Thursday, May 31, 2007

My to do list

Things are starting to pile up again. I just noticed that I have not done my QSLing (that I had hoped to finish before leaving for Dayton). I will get to those this weekend.
I had also planned to publish my QSLpro utility that I've been using for the Montserrat cards, and now for my personal cards, too. Don Argo of Dog Park Software has offered to host the download page, so long as I don't stick him with the support calls. After feigning surprise (a private joke between the two of us), I gladly accepted his offer. Again, Don comes through for the Macintosh-hamming community. I now need to make good on my offer and package this up for his web site.
Not to pile on even more stuff, I had made commitments to write some articles on my recent exploits and have not typed a word yet. Not a letter. Goodness. It is time to get organized!
With thunderstorms in the forecast for the weekend I won't be tempted to head out to Georges Island. Perhaps this is a good time to finish up these tasks.

I had lunch with my good friend Greg O'Brien (NE1OB) today. Greg and I have a couple of things in common including our prefix ("NE1") {grin} and a love of all things QRP. As with my 100 Pound DXpeditions, I love seeing how much you can do with just the bare minimum of equipment. Plus, the QRP world gives me an excuse to build stuff--my first love. If you are not reading his blog, start. Recommended.

Summer is here and I'm wearing lots of cargo shorts these days. The extra pockets called out for some kind of gadget so I began stuffing my VX-5R in the front left pouch. It is a little bulky for this duty and the wear was beginning to abrade the stenciling from the front of the radio. Obviously I need a new HT!
I had been considering both the Yaesu VX-2R and Icom IC-P7A when I noticed Yaesu is releasing the VX-3R. I'm not sure when this thing is shipping (or how much it will cost) but it seems worth a look. Certainly, it would fit nicely in these pockets.

Finally, I'm heading to Florida in June for a trade show. My company is kind enough to let me throw a couple of extra Pelican cases in the booth shipment meaning I can travel light and still operate HF at night. That reminds me: I have to get that stuff ready to ship, too. Looks like I have one more thing on the list for the weekend.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

XP on Parallels

I did something this week I said I would never do again. I have given Microsoft money for an operating system. {sigh}
I took a degree in Computer Science over a quarter of a century ago. Even before graduation I have been doing professional software development on a wide variety of platforms, including the many flavors of DOS and Windows that have come and gone. I have even worked on projects where we poked around in the guts of Windows. As Han Solo said to Luke Skywalker, "You think these things smell bad on the outside?!"
So, why would I do this? Obviously, the answer is because I need to run some software that only runs on Windows. These include:
  • N1MM logger - This is the most popular logging program out there for contesters (at least according to the Contest University survey). It is used by the K1TTT contest station, and by many YCCC members. In fact, the author of the program is a YCCC club member! I would like to become more familiar with this software so I won't feel so vunerable when guest operating at a big station. The only way I can do that is practice with it.
  • Antenna modeling software - There are antenna modeling packages for MacOS X, but it doesn't look like it is ready for the kind of activity I'll be doing. I'm a developer--why don't I fix it?! Because, I've only got so many hours in my life for software and this is not how I want to spend them. So, I'll use one of the Windows off-the-shelf packages to do this work.
  • Propagation software - Contest University professors (and many who have written to me here) have pointed me to this software. It only runs on Windows.

There are probably other packages, too, but this is a representative sample.

I had loaded Parallels with a copy of Windows 98, but it wasn't very stable. Given my (now aging) knowledge of Windows 98, I'm not surprised. So, I ordered a copy of XP Home from Amazon which arrived this afternoon.
As I type this my XP Home Edition is loading security updates. Not just a few. A bunch. It is loading 79 security updates, to be precise. I'm not kidding. Really. 79. Sheesh. Of course, after it finishes with these, who knows what else it will need.

Hammac has provided a solid platform for doing my DXpedition work so far. It held up wonderfully on Montserrat and I've given it some abuse since returning. Parallels seems solid (though it was difficult to tell with Windows 98). So far, discounting the disturbing number of security updates being presently loaded, the XP installation and configuration has been smooth. With luck, I will have a dual OS laptop by the end of the evening.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Build a kit

With all this talk of planning, classes, and work, one might forget that this is supposed to be fun. I've not forgotten. I'm having fun!
I ordered a kit from on Friday and it arrived today (fast service!). The PicoKeyer is a full-featured CW keyer on a 1.3 by 2.0 inch circuit board. Assembly was a snap. It worked first time. Highly recommended.
I'm sure some of the old timers are pining for the glory days of Heathkit and home-brewing. I believe Elecraft, Small Wonder Labs, and the thriving QRP community provide plenty of fun offerings that would give those old Heathkits a run for their money.
If you aren't building things I think you're missing out on half the hobby. Seriously. And, don't think that stuff you build is a compromise from the stuff you might buy. Small, inexpensive, low-power processors have become ubiquitous providing even simple, easy to assemble kits like the PicoKeyer powerful features found in products costing 5 times as much. There are plenty of clever kit producers out there making great kits.
Although I don't need a reason to buy a kit (other than wanting some fun, of course), this particular purchase had a purpose. I've been working on my code skills, especially pulling out call signs from a pile-up, with Morse Runner, but my code sending skills are also dreadful. So, I am using the newly-assembled kit as a practice keyer to go with the new paddles I bought at Dayton. I feel like I've got ten thumbs when I try to send CW. I'd like to get that number down to eight by the end of the Summer. {grin}

I'll be back to more Contest University retrospective tomorrow. Again, that experience was exceptional with lots of great information for contesters and DXpeditioners alike.

Monday, May 28, 2007

DXpedition contesting class

One of the sessions I was most anticipating during Contest University was DXpedition Contesting. This session was headed by Jeff Steinman (N5TJ) just one hour into the event and he did not disappoint.
I traveled to St. John (pictures here) in 2006 for the ARRL DX contest believing that the proximity to the US and general temperament of the contest would make for a low-stress way to explore this kind of DXpeditioning. Sure enough, Jeff agreed listing the ARRL DX and WPX contests as great "starter" events where you could "have fun and run a lot of guys." Working the ARRL DX contest from the Caribbean means fewer hardware demands than contests like CQ WW since you only need to work US stations. Being right off the coast of the US surrounded by saltwater doesn't hurt, either.
Here is some of what was listed for Ingredients for Success as presented during this class:
  • Pre-contest planning (months ahead of time)
  • Local ham/host/station at location (rental or not)
    • Existing antennas / equipment a big plus
    • Better ability to deal with issues once on site
  • Optimal location
    • Basic propagation / station location and antennas
    • "Demographic" Propagation (e.g., Maximizing points per QSO and multipliers across bands)
  • Operator(s) experience and skill
Let's take a look at these things one-at-a-time. Pre-contest planning corresponds closely to everything I've been saying here. Good planning can help ensure you make your goals and you don't miss opportunities that might present themselves. Most of us need to do some planning in our lives, either at work or for projects at home. Why skimp on planning for this?
Jeff's second point, finding a local ham or host station with existing antennas and equipment is also well taken. My idea of a 100 Pound DXpedition is that you bring the minimum equipment you need with you to accomplish your goals. If you are able to bring nothing and do all you seek to do, then that constitutes a successful trip! There are contest station rentals that are available, and I believe that is a fine alternative to hauling your own gear. I may do that someday, but right now I'm enjoying packing my own stuff and marveling about how much can be done with so little.
The location bullet points relate to particular contest rules. For example, in CQ WW you get more points for a QSO with a different continent than with a QSO to the same continent. Since most stations are in either the US or Europe, one strategy for maximizing your points per QSO is to locate your station in either Africa or South America. That's why you'll find the VooDudes led by Roger Western (G3SXW) operating the CQ WW CW contest from equatorial Africa and the Caribbean Contesting Consortium (PJ2T) group running from South America on the island of Curacao. Just as in real estate, the three most important things are location, location, location!
This isn't to say that you can't do well or have fun from North America in the Caribbean, or on Hawaii, or from Scotland. You can, of course. But, it would be very difficult to win the top slot from one of those places because of the way this contest is scored. That's just a fact, and that is what Jeff is pointing out in his slides.
There are things cited in the talk that seemed obvious but are worth listing. If you want to win or even set a world record you need to have a 3 point location (like Africa or South America), a good (loud) signal to NA/EU on all bands, a great receive antennas on the low bands. For a 100 Pound DXpedition that involves carrying your own equipment, this is probably out of reach. If you were to team up with a multi-multi operation from one of these prime locations, though, it is likely that all of these things are already in place. Now all that is left is to stay in the chair and log accurately (Jeff's emphasis--and mine).

Here is the thing that was a surprise to me: a significant improvement for station operation is a Single Operator 2 Radio setup. The SO2R operations run pile-ups with the first radio while looking for multipliers or S&P with the other. This is the single biggest way to boost your score.
I would have bet money that the "assisted" guys (those who use the packet spotting network) would have beaten unassisted operators, but this is not the case. I would have especially thought that assisted category operators would have beaten the SO2R guys. Statistics show just the opposite. The DX spotting network does not provide a boost to the score as much as adding the second radio. In fact, the second radio (in the hands of an operator capable of using it) can add up to 15% to the score when compare to a single radio operation. That is huge!
I have been recently convinced of the utility of a second full receiver in a radio. I pitched in at the K1TTT and used a Yaesu FT-1000 during the 2007 ARRL DX contest. It isn't quite like having a full second radio, but the additional receiver allowed me to call CQ on the main tuner while doing S&P on the other.
The FT-1000 weighs about the same as a sack of bricks so it isn't a great "portable" radio. The new Elecraft K3, on the other hand, is about 8 pounds (3.6 Kg). I really want one of these!

I cannot relate the full contents on this session here, but I can say that the speaker emphasized some of the things in his discussions that I have mentioned here. Specifically, "Planning + Good QTH + Motivated Team = Results" (right from Jeff's slides). Well said.

My three-day weekend is nearly over and I'm finally starting to feel rejuvenated from my trip. I need to catch up on QSLing and start planning my St. Kitts trip in earnest. I'll drop a note here on the progress I make on both those fronts.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

What the Prefix, Kenneth?

Contest University had 11 professors and 21 different classes. Each student was limited to about a dozen sessions but the binders distributed had slides and notes from all classes so we could see what we missed. Since I had been assigned all of the classes I had listed as highest priority, it wouldn't do for me to complain about not seeing one session or another, but I confess that there were some I thought would have been fun to see had their been time. One such class was the Basic Contesting taught by Doug Grant (K1DG).
It isn't that I expect to find any dramatic revelations in the class notes. On the contrary, I hope I do not. Instead, I am looking for validation that I am studying the right things, am worried about the right issues, and am honing the right skills. There is value in hearing, "that's right. Keep working on that." For example, the slides provided the results from a survey of the some of the top operators. When asked what factors are likely to improve skills most they replied:
  • Operating at a Multi-Op station (biggest factor)
  • Joining a contest club
  • Going on a DXpedition
  • and Getting on the air between contests
There were other factors weighted as well. Note that Buying a better radio ranked at the bottom of the list. No surprise there.
There were other factors mentioned as important in becoming a better operator. One was Studying old logs and scores. This is just one aspect of improving your logging accuracy, something I know I've harped about in this blog. It does a disservice to everyone if you travel to an interesting place, work a station, then fail to log the contact properly. In a contest such a goof will cost you points; for a DXpedition it will cost the QSL manager time, and possibly a worthy operator a QSL card with all of the hard feelings you might imagine. UBN reports are sometimes available from contest sponsors which report QSOs that are Unique (a valid call sign that nobody else happened to have worked), Bad, or Not-in-log. Seeing where mistakes were made may help prevent future ones.

Not surprisingly, many of the most effective changes you can make to your station is in that area between your ears. Learning the difference between valid and invalid prefixes and call signs, for example, can help eliminate logging errors. In contesting, there are a few stations (and call signs) that are famous. Running across them even if you get a partial copy should trigger instant recognition. Examples include* (from the slides) ZD_Z, G3_XW, TF3_RA, V_1JA, and P_2T. Can you fill in the blanks?
I was ocassionally able to recognize when something rare would pop up in a pile-up while on Montserrat. I was able to work New Caledonia, San Marino, Ascention Island, and Cape Verde because I recognized that the call signs (prefixes) were from an "interesting" place. If I hadn't been aware of this, if I had just continued working the strong stations, I would have likely missed these more rare QSOs.
Believe me: I'm not patting myself on the back here. Though I happened to have spotted these, I now shutter to think of all the ones I missed. I am only now realizing how much work I have to do to really learn and internalize all these prefixes and their associated geography. As I glance through the call sign lists like those found in the Nifty DX Field Reference I am embarassed at the number of prefixes I do not immediately recognize. I'm sensing another software development project in my future. I'm imagining a drill-and-practice program to test me on my call sign and prefix knowledge. Hmmm. In the mean time, I will continue to page through the big binder of slides from CU and try to pick up more tips.

* Answers are ZD8Z, G3SXW, TF3IRA, VO1JA, PJ2T. I confess I knew only half of them. Obviously, I need more study.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Propagation planning

Contest University was organized by Tim Duffy (K3LR) and a handful of other top contesters. Tim's accomplishments are well known. You can get a glimpse of his efforts on his web site. In addition to all this planning, Tim also pulled moderator duty for the Friday Hamvention Antenna Forum. Even if the term hero doesn't seem apt, I believe his efforts, and the efforts of those he worked with, can easily be characterized as heroic. Thank you, guys.

Check in at Contest University was Wednesday evening with the activities scheduled to begin bright and shiny Thursday morning. Each of the 150 students received a sizable bundle of materials and collateral including a binder containing slides for all presentations, an Icom shirt, and a cloth bag stuffed with magazines, catalogs, and other gifts. Each student was also presented with their personalized schedule.
Just as with regular college classes, Contest University filled classes on a first-come-first-served basis. Those who responded to the class selection email quickly were likely to receive the class assignments they wanted; those who waited may not have. It seemed like the fairest way to accomplish seat assignments. I received the message requesting me to complete this form at 11:15 PM and had made my choices ten minutes later. I took some ribbing from Tim Duffy for this. My late night diligence resulted in me being the very first of the students to respond thereby winning me first dibs on all the classes I selected. Those who waited were not so lucky. Just as with contests, you snooze you lose. {grin}
Classes were held in three rooms: the banquet room, and two nearby meeting rooms. Breakfast was served in the banquet room while Tim Duffy briefed attendees on the schedule. Based on the selection process described above, students would split into the two smaller meeting rooms for morning classes. We would reconvene in the banquet room for lunch and more classes. After lunch, we would split again receiving the remainder of our instruction in those smaller meeting rooms.

Dean Straw (N6BV), Senior Assistant Technical Editor for the ARRL, was top of my schedule with Propagation: What To Look Forward To. Though I had done very little propagation planning for previous trips, I was quite keen to hear this presentation. Allow me to explain.
Most the the antennas I have used on 100 Pound DXpeditions have been verticals or dipoles, neither with any appreciable gain in a particular direction. (The notable exception to this was my trip to Deer Isle, Maine (NA-055) where Dave Bushong (KZ1O) and I deployed a Force-12 C3SS tribander atop a rugged military mast.) Because I do not typically have a directional antenna, there is no need to have a plan for where to point it. On Montserrat, for example, we erected the 17m vertical and just worked everybody we could hear. There was no plan to turn it to the East for European sunrise or to later turn it West for a different opening. Propagation planning was limited to band selection.
Things are about to change for me. I have ordered a small Mosley beam which I intend to use on my St. Kitts trip for CQ WW SSB in October. With a 17 dB front-to-back ratio, I must now point the antenna if I hope to hear anybody. If there is an opening to Europe and I am pointing towards South America, I'll miss it. So, I must now know (a) which band should I be on, and (b) where should the antenna be pointed?
Dean Straw's presentation focused on the propagation tables included with the ARRL Antenna Book (which he helps edit). If you don't already own this book, buy it now. Highly recommended. Anyway, the tables are published as pages within PDF files on the CD bundled with the book. There are two files for each covered geographic region: one for summary predictions between that place and Europe, the Far East, South America, Africa, Asia, Oceana, and North America, and one for detailed predictions between that spot and another covered region such as W1, W6, KL7, and so on.
In addition to this division by geography, the tables are also organized by month, sunspot activity, and band. For example, there is a page in the summary document for KP2, in October, and a low sunspot count.

Yes. The numbers are small in the snapshot above.
The numbers in the table represent anticipated S-unit readings. It is assumed that both stations are running 1500 watts and have 3-element yagis at 100 feet. You then discount values from there. I am running only 100 watts so I subtract 3 S-units from each value in the table. Additionally, I must subtract more S-units because I am not using a 3-element yagi, nor is it at 100 feet. Dean Straw presented a whole page of rules for discounting these table values to match them to different operating conditions.

I have begun doing the planning for St. Kitts with these tables by dropping the published values into a spreadsheet and discounting the numbers using Dean's rules. It has been time-consuming to create a model for this, but I hope to work out a solid operating plan for the whole contest over the next few weeks. Of course, I'll publish it in a place where it can be viewed once I am finished.

This was just one of the classes (the very first one!) at CU. I will try to discuss more of them in future blog entries.

Friday, May 25, 2007


DXpeditions are to contesting as marathons are to sprints. Both can be intensive, but each requires that they be run at their own pace. In yesterday's post, I briefly mentioned some of the things that are required to stay in the seat including getting your sleep schedule aligned with your operating plan. Waking up at the right time to start the endeavor is one thing, but how do you manage your sleep schedule going forward?
There is an excellent article on the web site describing A Sleep Strategy for DX Contests. The beauty of this article is you can start experimenting with some of the claims immediately (assuming you plan to sleep tonight). For example, the article states, "Researchers have found that sleep is structured into approximately 90-minute cycles." I have tested this hypothesis on myself by paying attention to the doze and wake times from a pleasant Sunday afternoon nap. Sure enough, I'll find myself sleeping either 90 minutes or some multiple of 90 minutes if I'm allowed to awaken on my own. If I set an alarm clock to wake me at some multiple other than 90 minutes, I do tend to be groggier when I rise. This is completely unscientific. The effects might all be in my head. But this 90 minute cycle seems to describe my sleep pattern.
I have made a point in those contests in which I have applied a significant effort to sleep in 90 minute (or 180 minute) chunks and have found that I am reasonably alert at the end of each sleep period. Though counter-intuitive, I believe that I feel less rested after a 120 minute nap than a 90 minute one. Again, this might be all in my head.
Contesters concern themselves with getting the most out of a 24, 36, or even 48 hour period. DXpeditioners typically do not have such constraints, though there are exceptions. If you have an opportunity to operate from some isolated island or other difficult to reach place and can only do so for a limited time, you'll want to get the most of every minute. Here, you'll be working the same game as a contester by trying to stay in the seat. Similarly, if you have only 24 or 36 hours left before you need to start packing and you've not met your goals, you may wish to put in that "last push" to fill your log. In either case, understanding your sleep needs (even if you cannot fulfill them) can be very valuable. With Field Day fast approaching, there is a ready-made laboratory for this research awaiting many of us.

I traveled to Illinois this last weekend to see my niece Katie graduate She was Salutatorian. She received one "B" in all her years of schooling (K-12) and that kept her from the highest honor. Mind you, nobody was quibbling about the grade this weekend!

While visiting my parents I noticed my Father's Icom IC-R2 was looking a bit worn. He is a retired airplane pilot and still enjoys listening to aircraft traffic, weather, and other things. So, with Father's Day coming up Sandy and I thought a nice new Icom IC-R20 might be just the thing. Thankfully, the manual for the radio is on the Icom web site. I have just downloaded it. I am sure there will be questions. He should get it tomorrow.

By the way, the radio is a surprise so don't tell him. Shhhh! {grin}

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stay in the seat

I will be relating items from Contest University for a while as that event was crammed with information that I'm only now fully processing. One of the things emphasized by all the instructors at CU was "stay in the seat." You can't make QSOs (or points) if you are not in the seat. Ideally, you should be in the seat all 48 hours of a big contest. The top scoring operators do that, and you must do that, too, if you hope to compete with them. Students asked the obvious question: how can you stay seated in front of the operating position for 48 straight hours?

The answers varied slightly but came down to these points:
  • Sleep - do it before and after the contest but not during. How? What is the secret for getting your sleep schedule aligned with the contest? The answer was Ambien, a sleep medication. After a rush of horror passed over me at the mere thought of this, I confess I see the point. I am not tempted to try this, but neither am I likely to attempt a full 48 hour stint.
  • Nature's call - People eat. Later, people need to deal with the consequences. So, how does one deal with 48 hours without that bowel clearing exercise? The answer was to avoid fiber in the days prior to the contest in hopes that nothing would need to be moved. This idea was introduced as delicately as possible during discussions and raised more than a few chuckles. Given the sleep remedy suggested, I had wondered if there would be a suggestion of Imodium or other medication that would slow the digestive system. It never was. (I wonder if they've not thought of it, or if it wouldn't work as I hypothesize?)
  • Water - You need to drink water to stay alert. The suggested remedy is just as simple as you might imagine, and it includes a bucket. This idea drew far fewer laughs than the fiber idea, and it seems many in the audience had already given this a try. For the record, I did not rank among them (yet).
  • Caffeine - It was strongly suggested that you give up any stimulants in the week before the contest. That way, when you really need that kick late in the contest, the big cup of coffee, tea, or soft drink will do the trick. Of course, I was also thinking that caffeine, being a diuretic, also contributes to one of the problems mentioned above and should be avoided for that reason, too.

I was not particularly ambitious during my 2006 trip to St. John seeking only 500 contacts in the contest. Neither were we particularly hard-core on Montserrat (I made fewer than 1300 QSOs from there). I am planning on pushing hard during my St. Kitts trip this Fall. While a 48 hour effort during the CQ WW DX SSB is almost certainly out of the question, I may attempt something approaching a 36 hour effort. I've not formalized my goals for this trip, but that level of effort is intriguing--especially after being energized by Contest University. I'll have much more about this as the departure date for this trip draws near.

It seems to me that there is a significant overlap between contesting and DXpeditioning. It is not unusual, for example, to see famous contesters also on big DXpeditions. The crossover of experience is often mentioned. This message was recently passed on the Yankee Clipper Contest Club email reflector in response to the plethora of hyper-expensive radio offerings in recent years.

Date: Mon, 21 May 2007 13:46:28 +0000
From: "Donald J. Toman"
Subject: Re: [YCCC] Megabuck Radios
To: "Jordan, David"


It should be added that, with the experience of one DXpedition under an operator's belt, with that $1000 radio, small amp AND G5RV, he may perform at least as well as he did with the $3000 antenna system.

The missing ingredient in any station setup is the operator. There is no substitute for experience and training in developing an operator.

A DXpedition pushes the learning curve better than any other training I know, and it doesn't need to be a large investment.


I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Dayton retrospective

I am back home after my tour of the country. I left home here in Massachusetts last Tuesday and returned last night. In that week I had driven to Dayton, rural Illinois, Bloomington, Illinois (to take my niece back to college), and back home again. In all, I put nearly 2500 miles on the Element.
There was a wireless access point in the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and I tried to post a blog entry after Contest University. Unfortunately, the folks at Blogger (who host this blog) had made some changes to the posting software that made it impossible for me to work as I normally do editing my post offline then posting the resulting HTML. I was hoping that the problem would be fixed by the time I returned home. It was.
Here is the picture I was hoping to post last Thursday night.

This is some of the staff from Contest University. I wish I could have corralled all the instructors from this event but, truth be told, I was lucky to have gotten a group this big. You'll recognize some of the biggest names in Amateur Radio in this picture (not counting me, of course!). This picture is just one of the collection that has augmented my cool people page on my web site.
Contest University was fantastic. There were 150 pupils filling two conference rooms for most of the day. We were served an excellent breakfast and lunch as part of the deal and received a large binder containing all the slides from all the presentations. At $70 it was the deal of the show, in my opinion. I could recommend something like this for anyone interested in learning more about the hobby. Even if you absolutely hate contesting (and contesters) there was enough theory and DXing strategy presented that any HF operator would benefit from the material. Highly recommended.

Since I had only one day to peruse the show I took in most of it on a run. Upon entering Hara I made a beeline to the Buddipole booth to catch up with my fellow VP2M DXpeditioners. Chris, Budd, and Mike (and a couple of others) were in the booth surrounded by an enormous crowd. It was the first time I had seen these guys since we parted ways in Orlando after the trip. Chris and his wife are expecting their first child. He looked wrung out but happy. Budd was dashing around explaining ten things to twenty people and Mike was fulfilling orders one-after-another. Once I made it to the front of the pack, I exchanged handshakes and pleasantries with each in turn. All three were sporting a badge depicting our DXpedition logo with a small embellishment: lava running down the volcano. This was obviously the work of Paul "Lava" Van Dyke. I was informed that Paul had a badge for me as well, and he would be looking for me. (Again, at 6' 8", it was easier for him to spot me in the crowd than vice-versa!)

Just a few minutes later I did run into Paul. Sure enough, he had a beautiful badge with my name and call. Paul plans to return to Gingerbread Hill and continue his digital mode work. I hope all the RTTY and PSK31 operators around the world appreciate his efforts.

After saying goodbye to Paul I wandered over to the Elecraft booth and spoke with Wayne Burdick (N6KR). Wayne had written to me about the new K3 after finding my blog. At 8 pounds, it certainly does look to be a 100 pound DXpeditioner's dream! I told him that I knew he would be far too busy before Dayton to chat and that I would call him in the weeks after the show. I have missed the first production run for the new radio but will likely get one before the end of the year (perhaps after returning from St. Kitts).

Finally, the dinner and drinks for "bloggers and those who read us" Thursday was a fun time. I had dinner with Steve (K9ZW) and five others at the Spaghetti Factory. Hopefully, Jeff (KE9V) will be able to join us next year.

I expect to get back-on-track now that I'm home again. The week away was not a week off. I learned a great deal on the trip (and thought of a great deal more). I'll try to share all of it starting with tomorrow's post.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Shameless plug department

Welcome to the shameless plug department. I will not be blogging for a few days while I travel to Dayton and attend Contest University. So, please consider spending some of your valuable time catching up on the wonderful audio programs by

99 Hobbies - which features interviews with people just like you and me who are doing fun things with the hobby. Dave Bushong (KZ1O) believes that amateur radio is a very large umbrella under which many different interests and disciplines lie. One of the fan favorites is his interview with Diana Morse, descendent of another Morse that you might recognize!

Long Delayed Echoes - Jeff Davis (KE9V) produced a series of audio programs discussing ham radio during the Second World War. They are magnificent.

I have roughly 40 hours of driving ahead of me in the next week. I head to Dayton tomorrow afternoon and will stop somewhere between here and there to sleep. I'll complete the trip on Wednesday and rest before my class Thursday. What will I do to fill all that time? I have filled an iPod with all the 99 Hobbies and Long Delayed Echoes podcasts. I believe they will be every bit as fun the second time around.

A quick reminder: I will be meeting some other bloggers and those who read us at 6 PM in the Crowne Plaza Hotel lobby on Thursday evening. See you there!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

This is why we practice

It was a beautiful day today. The sun was shining with a cool breeze and it had not rained for several days so the ground was firm and dry. In other words, it was a perfect Spring day in New England.
I live in Acton, Massachusetts, a town seeped in American history and filled with trees and winding roads. The North Acton Recreation Area (NARA) is only a few minutes away and it seemed like the perfect place to set up a radio for the afternoon. I gathered together my QRP setup including:
  • Elecraft K2 and accessories in its Pelican case
  • Backpack with solar panel and charge controller
  • Small Buddipole system
  • One 17Ah battery
  • Hammac
  • Coax
  • Heil Headset

I planned on setting up for 17m and, failing to find good propagation there, would switch to 20m. Honestly, I didn't really care if I made many contacts today. I wanted to be outside and to check out the performance of the new 48 watt solar panel.

Things did not go smoothly. This is why we practice.

I have mentioned before that it is best not to cannibalize parts from one system to outfit another. Even if it means having some small amount of duplication it is better to have each system (antenna, radio, test equipment, etc.) be complete. I have tried to do this with each of the systems I have constructed: the two Buddipole systems, the Buddistick system, and the radios each in their own Pelican cases with all they need for a complete station.
The alternative, of course, is to own a large, loosely organized collection of parts from which you would coalesce bundles for a particular mission. I believe that way lies madness. The chances of omitting something important are great with this piecemeal strategy. A forgotten part like a connector or adapter might sound inconsequential but its absence might hamper or completely scuttle an operation.
I recently ordered a bundle of Buddipole parts and had carefully repacked my big and small Buddipole systems so each system was complete. Everything one would need for that particular system was in the bag. At least that was my plan. I did not do a good job in that organization. In fact, many things went wrong today. Allow me to enumerate them:
  1. Rotating Arm Kit (RAK) - I had packed the knobs for the rotating arm kit but the aluminum brackets were missing. I had forgot to pack them.
  2. Coax problems - I brought a 25 foot piece of coax to run between the bottom of the TRSB and the radio. The PL259 connector on one end of the cable must have been crushed at some point. It was no longer round and would not screw on to the SO239-BNC adapter necessary to fit either the TRSB or the K2.
  3. Solar panel problems - The panel works very well... when it is face up. Unfortunately, the panel has a great deal more surface area than the smaller (15w) panel I own. Gusty winds kept flipping the panel closed. The corners of the panel have eyelets. I will run some dacron rope through them so the panel can be staked out.
  4. Connector failure - One of the SO239-BNC adapters came apart in my hand. I used to think I had too many connectors. I now believe that I should go through my kits and ensure that there are sufficient spares for all types of connectors in each kit.
  5. RF got into my noise canceling circuitry - I brought the Heil Noise canceling headset with me today. The Buddipole was lashed to the picnic table and was only a few feet over my operating position. This was far too close for that delicate signal processing. Turning off that feature allowed me to use the headset today but I now know that this is a problem. If I want to use this headset with the noise canceling feature I'll need to move the antenna well away from the operating position.

The above description makes it sound like today's exercise was a bust. No. On the contrary, I learned a great deal and even with these distraction I was able to make a contact. Here are some things that went well:
  1. My settings for the Buddipole setup are good - I had mentioned in a previous post that my small Buddipole system had a slightly different setup than the documentation indicated. I need to tap in one coil turn and shorten the whip slightly from the documented directions for each band. My new guidelines work like a charm.
  2. The AntennaSmith works well - I used the new analyzer today and it worked superbly. The internal batteries also appears to have held the last charge I gave it well. I should probably tuck a PL259-BNC connector in with the analyzer, though.
  3. The solar panel works - I used the new panel to charge the 17 Ah battery. The panel powered the radio and kept the battery at nearly a full charge for the entire time I operated. This is very good news as I'll need every ounce of power on Georges and Lovells Islands this Summer.
  4. England could hear me - I had a QSO with GB400AA this afternoon. This is a special event station celebrating the founding of the Jamestown settlement here in America. (I worked the Jamestown station last weekend). The station was set up near the place where the ships departed on that long journey to the New World. The operator at the special event station recognized my call. He knew me! As it turns out, he is a Cab-converter user. What a small world!
  5. Calgary could (almost) hear me - I tried to call VE6AO and another station in Alberta but band conditions changed before they could work me. It was a little frustrating hearing these two stations discuss how I was there, above the noise, and then buried in the noise. Alas, that's the fortunes of operating at QRP levels.

Practice, practice, practice! Today's drill was good because it allowed me to test some new equipment (the solar panel and charge controller) and evaluate my efforts packing some existing equipment (the small Buddipole system). It was also good to get some fresh air and sunshine on this old bag of bones. {grin} Seriously, the only way to become more proficient at things is to practice. I would like to have my routine so honed and equipment organization so solid that I could just grab a few bags and know I could mount a successful portable operation. Practice, think, plan, repeat. I believe that's the way.

Speaking of packing, I will be packing for my long trip to Dayton, then Chicago tonight and tomorrow. My trip West begins Tuesday afternoon.

RF ground and the answer to "how many?"

Last summer a fellow in a large truck had a lapse of concentration and slammed into the back of my Honda Element. Sandy and I were unhurt but the car was lost. That was unfortunate, of course, but it gave me a chance to reevaluate the radio installation. I bought another ELement and this time I did the job right. Well, mostly right.
I use a Yaesu ATAS-120 antenna for HF in the car. It is small and inconspicuous (though opinions on this particular point vary) and covers 40m-6m. The device is only half of the antenna, of course, just like with any vertical antenna design. The other half of the antenna is the frame of the car capacitively coupled to the ground. Coax from the radio leads to the antenna mount on the roof rack feeding the antenna but the ground path, the RF ground path, needs some help.
In my original installation on the first Element I was careful to provide a good RF ground path by connecting a piece of braid between the SO-239 mount for the antenna to the bolts holding the roof rack (and to the frame of the car). I worked into Europe easily with just 100 watts from my ICOM IC-706IImg and even worked Australia one Saturday morning on 20m.
When I replaced the car, I was careful to make sure roof racks were installed before I drove it off the lot. I had the two mounts (one for the ATAS and one for the 2m/440 antenna) on the back rack within 30 minutes of arriving home and the radios were installed within a few days. All was just as it was before except that little piece of braid. I had cracked the plastic on the roof rack of the first Element and I was determined not to screw things up this time with the new car.
I was too careful. The weather turned cold and I didn't have that perfect piece of braid in hand yet. I was still looking. I then found that perfect piece of braid. By then it was dark by 4 o'clock in the afternoon (it does that in the Winter here in New England) and who wants to try to figure out stuff like this in the cold and the dark?
In a sense, I ran this experiment backwards. If I had a problem tuning the antenna or generating a good signal I would have suspected a poor RF ground. On the first installation, I had no such problems as I had that piece of braid in place. In the new installation that braid was missing--and I had all the problems you might imagine because of it. The antenna was difficult or impossible to tune on 40m. My signal strength reported by other stations was significantly lower when compared to the reports I had received from the first car. I even believe I was picking up more noise.
I put a very nice piece of braid back in this special place today. As you might expect, things improved dramatically. Duh.

This story points to one of the complaints frequently heard about vertical antennas. The question "How many radials do I need?" is really the question "what do I need to do to have a sufficient RF ground?" The answer is not necessarily obvious. The placement of the feed point and height of the radials off the ground can make a big difference, for example.
My advice is to do some of these experiments with those verticals you deploy on your portable expeditions. But, don't just add radials and see what happens. Run the experiment "backwards", too. If you've run four radials and have pretty good luck, try three or two. Locate the knee in the curve by adding and subtracting radials so you understand the trade-offs. You know zero radials is almost certainly the wrong number and 100 radials would be over-kill. But, where is that (hopefully) low number where adding more radials isn't worth the trouble? That is knee in the curve. That is the interesting number. Of course, it goes without saying that you do all these experiments long before you leave for your adventure. Island time is no time to be fooling with such things!

Now outfitted with a newly well-RF-grounded antenna, I'll be leaving for Dayton on Tuesday. If propagation conditions permit I will be signing NE1RD/30 mobile celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Yankee Clipper Contest Club. I hope to work 17m and 20m SSB. Meet you on the air!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Generate some buzz, and the YCCC at 30

Packing up your gear and getting to your destination is only the beginning of the adventure. It would be nice to also make some QSOs! Though contests can be a productive way to get those QSOs in the log, I know many reading this do not enjoy contesting. Many find the "you are 59 QRZ!" exchange is unsatisfying.
I enjoy contesting. I especially enjoy working in the major contests. Knowing that the airwaves will be filled with operators who may only operate three or four times a year is a thrill for me. Contests also provide a target rich environment. With all this activity, somebody will want to talk to me!
You can create your own excitement. We tried to do that for the Montserrat trip by publicizing the details of our trip in advance. There were many who found us on the air who sounded as excited to make the contact as we were.
Creating a special event station is also an excellent way to generate some buzz for your operation. Anyone with a license can apply for a special event station and a special 1-by-1 call sign once per year. You don't need much of an excuse. I'm waiting for a special event celebrating the operator's own birthday. It could happen.
Here's another example of buzz: The Yankee Clipper Contest Club is celebrating its 30th Anniversary. Look for YCCC members operating on the air for the remainder of this year signing /30. I will be doing a little of this myself! And, I promise to give you a little more than "you are 59". {grin}
Let's put some in the log. See you on the bands!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

BURO cards for Montserrat have arrived

I received a drop from the W1 QSL bureau today. The following cards were received for QSOs with the Montserrat DXpedition:
I also received a similarly sized pile of cards for NE1RD, NE1RD/1, etc. I will try to get these turned around before I leave for Dayton Tuesday afternoon. Failing that, I will get them out the moment I return.

I learned this week that I'll be traveling to Tampa, Florida for the Systems & Software Technology Conference (SSTC) in June. This is a trade show and I'll be one of the booth babes (absurdity intentional). The other two attendees from Verocel will be bringing family so I'll be on my own during the evenings. Naturally, the Devil Rays are playing in Arizona so there is no baseball in town during my stay. How on Earth will I fill my time? Maybe I could bring a... radio?

The supplies for the show will be shipped via carrier from the office to our booth on the show floor. I asked if I could slip an extra radio-filled Pelican case (or two) into the mix. My colleagues said, "Yes! Of course!" I just need to schlep it to the hotel and at the end of the trip roll back to the booth. Easy! I just need to be careful that I not pack anything I might need for Field Day (because it wouldn't be back in time).

Speaking of Field Day, those plans are coming along nicely for the PART club. Our goal this year is to have fun, teach, and learn. We are organizing a series of Toolbox Talks, 15-30 minute impromptu discussions about a particular topic. I'm participating in several of these where I will talk about portable operations, contesting, and antenna analyzers. I'll also give demonstrations of items you can't see in stores like the Buddipole and Buddistick, the AntennaSmith antenna analyzer, and the Force-12 Sigma 5 antenna. This is going to be a very hands-on event. If you happen to be near Westford, Massachusetts come Field Day, stop by!

Finally, blogging over the next 10 days is going to be difficult. I leave for Dayton on Tuesday, will be in Contest University on Thursday, attending the show Friday, then driving to Chicago (actually, far West of Chicago) on Saturday to attend my niece's High School Graduation on Sunday. So, if I miss a couple of days, just expect some especially fat posts thereafter!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


Tonight marks my three hundredth post. I began with this blog nearly a year ago with this:

I've just begun planning several DXpeditions and thought
it might be fun to keep track of the kinds of research,
thinking, and planning that goes into a successful
personal DXpedition. I plan on posting what I learn,
when I learn it. You'll see it all: insights, wrong
turns, goof ups, and epiphanies. If it helps you
plan your next DXpedition, I'll be very pleased indeed.

I have certainly had goof-ups and wrong turns! Mistakes made by me during planning or execution of these small DXpeditions have been highlighted here in the hopes that they will not be repeated (by me or by my readers) and that the lessons learned from those mistakes will lead to better planning, better execution, and better DXpeditions. Since I am no expert in any of this, I was (and continue to be) worried that my small observations, sometimes obvious, would not provide sufficient value to warrant the time readers must invest to follow my blog. Indeed, even now I go back through previous entries and wonder if I'm simply stating the obvious.
Perhaps that is the case, but the reason why such entries were made in the first place is that those obvious things were not obvious to me at the time! The aphorism "hindsight is 20/20" seems apt here. Frequently (especially after a particularly embarrassing lapse in judgement) I wonder if my particular screw-up was due to a pitfall that could victimize anyone, or if it was due to reasons peculiar to me. Perhaps one person's insightful observation is another's mundane recollection. These small observations made throughout these 300 entries probably fall somewhere between those two extremes.
There are some big observations I've made during all this, too. One of the biggest is a personal note that I may not have yet shared. My recollections on the Montserrat trip have solidified an idea that I had even before the trip began: it is better to be labor than management. Specifically, I spent many hours on the island in a role other than HF radio operator. I was updating the web site, updating the on-line logs, and struggling (along with Chris) to get the paper logs converted to computer logs so QSLing would be possible later. (Being the QSL manager, too, I had a vested interest in making sure this was done properly.) Every hour I spent on these administrative tasks was time and energy I could have spent on the air--and working on the air from this Idyllic location was the reason for going!
Don't get me wrong, I don't have any regrets. Well, maybe a few {grin}, but along with these choices came new knowledge and opportunities. At risk of being glib, my fortune cookie from lunch the other day read, "Experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." To some extent, the Montserrat trip gave me experience in lieu of DXCC, 2500 QSOs, WAS, or even just more chances to work my friends on 20m from paradise. Instead of those things, I returned from the trip with ideas, insights, and a deep respect for those who organize the big DXpeditions. I've tried to pass some of this along in this blog and hope sincerely that you can take some of my experience and get what you want.
So, here's to 300. I had no idea if I would stick with it this long. I still have no idea who (if anybody) is actually reading this. Hello?! Is anybody out there? I don't know whether I have 300 more in me, but I'll keep posting so long as I believe what I have to say might help somebody have fun with their radio in a faraway place. Until next time, 73 from NE1RD!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Your operating position

Once you have your antennas set up, coax feeds run, and your operating position set up, it will be down to you and your radio. The selection of the particular radio to use is a very personal decision, of course, based on the collection of preferred features, its interface, size, or even just a sense of trustworthiness and reliability.
In my view, the main interface to your radio is not the front panel with all the knobs. I believe the primary interface is the sound going in, and going out of it. The DSP, compression circuitry, filters, and other mechanisms inside the radio all work together to render the HF signal to AF. What happens next is up to you.
I am an unabashed Heil Sound fan. I had been using either the Pro-Set Plus or Traveler Dual headsets exclusively. I've added a new headset to the mix recently after trying it at the K1TTT superstation. The Pro-Set Quiet Phone is a headset with all the great stuff in Pro-Set Plus like a superb microphone element and a comfortable feel on the head. It also has noise-canceling circuitry that was very impressive in the K1TTT multi-operator environment. It only took about 15 minutes of operating with these beauties to convince me I needed a set for myself.
I used my Pro-Set Quiet Phone headset in last weekend's New England QSO Party. Like last year, I was using my Elecraft K2 running just 5 watts so having good audio is very, very important. In fact, out of the 39 contacts I made the contest (I was preoccupied this weekend) no fewer than 5 guys complimented me on my audio.
What my K2 is missing is a voice keyer. One of the reasons I didn't put more hours into the contest was because I was losing my voice. The internal voice keyer inside the IC-7000 had spoiled me! Keyers, both voice keyers and CW keyers, are indispensable tools for an extended operation. Of course you can say your call sign. Of course you can squeeze the paddles and send your call sign. The trick isn't to do it once or even 50 times; the trick is to do it 5000 times over an extended period.
For CW I have the microHam CW keyer which provides both CW keyer functions and rig control function with its USB to serial / CAT interface. The best feature on this unit is the big, round knob on the front for the speed control. You know, sometimes the best interface is the big knob that just does the right thing. I brought this unit to Montserrat and it performed very well. Most logging programs have some facilities for triggering the keyer memory. I developed an add-on for MacLoggerDX called FKeyer for this purpose. Yes. Being a programmer does occasionally have its advantages {grin}.
Voice keyers seem more complicated, but they shouldn't be. I have owned the MFJ 434B Voice Keyer for a while but have not set it up yet. After this weekend's wear-and-tear on my voice, I'm now motivated to get this device working with the K2. I wonder how much current it draws? It would be very nice to have a voice keyer on Georges Island (and Lovells Island for the IOTA contest). The new Elecraft K3 offers a voice keyer option, too. In my view, if you operate SSB, this is a mandatory component.
Finally, you need some way to key the transmitter. I have tried and tried but I just can't find the right combinations of VOX settings that make VOX usable for me. I prefer keying the transmitter though mechanical means. If at all possible, I'll use a foot switch. I've posted previously on how to find a nice lightweight (and cheap) foot switch for this purpose. I found that there are times, though, when using a foot switch isn't the best option. When operating portably with nothing but dirt (or sand) beneath my feet, the foot switch can be difficult to locate with your foot and even harder to trigger. I had built a hand-switch from junk box parts and it worked. But, Paul "Lava" Van Dyke (VP2MVO) had a Heil HS-2 hand-switch on Montserrat and I was foolish enough to give it a go. It felt very nice in my hand and was rock solid (like the rest of the Heil offerings). So, I now own that, too. It lives with the noise-canceling headset and will be used for all my portable operations.
It is less important to have the foot switch if I am not computer logging. If I am paper logging, I can write with one hand and use the hand-switch with the other. (Of course, using that strategy, I should really learn to manage the paddles with my left hand so I could write with my right. I'll put that on my New Year's Resolution list next year!)
Your operating position, your radio, headset, foot switch, keyers, and even rig control all combine to give you your presence on the air. If these elements work together and are comfortable to use then you'll be able to operate for hours at a time, days on end, and fill your log book with lots of nice QSOs. But, if you've not thought through these things, if the operating position is uncomfortable, or unoptimal, you will expend energy to overcome that deficiency while you operate. Eventually, you'll tire (or your voice will tire) and that ever valuable Island Time will be wasted.
My advice, obviously, is to consider all these things the next time you evaluate your equipment. To use a running analogy, you can't run a marathon with a rock in your shoe. Work out all these things prior to your trip so operating is a pleasure--and a breeze--on your DXpedition.


I have talked about island time occasionally in this blog. That phrase can mean two different things, of course, depending on the context. The first meaning is the pejorative term describing how bureaucracies in some of these small, faraway places move at a glacial pace for the simplest of requests. Mañana doesn't just mean "tomorrow". The second meaning is the one I most often use here. Island time describes those limited number of hours you have to operate on your DXpedition. Each hour is precious. You can spend that time chasing problems or you can put contacts in the log. There are a number of things that can help, or hurt, in this regard. Tonight I'll cover some of those things that can impede your efforts.

Noise. While on St. John we had an exceptionally quiet location. I was able to hear signals that didn't move the meter and that was very nice indeed. This was not the case on Montserrat. I'm not sure if the problem was extant that first night but certainly by the second day there was this buzzing noise that would walk through the bands occasionally. My guess: one of us had some device, a battery charger, charger for our shaver, clock radio, something, that was generating this noise. I never figured it out but it vexed me for most of the time I operated at the villa.
When I first noticed this irritating S9+ signal through my headphones I started looking for suspects. My first thought was the fancy battery chargers used to charge the packs used by Budd, Chris, and the other fellows during their portable operation. These units were set up on the table next to our operating position and, well, it seemed like a good bet that they were making some noise. We unplugged them. The noise remained.
We should have had a plan for noise location and abatement. We didn't. Again, we had a hole in our planning process. Here are some guidelines I have for next time:

  1. Check gizmos for noise before you leave - This probably sounds obvious, but I'll list it anyway. If you are planning on taking something on a trip, check it out before you leave. Don't just make sure it works. Make sure it works without generating all sorts of HF hash. Put a receiver next to the device and power it. Does it buzz? Make sure, if the device has different "modes", that each mode is quiet. Perhaps a two-stage SLA charger will be quiet during the main charging cycle but noisy during the trickle charge, for example.

  2. Unpack and deploy electric devices systematically - I can't be sure if the noise problem on Montserrat was something preexisting in the villa or if it was something we brought with us. Seven guys unpacked and started plugging in every manner of device imaginable: battery chargers for radios, cameras, camcorders, iPods, cell phones, and who knows what else. I tried to organize an "unplug this thing and see if the problem goes away" search, but it was only half-heartedly executed. It is better to narrow your list of suspects by plugging in a few items then seeing if you have a problem rather than plugging in everything and hunting for the problem afterwards.

  3. Ferrite - If you do manage to discover, for example, that a particular wall wart is the culprit, it would be nice to be able to do something about it! I brought a small bag of snap-on ferrite for that purpose. Even on a 100 pound DXpedition, the benefits of having these things outweighs the costs in, well, weight. They are worth bringing.

  4. Time shift - If you have some device that generates RF hash that you can't live without, see if you can use it when you are not operating. If this is for you, the ham, then that's probably easy. If this is something near-and-dear to somebody else on your excursion (such as your XYL), you'll need to be diplomatic and negotiate something. Hopefully, you can minimize the time overlap between the hash generator and your DXing.

Sometimes the noise is outside your area of control. Dave sent me a pointer to this article discussion noise problems with overhead lines on St. Kitts. I certainly hope this sort of things won't affect me this fall!

Friday, May 04, 2007

What's the Frequency, Kenneth?

One of the questions I'm always asked by friends when I'm packing my gear is, "what frequency will you be on?" The short answer is, "I have no idea." I thought it might be good to spend a few minutes in today's blog entry talking about operating from that far away place.
Using common ham radio contesting terminology, there are two ways to obtain a series of contacts: search & pounce and running. The idea of running is to sit on one frequency and call CQ. You work somebody, close that QSO, and immediately solicit for another. The big DXpeditions (and contest stations) do this.
Search & pounce is precisely what it sounds like. You look for a promising signal on the band calling CQ and you respond (pounce on it) and hopefully they work you. Stations with smaller signals (called little pistols in contesting parlance) often do this and for good reason. Since a small signal is not heard everywhere, the ability to hold the frequency is compromised. If a small station tries to run it is likely that a big gun station (that doesn't hear the little signal) will eventually start using the frequency, pushing the smaller station aside.
Operating with this lightweight equipment, no amplifiers, smallish antennas, and often with temporary (and non-optimized) configurations means you will not be a big gun signal on the bands. The fellows with the 1500 watts (or more) and the stacked monobanders at 50 meters are going to always be louder. The question is really, "are you loud enough?"
I was worried about being loud enough while planning my trip to St. John in 2006. I had only a 100 watt transmitter and a very simple set of antennas. Let's examine just one of those antennas. It was a wire vertical 33 feet in length suspended from a fishing pole fed from the ground with just a single radial. Such an antenna works well on both 40m (quarter wave) and 15m (three-quarter wave). On this particular trip I made many 15 meter contacts. But how loud was I?
The 15 meter band is large enough that even a small station can run and I did just that. I called CQ. Sometimes I would make many calls of CQ without a taker. Minutes would go by and I would work just a handful. Other times I was working people quickly in a short-lived but intense pile-ups. Why? Was I loud sometimes but not others? That seemed unlikely. Nor was there any pattern geographically that I could discern. I worked stations in these states and provinces in one very brief burst: PA, TX, OH, MA, TN, DE, MD, PA, ON, CA, MA, NY, OR, and PA. Something else was going on.
That "something else" was the packet spotting network. Upon my return home I fished out the spots made for my operation and plotted them against the QSO rate. A graph with that information appears below.

The graph plots time across the bottom and QSOs per 15 minute period vertically in dark blue lines. The green markers approximately mark the times when my operation appeared on the spotting network. The picture was now clear. When somebody would spot me on the DX spotting network there would be a flurry of activity. Operators were relying on the spotting network to tell them where to tune. Once they tuned to my frequency they worked me easily. I was loud enough. They just didn't know to listen for me until the DX spotting network told them to do so.
Aside from the comments we could make about the possible over-reliance on the spotting network, the interesting point here is this: when people found me, I was loud enough. Sure, I could have had a better signal with a better antenna or an amplifier, but even with the very simple, temporary, lightweight, and hastily constructed setup I was plenty loud enough.
Prior to the Montserrat trip I was asked, as always, "what frequency will you be using?" My response this time was, "watch the DX spotting network." This approach worked very well. The villa at Gingerbread Hill had an internet connection reliable enough to send mail, surf the web, and work the DX spotting network. I would begin each operating session by finding an empty frequency and calling CQ. After about a minute, I would spot myself. Then the floodgates opened. Usually, it took only one spot to "prime the pump". After that, everybody could hear the pile-up.
Self-spotting in a contest is bad form. I'm not advocating any bad behavior during contests. (In fact, except for my work at K1TTT recently, I've never used the spotting network in a contest and have no plans to do so in the future.) Self-spotting on a DXpedition is a fine idea. It worked exceptionally well for the VP2M effort and is an excellent alternative to trying to pick a frequency (or set of frequencies) prior to the trip.

All of the above is the precursor to a discussion I'll post about the mechanics of operating on the other end of the pile-up. In the mean time, look for me in the New England QSO Party this weekend. Oh, and don't forget to look for Steve (K9ZW) and his island activation this weekend.

One last thing: For the story behind "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" see this. We live in a weird world.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Preliminary thinking and planning for St. Kitts

We flew over the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis (NA-104) on the way back from Montserrat. It was the island of Nevis with its enormous volcanic crater that captivated me. Stupidly, I did not have my camera out or I would have eagerly snapped a picture. Hence, I can only provide an approximation of that glorious view through the miracle of Google Earth.

If you have not been using Google Earth begin now. This is an incredibly powerful system that allows you to get a very clear idea about the area you will be visiting. For example, if you visit the web site for our villa on St. Kitts you will see terrific pictures of the property both inside and out. Using just a few hints from the picture I was able to precisely identify the villa in the satellite view.
I now know where my neighbors will be (behind me, mostly) and even have a general idea about the topography of the area. The last step is to obtain a topographical map of the area to fill in all the details. I have been buying my maps from The St. Kitts and Nevis maps can be found here. I ordered both maps in early March but thus far only one has arrived (the other is backordered). Again, start your planning early. Order things you need early.

Every 100 Pound DXpedition should have goals and I've been thinking about my goals for this trip. As I've said before, goals help focus the planning process for everything from the selection of your destination to the equipment you'll bring. Having goals and a good plan also helps ensure that you won't have regrets about missing an opportunity. Of course, once you've made your goals you can relax!
I've not decided on goals for this trips yet. The point of the trip is to participate in the CQ World Wide DX Contest but beyond that I've not decided anything regarding the number of QSOs I hope to make, or awards I might qualify for such as WAS, DXCC, or even WPX. There are also contest-specific records that I could consider chasing. The North America SSB Records page has the following for low power and QRP entries (the only two categories I would be interested in competing):

L Low Power | Q QRP
Category | Call | Score |
QSO's | Zones | Countries | Year record set

L V44NK 127,566 857 33 81 95
L28 V47TV(OH3VV) 857,934 3284 31 95 91
L21 V47NK 67,320 660 16 35 96
L14 NC2N/V44 7,595 127 14 35 04
L7 V49A(EW1AR) 135,408 705 18 75 05
L3.7 V49A(EW1AR) 40,227 298 16 53 04

Q21 V44/EW1AR(NC2N) 15,708 117 14 37 04

The low power single band record for 20m looks pretty low. I believe I could easily break that. Also check out the QRP entries. There is only one! Only the single band (15m) entry from 2004 is there. Any QRP entry this year would set the record.
Working the contest QRP would be fun, but would make all my other goals difficult to achieve. Further, the right way to approach a serious QRP effort is with a big antenna with lots of gain on a nice tower with a rotator. I have none of that. So, I guess the QRP record will need to be set by somebody else!
Note that a couple of these scores put up by V44NK, including the top score for low power, were done at low points in the solar cycle. Could I beat the top low-power score? That is something to consider.

Finally, I'm still mulling over the equipment selection for the trip. The Mosley Mini-32-A was ordered 5 weeks ago (that might be arriving soon!) and I still plan on bringing that, but little else has been finalized. With the new Elecraft announcement I'm not even sure what radio will be going. (Jeff (KE9V) is certainly cheering me on to buy the new rig.) There are lots of reasons to strongly consider it. I will defer that discussion until tomorrow's entry.

Making lists

It got late again, nearly midnight. It is too late for me to post anything significant tonight. So, rather than put up a lengthy discussion on any one thing, let me just put up a list of things I'm thinking about.

  • V4 license - I goofed up my license request and they "gave me" V4/NE1RD. Should I fight it? I've sent one FAX and one email with no response to either. Maybe I'll just live with it. {sigh}

  • Elecraft K3 - I did the exercise of pricing this radio with the options I wanted. $3300. Wow. The words "not in this months budget" don't begin to cover it. Of course, I just blew money on an IC-7000, a trip to Montserrat, a new portable Yagi, Buddipole parts, $1300 antenna analyzer, and a 48 watt solar panel. So, it isn't like I'm deprived. Still thinking...

  • NEQP this weekend - I need to rearrange my schedule to put some serious operating time in. This is a fun contest.

  • Hazardous waste day - Here's my chance to safely and appropriately dispose of all these dead gel cell batteries I have stacked up. Recycling is a beautiful thing.

  • Deer Isle - Oh yeah, I need to send off some mail to the woman that rents us that house in Maine. We're going to reschedule our lease for Patriots Day 2008.

  • Dayton - More email I'd forgotten to send. Macintosh users had a small get-together at Dayton last year with Don Argo of Dog Park Software organizing the rendezvous. Some guys were trying to do that again. One fellow suggested Saturday morning. I countered with Thursday evening during our blogging dinner and drinks event. We'll see what the reaction is. If they keep it the Saturday of Dayton, I'll miss it. I'll be on my way to Chicago.

  • St. Kitts airfare - Drat. I still haven't booked that. I need to make a check list before I start forgetting stuff!

... and so on. It really is time to start making some lists! But, that will need to wait until tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

How not to QSL

I was going to write about some thinking I've been doing for my St. Kitts trip but that will need to wait. I just finished processing another batch of QSL cards and I have some observations to make.
Let me first say that I've apologized in previous posts like this one that there were certainly things we could have done better to ensure accurate logs were kept. I will not reiterate those ideas here. The DXpedition has the responsibility to ensure that QSOs are recorded properly. After that, though, the remaining responsibilities rest largely with the operator at home to get a QSL card request together, in the format requested by the DXpedition team, to the proper QSL manager, and bundled with the correct self addressed stamped envelope or postage. We were quite specific about how QSLing would be done and what operators must do to receive a card. (The guidelines were published nearly two months before the trip.)
Most QSL card requests for the Montserrat trip were made by operators who could follow directions. For the rest, well, allow me to provide a (partial) list of ways not to QSL to a DXpedition. Here are ten easy steps to be a bad QSLer.
  1. Never visit the DXpedition web site. If you visit the web site you might see a link like QSL information. What fun would that be?

  2. Never visit* - Going there would point you to the correct QSL manager.

  3. Don't include postage - The DXpedition may be dedicating hundreds of hours to the planning and execution of their trip. Why not make them pay hundreds of dollars in postage costs so you and your friends can get a souvenir QSL card for free?

  4. Don't bother with an envelope - QSL managers have lots of time (and envelopes). They can fill one out for you.

  5. Don't bother double checking your card's data - Guess. Put a band and time down. See if the QSL manager will spend that few minutes searching through the logs for you.

  6. Design your card so it is pretty, but impossible to read - If your card is confusing, or your penmanship is horrific, that just means the QSL manager will spend that much more time admiring your handiwork!

  7. Design your card without your name and address on it and leave out the SASE - The envelope you sent the request in has your return address, of course, but make sure it appears nowhere else. Since QSL card requests and the envelopes are quickly separated during processing, this insures a nightmare for the QSL manager. Imagine the fun the QSL manager will have on his hands-and-knees searching through that huge pile of freshly opened envelopes for the one that matches your very special card!

  8. Send your card to the wrong QSL manager - Yup. This is tons of fun. A nice QSL manager will then need to stop what he's doing, figure out where you should have sent your request, make a new envelope for the correct QSL manager, and forward your request (with your SASE or postage) so you've got a chance of getting that card, too.

  9. Send the wrong amount of postage - Too much or too little are both good ideas! Just make sure it is wrong. Sending expired IRCs is also a good move.

  10. Pack and tape your materials so they are guaranteed to tear upon opening - This is one of the best ways to trip up your QSL adversary. It takes a little extra effort to ensure that even the most careful opening of your QSL request will result in a shredded, unreadable mess, but if that's the effect you're looking for, it will be worth it!

Obviously the above is all tongue-in-cheek, but I assure you that I saw, or handled, at least one of every category above in this effort. My system is pretty good. I can fulfill about 25 QSL card requests per hour of effort assuming there are no data errors (not in log) and everybody provides an SASE or self-addressed envelope. The exceptions, the "not in log" problems, wrong band, wrong mode, and the myriad of problems listed above really gum-up the process, though.
Being a QSL manager will be, even for a modestly sized DXpedition, a tremendous amount of work. The work is enjoyable and rewarding. It is also extremely time consuming. Certainly, no one should undertake this responsibility unless they are patient, thorough, and willing to do the work over a long period of time. Request may come in years after the event.

I'll return to my St. Kitts planning and some thoughts about Dayton tomorrow.

* Actually, VP2MST had "QSL via AB7ST" in his QRZ entry. Oops. I didn't notice that until tonight.

Scarborough ... aghast

I quote occasionally from the Daily DX. It is about a buck a week to get the EMail subscription. I won my first year's subscription from a drawing at Boxboro (the ARRL New England Division Convention) a couple of years ago and have been hooked ever since. If you want to know what is happening in the DX world today this is your best source.
When there is a big DXpedition in progress there are additional mailings to keep you apprised of the unfolding events. In a message just received Bernie McClenny passed along some status of the Scarborough Reef DXpedition including descriptions of the treacherous conditions on the jagged rocks and surrounding razor-sharp coral. Day shifts are 6 hours in blistering heat and night shifts are 13 hours in the darkest night imaginable. Make no mistake, these are brave souls.

Now for the aghast part. Below in the block quote is fan mail (their term, not mine) received by this team. I lifted it directly from the Daily DX message with capitalization problems, spelling errors, and punctuation exactly as it was presented there. My head hangs in shame to think that this kind of bile comes from our amateur ratio community. {sigh}

"fIVE YEARS PLAnning you did a %&*@# job we cant
hear you on the east coast you shoud have gotton
info from n8s they did a great job at least you heard
them you guys keep working ja's and w6's thats all
your going to get the east coast i guess is off
limmits you wount get any donation from me or any
one else on the east coast you guys are the worst
go to 11 meters you might have better lush"

I'll have a nice post tonight about pleasant things and planning for my St. Kitts trip. In the mean time, get those courageous BS7H fellows in your log. Good luck!