QRP Saturday, Part 3

I haven’t actually written parts 1 and 2 in a “QRP Saturday” series, but I might point to this post and this post as evidence of my recent weekend exploits :-)

I was up early this past Saturday and decided I would take down the Buckmaster OCF dipole and do several things: One, check the condition of the antenna, coax, fittings and ropes, as the antenna has been hanging for nearly a year now; two, get the dipole up another 10-12 feet; and three, while the Buckmaster was on the ground, string up the home-brew TV twin-lead antenna and see how it loaded up on bands beyond 20 and 40 meters.

I lowered the Buckmaster and everything appeared to be in good shape. The coax connecter had a little play so I snugged it back up. The RF choke was looking a bit sloppy, so I worked it back into a nice circular shape. Ropes all looked good.

I decided I would toss a line over the next big limb on the tree so I could hoist the OCF up another 10+ feet. Using a partially-filled water bottle as a weight on the end of a length of thin nylon cord, I tried several times to sling the cord up over the limb. My trajectory was good, but I didn’t have the height. I tried to conjure up all my masculine energy and explode with one giant heave that would enable the line to coast up and over the limb on a true course.

The unintended effects of this burly endeavor were two-fold: One, my weighted line shanked wildly to the left, as my clumsy release was way too late. Two, as I torqued my body counter-clockwise to generate the needed thrust, I managed to over-rotate and began losing my balance. My left foot remained planted and suddenly supinated, turning inward and immediately sending a hot, throbbing pain into my ankle. The momentum continued carrying me around until I landed with a heavy thump sideways into dead leaves, moist dirt and what was certainly dog poo.

I managed to pull myself back up to a vertical position and assess the damage. Mostly, my pride was wounded, but my ankle hurt like hell too. I wondered if the neighbors on either side of me had noticed the stunt. I was determined to get the line up in the tree though, so I persisted. An hour later, I hadn’t made any progress and gave up.

I did hoist up the home-brew antenna and connected it to the FT-817 for a fine hour and a half of sunny operating on the back deck. The twin-lead antenna tunes to a flat SWR from 40M to 10M. I wasn’t as lucky on 6M, as the 817 was showing 2-3 “bars” of SWR even after a successful tune cycle. I suspect it would work, albeit in a compromised fashion. I didn’t have my meter out there with me, so I don’t know exactly how bad the SWR really is on 6.

There were several nice QSO parties going on, so I plugged in the Heil Traveler and went to work, first making a SSB contact on 20 meters with PI4DX out of the Netherlands. Anytime I make a contact with this little radio, I’m impressed. But I’m ASTOUNDED when my signal makes it across the pond!

I tuned around 20 meters a bit and managed to grab three more stations, two from the Vermont QSO Party and one from Minnesota. I tried 15 meters and picked up another nice Minnesota station. The final “test” of the day remained on 10 meters. The 10-10 International Net was holding a contest and WA7NB was booming out of Arizona. It took me a few tries, but I finally made contact. He had a perfect copy on my convoluted call sign too.

I spent the rest of the evening with my swollen ankle on ice, wrapped in a compression bandage. Fortunately, by Sunday I was up and walking around normally and it looks like there was no serious damage.

Fantastic weekend for radio

My QRP operating position on Saturday. (My buddy is in the background retrieving his R/C airplane)

My QRP operating position on Saturday. (My buddy is in the background retrieving his R/C airplane)

Saturday was one of the best days of radio I’ve had since starting my HF journey last year. A buddy and I headed out to a large field near my home where folks often gather to fly model airplanes. My friend planned to fly his, and I intended to operate QRP, backpack portable, with the Buddistick and FT-817.

There was a large, unused pipe sticking up in the middle of the field, so I lashed the Buddistick to it, connected some coax and tuned the antenna for 20 meters. The North American QSO Party (SSB) was in full swing with stations up and down the band, so I figured I’d have an above-average chance to make contacts with 5 watts.

After tuning around a bit I heard Bob, AC1Z, out of New Hampshire. He managed to hear my calls and we made a successful exchange. I spun the dial and caught Mitch, W1SJ, out of Vermont. Wow! That was two new states for me in the span of a few minutes, and both on QRP! I was feeling confident.

I managed to log stations from Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Massachusetts and Iowa (I believe that was a new state for me as well), before I broke down and headed off to run some errands. I could have easily kept working stations, as the battery on the rig was holding up just fine and it was amazing, warm, clear weather to boot.

I returned home a bit later and hopped on the FT-847 and knocked out more than a dozen contacts on 40 meters, including stations from Ohio, Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, Maine, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Ontario and Pennsylvania.

I capped off the weekend Sunday with a quick contact on 17 meters with Carl, PJ4/KP2L, operating from Bonaire.

Looking forward to SPAR Winter Field Day this weekend. I’m planning to build a ladder line dipole I may use instead of the vertical. I ordered some parts from DX Engineering last week to build a nice antenna, including a 4:1 balun so I can connect my ladder line to the antenna tuner with ease.

There’s also a new Heil headset on the way!

An eyeball QSO near Table Rock

On Bald Knob, heading to Pinnacle Mountain.

On Bald Knob, heading to Pinnacle Mountain.

I recently became interested in hiking, specifically so I could participate in Summits on the Air, or SOTA as it’s known by hams.

A few months back a friend and I did an 8-mile hike up at Caesars Head State Park, specifically to the Raven Cliff Falls scenic area. We wanted to try and get another hike in before the weather started turning really cold, so we planned a slog up the 1,044-meter Pinnacle Mountain — the highest mountain completely within South Carolina. It’s located within the popular Table Rock State Park.

We hit the road around 7 a.m. Saturday and made the two-hour drive from Columbia up to the park, where a grim ranger at the main park office told us that the hike to Pinnacle takes 6 hours and “we needed to get moving” if we wanted to get done before dusk. Trail guides on-site indicated the hike was “very strenuous” and to expect some steep ascents.

The trailhead was located near the Nature Center a short drive away from the main office. Once inside we had to register before we hit the trail, presumably so if in the event we didn’t come back, someone would know to come look for us. As we were filling out paperwork, I noticed a small Kenwood handheld radio on the table next to the ranger. I asked if he was a ham, and he grinned and said he was, W4MBC, James. I spun around to show off my backpack, which is embroidered with my callsign.

We were anxious to get going, so I didn’t make any small-talk. An hour later, we were deep in the woods, going mostly uphill via the Pinnacle Mountain Trail. Our first goal was the unfortunately named “Bald Knob,” which is a massive, smooth circular rock formation that juts out of the mountains and offers a dizzying view south. Since getting to the Knob involves a hike of more than 3 miles over rough terrain, it’s not as tourist-heavy as Table Rock itself. Once we arrived, I decided this would be a perfect future location for some ham radio, since there is ample space to setup and plenty of trees to toss an antenna into.

Not nearly as dangerous as it looks...

Not nearly as dangerous as it looks…

Our goal, the summit of Pinnacle was still almost a half-mile away. The trail became very narrow and very steep. During the last .2 mile I was using my hands as much as my feet to maintain balance over the roots and slippery leaf-covered rocks. The summit itself is enveloped by trees, so there was no view to speak of. Just a flat portion of ground that slopes off in all directions.

A SOTA activation of Pinnacle Mountain is worth 4 points. Only one ham has activated Pinnacle, logging 5 2-meter contacts back in August of this year. I’d really like to return with my FT-817 and a lightweight dipole and try to make an HF activation of this peak.

We returned to the Nature Center via the less-painful Ridge Trail, then hooked up with the Table Rock Trail for a long, curvy and jarring descent over rocks and roots. Total mileage for the day ended up being more than 8 miles, and we were on the trails about 4 hours, 15 minutes total.

That's close enough to the edge for me... It's nearly 3,000 feet down.

That’s close enough to the edge for me… It’s nearly 3,000 feet down.

W4MBC was still working in the Nature Center when we returned, so we talked about ham radio for about 15 minutes and vowed to try and catch each other on a local 80-meter net in the near future.

So, I didn’t actually key up a radio this weekend, but it certainly wasn’t far from my mind. I really want to make one of these SOTA activations happen soon! BTW, the Pinnacle Trail hike is highly recommended. The scenery is wonderful from beginning to end; I felt like I was wandering through Middle Earth!

Carrick Creek Falls

Carrick Creek Falls

On the dime with the ARRL

A Buddistick and a blue sky.

Friday was a stunning summer day here in the South, with temperatures in the low 80s, low humidity and clear blue skies. Since I had Friday off and Field Day is a week away, I figured there was no better time than to set up the Buddistick and get some more practice tuning it.

I decided to try 20 meters again, but this time I deployed the 8-foot shock-cord mast and the guying kit. Set-up for the rest of the system was the same as my excursion up to Little Mountain a few weeks ago. I rigged up the antenna in the front yard and ran 50 feet of RG8X back to the garage so I could work in shade.

Once set up, I fooled around with various counterpoise lengths until I had an SWR that was nearly flat on my SWR meter. Just like my experience at Little Mountain, I was plagued by what sounds like power line noise on certain portions of the 20 meter band. I’m not ruling out electrical noise, as I was setup in the garage not far from the electrical mains.

I tuned around a bit looking for a station to work, and came across a booming signal. The call was W1AW. I was pretty sure that was the ARRL callsign, but I pulled up QRZ on my phone just to be sure. The operator was Mike, N1MX, operating from the ARRL HQ in Connecticut, and he had just started calling CQ. A pile-up began in short order, during which I learned Mike is an avid motorcyclist, and that he had the station’s beam aimed towards northern California.

One gentleman told Mike he’d been a ham for more than 50 years and never worked W1AW. He also mentioned he was running “about 800 watts” if I recall. Getting a QSO with W1AW was going to be a challenge.

He was coming in at 59+, but knowing his beam was aimed west, I reckoned my signal would be glancing broadside to his path. I made several calls with negative success. There was a lull in the pile-up and I tossed my call out, “KK4DSD / QRP.”

The response: “The QRP station? Where are you located?”

“South Carolina, South Carolina, South Carolina. Kilo Kilo 4 Delta Sierra Delta.”

Silence for a bit, while he swung his beam towards me.

“South Carolina station, Delta Sierra Delta, you’re about 44-45. QSL?”

I was ecstatic by now and came back with my full call several times and his signal report, 59+. He told me I was weak, but still copyable.

“I’m running 5 watts into a Buddistick setup in my front yard, just enjoying the weather today.”

“Five watts into a Buddistick? That’s pretty slim, but you’re copyable!”

We exchanged 73, bringing a very memorable QSO to an end. It was a good first contact for the Buddistick, but in this case I must thank the great operating skills of N1MX and the equipment at W1AW for pulling my tiny signal out of the mud.

Just a few notes on the shock-cord mast: It’s not very rigid after it’s deployed. It wobbles and bends a bit. Nevertheless, it works just fine when guyed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how the Buddipole guy kit is actually supposed to work with the mast or Buddistick.

Presumably, you’re expected to connect the guy lines to the Velcro collar that apparently is supposed to wrap around the mast. The problem is, the collar slips down the mast. Some folks on the Buddipole Yahoo group have suggested various ways to address the problem. I wasn’t in the mood to run to a hardware store today, so I attached the guying collar above the antenna mounting plate, which in turn screws into the top of the shock-cord mast. This is a terrible solution, since the antenna is offset on the plate from where the plate attaches to the mast, resulting in increased stress on the mast connector when tension is applied via the guy lines.  I need to find a solution before Field Day.

When ham radio becomes a war zone…

I proudly display my callsign on my radio go-bag with a genuine Army Combat Uniform (ACU) nametape.

One thing I’ve noticed since joining the ham radio subculture, is that we hams are obsessed with displaying our callsigns anywhere and everywhere.

For example: Amateur radio license plates, name badges, custom-embroidered shirts and hats, QSL cards, eyeball cards, illuminated “on-air” signs for our shacks, microphone flags, and even custom postage on those QSL card envelopes. When I was at winter field day this year, I noticed one of my good buddies in the club had vinyl decals on the back of his truck and a polo shirt with his call stitched over the pocket. I imagine some guys even get their call tattooed!

Anyway, a few months ago I purchased a Code Alpha rucksack from U.S. Patriot here in Columbia. These guys are a national retailer based here in Columbia and located near Fort Jackson. They supply all manner of military gear and do work on uniforms, patches, etc. They even have a military barber shop. I purchased the bag specifically to carry my portable HF gear, namely the Yaesu FT-817, laptop computer and antenna system. It’s a no-nonsense pack — well-made without needless frills and reasonably priced.

The pack had one of those “hook and loop” fastener areas (aka, Velcro) up top where a nametape could be secured, and it looked like a perfect place to locate my callsign. So I did just that. I returned to the shop a few weeks later and had them create a custom patch with my callsign (these services are also offered via their web site). I think it looks great and it’s completely unique!

I also think this patch would be completely appropriate for a ham radio backpack. Or maybe not!

I’m also happy to report that I found the perfect carrying case for the FT-817 at U.S. Patriot! Photos and more details on that discovery to come.

Little Mountain Letdown

Setting up atop Little Mountain. My Buddistick is in the foreground (obviously!)

I ended up making the journey to Little Mountain alone on Saturday. Nestled in my rucksack were 50 feet of RG8X, the FT-817ND and antenna tuner, a notepad and the Buddipole vertical antenna. I couldn’t have asked for nicer weather — about 80 degrees, clear, with blue skies and white clouds. It almost felt like a late fall morning, as the humidity was low and the temperatures were moderate for this region.

I located the access road to the top of the mountain on Google Maps and I didn’t have any problem finding it upon arrival. “Road” might be an exaggeration, as it was barely wider than a bike path. I drove uphill a bit and the path ended at a chain-link fence surrounding a large broadcast antenna system. I managed to get the car turned around and pulled off into a clearing, where there was ample shade and level ground. I was initially struck by how peaceful the site was. I could even hear church bells ringing from down in the town below. Very idyllic.

I set about methodically deploying the Buddistick and had no issues there. I decided not to use the 8-foot shock-cord mast, simply because I didn’t have anyone there to help me guy it off. I used the small tripod that came with the kit and anchored it down with some limbs of a fallen tree. I tuned the Buddistick “by ear” as described in the instruction manual. No problems there. I pulled out the recommended length of counterpoise wire, but without an antenna analyzer I could only try to get in the ballpark in regards to the proper length.

At any rate, once everything was connected, I was copying stations on 20 meters quite well. I intended to call CQ on the QRP calling frequency of 14.285, so I tuned up with the LDG, and self-spotted my frequency on Facebook in case a few of my buddies were near their rigs and wanted to give me a holler.

I started calling CQ.

Before I proceed, I guess I should let it be known than I’ve never had a successful phone QSO that originated from calling CQ. Pathetic? Yes. If I wanted to get technical, I had many QSOs from calling CQ on winter field day at a GOTA station, but we were using the club call, W4CAE, that day, and I had elmers guiding me every step of the way.

My attempts at CQing have been negative ever since. I don’t think I have a poor-sounding CQ preamble… after all, I have a background in broadcast radio from my college days. I just don’t think people find responding to a KK4 station in the Southeast very exciting on a day when there were dozens of special event stations up and down the dial.

But I called CQ over and over again on Saturday. I tried to remain upbeat and “be the radio wave.” No, I’m not Chevy Chase from Caddyshack or anything, but I often find a confident attitude can help break pile-ups. Seriously.

I heard several tune-ups on frequency so I kept calling. No response. Then I heard someone humming or singing in a strange way, as if to mock me. This type of response has become the norm on my CQ attempts. So I stopped calling and tuned around a bit, thinking I might nab a few special event stations.

Something didn’t seem right on the receive audio. It sounded very grainy and buzzy, like electrical interference. Sure enough, I’d setup directly under high-voltage power lines. Activating the noise blanker helped a great deal, but didn’t completely solve the issue.

I fooled around for about another hour, then broke down the station to head back to Columbia to meet with a friend. As I unplugged the feedline from the antenna the PL connector on the coax separated, with the center pin getting stuck in the Buddistick. Damn! I’d never even used this cable. I prized the connector free of the antenna with a pocketknife I decided to bring on a whim. Nothing on the antenna was damaged but the cable will need a new connector.

So I didn’t log any QSOs from the mountain, but I enjoyed a nice mosquito-free day under clear blue skies, sitting in the shade with a radio and watching the clouds drift by. Can’t ask for more than that.

Weekend destination: Little Mountain

Little Mountain, S.C., the highest point in the Midlands.

If the weather is nice and whatever sort of Cocoa Beach Influenza I picked up in Florida doesn’t have me laid up on Saturday, I plan to make the drive up to Little Mountain, S.C. and attempt to work SSB on the FT-817. Think of it as a SOTA-lite expedition, as Little Mountain isn’t actually in the SOTA database, so there’s no real opportunity to “activate” it.

At worst, I’ll get valuable field experience with my equipment. I haven’t even tried to set up and tune the Buddistick yet. Yikes!

Little Mountain is actually a small town in the South Carolina midlands, but it gets its name from the monadnock hill, Little Mountain, which is in fact the highest point in our state’s midland region at an elevation of 813 feet above sea level. There’s also a rather large radio tower atop the mountain, which houses at least one amateur repeater that our club uses when providing communication for cycling events in that area. On a good night, I can easily copy that repeater from my home QTH some 40 miles away.

A buddy of mine (who I’ve been trying to recruit into ham radio) is making the journey with me, so it would be great if we could actually log some successful QSOs. I hope the added 800 feet will help my little 5 watt phone signal get out farther.

QRP is a rude awakening

The Yaesu FT-817ND settles into my shack atop the 847.

The FT-817ND arrived today, just a day after I ordered it, so I wasted no time in getting it wired to my power supply and connecting the OCF dipole. Propagation was SICK Wednesday night on 20 meters, as stations from all over the globe were audible: Russia, eastern Europe, western Europe, the Caribbean, and stations from across North America.  It seemed like every time I spun the VFO knob I was hearing some faraway station at S8-S9+

What better time to work some DX QRP right? Well, when it comes to 5 watts, just because you can hear ‘em doesn’t mean you can work ‘em. Not with my antenna at least. There were stations calling CQ and just hanging out with no takers. I was barking into my mic over and over again. No response. The strongest station of the night, a German club station in Curacao, was LOUD and I couldn’t work it. But to be honest, there were a lot of alligators on frequency getting in my way.

Sure, the 817 isn’t the KX3, but I’m taking a little solace in knowing that my chances wouldn’t have been any better using a KX3. This 817 is a sweet little rig and I can understand why some folks are in love with it. I’m looking forward to really getting in there and tweaking the settings and learning all the various functions. I couldn’t even use the antenna tuner with it tonight because I couldn’t find enough AA batteries in the house to power it. Even so, the SWR meter on the 817 was showing a very low SWR, which is what I’ve come to expect with my dipole.

Once the Buddipole arrives, I’m off to Little Mountain!

That feeling you get when you just spent a lot of cash…

So the gear-up for SOTA, Field Day and backpack HF is basically done. Possibly against my better judgment, I’ve cancelled my KX3 order. Or maybe I was thinking logically for once…

I ordered a KX3 exactly a month ago, titling that blog post “Christmas is Coming,” simply because of the long wait to get one of the highly desirable units. As of today it looks like about 140 KX3s have shipped, and these were all orders placed back in late December. With no estimation on how long it might be before mine ships, I figured it wasn’t worth it to wait what could be the duration of the summer for a portable rig.

The Yaesu FT-817NDs had become very scarce recently and none of the major radio retailers had them for sale. Something about a manufacturing/supply/component issue. Anyway, I was on HRO yesterday and noticed that the 817 was back in stock. I e-mailed the nearby Atlanta shop and the shop manager immediately wrote me back: “Got ‘em in stock! … 4 here in the Atlanta store. Let me know ASAP as they are moving fast.”

I bypassed the website and called the Atlanta store and placed a phone order. For less than the price of a stock KX3, I was able to snag the 817, an LDG Z-817 antenna tuner, and a SignaLink, which I hope I can dual-purpose between the 817 and my 847 with the proper cabling. Within minutes the HRO guys sent me a shipping confirmation and told me to expect the rig in a day.

Then I popped over to buddipole.com and ordered the Buddistick package, a shock-cord mast and a guying kit. At this point, I STILL have cash left over from my KX3 budget.

To be honest, I’d rather have the KX3. But I’d also like to be in the field operating rather than waiting and wistfully reading the KX3 Yahoo group.

Worst case scenario, I use the 817 for the summer, enjoy it, make QSOs with it, use it for digital modes, take it to Field Day, climb some mountains, operate HF on my lunch break from the campus green, etc., and sell it off with the autotuner when the KX3 production has stabilized.

Photographer’s love dropping the cliche: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” I think that applies to radio also.

So my HF go-kit is looking like this:

I’d like to get a solar charging solution at some point also.