Extended duties = less time on radio

The first full week of the new year is already off to an interesting start. Monday, I conducted the first 2016 meeting of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club as the newly-elected president, and to be honest, I had a blast.

We dispensed with old and new business efficiently and got right into the program, which was a timely presentation on National Parks on the Air which segued into a quick update on the South Carolina QSO Party (we’re shooting for a “Carolinas Weekend” in February), and I closed the presentations with details on our Winter Field Day effort.

I started transitioning into my new role as the club’s president back in November, literally the day after I was elected. Since then, I’ve met with the club’s emergency trailer committee (we’ve since deployed the trailer several times to workout kinks and hope to use it in full capacity for Winter Field Day). I’ve met individually with our VP, and trained the incoming treasurer, and managed to get him on the bank account before the new year started. By comparison, when I was treasurer, it was more than a year before I was able to even sign a check.

I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with our board. I’ve been using Evernote to share out agendas and other club paperwork, I’ve been looping in the entire board on e-mail discussions, asking for opinions and feedback, passing around forms to get an idea what kinds of topics our membership would like, and I’ve assigned work to our directors. I brought in a new net manager, and he’s taken it upon himself to experiment with the tired net script and bring some new life into the proceedings.

We’ve already had a contentious board meeting that had its share of disagreement and anger, but I think we’re better for it. There are likely to be more disagreements, as we have some strong personalities on our board. That’s a good thing.

One thing I wanted to focus on this year included a commitment to helping bring more of our members to HF. I think we’re going to make that happen as we bring the club’s trailer into the field for some operating days. I also want to focus on making the monthly presentations great again, and bringing some real value to our workshops and education sessions.

I also have to be mindful of our club’s public service commitments, which are numerous. To that end, we’ve created a special committee to exclusively handle event planning. Next on the list will be an examination of how we select events to work. There is at least one event we support that is neither charitable, or connected to any sort of awareness campaign. I don’t personally believe in asking our members to support events unless they have a public component, else our volunteers are little more than free laborers.

So, in short our club is busy. And that makes ME busy by virtue of the new responsibilities I’ve assumed. That leaves me less time for radio on my own, but maybe I can help some new guys learn the ropes.

I do hope to work some NPOTA stations and my SOTA buddy (and club VP), Steve, is already making plans for us to activate a nearby national park. I can’t wait!

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Back on the air

And I’m back… both on the air and on the Internet.

A few weeks ago I was examining my analytics and noticed quite a bit of traffic being referred to my site from a strange domain that was not ham-radio related. That also seemed to coincide with some weird comments that appeared on some postings here. So I made the site private for a few weeks  in hopes that whatever was going on would blow over. We’ll see how things look after a few days.

qsos-on-10I finally took some time this weekend to get back on the air, and it couldn’t have been a better weekend for it. I’d been hearing about all this great action on 10 meters, and hoped to get a piece of the action before conditions changed. Saturday, 10 meters was wide open to just about everywhere. I’ve never heard 10 meters — or any other band — that active in the few years I’ve been fooling with this stuff. I could hear stations on top of stations. From the bottom of the amateur portion to the top. Signals were so loud, I was riding the RF gain control about mid-way, with the attenuator in-line, and could STILL copy weak stations. It was the first time I think I’ve had to use the K3’s SSB narrow filtering and shift to really separate stations and it worked quite well.

It probably helped that the CQ Worldwide SSB contest was in full-swing, and I was able to work quite a few stations on 10 meters in an hour and a half. Some of the more interesting ones included Slovenia, Germany, Croatia, France, Spain, St. Croix, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Idaho, Costa Rica and the U.K.

15 meters was just as busy and I had a few QSOs there as well. I never made it to 20 meters or the lower bands since I got my fill of action on 10 and 15.

For whatever reason, I haven’t been enjoying radio as much in recent months, mostly because I felt like I needed a directional antenna to compete with the other guys out there. Saturday definitely proved that you don’t need a big antenna to have fun, particularly when conditions are right. There was more action than I could handle just on the lowly dipole.

Ironically, a local ham offered to give me a 10 meter beam a few months back and I laughed off his offer, assuming 10 meters was just never going to become active anytime soon. Now I look like a real jughead for not taking him up on that.

Elsewhere…

I must offer apologies for being such a miserable bastard in the tone of my recent postings. Before I went offline, I ranted a bit about JOTA/JOTI. Having now volunteered for JOTA, I can appreciate how difficult it is to make the jamboree “work.” My pal Steve and I worked with about 130 scouts — most were very young, 7-10 years old, and as hyper as you’d expect kids that age to be. It was a challenge to keep them focused on radio.

We discovered they enjoyed playing with the CW paddles and keys — and why not — they can press a lever and make rhythmic noises. What’s not to like about that? Note to self, bring more code oscillators next time.

I tried to lecture them a bit on radio wave propagation and how signals bounce off the atmosphere. We explained Morse code and demoed it by tapping out some of the participants’ names. We kept the whacker/emcomm chat to a minimum. I actually spoke to a handful of parents who were interested in the hobby and told them how to get licensed, what to study, how to get involved, etc.

We had trouble making any contacts on HF, owing to a QSO party that camped out around some of the JOTA frequencies on 40 meters. We didn’t fare much better on 20 meters either, since we were running off batteries and didn’t have the output to break through. We did hear a lot of scouts on the air, but there were pile-ups on the loudest stations. Steve did manage to get some of our scouts talking to a gentleman a few states away on 40 meters, but band conditions degraded rapidly, along with attention spans.

We grew tired of trying to make HF contacts, so I spent a large portion of the day hiking in the nearby woods with a handheld and the scouts talked to me on 2 meters from the base.

I think JOTA may be better suited for older scouts — I don’t think any of the kids we saw had even made Webelo yet. Also, it would have been ideal if we could have been stationed indoors, particularly after bad weather rolled in during the late afternoon. But it also occurred to Steve and I that JOTA requires a lot of dedication from hams who aren’t affiliated with the scouts. If there aren’t hams out there to talk to, the whole thing fails.

Organizers seem to envision a pipe-smoking Ward Cleaver at his ham set, complete with glowing tubes, merrily chatting with scouts that just walked off the cover of a 1960s-era issue of Boys’ Life, with the spirit of Baden-Powell overseeing everything. In reality, the weekend is filled with contesting, QSO parties and rapid exchanges. I imagine it’s hard to find a moment to talk to some nervous scouts.

Also, enough credit can’t be given to the hams who bring their own gear for the scouts to use. One cannot underestimate the destructive power of children (or the lassitude of lax parents watching from several feet away), and I was surprised our gear came out unscathed!

Overall, it was a good experience. I’d like to try it again in the future under more ideal conditions, and with an older group of participants.

Photos from Run Wild

KF4UOR, keeping runners safe.

KF4UOR, keeping runners safe.

My radio club participated in the Run Wild 5K this weekend, and about 16 of us spread out in the woods of Sesquicentennial State Park to provide communications for hundreds of runners.

I was assigned what had to be the coolest post — the roaming photographer. I walked the course and made a point to stop at each station and chat with the hams working there. I know from having worked a lonely outpost in the woods during last year’s run, that it’s nice to have someone to chat with from time to time during these long events.

The full batch of photos can be seen over at the club’s website.

Excellent read, plus a minor rant…

Wow, this is just perfect: From NT1K’s blog: EmComm and Whackers

First off, I don’t actually know any “whackers” — at least not the hardcore type detailed in that blog post. But I’m sure they are around, as we have an active MARS/RACES/ARES/Skywarn collective in our region. One of my best buddies in ham radio is involved in all those organizations, although he’s not a whacker. Despite my love of the hobby, I find myself with little interest in EmComm.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize hams perform a valuable service for the community in a time of crisis. If I’m ever called upon to help, I will without hesitation. I will likely attend training for EmComm at some point, and I’ve worked a lot of public service events this year. But the way I see it, I got into ham radio for the love of the technology. Radio for radio’s sake. I’ll leave emergency communication to the professionals. If they need my help, they will reach out to my club and hopefully my club will reach out to me.

On a similar, but unrelated note:

Several weeks ago, my club DID reach out to me. The MS 150, “Breakaway to the Beach” bike ride was coming up. Two days of cycling, covering 150 miles, ending at Myrtle Beach, to raise awareness for Muscular Dystrophy. They needed a sweep vehicle BADLY.

Now, I’ve swept bike rides before. Shorter rides. Our club is very service-oriented, and I do volunteer for as many events as I can. I especially try to support events I have a personal connection to. For instance: My mom succumbed to cancer in 2007, so I supported the Colon Cancer Challenge back in the spring. My grandmother suffers from dementia, so I helped at the NAMI Walk. My uncle has suffered for a long time with MS, so the MS 150 was a no-brainer. In fact, I like to support bike rides in general because I was once a cyclist. I was struck by a car in 2005, and narrowly escaped with minor injuries, despite being struck from behind by a car traveling at near highway speeds. So keeping cyclists safe on the mean streets of South Carolina is something I can get behind.

Anyway, the sweep car follows the very last cyclist, and periodically relays position information back to the control station, providing the location of the end of the ride. As I discovered on Saturday, it’s a difficult position to work on a 100-mile bike ride. It’s mentally demanding. You’re driving, checking a complicated 100-turn cue sheet, trying to protect riders from angry motorists who are frustrated that the bike riders are slowing them down, trying to maintain a safe position behind the slow-moving cyclists, relaying positions back to control, driving your car on the shoulder, stopping to help cyclists, calling for SAG trucks. You sometimes are called upon to backtrack to search for lost cyclists. Overall, it’s a challenging experience. The reward is the end, when that slow cyclist that’s been struggling for so many miles, finally pulls across the finish line.

All mobile volunteers supply their own vehicles, radio gear and gasoline. The cost adds up, especially for those who drive the larger trucks needed to perform basic support and gear. I drive a small hatchback, and I still ended up burning 3/4 a tank of gas during the day, not to mention the unknown wear and tear to brakes, clutch, tires and drivetrain.

Being a volunteer, I don’t expect anything from the folks who run these event — except perhaps a word of gratitude. Sadly, my personal experience at this particular event ended on a negative note, and I don’t plan to go into any detail in that matter.

I simply hope the folks who run events like this properly acknowledge, i.e., thank, the hams who volunteer. Don’t take what we do for granted. There are real people behind the voices on the radio — people who have made personal sacrifices and given of their time to help with something they believe in. Thank the volunteers — not just radio guys, but everyone — because without them, these events couldn’t happen.

A weekend of service

Sunrise over Sesquicentennial State Park, Columbia, S.C., just after 7 a.m., shot with an iPhone 4S.

Busy weekend! Saturday our club assisted at the Run Wild 5K event held at Sesquicentennial State Park (pictured above). We provided communication support for runners in the park’s maze of woodland trails. I was called into doing a little traffic detail about two miles down trail at a critical intersection that many runners would have blown past if someone hadn’t been there to point them in the right direction. Overall, we had great support from club members and more than enough hams to serve the event.

Sunday, I joined a group of hams for a large, specially-called VE session at a local church. Members of the church had been involved in “prepping” activities and recently took a Technician class. We had 23 candidates and all but one passed on the first shot. I was fairly busy at the session and got to do a little bit of everything, including running CSCEs out to the new hams, assisting with ID checks and various paperwork.

The most fulfilling portion of the session was serving on a special sub-team to administer the exam to a blind candidate. I filled out his answer sheet while another VE read the exam for him. A third VE assisted with paperwork and double-checked the proceedings. I scored the candidate’s test and he crushed it with a perfect score. In fact, his was the only perfect score I personally saw all day!

I’m sure in a few weeks we’ll be welcoming some new hams on the local nets!

Inching towards my 100th QSO

The bands were alive with contest activity this weekend, which allowed me to log a few more nice stations as I creep towards my 100th QSO.

I won’t list them all here, but I had nice contacts with stations in Romania, Canada, Slovenia, France, Italy, several islands in the Caribbean, and some states out west, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

I could have easily added more contacts this weekend, but nearly all my QSOs were with stations working the CQ-WPX contest. I’m not a contester, and to be honest, I’m not sure what the protocol is for non-contest stations during these events. As my list of QSOs stacked up, I wondered if I was expected to reciprocate and upload a contest log so the stations I worked would get credit. I’d been keeping track of the serial number exchange, errr, up to a point. I probably lost a couple of them.

So to prevent doing any further “damage” to the serious contesters, I stepped back and didn’t attempt to make any more contacts, at least until I know the proper way to handle them.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read (and also heard) in regards to ham radio is to always LISTEN first. I’m a strong believer in listening, but I would also add, use Google second! A quick search provided all the details of this past weekend’s contest, along with every QSO party I’ve thrown my callsign at. Had I looked up the CQ-WPX contest, I would have educated myself instead of blindly throwing out my callsign for the sake of adding a new DX entity to my logbook. I thought of myself first, instead of thinking of the contesters and how I might affect them.

I went back through my logs and submitted all my QSO party entries to their respective contest managers, even if I only made two QSOs for the event. Fortunately, the deadlines hadn’t passed. I didn’t bother logging the serial numbers from the ARRL DX contest a few weeks back, so I didn’t try sorting that out. I may submit a log to the CQ-WPX since I managed to mitigate the damage there somewhat.

I still find contests a nice way to test the limits of your gear, and make some exotic contacts. But I think I’ll stay away from the next contest or QSO party, unless I clearly understand the rules going into it.

Besides, there are better things to do some weekends. Our club offered community service this weekend at the Lexington Medical Center Colon Cancer Challenge, and honestly, it felt good helping out. I’ve participated in these types of events before, but as a bicyclist. It was nice being able to give back a bit. More importantly, my mother passed away in 2007 after a brief struggle against cancer, so being able to offer my services on Saturday was especially meaningful, even if it meant getting up at 5 a.m. and driving 40 minutes to the event. It was really worth it. And I enjoy hanging out with the guys from the club too.