Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Again - DXCC and Waving the Propagational White Flag of SKS Failure

Current Confirmed LOTW DXCC Totals
I recently logged in and took a peek at my Log Book of the World (LOTW) standings, more specifically my DXCC award. I currently have 43 entities (see left) applied toward this award so I have a ways go to. To date, I've made a total of 471 QSO's with my new call, with the majority of those QSO's being stateside contacts. Since we are still in the heart of contest season, my goal is to enter more CW contests taking advantage of the busy contest weekends to search out new DXCC entities. I want to continue my quest for QRP DXCC as well and I'm off to a fair start. My LOTW Worked All States (WAS) total is not quite as good as I only have 38 states confirmed to date. I think it's common knowledge that digital operators tend to use LOTW more, so once I get on the digital modes again, I hope to start adding digital confirmations to both awards rather quickly. I have no desire to do much SSB and probably the bulk of my SSB contacts will be on 6 or 2 meters during future band openings. As I age, I enjoy my microphone as much as I'm beginning to enjoy winter. 

Moved a few feet - weekend photo
I decided it was time for my temporary shack to find a place other than the kitchen table. So, I grabbed some TV trays and placed my shack in the kitchen near the table. Here is my current set-up. For casual operating this will work but I will have to do a bit of rearranging if I want to work a contest. I also have my daughters old computer desk that used to be home to the APRS computer which was located in my garage when we lived in Alaska. I think once spring gets here and I can dig it out of storage, I will set it up with my equipment. It's small and has wheels so it can easily be relocated if necessary. The FT857D will eventually be installed in our trailer and my home station will then consist of my Icom IC-703+ and my Icom IC-706MIIG. I will drag my 703+ out with me on portable operations.

SKCC's Straight Key Sprint was last night and I opted to stick to 40 meters as it appeared to be the only band I could hear much on. I began with QRP and that just did not work. I was forced to change rigs and fire up the 857D and increased the power up to 40-45 watts. I CQ'd for several minutes on a few frequencies with no luck. I struggled with the QSO's that I did make. After a whopping 3 QSO's, I ended my painful pursuit of SKCC QSO's. Running an indoor antenna, especially on 40 meters, can be trying at times. 40 meters was noisy and although I could hear a few stations very well, it appeared as if the just could not hear me.  

This coming weekend is the ARRL DX International SSB Contest. Me, I have no desire to operate this mode especially with my current set up. I will probably stick close to the QRP frequencies searching out a few contacts. As the weather begins to warm up in a few weeks I will have the itch to get the Harley out of storage. Radio will then compete with my two wheeled adventures but my hopes are to combine the two this summer on a few of our riding off the beaten path adventures.    

Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 ARRL DX Contest. What a Difference 3,250 Miles (Over 5,000 Road Miles) & 95 Watts Make!

ARRL CW DX Contest 2014
This past weekend was the ARRL DX Contest, CW version. This contest has always been one my my most favorites, second only to the CQ World Wide DX Contests. The ARRL DX Contest has stateside stations looking for DX and DX stations looking for stateside stations. I decided on Friday to make my first limited QRP effort in this contest. I knew that my weekend schedule would not accommodate more than a part time effort but I wanted to take the plunge. Since I was going to be running my Buddipole antenna indoors, I wanted to just concentrate on a single band effort. This way, I could tune the antenna and leave it for the remainder of the weekend.

Getting it Close
I set up my antenna on late Friday night. When it's set up, it resides in our upstairs hallway. Not the best setup but since it's winter, I have no desire to put it outdoors. Besides, this seems to work pretty well considering. I was able to get the Buddipole SWR actually flat! I found that when I rechecked my match on Sunday morning, things were very different. It may be been bumped by another household occupant so I had re-tune Sunday morning. I was able to get it down to what you see in the photo to the right. I could not imagine trying to tune any antenna without a good meter. Matter of fact, I'm in the market for a smaller, portable meter to use in the field. I like my MFJ but it uses plenty of batteries and it's not the smallest to tote around. Since I will be doing more /P operating down here, I want something backpack friendly.

I landed on 15 meters ready for my Search & Pounce (S&P) effort just before 1700z on Saturday. I found the band to be in great shape. Such good shape, I started the contest at 1 watt output from my IC-703+. It was great hearing so many European stations so darn strong! 
I began at the bottom of the band and slowly worked my way up.

Search & Pounce QRP Style
It was obvious the band was loaded and many of the stations had pile-ups, which is typical during the first part of the contest, I opted to bump my power up to the full 5 watts after my first 10 or 15 QSO's. On a quiet band, my 1 watt may have worked but with the crowd, I was easily pushed to the sidelines and not heard. As I encountered many a new country, I had to make a mental note and tell myself that many of them would have to wait until Sunday. As I slowly worked my VFO up and down the band, my contest log began to slowly add points with a bump in the score adding the occasional multiplier. I wanted to document a bit of my QRP activities so I kept the Samsung S4 handy for a few videos. Below is the video I shot of me working F6KNB with my rig set at 1 watt. I worked F6KNB approximately about 5 QSO's into the contest (for me).

QRP is bittersweet. It's often a struggle for both the station running QRP and then for the receiving station. Some who are in contest mode won't take the time to work with a QRP signal meaning any more than one repeat, they are moving on. It's a contest, so expect a level of aggression. Since I enjoy QRP, I always made sure I would listen for the little guy when I ran as KL8DX. Now mind you, in a large pile-up, you take the loudest first and work your way down the calling list. But there are those times when timing is everything! Yes, it's possible to sneak that weak call in between BIG stations calling and be heard. A good operator will take the time to make sure they get the call and exchange correct. I have to hand it to SN5X (and several others, but I only got a few on video) for taking the time work me and get our exchange right. The video below is of me working SN5X on ½ watt!

Walking the VFO up the Band

As the afternoon progressed on Saturday, I worked the contest until around a bit after 7 pm local, or midnight UTC time. I threw in the towel until the following morning due to those "other" obligations that tend to arise over contest weekends. By the time Saturday came to an end for me, I had worked roughly 48 stations. Again, to the average ham, that's obtainable in the first sixteen minutes at 3 QSO's per minute. But I was a happy ham due to the fact that as the propagation swung west from Europe, I worked several Central & South America stations not to mention those enjoying their winter getaway down in the Caribbean. But the highlight for me on Saturday evening was working JF1NHD and KL7RA.

KL7RA has a great station and I knew that if I was going to hear an Alaskan station in this contest, it would surly be Rich's station. I captured the next video showing how strong Rich's station was here both on Saturday night and on Sunday as well.

So again, my Saturday ended on a pretty positive note. I was hoping that Sunday would see the same great propagation allowing me many more QSO's. 

2014 Winter in New England. More on the way!
As I mentioned earlier, New England has seen a pretty snowy winter. I'm actually enjoying working outside doing my snow relocation activities and it's well above zero! I loved Alaska but plowing and shoveling snow at -30F can be a bit rough at times. So for me, this winter has been easy. Now, we have received more snow here this winter than we would normally see at Denali. Our snow in Alaska was normally very dry and light but this snow, especially this last storm dump, had some weight to it. Anyhow, a large part of my weekend duties was clearing the driveway, walks, decks and of course the beagle roaming area. We have a 14½ year old beagle and when there is more than a few inches of snow, I plow a large spot in the yard just for her. I'm sure she is also enjoying the warmer temperatures as well, especially since she has to do her business outside. 

Getting back on track, Sunday turned out to be great on 15 meters as well. I was back on the air shortly after 1100 UTC once again working my way up and down the band. On Sunday, I heard contest stations working as high as 21.138! I had several stations which were strong but I could just never get their attention. In one case, I was trying to work E7DX and I apparently had a little helper. You know the station, the DX station was trying to confirm my call and for what ever reason, he was having problems copying it. It was either due to my low power or adjacent QRM. Either way, I heard another station telling him what my call was! It was either a impatient station wanting to get me out of the way so they could work E7DX or someone who felt they were doing the right thing, which they weren't. 

By the time it was all said and done, I made 150 QSO's and worked 57 countries (entities). I used N3FJP's software which gave me a nice overview of my country breakout -

AK2MA's Contest Summary Report for ARRL-DX
 Created by N3FJP's ARRL International DX Contest Log
 Version 3.4

 Total Contacts = 150
 Total Points = 25,650

 Operating Period: 2014/02/15 16:53 - 2014/02/16 23:28

 Total Contacts by Band and Mode:

 Band       CW   Phone     Dig   Total       %
 ----       --   -----     ---   -----     ---
   15      150       0       0     150     100
            --   -----     ---   -----     ---
 Total     150       0       0     150     100

 Total Contacts by State \ Prov:

 State       Total     %
 -----       -----   ---
               147    98
 HI              2     1
 AK              1     1

 Total Contacts by Country:

 Country                      Total     %
 -------                      -----   ---
 Federal Republic of Germany     14     9
 Italy                           12     8
 Poland                          10     7
 Croatia                          7     5
 Czech Republic                   7     5
 Spain                            7     5
 Serbia                           6     4
 Slovenia                         6     4
 France                           5     3
 England                          4     3
 Hungary                          4     3
 Aruba                            3     2
 Bosnia-Herzegovina               3     2
 Brazil                           3     2
 Finland                          3     2
 Netherlands                      3     2
 Ukraine                          3     2
 US Virgin Is.                    3     2
 Belgium                          2     1
 Canary Is.                       2     1
 Estonia                          2     1
 European Russia                  2     1
 Hawaii                           2     1
 Japan                            2     1
 Slovak Republic                  2     1
 Switzerland                      2     1
 Alaska                           1     1
 Antigua & Barbuda                1     1
 Argentina                        1     1
 Asiatic Russia                   1     1
 Austria                          1     1
 Bahamas                          1     1
 Balearic Is.                     1     1
 Belarus                          1     1
 Bermuda                          1     1
 Bulgaria                         1     1
 Cayman Is.                       1     1
 Colombia                         1     1
 Costa Rica                       1     1
 Curacao                          1     1
 El Salvador                      1     1
 Grenada                          1     1
 Jamaica                          1     1
 Kazakhstan                       1     1
 Latvia                           1     1
 Lithuania                        1     1
 Luxembourg                       1     1
 Madeira Is.                      1     1
 Morocco                          1     1
 Nicaragua                        1     1
 Portugal                         1     1
 Puerto Rico                      1     1
 Saba & St. Eustatius             1     1
 Scotland                         1     1
 Sweden                           1     1
 Turks & Caicos Is.               1     1
 Uruguay                          1     1

 Total Contacts by Continent:

 Continent   Total     %
 ---------   -----   ---
 EU            114    76
 NA             16    11
 SA             10     7
 AF              4     3
 AS              4     3
 OC              2     1

My goal is to submit for the QRP ARCI's 1,000 Mile Per Watt Award. Going into this contest, that was going to be one of my main goals. Without plugging in the numbers, I think my QSO with SN5X or IR4M would be in the area of 8,000 Miles Per Watt. Several of the stations I worked with 1 watt would also easily qualify, too. 

I uploaded a few more videos to my YouTube page and one highlights the coax run from the QRP kitchen set up to the Buddipole antenna in the upstairs hallway. We are still organizing so the clutter will hopefully be short lived. The coax runs from the kitchen, through our living room and up the stairs into the hallway where my Buddipole was standing proudly. 

I posted my first 3830 summary with this contest. I've sent my log in to the ARRL but still need to upload it to LOTW after importing it into my regular logbook. I'm hopeful many will be confirmed electronically. Any that are awaiting confirmation on eQSL will be confirmed on my next log in. 

All in all, it was a humbling experience being on this end of the pileup. Lots of great operators / stations and I had a blast. The only thing that would have made it better was being able to use my Mosley TA-34-XL for the high bands. I would have surely ventured off of 15 meters as I see on 3830 that the propagation on 10 meters was pretty good as well. Hopefully I did not bust many callsigns and there were a few questionable contacts so I opted to not put them in the log. If I did not hear the confirmation that my information was received, I did not log it. The only problem I had was several missed the "A" in my callsign and heard me as K2MA. As always, I attempted to correct the DX station and I think only a couple may have been too busy to correct it. 

As far as the weather is concerned, we are under another Winter Storm Warning for Tuesday. Seems another 4-6" of fresh snow headed to my QTH. Thankfully, I still enjoy winter so it's no big deal. That added to a bit of QRN as our transformer was busy causing me interference with the snow and wind that we encountered this past weekend. With my indoor antenna, I no longer have to worry about Mother Nature, just the other occupants of our residence. As for the family beagle, she spends most of her day sleeping so she is no threat to the indoor antenna. Other than the occasional walk by, contest weekends to her are something she is used to. She knows all to often that I won't finish anything I'm nibbling on so she gets what I don't finish. The photo below is of our beagle since I switched to drinking decaf.

Contest Dog

Sunday, February 9, 2014

SKCC's February Weekend Sprint-a-thon

This weekend was the SKCC February Weekend Sprintathon (WES). I know the bands were busy with RTTY and had I still lived in Alaska, I would have been diddling my way across the bands in another low power RTTY effort. Ironically, I just received some RTTY wallpaper and wrote about it on my KL8DX blog. But since I have no way of running RTTY here yet, I decided that any free time I had was going to be directed toward working CW with my straight key.

I began Saturday with only my Yaesu FT-857D. When Sunday rolled around, I decided to pull the Icom IC-703Plus out of the portable box and set it up. I had the power output set for 1 watt. I have a 3 position antenna switch which I use to switch between the rigs. It's an eBay special so the isolation stinks, but it works as it's a quick and easy way for me to switch between rigs. The Yaesu allows me to dial down to 5 watts, however I find the need to go even lower from time to time. 

Rigs 2 Keys
Getting back to the WES, I found that my indoor set up was hearing best on 15 meters. Since I use my Buddipole antenna indoors, I normally will set it up for 40 meters first and then tune around on the different bands. Once I find the band with the most activity, I will re-tune the antenna for that band. Needless to say, there is no quick band switching for me. I started off Saturday on 40 meters, briefly went to 20 meters for just a few contacts and then headed to 15 meters where most of my weekend activity took place. I enjoy the high bands because when the bands are open, I can easily work thousands of miles away. I know that 15 was in great shape for me and my puny setup so there is no doubt it had to be good for those who had outdoor antenna's. 

With shopping on Saturday morning / afternoon and my normal weekend duties to complete on Sunday, I did not have lots of time to devote to the key but I was able to log 57 straight key QSO's. I worked a handful of European stations on Sunday morning on 15 meters.  It was great to finally run into several stations that I've not worked since I pulled the plug in Alaska. The weekend highlight was working my buddy Martin, W3MLK and then toward the end of the contest, working Karen, W4KRN. Pete, N1ABS welcomed me to the neighborhood and by the time the WES was over, I added a few new SKCC numbers to the logbook, too. I wrapped up my effort on 40 meters, the same band I started. My last QSO was with Dan, W9DLN for a WI multiplier. Not band considering and my longest QSO on 40 meters for the weekend. 

CW, The KEY to Success
I miss my 4 elements and my Icom IC-756PRO, which I could pull out of the box however, I'm enjoying my portable set up for now. I do miss working JT65, PSK31 and the other digital modes! I wish I could find my interface cable for my Icom! I'm also not able to find my Cellpro battery charger so that I can charge my A123 portable batteries. Until I can get them charged, I won't be operating /p anytime soon. But for now, I'm just happy being able to get on the air from time to time and having the success that I do. I worked 35 different SPC's (States, Provinces or Countries) this weekend so for me, CW was my KEY to DX success!  

Saturday, February 1, 2014


Making Time for Ham Radio
I can honestly say that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to finally getting settled here in MA. My wife and I have tackled pretty much all of our moving boxes and have donated many and extra item to the local communities. Our move from Alaska has made us realize, especially since unpacking so many boxes, that we had way too much stuff! But this is only round one, as we will continue to downsize our...assets. 

I recently realized how little that I've been able to play on the bands. The unpacking exercise mentioned above is a large part of it. But it's also due to much warmer weather here and certainly much more daylight. Although it appears that the weather patterns have shifted between Alaska and the lower 48 this winter, a normal winter for me in Alaska was to drive home from work and hit the shack! I left for work in the dark and returned home in the dark. And it was normally plenty chilly outside.  

Back Yard Bird Feeder Thermometer 
Temperatures would average -20° to -25° Fahrenheit this time of year and of course, we could experience much colder days like you can see in the photograph I took to the right. This was a thermometer I had attached to one of our bird feeders just outside our bedroom window. And the sad part was, due to our elevation, we were normally the warm spot of the neighborhood. 

Where I'm going with this is, Mother Nature helped me spend many an hour on the ham bands. When one comes home from work and it's pitch dark outside and deeply cold, the warmth of the shack is a great place to retreat. I had a few computers that ran 24/7, not to mention all of the other electronic equipment that kept that room much warmer than other parts of the house. I did in fact cover up the furnace vent to keep the warm air from being blown into the shack as it was already plenty warm enough. But things here in MA are much different. It seems here that there is much more of a life outside of ham radio. I know it's hard to believe for the locals, but Mother Nature is much more cooperative here for exterior activities. 

Another aspect is, I don't have a radio room set up here. Any operating is done by setting the station up and when done, tearing it down. With my entire shack being indoors and using my portable equipment, it's not as convenient to get pulled into the bands. In Alaska, I would often turn on the radio, tune the VFO to a normally busy frequency (like 14.020) and while doing other activities, listen to the sweet sound of CW like I would music. If there seemed to be activity, it would draw me in like fresh baked cookies in my wife's kitchen. I honestly miss my radio time but only when I think about it.

I made an effort to dig out all the envelopes that were waiting for return QSL cards and managed to get them out before the latest postal increase. I still have a large batch of bureau QSL's to work on. Weekends seem very short anymore but being busy with life is not a bad thing. That's the beauty of this hobby, it will always be there when I finally have time.