More changes; off-air again…

To say 2017 has been a year of upheaval for me would be an understatement.

A career change at the beginning of the year essentially obliterated my ability to attend meetings that I once enjoyed (amateur radio specifically), which in turn led to little to no involvement in the club that just the year before I’d been president of.

I’d been off-air for nearly a solid year, but this summer, I installed new high-performance coax and raised the 80-10m OCF dipole again, and got back to work making contacts, in search of the elusive remaining entities I need to complete the LoTW-only DXCC achievement (I need 4 more QSLs). I had a great run at the 13 Colonies, grabbing another full sweep.

Then I began a year-long photo-a-day project, which became a major commitment. I’m only halfway done. Once again, radio took a back-seat.

And now another change: I’ve moved across town. The shack is setup and I love my new home office space. Unfortunately, the property isn’t conducive to setting up a long dipole. I’ll be investigating some stealth options, perhaps even attic-based, or end-fed long wires. The shack is on the second floor, so that presents some feedline challenges, but I’m sure I can rig something up.

So in short, hopefully the new year will bring about a renewed interest in the hobby, along with some ideas on how to make radio work in this new location.

Now… what to do with hundreds of unused QSL cards that have the wrong address on them? Sigh.


A quick LOTW rant

UPDATE: So this process actually is pretty easy, as I suspected it was. A poster in the comments had a great “quick start” guide, which I didn’t even need to refer to, because it began the renewal automatically when I loaded up TQSL.

Ultimately, it’s fun ribbing the ARRL for their “quick and easy” 14-step process, but in reality, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I still contend the setup process for LOTW is what deters many hams from using it, although the setup is much easier nowadays with the modern version of TQSL.

The ARRL has been sending me e-mails this month reminding me that my Logbook of the World certificate is about to “expire.” Apparently, this happens every three years.

A link to renew is provided in the e-mail. For some reason I thought it would be as simple as clicking the link, and hitting a “Yes” button in a web browser. Similar to a “confirm your account” e-mail you receive after signing up for an online service.

Plus, the e-mail boasted that the renewal is “quick and easy” to do. So I clicked the link, and what I found was neither quick, nor easy. I found a 14-STEP PROCESS, written in that cryptic LOTW instructional style the ARRL is so fond of.

OK, so figuring this out probably won’t be hard for me because I’ve used LOTW for a while. I’ve set it up several times, managed a club certificate, moved certificates, etc., so I know my way around the system and understand how it works. But what about other people? LOTW is already enough of a pain to use, and here is yet another barrier. I know hams locally who never figured this out.

How about this ARRL… if you haven’t uploaded a properly-signed log in say, 2-3 years, THEN force the user to renew the certificate. Is there some reason this process can’t be more automated? Can we not just “follow a link” that automatically renews our cert?

Hey, maybe I shouldn’t complain. At least I don’t have to send off for another postcard.

LOTW is my preferred way to QSL. I would love it if all hams could use this, particularly DX stations. But the setup process and the usage is completely ridiculous. Also, the servers are still slow to process logs. We’re parsing plain text here, not trying to crack the Enigma. Why can’t they look at something like ClubLog and improve the product? Why is a 14-step process considered “quick and easy”?

At least it’s still free and you can’t argue with that. Set it up, ask for help if you need to, and stick with it. It’s worth it in the end.



Back in good shape with a clean sweep of the 13 Colonies

Since getting new low-loss coax the home station has been running better than ever. That was evidenced over the last few nights in trying to capture a clean sweep during the 13 Colonies Special Event.

I really enjoy working this one. I’m not as fast as some of these guys, and I often only operate in the evening for a few hours,  so it takes me a few days to get the sweep. I managed about half the stations easily, mostly working them on CW to avoid SSB logjams. Even so, when I went to SSB, I was able to crack the pile-up.

That was evidenced last night when I logged Virginia (K2B) for the final QSO of the event. He had a busy pile-up on 40 meters and operators were losing their sh!t on the cluster, badmouthing the operator for “not being able to control the pile-up” and other random stuff that some entitled hams feel they need to complain about. I really feel bad for operators who are working these special events and get this kind of treatment, particularly in this mostly trivial hobby.

Anyway, after seeing a dozen of these complaints roll up on about how horrible the K2B operator was, it was time for me to tune over and listen for myself. He was fine. He was busy, but whittling through the pile-up. His signal was also huge, being in that sweet spot range for 40 meters from my QTH.

I tossed my call into the void over hundreds of others. He got me immediately, 100% copy on my call. We exchanged signal reports and just like that, I was done with the event.

Looking back over my log, I had 21 total QSOs during the event, with 11 of those CW. I didn’t attempt digital modes. I had the most QSOs with K2K (New Hampshire) with dupes on 40m CW (oops), one on 20m phone and another on 20m CW. I grabbed K2L (my home state of SC on 80 meters CW and phone), and I also nabbed the bonus station of WM3PEN with a near ESP QSO with fading conditions on the 20m band.

I found CW a lot easier to deal with, even on the two split operations I worked (one was K2I, New Jersey, my penultimate QSO). There really is something magical about the K3 radio because it just gets heard, whether on CW or SSB. These splits were a piece of cake, especially using the P3 panadaptor (I say this to people so often I feel like a broken record, but it’s really an advantage). I also have to give a hand to the Yamaha CM500 headset. These things are comfortable and I can listen without getting ear fatigue. They just sound good.

Speaking of CW, using my key after two cups of coffee resulted in some poor code — too nervous! However drinking a couple beers seemingly improved my fist and my operating, as I found myself hitting the keyer with a lot more confidence.

This is the second year I’ve done the full sweep. Maybe I’ll even send off for the QSL card this time!

Dutch Fork team wins the state for S.C. QSO Party

Results from the South Carolina QSO Party were posted yesterday and it looks like our Dutch Fork team, W4DFG, finished with a massive score, effectively winning the multi-operator, multi-transmitter category.

I don’t know how many multi-multi entries there were overall, but our score of 217,451  was still among the highest submitted in the entire contest. Only one other station cracked 200,000 and that honor went to N4CW, who finished with 894 CW QSOs to our all-mode (but heavily SSB-weighted) mix  of 625.

I’m always amazed when a station — particularly a mobile one — like N4CW can reach these high QSO counts, particularly on CW during a contest that is traditionally been very SSB-saturated. Operating from ideal conditions at the Dutch Fork shack, with Yagi antennas, longwires and loops, we weren’t struggling, but clearly we fell short of N4CW.

High digital mode QSO counts also leave me scratching my head, as digital modes just don’t seem to be as popular for this QSO party. I attempted RTTY and PSK efforts but got very few takers. Some were just casual ragchew ops that responded not even knowing we were contesting.

Regardless, I was happy to be part of the team that made the effort happen. Considering we weren’t a “bonus station” this year, we still put up a good on-air presence and made a lot of contacts through persistence and tenacious operating.

Best Field Day at home ever


This isn’t me, but I share the sentiment.

I seem to be one of the few hams that really doesn’t care for Field Day. It starts too late in the day, the scores don’t really mean anything, and it’s generally been a mess every year I’ve participated.

Here in the south, Field Day typically falls on a brutally hot day of the year, which always leads to an afternoon storm. It’s damp, muggy, and miserable. Still, I get the point, and there are aspects of it that are fun — the food and friends mostly.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d fallen out of love with the hobby a bit. I’ve only recently taken some steps to get back on-board after nearly a year of being off the air at home. While ambitious plans were in place at both of the clubs I visit, I decided I wasn’t going to even visit the FD sites. That did change, as I wanted to see some of my old buddies.

The folks at Dutch Fork had a relatively quiet, competitive effort going and word has it they cleared more than 1,000 QSOs. That’s great. They also have the benefit of running from a nicely appointed shack/EOC with real antennas.

The club I was formerly president of, The Columbia Amateur Radio Club, planned a gathering at an exceptionally beautiful lakeside retreat. The difference there is you’d never know a ham event was taking place, as all the operators were huddled in their own campers/trailers. I did speak with one of my favorite gents of the hobby, Bill, W4FSV, who was old-schooling it in a picnic shelter with a KX3, low dipole and his CW paddles.

I arrived home from my Field Day tour and my wife and I had a leisurely meal, followed by a craft beer run. It was after 9 p.m. when I finally turned on the rig and began operating.

The bands sounded decent, with SSB featuring the usual chaotic mess. I tuned over to the RTTY portion of 20 meters and started there, then clicked over to 40 meters.

Hey guys, pro tip: don’t use PSK macros for RTTY in a “contest” situation. I don’t need all the “best 73 and good DX, god bless, logging this QSO at 01:38:00 GMT / dit-dit” crap. Just provide the class and section, preferably 2-3 times, and regurgitate my callsign so I know you have it properly. I half expected to get “WX here raining, 73 degrees” on some of these exchanges. Also, why bother sending a paragraph of text to tell a station he’s a dupe? Log it (or don’t) and move on.

Yeah I know… “it’s not a contest.” That’s why the curmudgeon in me ended up going to CW and staying there for a long time. Lean, fast QSOs and no BS, as always. I wasn’t sitting in a pile feverishly screaming my callsign into the mic — I was working stations. And while I never achieved a fast rate, it was steady, and I worked everything I heard.

I ended the night after about three hours of operating with 102 QSOs. I planned to try for more the next morning, but I overslept and it was nearly noon when I got back on the air. 10 meters was jumping and I managed the most SSB of the event on this band. Ultimately I reverted back to RTTY/CW and finished with 125 QSOs in the log.

That’s not a lot of QSOs, but when I think back to my first “serious” overnight FD a few years back, I struggled to even get a hundred. In fact, I think this may have been the most QSOs I’ve ever logged on Field Day. No doubt, working from the peace and quiet of my home station probably helped.

Back in business

After a nearly year-long hiatus from being able to operate HF from my home, I’m back on the air.

Right before last year’s 13 Colonies special event I discovered damage to my feedline. There wasn’t really anything I could do but junk the whole run of cable. I took down my dipole too, because I thought I would put up another type of antenna, such as an end-fed, or maybe even a Spiderbeam.

Weeks turned into months. And eventually I found myself at a crossroads, not only with the hobby, but with other aspects of life as well. I focused on other efforts, such as writing, and in fact another radio amateur and I cranked out two screenplays last summer.

I focused on some other hobbies, but I mostly worried about my career, as my previous employer was going through “a transition” of sorts. I knew I needed to seek other employment, or else I’d probably wind up the casualty of a reduction in force.

By the time December rolled around, I was basically done with ham radio. I shambled through my final months as president of the local club, an organization I loved, and had faithfully attended every meeting for the past five years. I’ve since stopped attending.

I gave up a prestigious position in the officer line at the lodge. It was a position I’d been waiting to take since joining the lodge, but something inside me said it was time to walk away, and so I did. I’ve also stopped attending these meetings. I didn’t renew my dues with other Masonic groups either, the Scottish and York rites.

By February, I was installed in a position with local government, essentially doing the same sort of work I’ve done for the past dozen or so years.

There was an uptick in radio interest for a moment. I participated with another club for the S.C. QSO Party and we smashed the scores for multi-multi operation. I had a brief flirt with some targeted DXing and grabbed two ATNOs, but my enthusiasm for that ended quickly.

I found a new hobby… playing the bass guitar. To purchase the bass, I sold off the 24-year-old American Stratocaster that I’d owned since college — an instrument I swore I’d never sell. I’m much happier with the bass to be honest. I don’t have a long history with it, but it’s more fun to play, and I’m already playing bluegrass basslines with a buddy of mine who plays banjo.

I also go interested in street photography again (I’m warming up for a trip I plan to take to Cuba in November), and I purchased a Fujifilm X100F for that purpose. I’m loving it!

I considered selling all my radio gear recently, but before I quit, I want to achieve DXCC via LOTW. I set a soft deadline to have an antenna back up before the 13 Colonies this year. I wanted to get the feedpoint of the antenna closer to my shack, but since I never figured out what kind of antenna I wanted to erect, I decided to just go with the trusty OCF again. This time, I opted for the stout low-loss LMR 400-style coax in an effort to minimize losses over the 150-foot run.

Saturday I woke up and went to work getting the antenna back up. Is there anything worse in ham radio than hanging a dipole? Jeez. It always turns into a mess of backlashed rope/wire, fighting with limbs, etc. I used my fishing rod to cast a bolt over the same limb I used before, pulled up some paracord, and hoisted the OCF up. Everything was going well until I realized I’d literally been pressing my face into a patch of poison ivy while I was tying off the center balun. No ill effects so far…

Then I was off climbing a tree to tie off the short arm, and later, into the swamp behind the house, which was dank with primordial ooze from a recent storm. I was ankle deep in muck, hauling the long leg southward when I realized there could be wildlife back here. Like alligators. Most certainly snakes. I quickly tied off the antenna and got out of there.

Back in the shack, I was receiving signals nicely. 10 meters was even popping. I issued a CQ on 40 meters and 20 meters CW and verified I was being received on the Reverse Beacon Network for both bands. Yep, I was getting out.

And that was all the radio I did for the weekend. I’m glad to have the antenna back up and working, but I need to get motivated as well. How can I get my interest level back up? Suggestions?

Two all-time new ones!

I was looking back on my Logbook of the World account the other night and lamenting the fact that I’ve been stuck at 93 confirmed DXCC entities for at least a few years now. As I’ve posted here before, I’ve contacted more than 100 countries, but I really want to complete the award using LOTW confirms only.

So I thought it was time for some targeted DXing. Scour the clusters, find the obscure countries, determine if they are on LOTW, and if so, try to work them. As I am still down an antenna here, I met up with friends Saturday morning over at the Little Mountain shack to use the tri-bander.

GP0STH, Guernsey Island

Right off the bat we snagged GP0STH, Guernsey Island, on 20m phone. There were a few other interesting prospects on the dial. Vatican City was booming but working a pile 5-10 up. The operator isn’t an LOTW user, but we gave it a shot anyway to no success.

A code operator from Ghana was also operating a split pile-up but an inability to get heard, plus massive QSB made that attempt a failure as well.

Fortunately,  a DXpedition in Niger had a great pair of ears. 5U5R was operating split on 15-meter CW. I jumped in and he got me after about 5 minutes of trying. I felt like it may have been an ESP QSO, so I was encouraged when I checked his online log this morning and found a confirmation for my callsign!

So that’s a few new ones in the book and hopefully they will result in LOTW confirmations. If so, I’m five away from the wallpaper!

Nice effort for the S.C. QSO Party

A group of us decided to break away from normal club plans and team up for the South Carolina QSO Party this year. We chose to operate from the shack of the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group and used their callsign, W4DFG.

We had two K3s (mostly used for SSB), a Kenwood 590 on CW, and a Yaesu 857 for digital modes. Owing to a work commitment, I didn’t arrive at the shack until nearly two hours after the contest started, but I planned to stay in until the end. I quickly setup my K3 and had three major problems right off the bat:

One, the bandpass filter I was handed was causing a very high SWR during anything but the shortest transmissions. I pulled that and we later discovered something inside it had burned out.

Next, the power supply I borrowed (some Radio Shack thing), couldn’t handle long transmissions, such as a RTTY CQ, and as such, my radio kept cutting off. We fixed that issue by swapping in an Astron.

Third, N1MM was freezing up and complaining about my digital setup (specifically, the port). I’d just updated the software the night before and thought I’d tested it thoroughly. Evidently I hadn’t. Anyway, after futzing with that for a couple minutes, I saw my error and I was up to full speed and calling CQ on 20 meter voice.

Sounds like a mess, but this is the typical shakedown after picking up my rig and moving to an unfamiliar location.  Anyway, I had the pleasure of using the shack’s tri-band beam, and that’s always a pleasure. We aimed it west and left it there for the duration of the day and we were able to work just about everything we heard. I didn’t do any search and pounce, and my voice paid for it, especially since I was already nursing a bit of a sore throat/head cold to begin with. I went through a half bag of cough drops and pressed on.

Oh, and I added a neat new piece of kit to my setup: The Yamaha CM500 headset. At a fraction of the price of the Heil Pro Set, the Yamaha seemed to do a fine job. I had multiple unsolicited good reports on the quality of my audio. I didn’t really alter the settings I use for the Heil PR781 (which are the Heil-suggested settings), but I did use less compression and a lot less mic gain, since the Yamaha has an electret mic.

The best part is the easy setup. The K3 has connectors on the rear for headphones and a mic, so the Yamaha plugged in without needing any special adaptors or splitters. The only thing I had to do was switch the K3’s settings to use the rear mic panel and turn on the bias. I was able to run on VOX the whole time and keep my hands free for logging.

So how did the contest go? Fine I’d say! I made 160 QSOs from my station, mostly on SSB, but I did break into some RTTY for a bit. However with the North American QSO Party RTTY contest going, it made for some confusing exchanges. I finally just started sending the NAQP exchange AND the SCQP exchange at the same time. I operated mostly on 20 meters, but dipped into 15 meters for a bit, and did quite a few QSOs on 40 meters later in the day.

The other SSB station, which started on time, managed nearly twice as many QSOs and had a revolving door of operators. We also had a few code operators, who racked up more than 130 CW contacts. Our digital guy probably had the hardest job of the day because there just aren’t many digital participants in this contest, but he did pick up a bonus station on PSK, and another dozen or so contacts, which gave him a nice score.

I noticed quite a few bad attitudes on the air, and I got the full force of one during a run on 20 meters. It went something like this:

After more than 20 minutes of operating on a remarkably clear frequency, 14.263 —

Unknown annoyed guy: “You guys need to move away, you’re interfering with the DX on 261.”

Me: “I’m sorry to hear that friend, I’ve been looking at my panadaptor and I’m clear on both sides.”

Annoyed guy: “OK have it your way, you just keep being an idiot and I’ll keep calling on top of you.”

Me: “No one’s interfering with me. I haven’t heard a thing but the stations calling me.”

Annoyed guy: “Get a better antenna.”

(By now I’m eyeing the K3 and thinking about the giant Yagi I’m using… it doesn’t get much better to be honest.)

I was pretty stunned because I’d cleared the frequency asking if it was in use no less than three times before calling CQ. I wasn’t being interfered with at all. I’m running only 100 watts, and as I mentioned to the a$$hole, the band scope showed a mostly clear portion.

I tuned up to .261 to see what the fuss was about. There was no DX there. No, he was actually at .258 (maybe he moved?), and his sidebands were splattering nearly as far out as .261. Oh, and what was this RARE entity that was worth such angst from my annoyed friend? An American operating from Costa Rica. Wow, that’s right up there with Navassa Island bro.

I had a similar incident later on 40 meters, when a guy jumped in on top of my callers and made a rant about foreigners. Then someone called him an idiot and the frequency erupted in insults. I just moved off that, waited a moment and came back to it once the troll had moved on, presumably to 7.200.

I wasn’t the only person fighting trolls, as I heard our other SSB station run off a few.

But overall, a strong finish on the day. We logged 639 QSOs and should have a top finish in our class!

The long dry spell is over


The beam at Dutch Fork works wonders with 5 watts!

Wow. I just realized I haven’t posted in early July. That’s quite a dry spell, and so much has changed since then:

  • I am no longer president of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club, as my year term expired, and I didn’t opt for a second.
  • I am no longer employed with the school I’d worked at for the past six years.
  • I haven’t done any meaningful ham radio in ages.

Well, one thing hasn’t changed, and that is that I STILL don’t have an antenna up here at home. When the system failed back last July, I kept putting off the installation of a new antenna and coax owing to the brutal southern heat. As we transitioned into fall and winter, there were other priorities. My rig has gone unused for quite a while.

It’s hard to say what happened. My interests tend to swing wildly. Being president of the radio club was something akin to “seeing how the sausage was made” and I found myself planning meetings, developing agendas, building programs, and a dozen other things that basically shifted my radio interest from operating to administration.

Then there were other hobbies: Astrophotography, my vintage bulletin board system, learning Python, horology, picking up the guitar again, scriptwriting, and hell, metal detecting. While I wasn’t on the radio, I took beautiful images of the night sky, my BBS grew exponentially, I started coding an adventure game in Python, I collaborated on two feature-length screenplays, expanded my watch collection and met some interesting relic hunters. It’s been a busy year!

I’m still involved in public information with the club, and I am still grinding out the monthly newsletter, but I have enjoyed being just another “bum on the bus” at recent gatherings.

But I’m ready to get back to the radio. Saturday I met with “The Steves” — KI4VGA and W4SJD, at the local Waffle House for breakfast, after which, we headed over to the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group’s shack in Little Mountain.

I kept it simple: Yaesu FT-817. However, I was able to plug into the 20m beam located some 70-80 feet up a tower. Even 5 watts does wonders on a beam like that. I never even considered needing more power as I operated PSK31. I was simply testing my station when I sent a CQ out and someone immediately responded off the backside of the beam. We aimed towards the EU and I called CQ, working England, several Italian stations, and a Canadian.

Just for fun we clicked over to SSB and I one-shotted the first station I heard, a gentleman who was operating for the Vermont QSO Party. All three of us worked him in succession at 5 watts SSB. Further up the dial, I located a Minnesota QSO Party station and we repeated the process.

We also logged some QSOs with Switzerland. The only thing we never managed was breaking a pile-up into Portugal. Even so, it was a great little outing and not bad at all for an hour and a half. Once I arrived home I logged the QSOs and I already have some confirmations on LOTW.

I hope to get rolling at home again soon. I’m currently investigating the possibility of putting a small Mosley beam on the roof. I even have the wife’s permission!

Small steps.

Coax dead, HF down…

I was looking forward to chasing down the 13 Colonies again this year. I managed a sweep in 2015 and never sent off the QSL card, so I hoped to remedy that this year. It was late by the time I made it into the shack, I turned on the rig and tuned around. There were no signals to be found anyway. The panadapter showed no activity. The bands were utterly silent. Even for this low point in the solar cycle, that seemed unusual.

I unscrewed the coax from the back of the radio and jiggled it around a bit. That seemed to help and suddenly the bands were loud and I could hear some faint signals. So the coax jumper has gone bad. I’ll replace it. A few moments later, I had the same problem: very low noise and no activity on the bands.

At this point I figured maybe the antenna port on the back of the K3 was bad. I switched to the second port and had the same poor result. Time to hook up another radio. I connected the FT-817 and nothing, zip, zilch. Again, unscrewing the connector and jiggling it a bit seemed to help. At this point I realized I was simply shorting the coax and the cable itself was functioning as a rudimentary antenna. There must be a problem either in my dipole or the 150-foot run of coax leading to it.

At it was nearly 10 p.m. by now, there was very little I could do, so I turned everything off.

Saturday morning. I took the 817 outside, unplugged the external feed line from the window jumper and connected it to the 817. No signals. In inspecting the outdoor coax, I found several patches where the outer jacket of the RG8X had been chipped (chewed?) away and the braided shield was exposed and damaged. This could have certainly allowed water in. As I removed the coax, I came to a corner where it was really beat up and nearly severed in half. Even if the water didn’t get in there, the damage in this particular spot was enough to wreck the whole system.

I lowered the dipole, disconnected the RG8X and tossed it in the trash.

So now I had a long holiday weekend and no antenna… but wait, I DO own a Buddistick. That will have to do.

Saturday afternoon I deployed it on a mast in my front yard and ran a 50-foot run of coax back to the shack. I was able to tune it using the FT-817, to a fairly lower SWR in the voice portion of 40 meters.

Ugh, the noise! I had no luck on SSB so I switched to CW and despite a high SWR in the CW portion of 40, the K3’s tuner provided a match. (I should have gone out and re-tuned, but good lord it was hot outside Saturday…) I turned my power back a bit and let ‘er rip. I managed to get every 13 Colonies station I could hear in the log and also grabbed some on 20 meters later for good measure.

I worked a few more Sunday, including one of the bonus stations, WM3PEN on CW. In total I only managed 7 of the 13, three of those were SSB and the other four were CW. Pretty pathetic, but I did what I could with the vertical. I didn’t manage to get my own state, South Carolina, or our neighbor Georgia.

I did snag:

  • Maryland
  • Delaware
  • New York (CW, two bands)
  • New Jersey (two modes)
  • Pennsylvania

Talk about coming up short.

Anyway, this is a good time for me to change my setup at home a bit. I’ve wanted a different antenna for some time now, even though the OCF dipole was doing a great job and it probably is the best antenna for my situation. My wife has told me I can “put anything on the roof” that I want, so I’m considering a hex beam, HOA be damned. That will be several months down the road though.

Looks like only temporary antennas for the time being.