Episode 21: Summer potpourri

Episode 21: Summer potpourri

High summer in the Canadian west – or the Pacific Northwest depending on your outlook — is a glorious season. It’s a quiet time to relax in the sun, read back-issues of your ham magazines, or comb through catalogs and websites to contemplate new gear for the shack, maybe a new antenna or coax. And it‘s a chance to catch up on all the little jobs you put off last spring, in the crazy belief that you’d have all summer to get to them.

Let’s get going with Episode 21 – the summer potpourri edition of Zone Zero.

A three-month hiatus since the last episode has been pretty full around the VA7ST household. We’ve flown across the country and back, been salmon fishing out on the Pacific, enjoyed the 2018 Pacific Northwest DX Convention, and put in quite a bit of listening time on 6M while hiding from the summer heat and wildfire smoke outside.

Here in southern BC, for the second fire season in a row, we’ve had some pretty serious wildfires in the area, and the smoke is horrendous. It hangs low over the valley, marring any view, cloying at your lungs and pretty much making things dark and miserable.

Smoke obscures the view over the VA7ST back yard.


Outside the shack window right now, I am looking through the pine forest on our lower property and cannot see the valley beyond. Tall Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir trees a few hundred feet from us look like ghosted ship’s masts just discernable through the haze, and the sunlight filtering through it gives everything an amber tint that is actually quite pretty, as long as it is only temporary.

For the past couple of days around our part of the country, the smoke has been too thick for the sun to heat things and the daytime temperatures dropped from 100F to 68F, making for great sleeping at night when it falls to 55F.

But for several weeks those 100 degree days, along with the dense smoke, have made working outside a bit too uncomfortable, so we’ve found other things to do.

Or to think about while doing nothing. It is summer, after all.

In June, we celebrated our son Dan‘s graduation from the University of British Columbia, and the next day got on a plane and we flew to Ottawa, Ontario, where our eldest son Andrew graduated from law school. Life goes on and now that the lads are done with school for now, I feel like I’m about to have a whole bunch of spare time and a few more bucks to pretend I’m not spending on ham radio.

Field Day under the sun

For ARRL Field Day this year, I hooked up three car batteries and two 40-watt solar panels on the back lawn and operated QRP. I found an auto-wrecker that sells refurbished 12-volt car batteries for $15 each, and they are in good shape for the very intermittent use I have for them. The system charged up with the 80-watt array, and kept me going well into the evening the first night, and the next morning even early sunlight helped keep me ahead of the current draw.

For the record, the two 40-watt panels are simple Coleman brand, that came as a two-pack with 7-amp charge controllers, from one of the great sources for all sundry items – Canadian Tire. I saw their late summer flyer this afternoon and see they are selling a two-pack of 100-watt panels for $350 – which is about half the price a single 100-watt panel sells for during the rest of the year. If I was serious about building an off-grid radio station, now would be the time for adding more solar oomph.

Fishin‘ for fun

In July, I took a break to go salmon fishing with my brother Matt, who has a great salmon boat in what must be the world’s salmon fishing capital – Sooke, BC. We came back empty handed, but still ended up enjoying some incredible meals of salmon he had caught earlier that week, and fresh crab hauled up on our way back in to the harbour. What a luxury to have access to free salmon fishing. Even if it means Matt is the captain.

Matt took a group out the day after we left, and caught four 20-pounders in the first half hour, and another seven fish as the morning flowed on. Like amateur radio contesting, you just have to be at the right place at the right time, I guess.

But summer won’t last forever and in August the thoughts of any dyed-in-the-wool contester turn to September’s onset of the fall contest season.

Charging up for contest season

For me, the batteries got recharged by attending the 63rd annual Pacific Northwest DX Convention, hosted this year in New Westminster – adjacent to Vancouver, BC – by my club, the Orca DX and Contest Club.

I hadn’t seen the gang in person since the last convention in Vancouver, back in 2014. It was a great meet-up, and if I can swing it next August, I plan to get down to Everett, WA, for the 2019 convention hosted by the Western Washington DX Club.

Congrats to the Willamette Valley DX Club on winning the Pacific Northwest Cup. This the second straight year the Willamette club has won the “travelling” trophy, which goes to the club with the highest combined score over 10 major contests each year:

  • CQ WW DX RTTY — Sept
  • CQ WW DX SSB — Oct
  • CQ WW DX CW — Nov
  • ARRL RTTY Roundup — Jan
  • CQ WPX RTTY — Feb
  • ARRL DX CW — Feb
  • ARRL DX SSB — March
  • CQ WPX SSB — March
  • CQ WPX CW — May
  • IARU World HF Championship — July

They have a tremendously active contest community. President Mike W7VO tells me they emphasize getting on the air and having fun, and getting new contesters keen on radiosport. Their results show the wisdom of that approach, finishing the year in July with 74.8 million points – ahead of Western Washington with 46.9 million and Orca DX and Contest Club with 27.9 million points. (See all 2017-2018 club scores)

For several years, the trophy was claimed by the Orca DX and Contest Club here in BC, but things have changed with some of our largest and most active stations falling into abeyance due to people moving away and other factors. I love to contribute my scores, and we do have some long-time contesters returning to the sport this year so watch out Willamette Valley – we may be nipping at your heels again next year.

It was great to see Ward N0AX, and hear his presentation on Ham Radio 2.0 – it’s all about embracing change, welcoming the technological advances, and innovating in our avocation.

In fact, I had a super two days seeing guys I’ve been working in the contests for years but had never met. I sure appreciate those close-in 80M and 160M contacts from the stations down in Washington and Oregon, and now I have a better appreciation of who I am running across at 3 a.m. making contacts on cold winter mornings.

Exploring “if-only…” radios

I also had a chance to play around with some of the newer transceivers. The Icom IC 7610 looks like a real winner, as does the SunSDR MB1 – a new software defined radio that I thought was a supped-up Flex 6400 radio with a Maestro front-end, but turned out to be a new HF plus 6M and 2M SDR transceiver by Expert Electronics, a Russian manufacturer, and sold in North America by NSI Communications.

If you have somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 to spend on a radio, you have more choices than ever for contest-grade equipment to fill the operating bench. I have fallen in love with SDR technology, especially radios with the SDR horsepower but with real knobs and buttons – the Flex 6400M, the IC-7610, the new MB1, are all on my “if only…” wish list to upgrade the contest capabilities here.

But for now new radios are out of reach for me, so I’ll keep wishing and continue to get by with the venerable Yaesu FT-2000 and the little IC-7100. But one day… one day.

Looking ahead

At this time of year, contest weekends are pretty slim. There are a few smaller events – such as the Russian Worldwide RTTY contest on September 1, and the always fun Washington State Salmon Run September 15 and 16, and the BARTG 75-baud Sprint September 16.

The main event on the horizon is CQ Worldwide RTTY, September 29 and 30. It’s the kick-off to the fall contest season for many, and this year will be a real challenge for everyone.

As I sit here on August 17, solar flux is 68 and there are no sunspots at all. The high bands – 20M and up – are soft, but I expect we will still see plenty of intercontinental contacts on 20M at the end of September, and cross-continent action on 15M. But don’t expect much more than some sporadic spotlight propagation on 10M at this point in the solar cycle.

For those of us who run a little bit of power in the teletype contests, now is the time to give the amplifier a once-over. I’ve said it before, but the best way to smoke-test an amplifier is to run it in a RTTY contest. For the annual contest season burn-in, I use the Russian RTTY contest at the beginning of September.

But I already know that my main amp needs work – one of the 3-500Z tubes is dark, and I suspect the tube socket needs a bit of attention. And my back-up amplifier has suddenly shown problems with no power output on 80M. There, I suspect the input tuning network has blown a 500pF capacitor, which apparently isn’t all that uncommon for SB-220 amplifiers.

So, those are my top-priority bench projects between now and contest season.

On the immediate horizon

Just for fun, I plan on entering the coming weekend’s SARTG Worldwide RTTY contest – that’s sponsored by the Scandinavia Amateur Radio Teleprinter Group, and runs in three eight-hour segments starting at 0000z tonight (Friday afternoon here in BC), with eight-hour breaks between each segment.

The SARTG RTTY exchange is RST and serial number. Contacts with your own country are worth five points, and contacts with other countries in your own continent are worth 10 points. You get 15 points for intercontinental contacts. So, knowing the majority of my QSOs will be with US stations, I guess Canadians have an advantage in North America.

Multipliers are each DXCC country on each band, along with each call area in the US, Canada, Japan and Australia.

Those call area multipliers are valuable on each band, so the key will be to operate at strategic times to maximize access to various parts of the world across the bands. Fortunately, the eight-hour segments cover the full 24-hour clock over two days, so all bands and all parts of the world should be accessible at one point or another. If propagation permits, of course, and that’s not likely anywhere above 20M.

Looking at the past 16 years of this contest, I’m expecting to make about 160 contacts – mostly in North America, but also into Japan on 20M.

My best score was in 2011, when I managed 379 contacts and 134 multipliers. I ran high-power back then. I sat out last year’s 2017 event, but in 2016 running 100 watts, I had just 153 contacts and 68 multipliers. That’s about where I expect to land this weekend, running low-power until I have a chance to get into those amplifiers.

The following weekend – Aug. 25 and 26 – you’ll find the Slovenia Contest Club’s SCC RTTY Championship, too. It’s a 24-hour event, and notably your entry logs need to be submitted within 48 hours of the contest end at 1200Z on Sunday, Aug. 26. I usually end up with 150 or so contacts in this one, as well. Participation can be a bit thin on the lower bands, but at this point in the solar cycle 20M should still produce plenty of action as the summer begins to wind down.

Going up in frequency

A little further out on the calendar, I am looking forward to putting the 6M and 2M yagis to the test in the ARRL September VHF contest, September 8 to 10. I’ll enter the Single Operator Low Power category, as the IC-7100 radio I use for VHF only puts out 100 watts on 6M and 50 watts on 2M.

I have never made more than a handful of contacts in the VHF contests, but new modes – specifically FT8 – have re-energized all the bands and I predict 6M will be alive with FT8 stations to work in the September VHF contest. 50.313 Mhz is pretty busy these days, when the band is open to anywhere from here.

The exchange is your grid square, and it’s a great way to boost your grid totals if you are chasing grid-based awards such as the ARRL Fred Fish Memorial Award.

If you think 6M is a wasteland, think again. Even when there’s no E-skip propagation, you can go to Ping Jockey to see of anyone with 900 miles or so is running meteor scatter. This uses MSK144 mode – typically with 15-second transmit/receive cycles, much like FT8. I use WSJT-X as my software for meteor scatter.

Just set your transceiver to the meteor scatter calling frequency of 50.260 Mhz and listen. I’ve made contacts out to nearly 900 miles this summer, with three meteor scatter QSOs during the Perseid meteor shower earlier this week.

The Stanford University radio club’s (W6YX) August meeting concluded with a meteor scatter demo, taking advantage of the trailing edge of the Perseid meteor shower which had ended the previous day. I managed to work the W6YX team in Palo Alto at around 11 p.m., pointing due south at them on 6M.

It works on 2M as well, by tuning to 144.150 Mhz. My little 8-element 2M yagi has heard stations as far south of BC as Las Vegas.

Give it a try. You never know who you might work. And it is such a blast to hear stations pinging off ionized meteor trails overhead.

That’s it for Episode 21 of Zone Zero.

Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there.

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