Hawaii in the log

A screenshot of my signal as it appeared in Hawaii. Courtesy of KH6SAT.

A screenshot of my signal as it appeared in Hawaii. Courtesy of KH6SAT.

I worked a variety of modes this weekend, none of which involved a microphone. More importantly, I’m only one state away from having worked all 50.

I went down the rabbit hole of the “K3UK Sked Page” this weekend. I can’t believe it took me this long to discover this resource. I guess I’ve been living under a rock or something. I heard of it a while back but never actually looked at it until the other day.

Right off the bat I was able to grab a JT65 QSO with KF2T out of Nevada, a frequent user of the Sked. That left me with AK and HI to track down. In the meantime, I fielded some CW requests, but because of varying band conditions I was only successful with one of them, 4A1TD a station out of Mexico.

I was lurking on the sked Sunday evening and updated my status to indicate I was looking for AK and HI. KH6SAT, a Hawaiian station I’ve seen on JT65 before, sent me a private message and asked me what mode I wanted to contact him on. We agreed on 20 meter JT65 and he selected an unused portion of the band. He was -18 and my report was -24, so I was barely making it, even cranking up the power to 30 watts or so.

KH6SAT’s final transmission was a friendly “Aloha” and then he was in the log. Immediate confirmation on LOTW followed, so now Alaska is truly going to be the last frontier for my Worked All States endeavor.

Looking towards Field Day this weekend, I’ve been flexing my rig a bit on RTTY. Friday night I worked Guatemala, Slovenia and Russia on 20 meters. N1MM is ready to go on all modes!

Rearranging the shack; listening to NZ

The bands sounded pretty good last night, especially 20 meters. The DX was coming in clear, from all over the world. I heard New Zealand, Egypt, Kuwait and various European stations with the type of clarity usually reserved for the repeater tower on the edge of my neighborhood.

I didn’t really try to work any, but I did have a nice QSO with Chris, M5LRO, out of England. I managed to turn the radio on just as he began his first CQ and he gave me an excellent signal report, 59+.

I spent the remainder of the evening rearranging the shack a bit. I’ve been aggravated with the operating position since I first put the radio in here more than a year ago. I had the radio at the left of the desk, which never made any sense because I’m right-handed. Then I wedged the laptop to the right, so I was always facing it at an angle.

As I accumulated equipment, I just sort of scattered it around the desk in various places. Since I’ve added paddles and a straight key, the clutter has become a real problem. As I quickly learned, the laptop is the piece of equipment I interact with most, so I placed it front and center. The FT-847 and antenna tuner are now at the right. My straight key and paddles are right next to my keyboard, but that still poses a problem of where to put the desk mic. A mic on a boom would make a lot more sense — but I’ll live.

First QSOs of the new year

I finally made some time for HF this weekend and logged my first contacts of the new year, including a new country for the old DXCC count.

I was fooling with the FT-817 Friday night on 40 meters and heard a very strong station out of Austria, Martin, OW3WMA. He wasn’t getting a lot of action, so I tried contacting him QRP. I wasn’t heard, so I decided to switch over to the FT-847 so I could run 100 watts. I managed to complete the contact after only two tries.

Saturday morning I was getting ready to leave with my wife for a trip to Charleston and decided to tune around a bit on some of my favorite bands before we left. I heard a station from Sweden on 17 meters and attempted a QSO. I didn’t have any luck on the first few tries and we needed to hit the road. I hated to abandon the rig with a potentially new DXCC station on the hook, but it was unavoidable.

Sunday night, after the normal club net, I switched over to 40 meters where I heard Tomas, OK1GTH, out of the Czech Republic. I tossed my call out twice and managed to complete the contact, just before the band conditions seemed to go south, making the Czech Republic my 73rd unique country in the log.

It’s already been a busy month with the club. We supported the Resolution Run 10K out at Sesquicentennial Park the first weekend of the new year, and had our first board of directors meeting. I’m looking forward to SPAR Winter Field Day at the end of the month, and if the weather is anything like it was this past weekend (mid to high 70s, clear and sunny), it should be a lot of fun.

Around the shack

The other day I mentioned to my wife that I’d accomplished many of my ham radio goals this year. Her response: “You can’t stop now!”

She was referring to my irritating ability to completely immerse myself in a hobby, then suddenly drop it and bury myself in something else. Through the years she’s seen me go in and out of several phases of photography. At the most extreme level I went back to school to get a master’s degree in media arts specifically so I’d have access to a traditional darkroom again. In retrospect, I could have done that for much cheaper at home, but it was nice getting the degree all the same, hi hi.

She’s also witnessed my complete immersion in music — at the worst point, I think I owned something like six guitars. I sold most of them to fund the camera obsession! I got interested again recently and started building a kit guitar, then promptly set it aside, nearly complete but unpainted and unstrung. Guess what? I got busy, teaching photography at my alma mater!

Cars? I don’t even want to talk about it. Lets just say my wife has been VERY patient, and I’ve been a fool.

So the other night when I declared I’d accomplished many of my ham radio goals, she thought I was saying I was tired of ham radio. Absolutely not!

Here are a few of my current priorities:

  • Power distribution. The shack is a mess. I have two radios now and one power supply. I should have invested in a Powerpole system a long time ago, but buying power distribution gear just isn’t as fun as buying new radios and antennas. Switching one power supply between two radios REALLY isn’t very fun.
  • Grounding. I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but my shack has no grounding whatsoever. I’ve invested in a nice copper grounding bus bar that I intended to bolt to the rear of my desk. I just haven’t gotten around to it. I realize that operating without a ground is very poor amateur practice, and I’m probably hindering/endangering myself in multiple ways by not having a proper ground system.
  • The 2 meter antenna. Ahhh, the Arrow J-pole. A nice piece of kit that neither offends nor inspires. I wanted to install this on one of the peaks of the house, but once I discovered it worked just fine propped in the corner of the shack, I never bothered getting it up on the roof. Well, I’m sick of seeing it propped in the corner. I don’t get great reception there either. Sure it works, but not well. My current plan is to install this on a long mast and attach the mast to the fence post on the side of the house, which will give me a short run of coax down and right into the shack.
  • The dipole. The Buckmaster OCF has served me well, but it’s time to get it up higher. My QTH is one of the lowest parts of our neighborhood, and I only have the dipole a meager 25 feet up at the center point. I’ve made plenty of contacts, but it is a bit deaf in some directions. I believe there is a tree that may get me close to 50 feet, which should improve my take-off angle a little. I also need to do some routine maintenance — check the coax, check connections, and clear brush around the antenna and coax now that spring and summer have arrived and foliage is trying to overtake the backyard.
  • Operating position. Everything on my desk needs to be rearranged. The computer needs to be front and center for logging. I need a new chair. The equipment needs to be stacked a bit to allow for some extra space. The entire room needs to be cleaned too.
  • Get QSL cards. I can’t believe I haven’t made any QSL cards yet. Slack!

None of this is very fun, but spending a weekend or two working on some of these problems should make operating more enjoyable in the long run.

And speaking of operating, I’d intended to work as many of the “13 Colonies” stations as I could find, but that endeavor has proved to be a challenge. Phone and digital contacts have been unsuccessful, but I also haven’t heard but about three of them. Pile-ups have been severe too. In the meantime, I’ve made some nice contacts elsewhere:

  • On PSK31 I’ve logged QSOs with UR4QX (Ukraine), KF5IRG, F2YT (France), and K4O (Puerto Rico special event station).
  • On JT65 I recently logged KY0R, AA5KK, and KI5PM
  • I logged my first RTTY contact, UR4EWT (Ukraine)

Interesting that these are all QRP contacts. I don’t know what’s going on with the bands, but the phone portions have been utterly dead the last few days.

Getting back to normal after Field Day

I’ve already shared my lessons learned at Field Day and the PSK31 macros I used to work digital modes on 15 meters, but I haven’t really commented on how the day went.

Long story short, it went about as perfectly as I could have hoped.

For the last several months, my goal has been to do “something” at Field Day besides help setup and log. That was my secondary reason for wanting a portable rig like the FT-817 (the first being SOTA) … I wanted to be able to operate my own station at Field Day.

It wasn’t until earlier this month at the CARC meeting that I was approached by Steve, who wanted to learn more about digital modes and was interested in seeing the 817 in action. We agreed to man the 15 meter digital modes station. My experience with digital at that point was mostly JT65 and about two PSK31 contacts. So for several weeks, I practiced PSK31 and tried to learn as much as I could about that mode and the 15 meter band.

Steve volunteered to build a ladder-line dipole and bring the battery, chairs, table and our pop-up tent. I arrived with my laptop, the radio, tuner, Buddipole (just in case), coax, wattmeter and other odds and ends in my rucksack.

I think our efforts paid off. Using the club call W4CAE, and operating from a farm in Kershaw County, Steve and I scored 23 QSOs on PSK31 on 15 meters on Saturday from 2 p.m. until the band shut down that evening. We didn’t return Sunday morning because we both had family commitments. Assuming all those contacts check out, we could be looking at contributing 40+ points to the club’s effort of Field Day (digital contacts count for two points each).

Now, I don’t know how “good” 23 contacts is. I do know, that we were VERY lucky to get that many. When the contest started at 2 p.m. Saturday, I sat down and started calling CQ, surrounded by on-lookers and club members who were wondering what a newbie ham with a 5 watt radio and a laptop was capable of.  The crowds died off of boredom over the next three hours. In the 90-degree heat, we ran our CQ macro hundreds of times and only had a partial QSO (a Canadian station if I recall). I pounced on a few stations and we took a break with only four contacts in the log.

While we waited for the laptop to charge back up a bit, Steve and I walked around the camp and discovered that others weren’t having much luck either. A young ham boasted he’d made two contacts.  I told him we had exactly twice as many, and I wasn’t trying to brag. I walked into a trailer where a veteran ham was working 20M PSK. He had a single contact in the log.

Meanwhile, the CW guys were killing it with more than 100 QSOs. Desperate for more action, I returned to our canopy and nabbed two more contacts. The band was just so random all day! I’d lock onto a powerful signal, then it would trickle away to noise.

We broke for dinner, where I inhaled about three pulled-pork sandwiches and a stack of brownies. While the guys were decompressing, I went back to our station alone and drew the canopy down low around me. I was hiding, but 15 meters wasn’t.

Somehow in 45 minutes time the band really took shape. There were QSOs up and down 21.070. Most of my CQs were met with responses. I actually had a RUN going at one point. I was jacked up on about 80 oz. of Coke Zero and sweet tea by this point, I was tired, dehydrated, hot and needed a shower. I don’t know if it was the pulled pork, the brownies or the caffeine, but I started yelling insane utterances at my laptop and the radio. I wish I could remember them, but I seem to recall telling one signal to “get in my waterfall!” People were gathered around and talking about movies and flying and other random BS. I had tunnel vision. The QSOs kept coming. I kept calling out the locations of stations as I received their exchanges: “We’ve got Argentina! Washington State! Kansas! Canada again!”

I recall scanning the waterfall and realizing I’d worked every station on there. It seemed like a good place to stop, as the laptop was dying again and both Steve and I were ready to pack it in. Next thing I knew I was exchanging high-fives and handshakes with folks. Steve said he’d never had this much success at Field Day, and that meant a hell of a lot to me.

I drove home knowing that I’d done as much as I could have done given our equipment, power level and experience. I haven’t heard a tally of the final projected score, but I do know Steve and I exceeded the number of QSOs recorded by the 75M, 15M, and 6M phone operators, and possibly some others. The code guys are the real champs, which gives me yet another reason to continue my code practice. We ran 11 stations total, (11A), making our club one of the larger operations out there on Field Day, so I look forward to seeing how we performed.

Tonight I got back to chasing DX at 100 watts with the FT-847. After working QRP for a month straight, it almost seems too easy. Three calls resulted in contacts with three countries on 20 meters tonight, including a new country for me, Lebanon. I even managed to catch part of the Ham Nation 20 meter net with Bob Heil, and over on 75 meters, heard Ham Nation’s Cheryl, in a casual QSO.

First QRP SSB QSO!

Propagation was insane this evening and it worked in my favor to score my first phone QSO at 5 watts on the FT-817. I heard Alex, YU6DX out of Serbia, on 20 meters. He had a clear and loud signal into the U.S. so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to see if I could make contact.

As folks often say about QRP, it requires patience. I called for about 15 minutes without getting acknowledged. I was about to cut the rig off for the night, but I tossed out my call once more. Bam! He copied “delta sierra” so I repeated my call. Bam! A perfect copy of the entire call this time. My signal report? 57! 57!

I couldn’t be more pleased with the FT-817, and I’m very glad to finally get that complete phone QSO in my log. That was 1,000 miles per watt!

I also added another DX entity tonight, working Kostas, SV2CXI, out of Greece on 17 meters. That QSO was made on my FT-847.

Very interesting propagation tonight — many stations heard on 10 meters and a few on 6 meters during a few hours of sporadic-E/multi-hop. Here’s hoping for a few good QSOs tomorrow on the mountain.

Working the world on 2.5 watts

OK, now I get it! After trying for several days to make a complete QSO with the FT-817, things finally came together on Sunday. Let me roll back to Friday night though…

I finally got around to setting up the SignaLink USB (installing the wire jumpers to configure the interface for my 817 was a snap). Connecting it to the 817 via the 6-pin data cable pretty much makes it a plug and play affair. No need to remove the mic from the rig. Also, the interface was recognized by Windows 7 and configured automatically. Everything just worked right out of the box. I didn’t even need to reconfigure any of my digital mode software, except to specify that the new audio board was the SignaLink. The easy of use and portability of both items makes this an amateur radio “killer app” as far as I’m concerned.

I’m not good enough at CW to even attempt a QSO yet, so I figured it I wanted to make any progress with the 817, I’d need to rely more on low bandwidth digital modes instead of SSB phone. I goofed around with WSPR a bit on Saturday and Sunday, and was amazed at how far away my signals were being heard. I was only running 2.5 watts to conserve battery life. I decided to fire up JT65HF and see if I could actually make some QSOs on 20 meters. My first contact with the 817 was DL1EKZ, a German station approximately 4,300 miles from my home base. We both exchanged -05 reports. Not bad! That’s more than 1,700 miles per watt!

A few moments later I worked KJ2U, out of Utah (Oh wow, I just checked his QRZ page. He’s the father of famed Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings. Is this for real! Big Jeopardy fan here, and I’ve even read Ken’s excellent book Brainiac).

I broke for dinner and came back later. I decided to hook the rig up to my power supply so I could comfortably run the full 5 watts. I sunk into a rather miserable dry spell in which I responded to dozens of CQs but never received a response. I wondered if something was wrong, or maybe folks just don’t want to waste the six minutes on a lowly KK4 QSO.

My luck eventually turned: Europe started coming in strong on the waterfall and I recorded QSOs with UR4MG (Ukraine), W7EWG (Washington State), G8XXJ (My first England contact!), F4BAL and F1MWV (both out of France). Good DX — in fact, just as good as any JT65 QSOs I’ve made on my main rig on much higher power levels.

Other interesting stations on the waterfall last night included an Australian station (Tasmania), a New Zealand station, and a station out of Hawaii that QRZing the frequency and making a lot of QSOs.

I’ve definitely fallen hard for QRP!

So close, and yet so far…

There was lots of good DX on the bands again this afternoon/evening and I arrived home eager to try the limits of QRP again.

After dragging through 10 meters, 20 meters and all the amateur bands in between, I settled on the strongest station I could find, IW9GMF, out of Italy, peaking higher than S9 on the 817’s meter over on 17 meters. I used the Z-817 autotuner for the first time. More on that later.

I got into the pile-up and started slinging my callsign around. I specifically attempted to tail-end many of the QSOs, as this is a method often recommended to QRPers to get noticed. After a while I was rewarded with a response: “The kilo kilo four delta station?”

So confident in my success, I started a new QSO entry in Ham Radio Deluxe. I repeated my call. His response: “Delta sugar … no copy, try again.”

He gave me 4-5 more shots at getting my signal across the pond, but he never copied the last letter of my call. And honestly, I wasn’t even irritated, because after all, he copied SOMETHING. My little five watts SSB signal made it 5,100 miles away and landed on Sicily Island, where IW9GMF heard all but the final letter of my call. That’s huge. That’s more than 1,000 miles per watt!

And about that autotuner. It wasn’t working. I connected everything this afternoon but neglected to set the radio’s serial port speed to its highest rate. So the LDG Z-817 wasn’t even talking to my radio. Doh! I pushed the tune button and it clicked once or twice and appeared to work. But something wasn’t quite right. I was still hearing the radio when it was supposed to be sending a carrier to the tuner. I operated this way for about two hours before I realized that I forgot to set the port speed. I don’t know if this was hindering my signal at all, but I can’t imagine it was helping.

A frustrating moment came later in the evening when I heard a booming station out of Puerto Rico. Now, I looooove Puerto Rico. I shot a destination wedding there a few years ago and it was a magical place, but I’ve had really poor luck when it comes to making QSOs there. For some reason, I always get stuck in a large pile-up when I hear a PR station. Tonight was no different.

KP4BD was booming out of PR with a 59+10 signal. I figured the 817 should be able to hit it, so I called and called and called. No success. Not even a nibble. So I switched on my FT-847 to see if my luck would change with 100 watts. At first it didn’t. Then after half a dozen attempts and a rather aggressive key-up on my mic, the op came back to me with a 59+10 report.

So if I was crashing into PR with 59+10dB on 100 watts, and assuming I’m losing 13dB — or two S-units — when dialed back to 5 watts, in theory I should have been easily heard by the DX station.  At any rate, I still have a lot to figure out with this little rig.

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!

A couple nibbles, but I never landed the big fish

The 20 meter band has been amazing the last few days!

Examples:

  • Saturday night/early Sunday, I finally heard a New Zealand station; also heard a station out of Hungary calling CQDX and reeling in multiple Australian stations.
  • Sunday night, I clearly heard 7O6T, the Yemen DXpedition, working split. He was LOUD on 14.145, where gray-line propagation was working its magic. I tuned up to his listening frequency, 14.242, went to split mode and threw out my call dozens of times. No response after 45 minutes.
  • Heard 6O0CW, out of Somalia, working split, big pile-up. Didn’t atttempt a call because he was barely audible above the background noise, but I copied him 53-54 perhaps.
  • I added a new country to my log, Armenia, with a brief QSO with EK6TA. I’ve been waiting to work an Armenian station, as I’ve come to appreciate that country’s spirit through the tireless studies of several exceptional Armenian students where I work and occasionally teach.
  • Worked another European Russian station, R7DX. Great callsign!
  • Added another Bulgarian country to the log, LZ2KV.
  • Heard a station near Tel Aviv, Israel, 4Z4UR. I didn’t have enough juice to work him.
  • And a disappointing attempt: SV8/DL8MCA, Greece, Skiathos Island. What a nice signal! I wasn’t heard, many stations calling as they say. I thought for sure the radio waves would bend my way for that one.
  • I heard a few nice stations tonight also: Lithuania and Denmark

I’m thinking about cancelling my KX3 order now that the FT-817 appears to be back in stock here in the states. I really need a portable radio before the summer slips away, preferably for Field Day. And I could buy two 817s for the price of the KX3 … But I’m trying to be patient! It’s so tempting though, to know I could place an order tomorrow and in several days have a new portable rig to take with me on my Florida trip next week.

I may take the edge off the wait by putting a 2M mobile rig in my car.While working sweep on one of the rides at the Tour de Midlands over the weekend, I had a moment where I was trying to relay crucial information back to the control station and my signal dropped out several times. I was only running my 5-watt handheld into a mag-mount antenna … there is just so much that can go wrong with that setup: exhausted batteries, not enough power to get over the hills out where we were, awkward setup in my car, small display, etc.

But as my Ford Focus doesn’t have a single flat surface on which to mount anything, I’ll need to get creative in my installation.