Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Pushing limits

When I first got this crazy idea of traveling with the radio I wanted a catch phrase which would convey the approach quickly. The tag line I settled on was, "Go light, work the world." Those words circle my logo for The 100 Pound DXpedition. Everyone works within limits whether they be space, time, money, or, in my case, weight and volume. I'm just more explicit about it.
Each trip I've made has become successively more complicated--and heavy. The general idea of traveling within the limits of checked airline baggage has been consistent, but the bags have been getting fuller and fuller. This trip has pushed these limits to the breaking point.
I don't think I was clear-headed about this until yesterday, when I stared at the pile of bags and wondered aloud, "why is there so much stuff?!" The answer relates back to the trip goals. In previous trips I was happy just to pack a self-contained and workable station within the weight and size limits imposed by the airlines. That, as I hope I have shown, can be easily done. This trip had additional pressures.
I'm heading to St. Kitts in the morning to work in the CQ WW DX SSB contest this weekend. My usual, and modest, goals of bringing just enough equipment to get on the air and participate have been replaced by more aggressive goals of bringing a competitive contesting station. I'm not saying this change in focus and goals has been a mistake, but as I begin thinking about it with a clear head (finally) I don't recall ever considering whether trying to assemble such a station under the 100 Pound DXpedition banner was reasonable. Indeed, as I reflect on the last few days of feverish packing, it may not be. Allow me to explain.
The radio, power supply, automatic tuner, and even audio mixer and cabling for the station fits neatly into a Pelican 1610 case and weighs well under 50 pounds. In fact, because I've used the foam padding liberally when I organized the case, I ran out of space long before I approached the weight limit. This collection of equipment is nearly identical to that brought to Montserrat earlier this year and will likely be the "standard set" I'll take on most trips. This isn't where the problems arose.
Feature creep manifested itself in antennas and accessories. In previous trips I was largely content with bringing a Buddipole which could be configured as a full sized antenna for any single band 20-6m, and some fishing poles or masts for the lower bands. If I needed to change bands, I would take a few moments to walk to the antenna and make the adjustment. Sure, it took time, but the antenna system was light, versatile, simple, and reliable. This seemed like a nice compromise for the time it takes to configure and reconfigure it.
Then I got greedy. I didn't want to leave the operating position during the contest. Being on the air during the contest from a little spot in paradise wasn't enough. I wanted to be competitive! I wanted antennas available for all the contesting bands (save 160m) set up and ready for use. I didn't want to lose time (and points) by fiddling with antennas when I should be running! This is where things started to go wrong.
I convinced myself that a tribander, a light one to be sure, would give me three bands with one piece of coax. A win, right? Well, perhaps. The Buddipole system weighs about 8 pounds. The tribander weighs a little more by the time you add in hardware to mount it. What's a few pounds, right? Then I needed something to mount it upon. I needed a mast. Two 8-foot painters poles would do nicely. Toss in another five to six pounds. Can you see where this is going?
Unwilling to recognize the big uptick in weight, I assuaged my conscience by telling myself I was getting three bands on one piece of coax. Yes. That was true. But I always could have three bands with that one piece of coax--just not simultaneously!
My approach of using fishing poles and fiberglass masts for holding up the ends of vertical antennas for the lower bands has always leveraged the height of a second or even third floor balcony. A 20 foot fishing pole may therefore hold up a 33-foot wire if that pole is fixed to a third story balcony railing. A 20 foot fishing pole weighs about a pound. That's a good deal!
My selection of the villa for this trip was done hastily and, I fear, poorly. No such second or third story balconies exist so far as I can tell. So, my masterful use of that additional height in previous trips cannot be repeated here. It gets a lot harder if you are trying to hold up a 66 foot 80m vertical from near ground level. In previous trips, I was able to get the 33 foot mast (about 4 pounds) up high enough to support the 66 foot wire vertical for 80m. It may have run down at an angle, but it worked nicely.
This trip forced me to bring out the 40-foot collapsible Spider Beam mast. It is a magnificent piece of engineering, but it weighs 8 pounds! And, I still need to bring the 33-foot mast for the 40/15m vertical wire antenna. So, I just tacked on 8 extra pounds to accomplish the same things I've done previously. Do things start to sound like they are out of control yet?
Let's review: I previously used the Buddipole for 6-20m (8 pounds). I've now replaced that with about 16-20 pounds of Mosley beam, mast material, boom-to-mast couplers, and hardware. I previously deployed 40m and 80m vertical wire antennas with 5 pounds of masts; this time it will take 12 pounds of masts to do the same job. This is an increase of almost 20 pounds from previous efforts. Yes, the beam should give me some gain--a little--but is it worth it?
Tucked neatly in my carry-on bag is the FT-817 and LDG Z11 tuner. The accessory kit is for the radio is packed in one of the other bags. I decided that having no back-up radio at all was probably stupid. I had taken back-up radios on almost all of my other trips and I shouldn't skimp here. Note that I don't count the weight of my carry-on stuff in my 100 pound budget. It isn't checked. So, this, too, is extra since it used to be included in the weight budget. Add another 5 pounds to the overage.
Greed is still working overtime. I've had compliments on my audio when operating from various locations. The Heil headsets do a very good job and I'm lucky to have a voice that drives them well. But, the bottom of the solar cycle is upon us and I wanted that little extra punch you get from high-end audio processing. I ordered the W2IHY EQ Plus system with all the cables for Icom IC-746Pro and IC-7000, Yaesu, Kenwood (for my K2). I'll reserve final judgement until we see the on-air results, but initial indications are this system works very well. It also weighs about 8 pounds packed. There's another 8 tipping the scale. DO you see the pattern yet?
My 100 Pound DXpedition is weighing in at about 210 pounds right now. The Pelican case comes in at 45. The two checked rolling bags come in right at 50 pounds (actually, they weighed in at 51 pounds each but the nice lady at the counter didn't ding me on it). The golf case came in at 65 pounds. Sure, the two of us checked all this in so we met the main criteria for a 100 Pound DXpedition: travel only with what will fit in checked bags, but there is too much stuff! Way too much!

This trip can serve as both a positive and negative example. On the plus side, it is possible to bring a very large compliment of gear even within the airline weight and space restrictions. I have all of the above plus tools, antenna analyzer, dacron rope, bungies, a couple of Heil Headsets (both the noise canceling units and the Traveler Dual), and more. It fit. It (somehow) made the weight cutoff. I should be able to deploy an impressive station while on St. Kitts.
The negatives for my execution are numerous and somewhat embarrassing. I did not think through the implications of trying to do intensive contesting. I just started chucking stuff in the pile--the very thing I've been preaching against all this time! I didn't fully understand or explore what tradeoffs were being made, and when I did attempt to do the math, I did it badly. Swapping the beam in for the Buddipole wasn't an even trade, though I kept assuring myself it was. Finally, I just got gadget-happy with the W2IHY unit. Sure, it will do a great job and I'll probably be very glad I have it, but I didn't even consider the weight when I ordered it. I wanted it, I knew it would help, I assured myself that I would "figure out how to pack it later." Duh. Bad plan.

All along I've tried to say what I've done right, what I've done wrong, and what I'd change to make things better. I plenty for all those categories tonight! I believe this is also the last of these major trips I'll take for a while. I was lucky enough to go to Montserrat with a great bunch of guys earlier this year. I'll be on St. Kitts in just hours. I'll have participated in one of my favorite contests from paradise by the end of the weekend. And, I believe I've figured out most of this 100 Pound DXpedition stuff. I hope I've shared enough here that you have figured it out, too. Maybe I just need a vacation from all these vacations! {grin}

I hope to be set up on St. Kitts this time tomorrow. Watch the packet spotting network for V4/NE1RD. 73 from Miami, Florida!


Blogger Steve Weinert said...

Good Luck Scott and hope to work you during your V4 operations!

The overloading & feature creep sounds so much like the difference between wilderness camping and backpacking. We'll talk more on your return.

All the best to you both while you see that sunshore and do radios!




October 24, 2007 7:20 AM  
Blogger Ashton said...


After trying all sorts of options I am comng to believe that, unless you are working with towers, wire antennas are the best solutions for simplicity and performance. I have a half square on 20 meters that gives me significant gain... and it weighs less than a pound. Similarly I use a Buckmaster off center fed, inverted V wire antenna that is resonant on 80, 40, 20, 17, 12, 10 and 6 meters. All you need is one support point at 35 feet and I have global reach. And very few antennas can rival the performance of Par end fedz... which are super cheap and fit into baggies. 1-2 fibreglass poles and a few wires and you can really pull off a lot.

The Buddipoles are great for setting up for an hour or so in a new place. But for a few days, you get a lot of added performance by stringing up some wire.

Also, suspending antennas from trees saves a lot of support. For instance you can hang a beam (or moxon)from a high branch.

Anyhow, good luck in the contest.


October 24, 2007 9:42 PM  

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