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!