Finally, I have been carrying around slips of paper with me and writing down things as I remember them. For example, I have to pack one of my knee braces (or those hikes are going to be unbearably painful). That went on the list. The video camera should have a protective filter on its lens if only to keep the dust out. I bought that tonight. These kinds of things will just dawn on you during the day. Write them down. Keep a list. Check off items when you solve the problem or obtain and pack the item. Yes, "anal-retentive" is hyphenated. {grin}
Just 10 days to go...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Testing filters

I arrived home late last night after the local radio club meeting and found that the band-pass filters had come in the mail. Hooray! It was too late to mess with them much, but I did dig them out of the box just to make sure they had all arrived safely. Each one was there: the big box with the switch for all the contest bands, and the three individual filters for 30m, 17m, and 12m.
As I was looking them over, Sandy said, "They look nice. How do you know they work?"
Good question! I own an Elecraft Wideband Noise Generator (one of Elecraft's
Mini Modules) which puts out a nice signal across all bands. All I needed to do was hook a radio up to the filters, supply a signal from the noise generator, and see if the filters kept that signal to only the band selected. Below is a shot of the test setup:

Connecting the big filter box was easy and it worked flawlessly. I could switch bands on the radio and then use the big switch on the front of the unit to select the corresponding band, hearing a strong signal only when the proper pass-band was selected.
Next, I tried the individual filters. The 30m filter worked fine. I could tune to 40m and 20m and hear little more than a slight hiss (down from the S8 signal on 30m). The other two filters, however, didn't perform as well. The 17m filter let through nearly all of the signal to the radio listening on 15m and above. Similarly, the 12m filter didn't seem as effective as the 10m filter in the big box. Perhaps I did something wrong, or perhaps my experiment is faulty. Or, perhaps the filters don't work. I don't know. Either way, I'll call Industrial Communication Engineers, Ltd. in the morning to get some help. Right now, though, it seems like the 17m and 12m filters are going back to Indiana, and not going to Montserrat.
In other news, I had a good day at work today, figuring out some stuff that had been vexing me. That's the good news. The bad news is I'm too exhausted to work on the log processing software tonight (something I had hoped to do). Tomorrow is my BSO concert and this weekend I've got a VE session and contest on Saturday. There is not a lot of time to get things done! The countdown continues.
Just 11 days to go...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Antenna plan for the Heavenly Suite

There has been precious little antenna planning discussion here. Let me fix that with this post. One of the best ways you can prepare for one of these 100 Pound DXpeditions is to think carefully about how you will deploy your antennas once you arrive. We did just that before our trip to St. John in the US Virgin Islands last Spring. The Wind Chime villa consisted of a main house plus a separate building that they called the master bedroom. You can see a picture of that structure below:

Sandy and poured over the pictures from the various web sites describing the property and talked with another couple that had stayed there for a week. Even before I began packing for that trip, I had a very good idea of how I could deploy my various antennas. (You can see a picture gallery from that trip here.) The results of the planning are as shown below.

Coming off the top of this building was very convenient. The Buddipole worked very well from this perch and the ability to make vertical antennas with very lightweight fishing polls proved both easy to do and very, very effective. A similar plan might be possible on Montserrat, thanks to some help from a ham who was recently there.
George Briggs (VP2MDG) has been very generous with his time helping us get some idea of what we might have available for our antenna installations. A recent message included this helpful bit: "... When David built the top deck above the heavenly suite, he had steel pipes fitted into each of the blue concrete corner posts of the rooftop railing. You can see a post or two in the pictures on the [Gingerbread Hill] web site. David can provide an 8-foot long steel pipe that nestles inside the pipe in the corner post. I mounted the CL-33 on one of those 8-foot pipes nestled inside a corner post. I used another corner post and 8-foot pipe to elevate the centers of my dipoles..." You can see the villa with those pipes in this shot featured on George's QRZ page.

Paul and I will probably be the "permanent residents" in the villa, making most of our contacts from this place. The building has three floors with the top unit called the Heavenly Suite. I think Paul and I should snag that part of the house for our living and operating quarters. We then need to get up on the roof and make good use of those four corners and four pipes. Paul and I are both bringing 33 foot masts and fishing poles which can make excellent low-band verticals. Figure that roof line is up 30 or 40 feet from ground level, plus the 33 feet that mast provides, means the radiator can be 66 feet long easily if held from the top and fed from the ground. I did similar things on St. John and it worked superbly.
The problem I had on St. John was feed line: I had not brought enough. There is some feed line left there from previous hams, but we are not sure how much or what kind. I would like to bring more, but weight (and space) is a problem for me. I'll be thinking more about this issue over the next day or so.
Finally, I'm bringing a long dipole that covers 160-10m as well. Certainly I can tie off one end on this roof line. I don't know where the other end might go. Nor do I know how much coax I'll need to get the feed all the way back up to the Heavenly Suite. Again, more things to ponder.
Just 12 days to go...

Monday, January 15, 2007

Spare radio and fuses

There was no mail delivery today due to the national holiday. I still waiting on the band-pass filters to be delivered. If they are not in tomorrow's mail, I'll call and inquire about their status. In the mean time, I need to continue to refine the inventory so I've got space and weight budget enough to handle it.
I also needed to make room for a spare radio. Having a backup, even a small backup, is better than nothing when you travel. Consider the possibility of going someplace really interesting and then having your only radio conk out. This is something I preach to anyone traveling alone (or as the only ham), and it probably isn't as crucial for this trip given there are six other guys and five other radios, but I'd still like to have that capability. Perhaps it is just habit at this point. My backup radio will be a Yaesu FT-817. I can also use that if I go off hiking. At 5 watts, I'll not be knocking anybody over with my signal, but it beats not having a working radio at all.
To add stuff, I needed to remove stuff. I removed the tripod for the Buddipole and a couple of other loose parts totaling about five pounds. The FT-817 and all its accessories were nine pounds. I'm now skirting close to 50 in the big REI bag. I'll either need to swap more stuff out or be overweight on this bag, too. I'm seriously overweight on the Pelican case, a fact I'm not happy about at all!
I sat up late last night and started making a list of all the small items I'd not included in the kit. An example of such an item is spare fuses for the radio and PowerPole distribution box. Sure, it is obvious when list it here, but did you think of them? {grin} How about all the other things that are missing from that list I published last night? It is a great exercise to go over such a list and then try to determine what you would add or delete from it. I'll be doing exactly that with the list from my fellow travelers this week.
In order to catch more stuff like this I'm going to haul all the bags into work and set up everything on the big conference room table just as I hope to set it up on the island. I'll check everything against my spreadsheets at that time and scrutinize each item to see if there isn't something else that needs to be done (fixed, included, or removed). I'll also likely run in the North American QSO Party this weekend using the Montserrat gear. It was always my intention to use that contest for a final shake-out of the equipment.
The last piece of public relations material to be packed for the trip was also completed today. I have a 3 foot by 3 foot poster with our DXpedition logo and slogan printed in vivid color. I've just slipped that into the tube along with a similarly sized 100 Pound DXpedition poster. They will make great backgrounds for still pictures and videos around the villa and will no doubt be used for the big group shot for the QSL card.
Just 13 days to go...

Bag sharing

Our group had its conference call tonight. All members were able to attend for the first time since they began. With just two weeks to go before our rendezvous in Orlando, it was important that everybody be on the call.
Paul started us out by giving a report on conditions on the island itself. He spoke with our host David Lea from Gingerbread Hill about the volcano. Those on the island are taking the volcano's state, even the recent rather large eruption, in stride. Unless there is a significant change with things down there, I believe it will be safe to go. We'll still follow the guidelines we've put into place (calling two weeks from tonight from Orlando to verify conditions) but at this point, we are all but sure there will be no surprises.
The meeting then proceeded to hot items. The run-down of various assignments (creating QRZ entries, etc.) went quickly. Everybody promised to get their paperwork to me ASAP (Model Release Forms and General Agreements). I believe all that should be in place before our next call.
I then led a discussion regarding baggage plans. One-by-one we described our two checked bags, weight (thus far), size, and what else we might need. Budd has lots of extra weight capability in one of his bags but needs some space in a golf bag for long masts. I'm seriously over weight with my stuff, but I'm also packing tools for the group and other items intended to be shared. Perhaps Budd can take some of my overflow. The discussions proceeded along those lines.
Mike is our Activities Coordinator. He has three group trips lined up: a day trip on Tuesday to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory and surrounding area, a boat ride on Thursday to see the southern portion of the island, and a trip to Redonda Island on Friday. We've all but given upon the notion of getting a last-minute license from Antigua. I think we're all going to be happy just having a nice day and swimming with the fishies.
Those three activities are the only group activities we've planned. The rest of the time folks are likely going to be spread out, hiking, on a bicycle, on the beach, and operating from various parts of the island. Mike was careful to plan our day trips prior to the weekend as we're sure there will be more people on the air on the two weekend days than during the week. There is also a contest that weekend. The North American Sprint is February 4 from 0000Z-04000Z. I will likely give that a try!
I've got a busy week ahead. There is a local club meeting on Tuesday night and I have another Boston Symphony Orchestra concert on Thursday. That will make it tough to get much done after work this week. Still, after spending all of yesterday morning and afternoon with the scale and bags, I'm feeling better.
This is not to say I am done. Quite the contrary. I've still got to address several gaps I've found during my review: I need to bring more coax, I think I'm going to try to bring the FT-817 and/or Elecraft KX1, I need to make room for my band-pass filters (which better come this week), and a whole host of other small items (spare fuses, iPod charger, diving mask, etc.) that have get to get packed.
I've also started thinking of the things that can be taken out of the bags and left behind. I know I've mentioned this before: packing is an iterative process. I have a few more iterations to go.
So, though I didn't work on the log processing tools (bad nerd!) it was a productive weekend culminating with the conference call tonight. I'm feeling a little less stressed.
Just 14 days to go...

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Equipment inventory -- not done, but close

My plan was to do a little programming today but that didn't happen. Instead, I spent nearly the whole day with the scale and bags again. I'm still over my weight budget, but things are looking much better.
One of the things I've decided is that it is easier to do one of these things by yourself. No, not because people are difficult to work with. The problem is antenna placement and planning for inter-station interference. When I went to St. John, there was only one transmitter (mine) and all the antennas were mine. I could use a single feed line and connect it to different radiators when I wanted to change bands. I had the whole place to myself. This will not be the case on Montserrat.
Paul will be running QSOs on the digital modes while I'm running SSB (and the occasional CW, should I develop the courage). For this to work properly we both need the proper filters, we need to space our antennas as far apart as possible, and I can't just change bands or steal a piece of coax on a whim. I'll need to coordinate with Paul (and any other operators) on bands, operations, and equipment.
One of the things I like to do prior to arrival is do a survey of the property (with data from photos or experiences from other visitors if possible) to determine where I will place the antennas and how much feed line I might need to support that placement. With multiple operators, these are not just my antennas anymore. I'll need to do a site plan that provides for good band coverage for multiple stations, separates the antennas if possible, and reduces the amount of "rewiring" one might need to do to connect a particular antenna to one of our stations. It quickly becomes apparent why some DXpeditions measure the amount of coax they bring in kilometers! I don't have that luxury.
Meanwhile, back to the scale. Below is the rough list of the equipment. It is not complete (I have things missing). It is too much (I am still over-budget on the weight). The spreadsheet we are using for planning purposes has columns for a unique identifier for each detail line (to assist the inevitable discussions), an identifier for the bag containing it, an indication of the item's owner, a serial number for the item (if applicable), and its weight. Weights are also summarized per bag. Here is the list with just the item names.
Pelican 1610 case

Alinco DM-330MV 32A Power Supply
Audio mixer and accessories-Targa Tunda case
LDG AT-7000 autotuner
Icom 7000 transceiver
MicroHAM CW keyer and accessories
Heil Traveler Dual headset in bag with accys

Newton branded accessory bag
# ICOM hand microphone
# RIGrunner 4005
# ICOM 7000 power cord (short)
# ICOM 7000 power cord (long, fused)
# RCA stereo patch cable
# RCA to 1/4 stereo jack patch cable
# Power supply feed spades to PowerPoles
# Super Whatt Meter
# RCA to mono 1/8 patch cable
# PL-259 to PL-259 patch cable 3-foot
# Pen, pencil, mini-screwdriver

Red accessory box
# LDG autotuner to radio cable
# Magnetic base for 2/440 antenna (whip in lid)
# one foot PL259 patch cable
# Stereo RCA patch block
# PL-259 to BNC adapter

Radio Amateurs World Atlas
Nifty manuals, guides, logbook
Shure Microphone and cord in zippered case
Two foot peddles
First aid kit
Montserrat flag
P3 Solar Power Pack 15w Model 16009
Bencher paddles
SLA charger 1A
MFJ 259B Analyzer
SunSaver-6 Solar charge controller in Caselogic
Belkin power strip
First aid kit
Power inverter 110v from 12v 100watt
Small photographic tripod

Eddie Bauer red duffle

Sony digital video camera bag
Box of video tapes
Bachman bag w/ 25 and 75 feet coax RG8X
Camera monopod
Buddipole system
Buddistick system
Spinner bag
# MFJ-16010 tuner
# Buddipole TRSB
# Opek coax switch
# Car adapter to PowerPole cable
# Bag of RF adapters
# Numeric keypad
# MFJ dual clock
# Hat
Hiking shoes

The Northern Face Backpack

First aid kit
Garmin eTrex Vista GPS
Highgeer field compass, therm
ARRL Repeater Directory
Yaesu VX-5R handheld radio
Olympus digital camera

"The Vault" hard-sided golf bag
Black widow fishing poles (4)
Mast 33 feet
Walking sticks
Document tube with 2 posters and map
Sun bag with dipole and wire spool
# Bungie cords
# Ground stakes (6)
# EB 1 Balun
# Center insulator
# Unidilla balun
# Buddipole standard Tee
# Buddipole VeraTee with adapter
# Two clipclamps
# Bag of dacron rope - 300+ feet
# Tool bag with…
# Radio shack VOM (2)
# Rip tie wraps
# Stanley 12 foot tape measure
# Leatherman knife and tool set
# Wire cutters
# Electrical tape (2 rolls)
# Radio Shack 11 piece tool kit w/ soldering iron

Carry on bag ARRL (black)

Apple MacBook computer

In tomorrow's conference call, I'll see if we can't either redistribute some of this weight by having other team members that are traveling light do some bag sharing, or reduce the amount of stuff I'm bringing because somebody else stepped up and claimed an equivalent item it their own equipment list.
Just 15 days to go until the staging in Orlando...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Weight, emergency info, and NEC2GO

I brought home the scale again. I'm still running over my weight allowance, but I'm also packing tools, an antenna analyzer, and other things that are shared resources for the group. I've just sent a message to another group members who mentioned they are far under their weight budget. Perhaps we can do a little burden sharing. This should all be worked out once we get the group spreadsheets collected, but that hasn't happened yet (and it is getting late!)
On the planning front, there are two other things in play right now. A couple of members of the group are still investigating whether it is possible to wrangle a license out of Antigua on short notice. We might be able to email scans of the relevant documents to a contact on Antigua and then pick up our licenses upon arrival at the telecommunications office. I kept copies of all the licensing materials (copies of US licenses, passport pages, etc.) so I would be the logical one to scan all that in and provide electronic versions of everything. No word yet on whether this is going to happen. I guess we'll find out next week.
We're also in the process of collecting emergency contact information for all the group members in case something inconvenient happens to somebody during the trip. I'm creating a folder for each operator that has their Monserrat license, backup licensing materials, emergency contact information for all group members, and some other important documents as needed. I'd like to have this completed by the end of the weekend.
All this paperwork probably sounds like overkill, but, again, my premise in all this is that my time on the island is valuable and I would rather spend one or two minutes organizing something here and now, before the trip, than to spend even one minute on the island doing the same thing. Further, the planning exercise, the organizing effort itself, has been very instructive. I've learned things and discovered resources I would not have otherwise found if I had just winged it. For me, this planning has provided me with a richer experience than I would have had otherwise, making it all worthwhile.
Assuming my head doesn't turn to cottage cheese the moment I get on the airplane, I am planning to pull of this experience (it seems presumptuous to call it wisdom) into a single document. I don't know if this will end up as a book, or booklet, or will be a series of web pages on my website. I do know that at least one person will want to read it though: me, when I'm ready to do my next trip! I would like to make all new mistakes next time. {grin}
I stumbled across and interesting site today called I've only spent a couple minutes on it, but it seems to be a site where they will take anybody's DXpedition (or contest?) log and provide a nice web-based look-up for it. I just found my call (NE1RD) in the DX4DL log. Seems simple enough! Perhaps I'll upload our log to this site, also, when we are done. (Gee, maybe I didn't need to write all that software! Naw! It was fun!)
Filed in the Don't you have enough to do?! category is my purchase today of NEC2GO antenna modeling software. While at Dayton last year I ran into the fellow who was working the parking lot hawking the software. I chatted with him and was impressed by the package. I promised to give it a look when I got back home. I discovered that slip of paper with the reminder today (while looking for something else I've still not found, of course). The software is only $39.95 (for a limited time, whatever that means) and seems worth a look. I'll be modeling various weird Buddipole configuration in my copious spare time. Perhaps there should be a section on the DXpedition web site with pictures of the configurations we used along with the models. Sounds like an interesting discussion to have over a cold drink when we all converge on Orlando!
Just 16 days until Orlando...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Safety first discussion

Tonight's blog post will simply be a copy of the post I just made to our private email list. We're all thoughtful, careful guys. It is time to have this sober discussion. I'll pick up on all the great planning stuff again beginning tomorrow. In the mean time, here's a glimpse into our private list...


There have been some interesting events on the island of Montserrat as of late. Some of you may have noticed. {grin} We had always known that we were traveling to an island with an active volcano, but other than simply acknowledging that fact, we had not discussed its possibly profound implications to our travel there. This brief note is intended to begin that discussion.
My mantra in all of my planning for all my trips is safety first. This trip is certainly no different. I will not intentionally put myself, or anyone else, in harms way if it can be avoided. That said, one of the items on the General Agreement states, "I agree that travel, especially international travel, has inherent risks to my person and my belongings..." There are always risks with travel: flying, being away from first-class healthcare facilities, and even being outside of the jurisdiction of US laws. I believe we've all recognized these risks and can live with them.
The big risk, the volcano, is the one that is giving us pause. I just got off the phone with Budd and we were completely in agreement during our discussions. The residents of Montserrat have been living with this volcano for a very long time and have learned to cope. Of course there have been major events within the last two decades, but for the most part, the northern part of the island where we will be visiting is as safe as any other in the Caribbean.
All that said, things can change very quickly. Budd and I agree there are two eventualities that would be cause to immediately cancel plans to travel to the island:
1. The airport on Montserrat was closed due to volcanic activity or threat of same.
2. Gingerbread Hill somehow became unavailable.
If we cannot safely get there, or have no place to stay, we should not go. It is possible there are other reasons why we should not go that will be learned between now and our departure. All but one of us will be at the "staging area" in Orlando on the Sunday before our early Monday departure. Budd has suggested that we contact David Lea at Gingerbread Hill that day and confirm that things are copacetic.
It is still possible that we will get safely to the island and then be plunged into an enormous disaster. If that should happen, we should be prepared to abandon our equipment and evacuate with the other residents as quickly as possible. I believe that is an unlikely event, but we must acknowledge that it is not impossible.
At least a few minutes during our next conference call should be spent discussing this. I also welcome comments on the list, or privately to me if you feel more comfortable with that approach.
That is my thinking on the matter. Thanks for the bandwidth.

-- Scott (NE1RD and VP2MRD)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Redonda Island is NA-100

A small epiphany today: Redonda Island, a side trip we've just begun discussing within the group, is not within the jurisdiction of Montserrat; it belongs to Antigua and is part of the NA-100 group. This complication makes operating from there problematic. There had been a brief discussion early-on about getting licenses for Antigua as well as Monterrat, but there wasn't much interest. Now, we discover, operating from this little island would require just such a license. Some other group members are investigating our options but I confess this is starting to sound like mission creep. My plate is already full with planning and execution of our main objective. At this point, if I go to the island, I'm going to swim with the fishies, not worry about how to get on 20 meters.
Paul and I will be spending lots of time at the villa making contacts. He has, or has ordered, a set of band pass filters like the ones I ordered last month. We hope that these filters will be sufficient to keep out of each other's front-ends, but I would feel better if I was a little more knowledgeable about these things. I stumbled across a publication that looked interesting from International Radio called Managing Interstation Interference that looked interesting. On a whim, I ordered it. (I do that sort of thing a lot--ask Sandy...) It came a few days later. While I have only given it a cursory review, I like what I see.
I have programming work to do on the online log processing tools. I made a commitment to the group in last Sunday night's conference call that I would have this software ready by the end of this coming weekend. That will be a stretch, but that's still my goal. There are a couple of reasons for pushing this: I would like to have some time for testing this software before I leave, I need to give Dave a copy so he can run it for me in the event our internet connection isn't as reliable as advertised, and mostly because I've got lots of other stuff to do, and having this out of the way means I can concentrate on those other tasks such as equipment planning and final logistics.
One last note: this is post number 200 in the 100 Pound DXpedition weblog. After a couple hundred posts, I've made some observations: it is a very strange way to communicate! I receive only occasional feedback via email or posts in the comment section of the blog, yet many who do comment write as though we've know each other since childhood. In short, it has all been wonderful but I have no idea who is reading this stuff. There are no statistic gathered to even let me know if dozens, hundreds, or thousands view my words each day. My philosophy has always been to collect my thoughts in this place, and if it helps even one amateur radio operator muster the courage or gumption to pack their radio and go, I would be very pleased, indeed. I hope it has.
Just 18 days to go...

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Joe vs. the volcano

Yesterday's post, about me being a Nervous Nilly, amused more than one reader. Best summed up by Hershel (W4TMN), "Scott, you're nervous about this stuff and not concerned about that volcano now erupting?" Still other comments came from local club members who, I believe, are actually worried I'll be cooking my hide down there. It is easy to make light of this, but the truth is we are becoming quite concerned about the situation. As Budd Drummond said in a post to the group's private email list, "We should at this point start thinking of worst [case] scenarios."
I was just lamenting that so many things that I had planned to do for this trip either didn't get done, or were barely started. One such activity was a DXpedition manual that would have provided a place to put information and collective wisdom ranging from where we might find the closest hospital, to items that should be included in a personal first aid kit such as a dust mask and flashlight. I started making some headway on this, but it was clear that I could not complete such an effort and all the other thing that needed to be done, too, such as the online log processing tools, QSLing tools, and public relations work. The observation made by Paul was representative of the thinking back in October, "I believe the DXpedition manual is a great idea, but if it was to be made, it should have been started a year ago. We have far better things to do than worry about the manual at this point. In my humble opinion. I believe if Chris/Budd want to do this again next year (or in the future endeavor) it would be a great project keep going on. At this point STOP."
I don't know if "a year ago" was the right lead time, but certainly three months prior to departure left too little time to do it well. Here is a very early outline from that effort in PDF form.
Link to DXpedition manual outline as a PDF file.
Meanwhile, back to the volcano. Several soul-searching mail messages were exchanged today, both on our private list, and between various members since stories of the collapse of the volcano's dome and intense pyroclastic flows down the northwestern side of the volcano into Tyres Ghaut and Gages Valley. If that wasn't enough, plumes rose upwards of 5 miles high which were at times traveling north over the part of the island we intend to visit, and even towards Antigua. Local officals call this a "warning call" of what the volcano could do.
What if we go and this thing really blows? In the immortal words of Jimmy Buffet, "Now, I don't know, I don't know where I'm a gonna go when the volcano blow." (By the way, that song was recorded on Montserrat and was written for this very volcano!) Seriously, what if the airport is closed and we are stranded? What if the electricity goes out? Should we stockpile food and water? What if we can't get off the island for 3 weeks? These are all things we should have discussed long ago and did not. (It isn't like this volcano thing is a surprise!)
According to a Radio story, "The authorities maintained that Montserrat is safe for islanders and visitors despite an evacuation of the northwestern districts following an escalation of activities at the Soufriere Hills Volcano." Right now, at least, this seems right. It seems like the volcano is far enough away, and the landscape shaped in such a way that the northern part of the island should be safe. That's my assessment as of tonight. Of course, every team member will need to decide when the time comes what constitutes safe enough for them. Time will tell.

Monday, January 08, 2007

I'm a Nervous Nilly(tm)

Last night's conference call covered a lot of ground. Still, with less than three weeks to go, I'm nervous about pulling all the things together that I think should be done. I've tried to be honest in this blog about things that have gone well and things that have not. My belief is that I should have pushed harder, and sooner, on some of this stuff. I think I'll spend at least some of the trip, especially those long plane rides, making long lists of things I'll do better next time.
We still don't have equipment selection anywhere close to finalized. Only two of us have even put draft spreadsheets up on the group's file area so we could compare notes. With a more traditional DXpedition, where weight doesn't really matter so long as you don't forget anything important, you can probably wait on this activity and then just throw in everything, including the kitchen sink, to be sure you'll have what you need when you arrive. If, like us, you're trying to optimize on weight and total equipment carried, I believe you need to work--as a group--to really get things right. This takes time, of course, and time is running out. Again, I'm sure we'll pull things together, but in my view we should be much farther along in this exercise than we are today. More grist for my mill, I guess.
We did agree to drop a note on our private list about our specific antenna plans in an effort to mitigate our lack of progress on the global equipment planning front. I sent this note out this morning:
These plans are preliminary. This is my thinking so far:

1. Buddipole Deluxe Package, 8-foot mast, tripod,
RAK, no low band coils
This is the Buddipole that I will use from my station at the
villa for the high bands
(7 pounds)

2. Buddistick Deluxe Package
If I want to try something extemporaneous, I'll bring
this and a small rig
(4 pounds)

3. Big dipole. Probably a Cobra UltraLite 160-10.
I want to work 160 & 80m. Perhaps the Buddipole will work,
perhaps not. This will.
(5 pounds)

4. The Wire Man model#534 "Invisible 26 AWG wire" 1000-foot roll.
'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 wire is great for radials, loops, anything.
(2 pounds)

5. Three or four 20-foot collapsible fishing poles.
Used with the 534 wire above, you can make some amazing
wire antennas.
(1 pound ea.)

I'm also bringing center insulators and a couple of baluns
for making feed points.

As I said, these plans are preliminary. I might reduce the number of fishing poles I bring, or even leave the Buddistick at home. I'm unlikely to bring more, though, as I'm already skirting close to my weight limit.
We talked about group outings, QSL cards, and food. We currently have three group activities planned: a trip to the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, a boat trip around the island to see Plymouth from the sea (one of the only ways you can see it at all), and a boat trip to Redonda Island where we'll be able to snorkel, scuba dive, and operate. That last place looks like a great place for a group picture for our QSL card!
I know this trip is going to be incredibly fun. I do. I'm just a little nervous about all the stuff that needs to get done between now and the time fun begins. {grin}

Sunday, January 07, 2007

RF suppression

I recorded my first on-air QSO today using the new audio equipment, but not before I was forced to do some troubleshooting. I had already recorded from the radio to the iPod but had never transmitted while recording. When I tried transmitting today, the noise that came through the headphones was awful. Obviously RF was getting into the mixer.
I had expected this, actually, though I wasn't sure how it would be leaking in. (Few things work the first time. You didn't think it would, did you?) Rather than just start "trying stuff", I spent a minute looking over the setup to see what it might be. While it could have been the Shure microphone or its long cable, the more likely culprit was the power connection. I snapped three chokes around the power cable right where it enters the mixer and the noise disappeared completely! Here's that first QSO:
MP-3 of NE1RD with EA8BWW
I had similar problems with RF getting into things while on St. John. So, this summer I spent some time looking for chokes and reading up on RF suppression. In a previous post I mentioned Chuck Counselman's piece on common mode chokes (found here) which is excellent reading. The problem I was worried about then was RF getting into the laptop and confusing the power management circuitry (as it had on St. John). While testing has been minimal with HamMac, that problem doesn't appear to be happening with this new setup. Still, if it does rear its ugly head, I'm ready for it. I have a whole box of chokes packed for the trip (weighing only about 1 pound, they are great insurance against these pesky problems).
Everything is now broken down and repacked again. My mix of stuff still isn't right. The Pelican case weighs in at 49 pounds and the REI bag is now at 47 pounds, but I've not packed any coax, the MFJ analyzer is still sitting out, and only half my clothes are packed. The obvious place to reduce weight is in my selection for tools, though making that adjustment still might not be enough to bring me in under 100 pounds for the two bags.
I am packing both a Buddipole system and a Buddistick system in the REI bag. Together, they are probably 11 pounds (7 and 4 respectively). I've also got some extra accessories for both the Buddipole and Buddistick packed separately in that same bag. That's why this exercise is iterative: you throw everything you think you might need in bags and weigh them, then reduce the volume of stuff until you make your weight goal. It becomes a long series of trade-offs: "would you rather have A or B?" I've got about three weeks to make all these trade-offs, though I'll likely finish much earlier.
Finally, our first conference call in three weeks will be tonight in just a couple of hours. Lots has happened, and there is still lots to do. We added a team member officially today. Dave Bushong KZ1O will be helping us as a DXpedition pilot and backup Webmaster. The second role, backup Webmaster will provide some backup for me during the updates of the online logs. If, for some reason, our internet connection is not solid enough for me to update the web site from Montserrat, I'll try to forward just the log file deltas each day to Dave who will do those updates for me. That's the plan, anyway. Now, I just need to get that software finished!

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Wiring simplified

Equipment selection is an iterative process. In a previous post, I showed a complete station assembled and wired. It was a mess, but it everything worked and it gave me a starting point.
I've been thinking about what I wanted to change from that first attempt. I identified a couple of things that either make me nervous or seemed unsatisfactory. Falling squarely into the made me nervous category was the power cable for the IC-7000. It is a four pin connector, different from all the other power connectors that I have for my IC-766Pro and FT-897D. I had only one such power connector (the one that came with the radio) and while it is unlikely that it would be damaged or lost, such an event would basically ruin my whole trip. It was irrational, I suppose, but I thought I needed a second (backup) power harness for the radio. I purchased one a few weeks ago and put PowerPole connectors on it last night after cutting the the wires to a more reasonable length. The new cable, with about 6 feet of run, is now the main cable with the original one that came with the radio now serving as my backup.
In the unsatisfactory category was the Icom level converter. It is large, heavy, and served only one function: linking the computer to the radio. There were two choices, as I saw it: find something smaller that did the same job, or find something did that and more. Since I also wanted to beef up the CW capability of the station, the obvious choice was to substitute a MicroHAM CW keyer for that bulky Icom level converter. The MicroHAM device provides rig control and CW memory keyer capability all through a single USB connection. MacLoggerDX already supports this device. Here is a picture showing the equipment with this new configuration:

The items stack nicely as shown below.

I may change the stacking order putting the tuner between the radio and power supply, or pull it out entirely and move it behind everything. There is some improvement to the wiring mess as shown below:

While not great, this is an improvement from last month's configuration. The additional CW capability demanded three additional items: the numeric pad is connected directly to the CW keyer and will play CW keyer memories 0-9 with just a touch of a button, the Bencher paddles are now off to the right by the mouse, and there is an additional piece of software running on the HamMac to make things easier.
The software is called FKeyer, a program I began fooling with about a year ago. The program maps function keys K1-F8 along the top row of the keyboard to convenient CW macros. F1 will send "CQ DE VP2MRD K", F2 will send "callsign 5NN BK", F3 sends "TU", and so on. The program works with MacLoggerDX. When you enter a call sign and press RETURN, FKeyer sends a message to MacLoggerDX to enter that call sign into its lookup field and perform a lookup on it, thus filling in all the interesting information (name, city, state, country, etc.). When you press "F3", it logs the contact. When you are running CW, your main interface is FKeyer.
The version currently out there (V1.01) does not have the new features I'm talking about. Version 1.02 (with the features) will be published by the end of the weekend. If you have a MicroHAM CW keyer and MacLoggerDX, give it a try. It won't be supported like my other freeware programs (Cab-converter and QSLpro) for a while, but I will get to it eventually.
Tomorrow I'll break out the scale and start weighing everything again. I know I was overweight last time. I also need to budget space and weight for the band pass filters which should arrive in the next week or so. I suspect they'll be light, but bulky. Maybe they'll go in with my clothes. Hmmmm.

Friday, January 05, 2007


I've been working on the agenda for the conference call to be held Sunday evening. Here's a version of that agenda that has been heavily edited. (The actual agenda has much, much more detail including names associated with each assignment where possible, additional status details, etc.)

"Not rare, but well done!"

AGENDA for January 7, 2007 Conference Call
(Just 21 days to go)


[a] QSL card printing estimates
[b] QSLing
[c] Equipment Coordinator (EC) found!
[d] Pilot and backup Webmaster
[e] George Briggs (K2DM) email review

{List of stuff that's late, basically}

[a] CFO
[b] Motor pool
[c] Food chairman

3. Open issues
* Equipment inventory and packing (moves to HOT after this meeting!)
* Looking for CFO volunteer.
* Looking for Motor Pool volunteer.
* Looking for Food chairman.
* Paper logging format. Group review. Archiving?
* The volcano.

4. Leader reports
Please be prepared to give a very brief status.
[a] Webmaster
[b] Online logging
[c] QSL card design
[d] QSL manager
[e] Propagation guru
[f] CFO
[g] Activities coordinator
[h] Motor pool
[i] Food chairman

5. Equipment and operating discussion
[a] Discussion of individual on-air goals for the trip.
[b] Review of everybody's equipment spreadsheets.
[c] Identification of missing items.
[d] Initial baggage allocation discussion.

The Food Chairman position is somewhat new. I've only broached the topic once before with a couple of the guys. Here's the idea: It seems to me that there are several really good reasons to do some meal planning. There are seven of us, and we're going to be really busy. If you're on vacation with your wife and you take 3 hours to decide where to have dinner and actually eat, that's fine. That's not appropriate for this trip, IMHO.
We could have dinner brought in (catered) for, say, 5 of the 7 nights we're there. After a long day of hiking, surfing, diving, operating, and otherwise running around the island, the group would rendezvous back at the villa and have a meal together about 7 PM. Somebody brings in a big container of pasta, or chicken, or something with all the trimmings. They cook, we eat, they clean up (or the disposable containers get tossed). Easy, fast, good eating. Then back to the radios!
We could have stuff around for both breakfast and lunch around: fruit, cereal, salad stuff, bread, peanut butter/jelly (I'm still a sucker for PBJs), cold cuts, etc. If you were going to take a hike to a hilltop, pack a lunch. Up all night working Asia and Europe? Fix yourself some cereal or make a sandwich, even a midnight snack.
A couple of team members are vegetarians. Planning ahead will also help accommodate that, too. This doesn't need to be complicated. We just need a meal plan something like:
  • Monday = steak tips, rice, corn, salad + veggie dish
  • Tuesday = Spaghetti, bread, salad
  • Wednesday = hamburgers + vegge dish + fruit salad
  • Thursday = chicken & rice, beans, salad + vegge dish
Then add the big grocery list for breakfast/lunch stuff like:
  • milk, orange juice, cranberry juice, diet coke
  • bread, peanut butter, jelly, ham, swiss cheese, mayo, etc.
  • lettuce, salad dressings, croutons, carrots, onions, etc.
  • cereals, fruit, granola bars
  • cookies, chips, other snacks
  • good stuff for packing a lunch for hikers and travelers
I'd like to really get a plan together on this so we just get the supplies we need when on the island, have somebody else do most of the cooking (and clean up), and generally know that I'll be fed and not spend a lot of time arranging to be fed. Time will be precious there; I don't want to be spending it worried about "what's for dinner?" I want to run QSOs on 20m.
This seems like a good idea to me, but we'll discuss it within the group. Time is precious on the island so I'd love to have this part settled in advance. Then again, most people like to be extemporaneous when they travel, exploring new places, eating at new restaurants, especially the one they just heard about! My approach puts a damper on that stuff. I guess everything is a trade-off. That's another great reason to have the conversations now rather than while on the island!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Volcano and C programs

We just returned from the Boston Symphony Orchestra concert and it was a good one. Violin Concerto No.1 (Bruch), The Planets (Holst), and a new piece Ceres: Asteroid for Orchestra (Turnage) in its American Premiere. Luckily, my head cold has finally turned the corner and I wasn't sniffling and sneezing the entire time. With seats in the eighth row, I would have been embarrassed to be making all that racket!
On the way in to the concert I talked to Sandy about all the things I've not finished. I'm not worried (yet), but I do need to have a productive weekend. The big item is probably the online log processing software that is only half finished. I need to walk through the code I have, add more comments, and really test it. Here are some details for you programming geeks: I wrote this system in C and it has four and five dimension arrays, linked lists, and does the equivalent of macro expansion by inserting the data into templates for each of the operators. (If none of that made sense to you, don't worry.) The bottom line is: there is plenty of places where I could have goofed up. I want to find those places now; I don't want to find them when I'm on Montserrat.
The other piece of software written recently, QSLpro, had its last piece fall into place today. The Apple developer web site has a facility where you can register a unique code for your application. I didn't want to release this program without this code being registered. Unfortunately, the registration page for this stuff had been down for the last week. It was finally available again today so I registered my creator code and can now publish the application. Don Argo of Dog Park Software has graciously offered to host this application download page. I'll see if I can get that set up in the next week or so.
Finally, there is some news from Montserrat. Here's one excerpt from the Associated Press:

OLVESTON, Montserrat (AP) -- Hundreds of people living at the base of Montserrat's Soufriere Hills volcano evacuated as a lava dome grew to dangerous levels in the British Caribbean island.
Scientists say that the dome could crumble and send blistering gas and volcanic debris down the slopes of the volcano, potentially destroying homes in the low-lying Belham Valley.
"Residents in these areas are advised not to panic and to start preparations for moving to safe area," Chief Minister Lowell Lewis said after the first siren sounded Wednesday.
The volcanic dome had been building rapidly and has topped the highest part of the 3,000-foot volcano, which coughs up ash and bursts its lava cap every few months.
Scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory said some pyroclastic flows already have been observed but that they are at a safe distance. However, the observatory warned that the pyroclastic flows could escalate significantly.

We are obviously watching this situation carefully!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Watching all the little things

I've been exchanging emails with George Briggs (K2DM / VP2MDG), a fellow who recently returned from Montserrat's Gingerbread Hill and had left some equipment there. One piece is a Mosley CL-33 tribander as pictured on his QRZ page.

It was this antenna that was mentioned a previous blog entry as a temptation for our crew. I had said that I would use the antenna if it were available without guilt or remorse. I'd just count it as local materials. As it turns out, this beautiful antenna is disassembled and packed away. While George has graciously offered to allow our group to use it, I think it will likely be left in storage, thereby quashing this dilemma.
It has been nearly three weeks since our last conference call. I knew this period would be idle and had planned for it as best I could. The time between Thanksgiving and the first of the new year (November 25 - January 1) is almost always consumed by commitments to family and friends, as it should be. My goal was to have all the long lead time items and items that are largely out of our control (like licensing) behind us by now. We did that. We still have many activities and tasks to complete, but they are all work we can do on our own. For example, I would like to get our new call signs registered in all the interesting places such as QRZ.COM, the Logbook of the World,, and eQSL. I think this is the current state:

* There is an entry present but it is for a former owner of this call sign.
I've also made it a point to put the QSL routing information in a number of places. This probably sounds like tedious busywork but it is all part of ensuring that those who work us get the most enjoyment from that experience. They will find our calls in the popular lookup tools, they will find their QSOs in the popular online QSLing systems, and they will find the QSL routing information in the likely places. In my view, it is consistent with the slogan we've selected for our trip, "No rare, but well done!"
I'm still wrestling with this head cold. I stayed home from work today in hopes that some sleep might turn the tide on this thing. Needless to say, I've not done anything with equipment, packing, weighing, or sorting these last few days. I'll try to pick that bit up again this weekend.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Orange Juice

Today's entry will be brief as the small head cold I began with just a couple of days ago has being touring around this frame of mine visiting various places: chest, back, nose (again), and has now settled somewhere in the farthest reaches of my head, presumably where the thinking process occurs. It has moved in, and my powers of concentration have moved out. Perhaps there is room only enough for one and not both.
So, here I sit, feet up, wrapped-up, slowly working through my third big glass of orange juice. I'm not sure if the stuff fights a cold, but it sure tastes good, and feels good going down.
Plans for breaking out the scale and messing with the equipment will need to be put on hold. Then again, that's why it is important to get an early start on these things. If something does come up (last minute business trip, or, like me, you catch your winter cold a bit early) you'll still have plenty of time to review and revise your equipment list. Perhaps packing for one of these trips, making the shortest list and lightest load possible for your adventure, is something akin to writing. I'm reminded of a quote attributed to Blaise Pascal, "Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte." Loosely translated, "This letter is long because I didn't have time to make it shorter." In our case, the quote might be, "Sorry I packed so much. I didn't have time to pack less stuff!"
That's it for today. And remember: the phrase of the day is: "Orange juice." {grin}

Monday, January 01, 2007

Goals and packing

I spent a fair amount of time today doing the big sort of the equipment to go to Montserrat. This is not the final sorting, as that can only come after the other team members declare what they are bringing, and the full group planning has been done. Still, I thought it would be good to at least see where I stand.
The new Pelican case (model 1610) was filled first. I removed the foam completely except for the piece that fits in the lid. Perhaps I could have even purchased the case without foam, had I been thinking about the problem harder. I wrapped the IC-7000 and Alinco power supply in towels and placed them in the bottom. The bag containing the sound mixer, its power supply, and all necessary patch cords was next. Then came the bag with the Heil headset, foot peddle, new Shure microphone, and a bunch of other stuff. I know it is over 50 pounds. {sigh}
I emptied out the golf bag and started filling it with the long pieces that won't fit in regular luggage.
Even after going through this sorting and weighing exercise several times before, I'm still tempted to fill up every empty place in every bag with something heavy. It usually starts with thinking, "I could use that", or, "that would be handy." I dropped in the big Buddipole system, the small Buddipole system, and a bunch of other stuff into the golf bag. It only took a few moments to blow my weight budget completely. That's not the way to approach the problem. The way to do this is:
  • Understand your goals -- I've said this before but it bears repeating. I've not stated my goals for this trip, at least not here in the blog, and I wasn't using this understanding to help with the equipment selection. That was a mistake.
  • Coodinate with others -- I'm not the only guy going on this trip. It doesn't make sense for all of use to bring, say, an antenna analyzer or tool kit. I've got a tool kit packed, but it might not be needed if somebody else brings one.
  • Use local materials -- Using local materials is not cheating! The Buddipole can be mounted on top of a painters pole. It isn't absolutely necessary to bring masts or tripods if we knew we could get long poles on the island. There are also materials left from hams that had done previous DXpeditions to Gingerbread hill. I received a note from a fellow just this weekend that said he left, "... [a] Kenwood TS-570DG, power supply, Mosley CL-33 tribander, Vibroplex paddle and old Heil headset microphone in the Heavenly Suite at Gingerbread Hill for the use of future visiting hams." While we will wish to make as many contacts as possible with Buddipoles, I'll make use of anything else that helps me make QSOs. I don't need to bring it to use it.
Let's review the goals I stated earlier:
  • Make QSOs
  • Make a DXpedition Video DVD
  • Execute on the Public Relations tasks
The DVD and public relation items are clear enough. The first point, the Make QSOs has been a little vague. Let's clear that up now. Here are my goals for the trip (the other group members and the group as a whole will have their own goals):
  • Worked All States (WAS) -- I'd like to work all states while on the island. Whether or not I actually get QSL confirmation, electronic or paper, is out of my control. I just want to have this in the log.
  • Worked All Continents -- This seems straightforward and I hope to have this one in the book on the first day.
  • 1000 QSOs -- Even at the bottom of the solar cycle, and without amplifiers or big antennas, I should be able to do this. That would be about 150 QSOs per day during the seven days on the island.
I've also got some stretch goals, goals that I might not achieve, but I'll be shooting for anyway.
  • 2000 QSOs -- This means making roughly 300 QSOs per day. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but if conditions are particularly favorable, and if I get a couple of good runs going, this might be possible. Certainly this would go a long way of proving the veracity of our assertions that lightweight operations can also be productive operations with the right planning and execution.

  • DXCC -- Again, I can't guarantee that I'll get all the cards or electronic confirmation for DXCC, but I can put it in the log. Getting the wall paper, though, would be really sweet!
Today's posts had a lot of lists. Perhaps that's a sign that some of this was overdue. I had waited to finalize some of these goals until I had seen what the Sun might be doing. If solar conditions looked dicey, I may have backed down on some of this, but as of today, things look like they might be OK. I certainly believe that my main goals are possible to achieve, and the stretch goals may be possible as well.
I'll bring home the scale from work tomorrow night, weight everything again, and go down the list of things I know I need. This is an iterative process. Once I've got a set that seems reasonable, I'll update the equipment spreadsheet. We'll begin group discussions with the next conference call on Sunday.

We leave this month!

Happy New Year. Today is the first of January. There are 27 days until I depart for Orlando and Montserrat. As mentioned before, the solar rotation is about 27 days long so what faces us today will likely face us again at departure. As said yesterday, "IT'S BACK: Sunspot 930, which unleashed four X-flares and sparked intense auroras in mid-December, is back. It is emerging over the sun's eastern limb following a two-week transit around the far side of the sun. Since we last saw it, the spot has probably decayed and now poses little threat for strong solar flares. Stay tuned for confirmation." Well, not having flares would be a great start.
The Montserrat trip is, my nearly any measure, a very modest endeavor. I learned just a couple days ago of another large DXpedition being planned by the 5 Star DXers Association for St. Brandon. Here's the announcement. Here's what they promise: "As with previous FSDXA expeditions, this will be a major effort, with a target of more than 100,000 QSOs. There will be up to twelve stations on the air, many using amplifiers and monoband beams, 24 hours a day, for almost three weeks, including three weekends, around the autumn equinox when DX propagation on all bands is typically at its best."
Wow. Now you can see why I describe my 100 Pound DXpeditions as modest. Perhaps miniscule would be more appropriate! There are some very famous operators slated to participate including at least one who is also a member of the Yankee Clipper Contest Club. I've possibly got a chance to get a little "behind the scenes" information. Of course I'm going to try to corner approach this fellow after my return from Montserrat.
Finally, Sandy and I realized that this will be the first year in 20 that we will live without cats under our feet. In 1987, a very tiny and very frightened flame point siamese who was small enough to fit in my hand when we first met joined us. It was difficult to understand how such a magnificent creature could be in a shelter. I picked him up, he clawed his way up my shirt toward my shoulder, and he didn't come off again until we were home.
We weren't actually looking to get a cat that day. (I should not be allowed in shelters. I am a complete pushover when it comes to little fuzzy things.) Naming him was our next challenge. We didn't want a name like Fred or Precious; we wanted something distinctive and unique. I suggested Pointer so we could say, "Good Pointer!" or "Bad Pointer!" If you are not a programmer, you won't get that joke. Sandy was firm: we would not be naming him Pointer.
My next suggestion got some traction. We would name him Pion. Make no mistake, Pion is still a very geeky name. Pion was a joy, but we were spending so much time at work that he became lonely. We got him a couple of new little buddies to keep him company during our daily absences. Muon and Neutrino, sisters (also shelter cats) had a rough start in life, but we made sure that the reset of their days were spent in plush comfort. That was in 1989.
Pion was lost to an autoimmune disease not long after we picked up the sisters. Muon was lost two years ago. Neutrino finally succumbed to kidney failure this year. The last of the particle cats are now gone. We miss them all.
I have this lengthy note at the end of today's blog because I've noticed a surprising number of QSL cards and QRZ images have operators with dogs at their feet or cats curled up warming themselves on the amplifier. It seems many of our ranks also have an affinity for little furry friends. I say enjoy them while they are here, pamper them, and, yes, allow them to put some of that fur into your most delicate equipment. You'll miss them when they're gone, as we do.