For a change, I have stayed put in Madagascar for a few weeks in a row, and on the weekends, I have taken part in a few contests: the PODXS 070 Club’s 31 Flavors digital contest, and two CW contests: JIDX and CQMM. In this post, I rant on about what it is like to work psk31 from Madagascar and then review my experience in this year’s 31 flavors amateur radio contest.
Conditions over the previous week have been good, so I decided to put in an effort on the ARRL INT DX CW contest this weekend. I knew from experience that I would not be able to work around the clock since the US and Canada are not typically in range in the morning, so I anticipated being able to get some sleep from about 4 am through early afternoon, which was fine with me. Reviewing recent logs and VOACAP predictions, I mapped out propagation paths and figured where I would point the hexbeam, and more or less stuck to that plan. Over the course of the contest, I put in about 23 hours in the chair.
I was effectively limited to three bands: 15m, 20m, and 40m. Ten was almost uniformly dead, and my 40m loop is very inefficient on 80m. Bands faded in and out more or less as predicted including some good spans of working the west coast on long path in the afternoons.
Conditions were up and down over the weekend, but not so bad as I had expected. At times, I could hear, but not be heard with 100W, so again a bit more power would have been helpful. I was probably on the air for about 24 hours out of the contest period, but did use some spotting assistance, so I won’t enter in the classic category this year. Tactically, that puts me at a disadvantage, but since this was a casual operation, I’m not too concerned about score.
I am aware of one other station from Zone 39 operating in the context, FR4NT. If cluster spots are any indication, he did a great job, with long runs particularly into Europe.
I ended up working 94 DXCC entities, some of them new to me. Through the magic of an excel spreadsheet, here they are: Aland Islands, Antigua & Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, Asiatic Russia, Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Belarus, Belgium, Bonaire, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Canary Is., Cape Verde, China, Corsica, Crete, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, East Malaysia, England, Estonia, Ethiopia, European Russia, Federal Republic of Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Guam, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Isle of Man, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kaliningrad, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kuwait, Latvia, Lebanon, Lesotho, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madeira Is., Malta, Martinique, Mexico, Micronesia, Montenegro, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Panama, Poland, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Reunion Island, Romania, Sardinia, Saudi Arabia, Scotland, Senegal, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Uruguay, US Virgin Islands, USA, Wales, West Malaysia, and Zimbabwe.
I should be able to put CQ zone 39 back on the air this weekend, at least for part of the CQ WW SSB contest. I’ve had a ton of travel and a few other projects over the last few months, and have been off the air except for portable operations outside Madagascar. Timing is good this weekend, though, for me to get on the air as 5R8SV from the house in Antananarivo.
I think the ionosphere may have taken my inactivity as a personal affront, because it seems to have tanked. Not having really paid much attention to propagation conditions for a couple months, I am stunned by how far the averaged sunspot number has plummeted (to 12!).
I just ran some simulations for the upcoming weekend, and 100W with a hexbeam may be marginal for Europe, much less the US. I hope some of the higher bands will pop open here and there, but I am not expecting much.
I just looked at conditions over on solarham and hope that the choppiness of the last few days will settle down for the weekend. We’ll see!
I should be in Madagascar in a few weeks, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be at home in Antananarivo or in the northern part of the country. There’s a chance I’ll be in Nosy Be, if so, I might be operating that contest QRP portable. While lower power might be a challenge under these conditions, Nosy Be is on NW corner of the island, and surrounded by salt water, so maybe worth a shot.
I started in 2016 in Mauritius, but since getting a temporary license there requires a few months lead time, I wasn’t able to operate from there. I had about two days on the ground in Madagascar, and then packed again for the US for meetings in DC and San Francisco. This time, the FT817 came along and saw some use.
The night after I arrived, I rented a car and drove up to visit my parents in New Jersey. It was the weekend of the winter NAQP-CW contest, so when I got there I threw my end-fedz 10/20/40m into a tree, suspended the matchbox from another tree about 3 meters up, and ran the coax into the kitchen since it was chilly and drizzling out.
I got back from a trip on Friday, woke up at a reasonably leisurely hour on Saturday and thought it would be fun to test the waters of the big CW contest going on. Almost immediately, I was drawn in and didn’t leave the chair for another seven hours. Since the CQ WW DX contest is based on zones and there just aren’t many contesters in my zone (39), it was very flattering to be the object of desire for the rest of the world, but being on this side of the DX wall is quite different from what I’m used to.
At the best of times, I was working three calls a minute in a jedi mind-trance, but that of course was not typical. There were plenty of times where I was dialing around, trying to get noticed with my 100W and two-element antenna. However, the converse was also a challenge – sometimes I would be plugging away at a good rate and then all hell would break loose. Somewhere, someone had spotted me and suddenly I would find myself lying on the space shuttle launch pad, looking up at the main engines sparking to life, while trying to hear a song playing on someone’s ipod on the flight deck. The experience of operating into a solid wall of callers added some new perspectives…
This past weekend was the CQ WW SSB contest — one of the big ones. I usually have a vague idea about the approach of a contest and decide whether to take part on Friday of the contest weekend, but I had marked this one on the calendar ahead of time and was prepared. Aside from setting up everything and working a bit of SSB earlier in the week, I spent some time looking at propagation and figuring out where to point the antenna at different times of day to hit both areas with high densities of hams (NA, EU, Japan), but also beam heading that would cover the most DXCC entities, the multiplier for this contest.
I’m back in the US for about a month, part vacation, part work. Stop one was field day with the Vienna Wireless Society at Burke Lake Park in Virginia. After that, I joined the family first in New Jersey and now in Montauk, New York. I’ll be in Montauk through around July 12th and then back and forth a bit to Washington, DC. I have a week of work, from July 20 to July 27 in Bethesda, and then the last few days in Indianapolis to attend GenCon.
Field Day was as always enjoyable, but this year particularly wet. I arrived less than 48 hours before the event, so I was still on Madagascar time, which helped with the late night operating. On the Thursday before field day, I was driving all over the place to catch up on shopping, including a visit to Ham Radio Outlet in Woodbridge, VA. On the way back, I passed the field day site and noted that a huge tree had been chopped down. This tree is right in the middle of the field day site and was traditionally used for antennas in the past. It had a number of dead branches last year (I’m not blaming RF) and the park authorities decided that it represented a hazard. Consequently, the antenna plan needed some rearrangement.
On the Friday of field day weekend, I showed up around noon to Lee’s (KD4RE) house to see if I could help with antennas. He was in charge of both food and antennas, but had simulated some designs in the previous week, so I followed his drawings and put together wire and PVC spreaders for a 20 meter and 40 meter vertically polarized delta loop. In the past, we’ve had some issues with interstation interference, so the idea was to cross polarize the various antennas where possible. The 40m was used by the 40m SSB station and the 20m by the GOTA.
Antenna deployment was slowed by heavy rains on Friday. In areas near the park, roads flooded, rivers overflowed, and our simulated deployment came nearer and nearer to being an actual deployment. We got most of the antennas in place including a huge 40m moxon, but left the hex beam and spider beams just above ground level because we were worried about wind. Additionally, we were liberal in the use of plastic sheeting to supplement the weatherproofing of our tents, particularly the network operations tent, which already had equipment in it on Friday.
The next morning was sunnier, but the fields (and our shoes) were saturated with water. The antennas went up, with extra care to secure ground guys to either very large stakes or other fixed objects that would hold in the muddy soil. By the start of the event, 14.00h, the four HF stations were ready to go. In addition, we had the GOTA, a VHF/UHF and a satellite station in the field. GOTA attendance was somewhat down due to weather, which cut down on foot traffic through the park. We did not succeed in the satellite contact; we heard the ISS APRS beacon, but no one was operating from the station. Otherwise, the timing of the couple of operational FM birds was not favorable. Almost all of the contacts made were HF, although we did get in a little 6m activity at the end.
Field Day was successful in a number of ways: as always, a large club turn out despite the weather. There were many new (to me) faces at this year’s event, so that bodes well for the general health of the club. At least one CW and one SSB station stayed on the air around the clock. Finally, the club maintained its tradition of gourmet food — amazing steak, pulled pork, chicken, beans, potato salad, hamburgers, hot dogs, eggs, sausages. No one went hungry and the calorie/QSO ratio remained strongly positive.
After FD, I drove up to Montauk, threw a rope in the trees and set up shop on an elevated porch with my FT817. I tested the set up in the Canada Day event on July 1st. In an about three hour period, I logged 51 QSOs, mostly CW, but seven were SSB. For provinces, I got ON, QC, MB, BC, SK, NL, NB, and NS. Since everyone can work everyone in the event, I also picked up a few stations from even further over the pole: Belarus, Ukraine, Czech Republic and Slovenia. A 5Ah battery lasted the whole operating period, as I was mostly S&P, although I did get a handful of replies to CQs.
Since then, I’ve operated sporadically, both CW and voice. I had forgotten how useful 40m is, since that band is next to useless at my QTH in Madagascar due both to noise and lack of close-in stations. In the last few nights, though, I’ve had very clear contacts to the west coast on 40m.
Having recently put up the G5RV, I gave the ARRL DX CW contest a shot this past weekend. The antenna is up only about 10m and is not resonant on 15m, but it has performed well on 10 and 20m in the past. On the first night, 10m was very quiet, but activity on 20m was brisk, particularly in the early morning hours when I was working two calls per minute.
In principle, 10m should have been open starting the in mid-afternoon on Sunday, but it was slow until around dinner time. Again, 20m was my main band, despite having mostly mined it out the previous day. I managed to get a few contacts on 15m, and even fewer on 40m, where local noise was a problem.
I didn’t stay in the chair the full time, even when I had favorable North American windows. I had to disconnect the antenna for some time due to thunderstorms on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday evening I had a guest in town and went out for dinner. Still, I am happy with the number of contacts I made given my conditions.
I worked a few states that I hadn’t such as Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware, West Virginia, Nevada and Wyoming — hopefully, those stations will QSL via LOTW. I heard a North Dakota station, but barely, and he was drowning in a pile up. Maybe I’ll take another shot when Sweepstakes or some other convenient contest rolls around and I have the hexbeam up.
My final tally:
This may be my last region two field day for a while, as plans are rapidly coming together for the move to Madagascar in August. I’m not writing off the possibility of field day next year as I know that I’ll be stateside in June for the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in early June, and there are some other meetings during the month that could reasonably keep me here. Also, I might throw in a bit of leave time since I’ll probably be wiped out after field day and want a day or two to cool off before heading back to Antananarivo. In any event, this was a good chance to shake down some of the equipment that I will be bringing with me, particularly the hexbeam antenna from K4KIO.
As usual, field day planning started far in advance of the event. This year’s field day czar, Regis KF4PIY introduced a few innovations into this year’s FD, the most visible of which was tighter clustering of the stations. In the past, we spread over a large field near the entrance to Burke Lake Park, with some of the stations “down the hill” and some up. Having been “down the hill”, I can attest to the perception that it is better to be “up the hill” both from an antenna perspective and in terms of being nearer to the food and bulk of the social gathering. The obvious concern was that tighter clustering would lead to more interference. However, after a few antenna pow-wows, the band captains were happy the proposed layout and our RF gurus were reasonably confident that it would all work.
As for the last three years, I was band captain for the non-40m CW station. Most of the equipment that went to field day had gone the previous year. The main rig was the Elecraft K3 with 200 and 450 Hz filters, my main CW rig at home. I brought along the microphone just in case, and that turned out to have been fortuitous, as we had plenty of opportunity to jump on bands that other stations were not working, scoring the only voice contacts for six and ten meters. I gathered the equipment over the course of a few days and queued it up in the front hall. The day before field day, it all got loaded into the car and carted out to Burke Lake Park. I had considered staying out at the park that night and did pitch a tent, but so many others overnighted at the park that I decided a good night’s rest in my own bed would be the smarter decision.
Essentially all of the antennas were pitched on the afternoon before field day including the hex beam. Leon NT8B had purchased an AB577 mast system at one of the winter hamfests in the area and we decided to combine it and the hex beam. Despite being the first deployment of both pieces of equipment, it went smoothly. The AB577 is an intimidating piece of gear; it is repurposed military gear and looks it. It is painted some official shade of matte olive drab and the five foot sections come in a rack that looks like a portable rocket launcher.
The rack itself becomes the bottom portion of the antenna and sections are fed into it and cranked up into position, with a joining clamp added between each section. The diameter of these sections is about five or six inches, but the sections themselves are much lighter than they appear; they can be easily lifted by one person. An adapter piece goes on the top, and its outer diameter is about two and quarter inches.
We decided to set up the mast at 45 feet, which required three layers of guying, with guys in three directions at each level. Cables, stakes, and clamps to tighten the lines are all part of the AB577 kit. The lines are all attached at the start, but do not play a significant role until the mast is up fifteen or twenty feet.
When we got the first couple sections of the mast in place, it was time to add the antenna. The hexbeam comes in an unexpectedly small box, about five feet long corresponding to the length of the longest spreader section. Each spreader consists of three telescoping fiberglass segments. Loops to retain the wire elements are already in place on these segments.
In addition to the long box that contains the spreaders and central support column, a smaller box also showed up at my door. This box contained the base plate which anchors all of the spreaders and the central column and when installed sits on top of the supporting mast. I had ordered elements for all possible bands, so 6, 10, 12, 15, 17, and 20 meters. The wires for these bands were also in the box, as were support strings, ferrite rings, heat shrink and instructions. The ferrite rings must be ordered according to the intended feed line, in my case RG213. The rings go over the coax near the feed point and are held in place with the shrink wrap. These ferrites function as a choke and keep RF off the feed line. Since 12 and 17 meters are not included in field day, I left them out of the set up this time.
Many hands made quick work of putting the hex beam together. Once we had read the instructions, it took less than fifteen minutes from crate to full assembly. It really is a dead simple antenna to put together because all of the attachment points are already set and the wires are cut to exactly the right length. For someone who never had a store-bought antenna before, this seemed almost like cheating, but I reminded myself that the next time I’d be doing this, I would be far away from the club and likely wouldn’t have as many helping hands.
We did run into one snag: the outer diameter of the support mast was about an inch wider than the than the flange on the antenna base plate. The sun was already low on the horizon at this point, but we were eager to find a solution that evening. I made a quick trip to Home Depot and picked up a two foot piece of one-inch black pipe, which is actually about 1 and quarter inches outer diameter. I also grabbed a bunch of U-clamps. Putting the whole thing together additionally involved a bunch of duct tape and two tent stakes that were hammered into shape as adapters.
By the time the sun set, we were convinced that our adapter was rigid. We set the hex beam down on the grass for the evening rather than attempt to attach it to the mast and raise it in suboptimal lighting.
The next morning, we were able to hand the antenna up to members on a ladder. They tightened the hex bolts on the hex beam’s flange, and the antenna stayed level. Additional sections of the AB577 were then added, and the antenna climbed skyward in five foot increments. Around twenty feet up, the guy lines began to have more and more importance. We had minders on each of the guy lines as well as spotters to assure that the tower was staying vertical in all planes. When the antenna was finally in position, the clamps on the end of each guy line were tightened.
Finally, the antenna reached 45 feet up, plus a bit for the extension. A quick check at 5W verified that the antenna was working, with responses up and down the east coast. An 80m dipole (the same one used in the Indiana QSO Party last year) was also erected to cover that band.
After the antennas were in place, the rest of the station was set up, based on the Elecraft K3 transceiver, N1MM running on a laptop, and trusty Bencher paddles.
The station remained in continuous operation from the start until the end of Field Day 2014, concentrating on 20m during the day and 80m in the evening and early morning. However, since we did not have a dedicated VHF station this year, on the morning of day two, we quickly ran the band on both voice and CW, chalking up about 10 local contacts. We also ran 10 meters when it was open. We started on voice and had a good run, but conditions were fading by the time we got to CW, so ironically, we made more contacts on voice than CW. We also had a chance to work on 15 meters for a while on day one, when the other CW station was doing good business on 40m. Although 15m and 40m are harmonically related, simultaneous operation did not result in interference.
A major difference from last year is that all four stations remained on the air around the clock; this is strongly reflected in our score for this year, which broke 10,000.