Field Day 2013, or, How I survived for 24 hours on Coke Zero and donuts

Carl operating on the Flex. Show-off!

Carl operating on the Flex. Show-off!

Well, Field Day has come and gone again. After spending weeks/months anticipating and preparing for it, it’s a downer now that it’s over,  Our club, W4CAE, operated 5A this year from a retreat center in Sesquicentennial State Park. Unofficial tally is somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 QSOs last I heard.

I operated digital modes exclusively, focusing on RTTY and PSK31. I managed to get 96 QSOs in the log, plus another 4-5 SSB QSOs just to break 100. I don’t know if that’s good or bad to be honest. Last year, operating with 2.5-5 watts on a single band for under 8 hours, I only managed 23. I knew I would get more than 23 this year, but I hoped for more than 100. As usual, the CW guys cranked out hundreds more than anyone else.

I realize there are several things I could have done better: One, get mechanical filters on the rig to deal with strong adjacent signals on both PSK and RTTY; two, improve my antenna; three, get some sort of filtering in place to deal with QRM from radios at the FD site; and four, lock myself in a room so the general public isn’t watching me like a fish in a bowl.

The day started off with issues. I arrived on site a bit later than I should have, rolling up around 10 a.m. I figured this would be plenty of time to get my station setup and help with anything else. On arrival, I was advised the building was locked. There were already a handful of guests and our club president was holding court with them, talking about the finer points of wire antenna construction. A small troop of Boy Scouts also appeared, as they were going to be working on their radio merit badges with a few club members.

FD organizer Todd started placing some lines in the surrounding trees to hoist the antennas. To accomplish this, he was using a pneumatic air cannon — always a crowd pleaser. That didn’t sit well with a park ranger, who feared we were going to defile the pine trees. After we received a stern talking-to, some of the members convinced the ranger we would respect the environment, and we were soon back to launching lines.

My station, compact, but it got the job done.

My station, compact, but it got the job done.

It took me all of 15 minutes to get my rig and computer up and running. I was feeling confident as the 2 p.m. start time approached. I’d tested my computer with N1MM extensively. My antenna, a borrowed G5RV, was loading nicely, signals were sounding good and there were about a million traces on the PSK waterfall waiting to be captured.

I was ready to make some QSOs when the wheels fell off. My computer kept hanging. More specifically, N1MM was freezing over and over again. We finally determined using N1MM in networked mode was causing the hangups — a disaster, because being able to run networked was crucial to the Field Day plan.

The solution was to borrow another club member’s laptop. I installed and reconfigured all the programs again, N1MM, the update, the data files for our club, FLdigi, MMTTY, etc. It was 4 p.m., two full hours after the start time, before I logged a QSO.

I should also mention that we had two journalists visit the site, a reporter from a local TV station, and a reporter/videographer from a local Patch.com affiliate, so I dropped what I was doing to walk them around and introduce them to some folks. Either the press releases I wrote were effective, or it was a slow news day.

The TV journalist seemed hellbent on working the tired “zombie apocalypse” trope into her package, so I played along, recalling my favorite scenes from Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and offered a visual dealing with “hams huddling in a boarded-up basement, running a rig off a car battery while shooting signals over to Russia.” This made her happy, although I declined to be interviewed on-camera, deferring that honor to Richard, who gave her an earful.

It’s hard to describe how chaotic the environment itself was. One guy’s SSB output was ear-splitting. Every time I keyed my rig, the high-pitched whines of PSK would erupt through his speakers. The chatter of people walking around was equally deafening. I don’t mind talking to observers, but please, give me space. I’m trying to make sense of a screenful of gibberish – I don’t feel like explaining the esoteric points of phase shift keying to a new technician. I’m trying to score points.

At one point I had an entire family, mom, dad and three squirming kids, encircling me. Another time I had a young ham and his crotchety old-ham dad observing and the old ham demanded I show him my “brag tape.” I tried to explain I was using contest macros and I didn’t have a “brag tape.” Random discussions from new technicians on their Chinese handhelds and “bouncing signals off clouds” … “I’ve only been a ham for two days” … kids getting their greasy grub hooks on my 5D Mark II camera and smearing some sort of remnants of macaroni and cheese on the control dial. Uggghhhhhhh.

Richard, being grilled by a WLTX reporter.

Richard, being grilled by a WLTX reporter.

Last year I was restricted to working 15 meters in our 11A setup, so I felt liberated that I could switch bands this year. Digital work seems to come and go in waves: I’d call CQ 90% of the time, and would eventually run out of PSK stations to work on frequency. So I’d switch to RTTY. When RTTY ran dry, I’d go to another frequency and resume PSK, repeating the cycle between 15/20/40 meters.

By 1 a.m., I felt like I’d worked about everything I was going to work. I recall issuing CQ FD more than 50 times without any response on any band/mode.  1:15 rolled around and it was time for the crucial 100-point satellite QSO attempt with SO-50. Even that went to hell, as we never even heard the satellite. I can’t recall a single time I’ve tried to work SO-50 that I haven’t heard it.

I broke down my station and headed home just a few miles up the road. I regret that I didn’t stay on for five more hours, as I think I could have contributed something, although I was too bleary to even try CW and we had two guys on SSB covering things nicely. I didn’t get any sleep, and by 7 a.m. I returned to the site to help take down antennas.

What worked

  • N1MM’s digital interface. I never want to mess with HRD again for a contest. This is simply the best/fastest way to work and log digital modes.
  • The FT-847. About 8+ hours of key-down operating at 20-60 watts and it never stopped kicking along. I fully expected to burn this radio up on FD and already had its replacement, the Elecraft K3, in the shopping cart on their web site. But the 847 survived.
  • 15 meters. The band was open after dinner and I was able to get some interesting contacts. PSK was much nicer on 15 meters, as the frequency wasn’t jammed with signals and I was able to carve out a nice pocket for myself.
  • Coke Zero and packaged donuts. I managed to stay jacked up on sugar and caffeine for the entire event.
  • RTTY. This is the mode to use for digital contests. First of all, it’s faster than PSK. Second, RTTY users approach the mode with the style of brevity used with CW contacts. No bull, no wasted time, no pointless text. Just calls and exchanges, the way it should be.
  • The Field Day Dashboard. Real-time tracking of states/provinces worked and QSO counts using data pulled from the N1MM log. It was exciting logging a new state and turning around to see the state “light up” on the big screen.
  • Public relations. We had a huge turnout, with at least 70+ visitors. For a moment around dinner time I turned around to see the room packed and all I could muster was “who the hell are all these people and where did they come from.” I don’t think my press releases contributed to that, but they certainly lured two media organizations. We also had several served agencies there (thanks to N4TAL), and an ARRL representative from the Roanoke Division stopped by — I did e-mail him and tell him about our operation.
I took a break from operating and looked up to see dozens of guests enjoying dinner. Where did they come from?

I took a break from operating and looked up to see dozens of guests enjoying dinner. Where did they come from?

What didn’t work

  • My computer. Thanks to inexplicable issues my machine crapped out right before starting time. That resulted in me logging my first QSO nearly two hours later than everyone else.
  • SO-50. I envisioned a heroic satellite QSO to rack up that 100-point bonus, but the bird was silent on the one shot we had at it.
  • Rallying local elected officials. As far as I know, none of the elected officials I invited came to the site. I had a phone call from the mayor of a nearby town who mentioned he’d try to stop by, but unless he came and didn’t speak to anyone, I think we missed a 100-point opportunity.
  • Me. I intended to do a lot more photography and shoot/edit a video. With the computer snafu and the scramble to straighten it out, and my determination to get more QSOs, the video effort fell apart. I did shoot some photos, but not nearly the number I typically would.
  • The site. I think we all agreed to try FD at a different location next year. The retreat center was a good location to spread out, setup, and host a lot of people, but there were some issues with actual operating that caused concerns. Mainly, the noise level inside the building was unbearable. I’m talking about acoustic noise specifically, not electrical. Outside, our building was surrounded by power lines, and those didn’t help. I don’t recall a problem with electrical noise, but they certainly posed a challenge with antenna placement.
Burning the midnight oil on SSB.

Burning the midnight oil on SSB.

All in all, it was a successful Field Day. I really enjoyed the competitive aspect of it, and wish we held events like this more than once a year. Onward to the NAQP RTTY contest in late July!

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