Sunday, June 27, 2010

Field Day 2010

The Quinte Amateur Radio Club and Prince Edward Radio Club again joined forces this year for Field Day activities. VE3RL ran as a 2A (Two Alpha) operation, utilizing generator power. Again this year my own involvement was limited to just a few hours on the Saturday evening. I managed to operate about an hour on 6 meters (with some modest results!) and another on 80 meters, which was red hot into the late night hours.
Again this year the field day site was, well...a field located on the property of Eric VA3EP near Lake on the Mountain, Prince Edward County, Ontario. A pair of utility trailers and a converted camper housed the stations.
A portion of the antenna farm at VE3RL's field day operation. Crushcraft R7 vertical in the foreground, tri-band yagi, 6 & 2 meter antennas beside the trailer.

The old camper trailer now convereted for field day use as the 6 & 2 meter station. Atop the tower a square omni-directional antenna for 6 as well as a 6m dipole, and 2m vertical.

Yours truly getting ready for a crack at 6 meters.

An impromptu 'round table' around the square table of the 6-meter trailer. Topics of conversation: amateur radio, mosquitoes (note the electric zapper in the essential field day accessory!) and......cell phones! Pictured L-R, Eric VA3EP, Mitchell VE3OCC, Dave VE3UGT and Ian VE3EP.
Eric VA3EP, whose property the field day site was located upon, manning the 6-meter station. A few good openings produced some decent results on the 'magic band'.

The gennies that kept VE3RL powered for the duration of the event.

The 'mess tent', gathering spot and 2-meter station for talk-ins. Kevin VA3THB won many rave reviews for his fish fry! Pictured L-R Dave VE3UGT, Ian VE3EP, Art VE3SQG, Mitchell VE3OCC and Bill VA3WOW.

Al VE3FZ and Tim VE3UO burnin' up 80 meters

You may find this difficult to see, especially if you're not looking at a LCD monitor. The yagi radiating its RF into the night sky with a misty moon in the background. Oddly it was pointing North-West. Maybe the 20 meter crew was working some KL7's!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Oh...for a rainy day!

Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE good summer weather and we’ve been blessed with A1 weather the past couple of weekends in this neck of the woods. Warm temperatures, sunshine, nary a drop of rain in sight. Perfect weather…especially at this time of start tackling that seemingly endless “to do” list of outdoor projects. Just the type of weekend that keeps the dedicated ham far away from the shack. So…..on such a weekend, when there’s a juicy contest taking place, perhaps a rainy day or two wouldn’t be such a bad thing! “Honey, there’s no way I can get to the gardening in this driving rain….I’ll just take care of a few projects in the basement.” (Purely coincidental the shack’s in the lower level). But, no such luck this time, the sun was high-in-the-sky, the mercury was pushing 28 degrees (that’s about 80 on the Farfenugen scare).

As stated before, I’m not an avid contester in the sense that I seriously try to compete, but there are a few contests that tickle my interest just to make some contacts, perhaps pick up some far- flung DX and, in my case, knock the rust off my CW skills. This weekend was the CQWW WPX CW contest (enough acronyms for ya?!). The object of these WPX contests is to work stations with as many different call sign prefixes as possible. Because of this, you may hear some unconventional call signs on the air. Last year, Canadian amateurs with the VE prefix were allowed to use the special prefix XM to mark the anniversary of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Conveniently, the window of time for this authorization included the WPX contests. I took advantage and signed as XM3CH. This year however, no such special authorizations were available, so it was plain ole’ VE.

No bother, as operating time was very limited thanks to that stinkin’ great weather. So, in between power washing the deck (amazing what it looks like after blasting off ten years worth of wear and tear), and pulling grass and weeds out of a badly neglected garden, I managed to work a grand total of 50 stations over the course of the 48 hour contest. On top of that the bands seemed to, how do I put this delicately…..well suck, much of the time. I see ole’ Sol was somewhat active this weekend, which may have worked out well for the 6 meter folks, but it didn’t help out 20 meters too much, at least while I was tuning around. Most of the stations worked were the garden variety A, K, N, W & VEs, but I did manage a few DX contacts with I (Italy), 9A (Croatia), a couple from EA8 (Canary Islands), F (France) signing with a TM prefix, CT (Portugal) and CE (Chile) using the prefix XQ.
EA8-Land. Can you say time-share? See any Yagis perched on top of those condos?

Once again, I was reminded of how wonderfully efficient CW is as a mode. At times, I can call a station until I’m blue in the face during SSB contests, but it’s a rare occasion in CW that I don’t get a response after one or maybe two calls to a station calling “CQ test”.

Each time I play around with either CW or RTTY contests, I realize my desperate need for a narrower filter, probably 300 Hz, to be able to knock out the heavy QRM and the adjacent loud signals that tend to badly attenuate the signal you’re trying to copy. This time, however I had some moderate success using the Digital Signal Processor (DSP) feature on my Yaesu FT-897. This, after reading a few tips on the Yahoo group dedicated to this radio. By activating the DSP and lowering the RF gain, I was often able to get clear copy of the desired station despite a loud signal a few Hertz away. Maybe not a true replacement for a good CW filter, but quite helpful none-the-less.

I’ll have to check the contest calendar for the next good CW or digital contest. Anyone know a good rain dance?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Welcome mail

I’m sure the hoards of amateur radio operators who follow this blog are often wondering what kind of rare DX I’m able to work with my 100 watt windom-equipped superstation. Well, a couple of packs of QSL cards recently arrived in the mail via the bureau, so I thought I’d share.

The first pack contained a number of cards for VE3GJS, my original call…so I knew these were hanging around the QSL bureau’s in-box for some time! Sure enough, most were for contacts made in 2001 and 2002 (I acquired the VE3CH call in 2004). The second batch of cards that arrived just a few days later was for more recent contacts. Last year I blogged speculating whether hard copy QSL cards were a fading aspect of the hobby. I’ve never been an overly active QSLer. While I do my best to respond to cards sent to me, and will take the effort to send a card when I’ve worked a new country, I’ve not felt the need to collect as many as possible. I’m not an award chaser, so maybe that’s part of the reason for my lackadaisical attitude towards QSLing. None the less, it’s always a nice little surprise to get a pack of cards in the mail. Better than the other pieces of mail which seemingly consist of only bills.

I think this is only the second time I’ve received a card from an SWL. I wonder why someone would be so into confirming amateur communications they’ve heard, but not pursue getting a licence of their own. Now-a-days it’s pretty easy to get a licence, but perhaps that’s not the case in Italy.

A big gun station whose log, I’m sure, makes mine look like....well, an amateur amateur.

Emmanuel from Guatemala is one of the more common DX stations often spotted on the digital modes. I have him in my log a few times, this one for a PSK31 contact. With over 115,000 look-ups on, obviously he’s very active!

Hmmm….those Slovenian ham shacks are a little rustic, aren’t they?

Technically not DX, but a neat card for a neat station. One time, it would be a lot of fun to work from one of these true superstations. VY2TT is available for rent…hmmm, maybe one day!

I always love working stations in warm places…especially if it’s winter at this QTH. It’s pretty much the next best thing to being there. J39BS is from the “Island of Spice” (Grenada)

These next few are actually cards received via direct post.

My one, and so far only contact with Australia took place in March of 2009. After hearing Gerry making QSOs on 40 meters over a couple of days (and not hearing a response to my call..due to the competition), I emailed him and arranged a sked. Read more here. VK is routine for some hams, but was pretty special to me…especially on phone.

John is probably one of the most active hams from the Northwest Territories, and although it’s in the same country, I do consider contacts with Canada’s arctic region to be DX. VE8EV is also quite active putting special event stations on the air and maintains an interesting blog of his own.

I love Halloween…and I always like working any special event station associated with this holiday. What better place to have a Halloween special event station than Transylvania (Louisiana).
This is definitely not DX. In fact, Mike, the operator of this particular special event station to mark the 225th anniversary of the settlement of Fredericksburg, is less than an hour away. But the unique four-letter suffix caught my attention on 40 meters PSK31 one night. Mike just recently gave a talk to our local ham club about his special events and call signs he’s used. More on his website.

Well there you have it. No super-rare QSLs, but cards worthy of any collection none-the-less. Now, I must remember to respond to those marked “PSE QSL”!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Twin Peaks

I was enjoying the twin peaks this weekend. No, not some late season skiing. No, I’m not talking about that 1990 TV mini-series….which I really liked BTW. I tend to take to television shows that are a little, well, let’s say off-beat. I also enjoyed Picket Fences and the series Northern Exposure….but I digress. The twin peaks I'm referring to is the image you see on RTTY software, the result of RF energy that manifests itself into Radio Teletype. This weekend the Volta contest took place and RTTY sub-bands, at least on 20 and 40 where I hung out, were chattering with activity.
This contest has been around 44 years and is named in honour of Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist who died back in 1827 but is credited with developing the first electric cell in 1800.

There are a number of RTTY contests throughout the year, and I try to dabble in as many as possible. I’m still a neophyte in this mode, having sent my first ‘ritty’ signal maybe five years ago. As with many of the digital modes tough, I find the operating quite pleasurable, primarily because these modes are well suited to modest stations with lower power. I’m able to make decent contacts, across North America or across the oceans without too much trouble. Running between 60 and 80 watts into my simple windom, I was able to work some decent Dog-Xray from the Hawaiian Islands (KH6GMP) to Poland (SP3GHX), the latter on 40 meters, where I find it difficult to make a DX-haul on phone. I even managed a contact with a station in Sardinia, which according to my logging software is a separate DXCC entity from Italy, so I also got to chalk up a new country (better dust off the QSL cards!).

I always get excited about working KH6-land, regardless of mode. I think it’s the mental image I have of the ham there operating from a little grass shack while being served an exotic drink in a carved-out coconut by a lovely Polynesian woman doing the Hula while Don Ho plays the ukulele. (Sorry about the stereotype….I’m sure there are some hams in far off lands who have a mental picture of the VE operator they’re working squatting in an igloo chewing on raw seal meat).
Back to the Volta contest….truthfully, I didn’t work that many stations, due to the usual time constraints of the weekend, but the short time spent was well worth the effort.
Prior to the personal computer becoming a common accessory in the ham shack, operating RTTY involved some pretty heavy-duty hardware that, when operating, could shake your foundation loose or at least send the dog into a barking frenzy. Of course, modern software applications have made this wonderful mode accessible to anyone who can jam an interface between their rig and USB port (or sound card). If you want more info about RTTY, check out this great primer by AA5AU.

I also love operating PSK31, which was the first digital mode I dabbled in a few years back. The incredibly efficient use of spectrum and, again, relatively low power you’re able to use make it the perfect match for the average ham who is not a ‘big gun’. So if you’re an amateur radio operator whose power is the stock “full half-pint” (100 watts) with a basic antenna and are frustrated by trying to be heard on SSB, give the digital modes a shot. Most of the basic software is available as free downloads. And……let’s not forget that original digital mode, CW. Still one of the best ways to punch through a signal with low, or even very little power. But, if your CW skills are just not there, no fears….there’s software for that too! (Insert shriek of horror from the CW purists). I do my best to manually transmit CW with my paddles, but I do admit, I’m usually running the receive software as insurance for times when the QRM interferes with my
brain trying to concentrate on that one signal, especially in contest situations.

Hey, I just received two packs of QSL cards via the bureau this past week. Perhaps we’ll chat about that next time.

‘til then 73 & keep the RF pumping.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Yes.....I'm still around!

Well…..hmmm, let’s see, over six months since a post....egad! When I started this blog last March, I promised myself I would try for a new post once a week. That schedule was maintained fairly well through the spring and summer, but then ran afoul in the fall. Truth is, I’m a busy guy! Work and family concerns, especially during the fall and winter months, mean much less time spent hammin’.

It’s May now. Ironically, summer isn’t exactly prime time for traditional HF contacts as the longer daylight hours means less good DX opportunities, especially on bands above 20 meters. Alas, that’s when things at work back off a bit for me and I have a little more time for RF pursuits.

For my throngs of readers out there in the Blogosphere (okay I’ve probably lost everyone with the posting drought, but maybe someone will stumble upon it from one of the hotlinks out there), here are what few radio highlights I’ve had since last fall.

Christmas DX to the North Pole
My little '2nd harmonic' Kaden (turning the big 0-5 in a few weeks!) had a contact with Santa Claus back in December. We even used his callsign VA3KDN for the occasion. No he doesn’t hold the Guinness record for being the youngest licenced amateur radio operator (who is the youngest licenced tot anyway?), Daddy decided to get an auxiliary callsign a few years ago that kinda works with his name. Should he actually want to pursue his ticket down the road, I can transfer the call to him. He may very well not be interested in the hobby (my older son didn’t take much of a shine to it), but imprinting positive ham radio experiences at a young age like a talk with big guy at the North Pole can’t hurt! Kudos to the guys with the ONTARS net who make this very special contact possible every year for many young hammies.

I did manage to spend the odd half-hour here and there making a few contest contacts. The bands were swarming with QRM in March as one of the “biggies” took place…the ARRL DX contest, SSB version. What was the most often heard expression on the air for this one?... “5-9 Kilowatt” I don’t know why the H-E-double hockey sticks I bother with these contests. With a mere 100 watts into a wire, the frustration level often runs high. But every so often, my pip-squeak signal manages to find its was through the ether to a far off land. If lucky, I won’t have to repeat my call sign ten times using every variation on phonetics I can think of…. “Negative, it’s Victor’s Eating 3 Crazy Hamsters!" Then, or course, getting my 5-9 signal report (err, why did I have to clarify my call and exchange 18 times then?). I particularly enjoyed working those seemingly few DX stations that were running just 100 watts (kindred spirits!). Most of the time their signals were maybe S3 or 5 (yes…I gave them a 5-9!), but in most cases they probably had the advantage of a decent directional antenna.

CW vs. Phone & special calls
I’m starting to prefer the CW contests, where it seems I have a much easier time making contacts, although I desperately need a better CW filter than the stock one that’s in my little FT-897.

Hopefully I’ll be able to spare a little time for the Continuous Wave version of the WPX contest coming up later this month. I don’t think there are any special prefixes available to Canadian hams this year. Last year I signed as XM3CH. Actually in the SSB WPX recently I made a handful of contacts as VG3KDN (borrowed the kid’s call!). The special prefix was to commemorate the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Managed to miss the Ontario QSO Party in mid April due to a family commitment. I used to really enjoy this contest, but haven’t seriously taken part in the past few years. I think it was 2002 when I actually managed to scoop the award for my county. Then again, I think I was one of maybe three stations on from ‘HAS’ (Hastings County).

I did a presentation recently at our local ham club on EchoLink. I operate an EchoLink simplex link at the college’s amateur station VE3ALC. It’s been on the air a little over a year now only a few of the local hams had checked it out. Of course with EchoLink you can operate directly from your computer. The local simplex node is usually connected to a small network of other links and repeaters in the greater Toronto area, Niagara region and even to a couple of repeaters in British Columbia. All you need to do is key the mic on the local 2-meter frequency on which I have it operating…and every once in a blue moon, someone will actually come back to you! I’ve noted from the systems electronic log that there have been some interesting users connecting from places like Hong Kong and Indonesia…places I can only dream of working on HF! Unfortunately these stations were connecting in the middle of the night local time, so I doubt that they got a response to any call.

That’ll do it for now. I could go on, but I’ll save that for another post which should appear quicker than it took for this one. Thanks for checking in and happy hamming!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ode to the ham fleamarket

If you’ve been even a semi-regular reader of this blog….my sincere apologies that it’s been almost seven weeks since something new has appeared. Since September, life has become very busy, with classes beginning again at the community college where I work along with the demands of an active 4 1/2 year old who just started school himself!

Consequently, there hasn’t been much time for ham radio. The light in the shack might get switched on about once a week for a quick dial spinning session. A few 2 meter contacts in the car to the local guys, or the occasional mobile EchoLink QSO via the local node I operate, and that’s been about it. As the season progresses, and the weather dictates we keep ourselves sequestered in the warmth of our homes, I suspect there may be a bit more time to get on the HF bands more often.

Back to the blog…I have no shortage of ideas for topics….just a shortage of the most precious commodity of all….time!

I did have the opportunity to partake in a time honoured ham tradition this weekend…. the ham radio fleamarket. It’s actually been a couple of years since I made a pilgrimage to one of these events, so I was quite enthusiastic to gas up the mobile, fill the travel mug with some java from a favourite coffee emporium, and head west-bound 401 towards Markham, a suburb of Toronto for a flea market hosted by the York Region Amateur Radio Club.

It’s about a two hour drive from HQ, so hitting the road by 7am was essential to get there in time for the 9am opening. Let’s face it, if you can’t get there within an hour of opening time….don’t bother! Reminds me of the first such event I ever attended 22 years ago, a few months before getting my licence. Not knowing anything about hamfest culture at that time, and seeing the event was advertised to be open from 9am to 2pm, I decided to drop by about 12:30pm. I found it odd that there was no one at the main entrance to collect to admission fee, and then disappointed to see most of the vendors had either left, or were in the midst of packing up. Lesson learned.

I had nothing particular on my shopping list for this quest (the wish list….that’s entirely different). So my contribution to boosting the economy was limited to the admission fee (actually that was covered by my passenger…thank’s Dave, VE3UGT!), four tickets for the super draw (guys, I’m still waiting for the phone call), and some good quality wire and associated lugs, nuts and connectors to finally do a proper install on my mobile rig (the cigarette lighter adapter has been a source of embarrassment). Bought that stuff from a start up company specializing in such accessories, Armitron Power Products. Oh yea, the hamfest grub. I passed on the traditional hotdog for a muffin and some gawd-awful coffee (seriously, have you ever had good coffee at one of these things? the club’s credit this swill was free).

Some hamfest coffee should come with a warning of what you're about to endure
For me, attending these events is as much about meeting up with some old faces as it is about looking for any deals. I managed to see several guys from the Ontario DX Association, but didn’t see anyone from my old club, the North Shore Amateur Radio Club of Oshawa. I’m sure there were some members there, just none who may remember me from 17 years ago(!) Anyway nice to meet up with some of the folks I haven’t seen in a while, also glad to see I’m not the only one getting greyer.

A few observations:
-The hamfests I’ve been to in the past decade or so are all getting smaller. Less vendors, and in some cases it appears less attendees. Ironically there have never been so many licensed amateurs, and the choice of amateur products has never been so plentiful.
-Some vendors of used gear need a reality check with pricing. I saw a few deals, but the asking prices on many of the used rigs seemed high. Why would I pay $125 for a 15 year old 2 meter rig, when I can walk over to one of the retail vendors and pick up a brand new one on sale for $129?
-The classic or ‘vintage’ stuff is way too expensive. I know some of these oldie-but-goodie rigs are sought after, but you have no idea of how many mods, or how much tinkering has happened under the chassis of these old gems.
-Too much stuff that has nothing to do with radio. Why in the world would I want a cell phone from 1990 that’s the size of a brick…and wouldn’t work on today digital systems anyway? Okay for some computer-related items, but really, who really would have any practical use for a Tandy or Commodore anymore!
-How do I say this gently?...Some (only a few but they stand out) should really consider a shower before coming to these events.

Hmmm….didn’t mean for all those to be negative in tone! Ham radio fleamarkets really are a part of the amateur radio culture that I hope will continue to survive. What beats a morning spent with an auditorium full of like-minded folks to paw through some gear, oggle the new stuff, and have some eyeball QSOs? Well worth the price of admission.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Lamenting the end of summer '09

Holy cow, where did it go? I’m sure that’s a common remark during the last weekend of summer (I know…summer’s not over from a seasonal standpoint until September 21, but for practical purposes, it’s pretty much a done deal). But really, doesn’t it seem like summer passes as fast as an extra hot burrito?

I work at a community college, so I consider summer to be a four-month period starting the beginning of May. While my job entails me working throughout the summer months (except for three weeks vacation), the quieter halls and slightly slower pace makes it a time to treasure.

In this part of the world, folks did a lot of complaining about the “summer that never was”….weather-wise. I actually didn’t mind the cooler temperatures as I’m not a huge fan of super hot and humid conditions, but it did rain a little too much. On the plus side, my new rain barrel was never empty and I didn’t use a drop of city water on the garden (why my water bill was more than normal remains a mystery).

On the radio side, summer tends to be when many hams have less time to sit in the shack twiddling the dials…something to do with family commitments and yard work….sheesh. Although I was balancing that also, my level of activity was probably its highest in at least five years. My little 2nd harmonic is another year older, and while he still demands (and boy can he demand!) a lot of attention from myself and the XYL, it seemed I was able to steal a little more time in my comfy basement shack.

A few neat things that took place radio-wise for me:
-Acquiring a new (well, new to me) HT...the Yaesu VX-6R (still learning those menus).
-I took some time to try to better understand the characteristics of propagation and the solar cycle…exactly when will that promised Solar Cycle 24 start anyway??
-Speaking of propagation, I was able to log quite a few 6 meter contacts and give my relatively new tri-band vertical a bit of a workout. There were a number of impressive openings, and I was lucky enough to be around for at least a few of them.
-I also tried out a new mode. Again, I’ll say new-to-me as this is a very old mode…. Hellschreiber, Feld Hell, or simply Hell. Despite its sinister name (thanks to the guy who invented it back in the 20’s), it’s a fascinating way of communicating. I joined the Feld Hell club and have enjoyed a few contacts during its monthly sprint events.
-Field Day is always a highlight and I enjoyed my brief outing with the local club. Hopefully next year I won’t be asked to attend a family function the same weekend!
-I finally designed a new QSL card. Truth is, although I’ve had my present callsign since 2004, I hadn’t gotten around to getting a new card made up. I also began tidying up the backlog of eQSLs in my in-box.
-I casually took part in a few contests and finally installed some proper contest logging software.

Now, I did intend to do a little improvement to my main HF antenna, which is a simple Carolina Windom…but that’s yet to happen. Being a good ham, I’ll probably wait until the first snow to get that project done.

73 summer of 2009.